Left Unity is an initially impressive attempt to develop a new left-wing network that can contest elections. Ken Loach's call for such a network generated widespread enthusiasm, with thousands signing in support online and the emergence of local groups.
Alan Thornett, from the Socialist Resistance group, recently wrote one of the few serious attempts so far to outline a rationale for the new Left Unity initiative. It can be read here. A word of caution is needed: there will no doubt be others involved in Left Unity who have a different view to Thornett on particular aspects.
I want to look at the ideas and assumptions which underpin Thornett's case for the Left Unity project. Let's work through them in turn.
1. It is feasible to have a UKIP of the left.
Thornett writes of the recent local elections: 'The left was nowhere in the election – there was nothing to rally the left in the way UKIP rallied the right – which raised again the desperate need for a broad party of the left which can start to do what Syriza has done in Greece: provide a clear anti-austerity platform to which the working class can relate.'
The rise of UKIP is a problem we ought to take seriously - and it reveals not only the depth of disillusionment with mainstream politics, but the capacity for parties outside it to make breakthroughs. It is undoubtedly correct, in general terms, to want a left-wing party with similar levels of success to operate as a counterweight and strengthen the left-wing pole in British society.
But there is only any point in framing the challenge the left faces in these terms - we need something to 'rally the left in the way UKIP rallied the right' - if we think it's possible to emulate UKIP's success. The assumption is that there exists a spectrum of opinion from far left to far right, that the mainstream parties occupy only a narrow strip of its centre ground, and there is consequently great scope for electoral success to both their left and to their right.
But is there? This overlooks the obvious point that a Tory-led government is more conducive than a Tory opposition to stimulating growth in a hard-right party like UKIP. This is because UKIP's current success is, to an extent, facilitated by disillusionment with the Tories in office. This is especially so because they are governing in coalition with the Lib Dems, seen by many right-wingers as something that pressures the Tories to the centre ground. When the Tories are in opposition they are more likely to soak up a lot of hard-right populist sentiment themselves.
Labour, meanwhile, is in opposition and therefore absorb much of the anti-austerity and anti-Tory sentiment on the left. Many people are deeply disenchanted with the Labour leadership and they are right to be so - but that doesn't necessarily translate into willingness to vote for left-wing parties (never mind join them).
Labour is a broad church that extends well to the left of Ed Miliband. Regardless of the chronic weaknesses of the party's leadership, Labour remains the principal electoral vehicle for those who are opposed to cuts, the main hope in electoral terms for millions of people who want an end to austerity. I would rather it was otherwise and I reject the notion of 'reclaiming Labour' or limiting our electoral horizons exclusively to Labour. In the longer term we sorely need an alternative to Labour. But we are where we are: left-wing strategy needs to take account of current conditions.
2. It is realistic to have a British Syriza.
See the above quote again, which includes this: 'the desperate need for a broad party of the left which can start to do what Syriza has done in Greece'.
Who wouldn't love a British Syriza? While the party isn't a perfect model - no party elsewhere can be such a thing - the enthusiasm for Syriza is generally justified. It has decisively demonstrated that a radical left-wing party can earn popular support and even challenge for governmental office, as well as offering some good lessons in how to connect electoral politics with anti-austerity movement building.
Yet there are 3 immediate problems here. Firstly, the crisis is more acute in Greece than in Britain, thus creating a greater political polarisation and a larger audience for radical solutions (the relationship between these things is not mechanical, but clearly there is a link). Secondly, the Greek equivalent of Labour, i.e. Pasok, has been complicit in implementing austerity, which naturally means that few Greeks look to it as the answer to austerity. This has opened up space for Syriza.
Thirdly, Syriza is the result of a long-term process over many years: its prominence and high levels of support have depended on hard work over a long time. Furthermore, it has succeeded in involving large chunks of the Greek left, which is a sizable constituency (when you consider Greece's population is at most a fifth of Britain's population, the Greek left is a much more credible organised force than the British left). It is fanciful to imagine that the same conditions apply to Britain as in Greece.
3. The wider European situation also bodes well for our prospects.
Thornett writes: 'Similar parties have been built in a number of European countries'.
Actually, nowhere else has come close to Syriza levels of popular support and electoral success. The story of new European left parties has been a complex mixture of breakthroughs, new alignments, conflicts, decline and splits. Even a party like Die Linke - which emerged from serious, substantial social forces - has struggled to achieve sustainable electoral breakthroughs in Germany. France's Left Front has had mixed results and, in any case, rests upon the participation of the French Communist Party, which is several times as big as all of Britain's left-wing organisations combined.
Let's be blunt: if Left Unity makes any serious progress in elections - and, crucially, doesn't then disintegrate or enter a serious crisis - it will be more the exception than the rule.
4. Previous problems in developing electoral coalitions on the British left have been because of a lack of 'internal democracy'.
Thornett writes: 'Prime opportunities to build such a party, over the past 15 years had been squandered by sectarianism. This had produced a series of damaging splits which had seriously undermined the credibility of such a project. The key factor in each case was internal democracy, or the absence or abuse of it. It had revolved around whether these organisations could have a decision making process independent of the principal far left organisation involved, or the principal important individual.'
This is surprisingly apolitical. Previous attempts - Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Respect, Scottish Socialist Party - have not ultimately failed because of internal democracy or sectarianism. There have been political causes.
The implication here is that if only Left Unity gets its democratic structures right then previous difficulties can be avoided. It rests upon accepting a highly caricatured view of those earlier attempts and (unintentionally, to be sure) encourages an insular, apolitical approach to any new project.
5. Left Unity is better off without the 'big far-left organisations'.
Thornett writes: 'Not that creating a new broad party will be easy given the propensity of the left in England to squander such opportunities and the legacy which has been left by the previous failures – particularly the actions of the big far-left organisations... There seems to be a general consensus that a new organisation should be a broad, pluralist, left of Labour, anti-austerity party and one that is not dominated, undemocratically by a far-left organisation.'
The involvement of relatively large socialist groups can indeed potentially bring problems - certainly if there is an imbalance between them and the weight of other forces - but to overlook the positive side to their participation is unhelpful. This, obviously, is their ability to provide a sizable number of activists to help with campaigning and building local groups.
It is also odd because it undermines the notion of 'left unity', as if saying 'Let's unite the left, but not the SWP and the Socialist Party, i.e. the two biggest left-wing organisations'. There is an element of sectarianism dressed up as anti-sectarianism in this. It is also surely a crucial reality check for anyone thinking that Left Unity really does mean, well, left unity.
It should also be noted, by the way, that Left Unity is not filling a vacuum in electoral politics. There is already TUSC, the SLP, Respect and - if you adopt a looser definition of what it means to be a left-wing party - the Green Party. There is no acknowledgement of such competition - and the problems posed by it - in the article.
6. It is an asset to NOT have charismatic leaders.
Thornett writes of Left Unity: 'Nor does it have a big charismatic leader. Ken Loach will no doubt continue to support, but such ‘big leader’ roles are anathema to him. There is no George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan (who split the SSP in Scotland) type figures for example. This can be a disadvantage when it comes to elections but it also has a positive side given the havoc which such figures have reeked in the recent past.'
Whatever your view of particular individuals - and their strengths and weaknesses - it simply isn't credible to deny the usefulness of effective leaders who can help win elections. Such a view is especially odd in the field of electoral politics, where personality (to put is in simple terms) matters more than it does in other spheres of left-wing activity.
Thornett's view also involves a mis-understanding of the complex forces which account for the demise of Respect and the SSP, instead opting for the simplistic and inaccurate 'blame Galloway'/'blame Sheridan' thesis.
7. Results can be delivered if consistent work is done between elections.
Thornett writes: 'Electoral strategy has not yet been discussed but it is clear that the approach of TUSC – which is to parachute into constituencies with no record on the ground and to do nothing between elections will be rejected.'
This is an appealing idea and has a grain of truth - it's true, indeed, that sustaining a local campaigning presence brings better results on election day than just campaigning for a few weeks. But only up to a point. There's a sort of naive idealism here: if we just make sure we keep organising the whole year round then we will get elected. It isn't necessarily so.
It also overlooks the simple fact that Left Unity will only stand any chance of getting candidates elected - or even getting the kind of credible 2nd or 3rd places that can lay the basis for future success - if there is a profound concentration of resources on a small number of seats. Such a strategy, unfortunately, pulls in a different direction to the building of sustainable local groups. With relatively small numbers of campaigners, you can't seriously do both. (I refer to a 'relatively small number of campaigners' because even if optimistic estimates - a couple of thousand active members - are realised it will be a fraction of what the big parties have got).
8. It is possible to develop a credible left-wing party without any cracks in the existing labour movement, i.e Labour Party and trade unions.
There is no reference to potential trade union support for Left Unity, or any reference to Labour (other than to its weaknesses), anywhere in the article.
The assumption that Left Unity can become a credible electoral vehicle without any Labour MPs breaking from their party, or sections of the trade union movement breaking with Labour, may turn out to be valid. But it probably won't be, if past experience in this country and international experience are anything to go by.
Thornett gives the impression that Left Unity is more an expression of new co-operation between a number of small elements of the radical left than a serious re-configuring in the broader labour movement. Indeed that's precisely what it is at present - and that is unlikely to change.
9. A new left-wing party is a greater priority for the radical left than building a united anti-cuts movement.
This is not explicitly stated, but why is there no mention - in a long article about current priorities - of the People's Assembly specifically or the movement more generally (except a passing reference to anti-cuts organisations, designed to illustrate a point about divisions on the left, which is unrelated to the central arguments in the article)?
Why is Left Unity NOT being formulated in the context of the anti-cuts movement? Thornett seems to suggest that the two dominant priorities at present are building a new left-wing party and regroupment on the far left. Where does the building of a united movement to stop austerity fit in? There's a risk that a narrow notion of 'left unity' comes to be privileged over broader class unity. Electoral politics could be prioritised over - and largely divorced from - extra-parliamentary struggles.
This is not to question the dedication of many Left Unity supporters to activity outside electoral politics, and specifically to the People's Assembly (which Left Unity supports). I am sure that many Left Unity supporters will enthusiastically build the People's Assembly and many will be active in the anti-cuts movement locally. That is very welcome. But the pressure of Left Unity is likely to be away from prioritising the development of anti-cuts co-ordination, especially if the significant omissions in Thornett's article are any kind of guide.
What should we conclude from all this? Without ruling out any kind of electoral work for the left at all, I don't regard it as a worthy priority in the current period. In fighting austerity our focus should be on building the People's Assembly, ensuring the event leads to on-going co-operation and unity at a higher level of activity than we already have, and using opportunities like the Assembly to articulate an alternative political message (an alternative to not only the Tories but Labour's leaders too).
This is what's really necessary for building a movement that can shake the government, for shaping anti-cuts struggles in a left-wing direction, and for strengthening the left within British society. This approach may, in turn, create more favourable circumstances for a new left-wing party - and one, indeed, with an organic relationship with the broad anti-cuts movement - but the pressing priority is to unite everyone who wants to stop cuts and provide powerful left-wing ideas at the core of such united activity.