The Current Conjuncture in Britain on the Left: Toward Left Unity

First published on Left Unity March 25 2013

For the first time in a long period the conditions for the emergence of a broad left coalition of forces in the UK capable of attracting large-scale support seem ripe. These conditions have been generated and shaped, in my view, by four major interconnected political and economic developments. These developments themselves comprise a series of intertwining factors, some of which are best conceptualised as ‘structural’ and some of which pertain to a more subjective sense of possibility among people on the left.

The first and most obvious of these is economic crisis and austerity. This has posed in very immediate terms the question of how best to defend jobs, living conditions and the reforms and concessions in relation to healthcare, education and welfare won in struggle decades ago and which are now being stripped back in a determined assault. But it has also posed the question, again in immediate terms, of whether or not our current economic system is, in fact, compatible, over any prolonged and sustained period, with decent welfare provision and conditions of life and work for the majority – whether or not recession and government attempts to roll back social reforms won in previous phases are predictable, cyclical features of capitalism. However you answer this second question you are forced to confront further questions: how best to push back capital’s war of attrition against welfare (which has been a feature of international capitalism for the last 35 years or so – austerity is simply the intensification under conditions of acute crisis of longer term tendencies) and impose some sort of renewed post-war social democratic settlement, or how best to go beyond capitalism itself and build a more democratic, humane and sustainable alternative.  The crisis and austerity that is, confronts us with fundamental and pressing questions in relation to organisation and strategy. It is in this context that the idea of the construction of a new organisation of the left has been put firmly on the political agenda.

The second development is closely meshed with the first and is that it has become painfully apparent to many of the Labour Party’s erstwhile supporters and activists that Labour is not an effective political vehicle for the organisation of resistance to austerity (let alone for the implementation of a counter-offensive against capital). Of course, many socialists will never have had much faith in Labour’s capacity for seriously and radically advancing the interests of working people – especially in the context of economic crisis when capital’s demands for wage repression and ‘labour discipline’ for example become much more pressing on states – but recent developments have shaken the faith of many more people who previously were prepared to give Labour the benefit of the doubt, or to hope that it might be reformed and won to a more left-wing perspective from within. Ed Miliband’s rapid dash to the right on issues like immigration after his victory in the Labour leadership election of 2010 as the putative candidate of the left (those horrified ‘Red Ed’ references in the tabloid press seem absurd, indeed, quaint now in retrospect) was a big disappointment to many of the party’s activists and supporters. More recently, we’ve seen and heard Ed Balls say that Labour would be ‘ruthless’ in power about cutting public spending and Jon Cruddas claim on Newsnight that ‘food banks are here to stay’ even under a Labour government – indeed that the emergence of food banks across the country is a ‘positive development’. Add to this the grotesque spectacle in the past few days of the Labour front bench refusing to oppose government proposals for removing the right to strike for Home Office employees and, further, party leaders putting pressure on Labour MPs to abstain in a vote on a crucial ‘workfare’ bill and it must be obvious to all but the most blind that Labour is just a lost cause for the left. There has, I think, over the last few weeks and months been a pronounced acceleration of a longer term process of disillusionment on the part of Labour’s core supporters and activist base and, correspondingly, a growing willingness among many of them to countenance the prospect of leaving Labour to join a new organisation – in particular, the Left Unity initiative.

The third major factor shaping this new political conjuncture in the UK is an external one – the international influence and prestige of Syriza (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the Front de Gauche). The Syriza phenomenon has demonstrated that it is possible for a coalition of fairly disparate left forces to win mass support with a clear anti-austerity agenda and to win such support very rapidly. More than this Syriza have shown that it is possible, not just to build up and organise a mass movement of resistance to austerity, but also to challenge seriously for power.  Of course the specific economic and political conditions of Britain and Greece are very different – most obviously the crisis is much more acute in the latter – and so we cannot think that Syriza provides a ready-made organisational/strategic model which we can somehow transplant wholesale into the UK. Nevertheless it does provide us with useful lessons and guidelines. Perhaps the most important dimension of the Syriza phenomenon, however, is its morale-raising effect. Socialists across Europe are looking at Syriza and, for the first time in a very long time, are thinking, ‘My God, we really can challenge for power and we really can win!’ The psychological impact of this should not be underestimated.

The Syriza effect interacts with and strengthens the second development mentioned above – the loosening of Labour’s political hegemony – further contributing to the sense among many of its erstwhile supporters and activists that that it is possible to build an effective political force to the left of Labour. It has also contributed a renewed sense of possibility among more radical left groupings. Not least Syriza has convinced many radicals used to working in small, relatively isolated groups that in fact the reformist and revolutionary left can work together effectively in a common organisation which is characterised by democracy, pluralism and a culture in which it is accepted that not all political differences can, will or need to be resolved into a common ‘line’ in order for the coalition to operate successfully:  the kind of organisational structure/culture that Simon Hardy has described in terms of ‘dynamic tension’.  The Syriza effect, then, has encouraged a broad range of people on the left to start thinking seriously and with confidence about building new alliances, and, moreover, to act on this sense of possibility.

There is a fourth development which closely interacts with the third. This is the recent partial implosion of the SWP. Whatever you think of recent events in that party (and I’m in no position to comment knowledgeably on them, so I won’t try) the SWP bust-up has clearly shaken up the political landscape on the radical left, loosened the SWP’s erstwhile hegemony over that terrain and thus put things substantially in flux. I would certainly be against taking a sectarian or hostile approach to SWP members (and there is, I think, some danger of this at the moment) but I also think it’s true that the recent splitting and weakening of the SWP has had at least one positive effect in that it has opened up a new space for realignment among radical left forces and the left more widely. In the context of, and in interaction with, the Syriza effect discussed above this has created a very promising and exciting situation for building a new, broad coalition.

These then are, in my view, the main developments that, in intersection and interaction, constitute a new conjuncture on the UK left – one in which a significant and lasting realignment of forces has become a definite and realistic possibility. The conjuncture poses big questions for us all. The main one, of course, is the question of the organisational form that a new coordination of forces should take. This question can only be resolved finally in practice and part of the very process of realignment will be to experiment with forms of organisation and coordination – a settled structure can’t be imposed at the outset, but must be allowed to emerge more or less organically.

Nevertheless, three broad models so far seem to have emerged, at least in embryonic form. These are by no means entirely mutually exclusive models – but they do have important differences of emphasis which would take the emerging movement off on divergent trajectories of development should any of them become dominant.

The first of these is what we might call the ‘Owen Jones model’. In a recent article Owen made the entirely welcome and valuable call for a new ‘networked movement of the Left’ which would encompass activists from both within and outside the Labour Party. Owen is quite clear however that he does not favour the establishment of ‘yet another party of the Left’ and argues that the main task of the networked movement would be to put pressure on the Labour Party in order to force it to the left. While I believe that the general strategy of building a mass movement in order to push sympathetic political representatives in parliament and government to the left and in order to hold them to their promises is right (or that at least it should form part of a wider strategy on the part of the radical left) I do not believe that it’s at all feasible to centre such a strategy on the Labour Party. It should be entirely clear to all observers by now that the central core of Labour is thoroughly impervious to socialist ideas – and in fact that it always has been. The Labour right has a permanent stranglehold on the party and indeed, more than this, the party is structurally embedded in the capitalist status quo. The idea that the party can be won or forced very far to the left – let alone to the extent that it might seriously challenge core capitalist interests – is simply wishful thinking. Sadly many talented socialist activists over the years have thrown themselves into a war of position within the party seeking to win it to the left only to be lost forever within the party’s labyrinthine bureaucratic committee structures never to be seen again (and this is indeed what these structures are designed to do – contain, exhaust, demoralise and absorb the Labour left).

The second model is the ‘People’s Assembly’ currently supported by a range of left figures such as Mark Steel and Tony Benn, and in which the driving force seems to be a previous splinter group from the SWP – Counterfire. While, again, this is a very welcome development and there is no reason not to support it wholeheartedly, I am slightly sceptical about this project and would not want to see this approach form the centrepiece, as it were, of a new organisational model. The main problem here is that I think we need a firmer structure – we need a party form (like that of Syriza). If we are serious about changing society for the better then we need to be serious about taking power too – and for this we need to be organised into a party structure. There is no reason, as I’ll argue below, why this party should not (like Syriza) take a relatively decentralised, pluralistic form – but we do need some sort of central coordination in order to be effective.

The third model – and the one I think is most promising – is the Left Unity model. Left Unity (there’s a statement its rationale here and some ideas about basic principles here) sees itself as the embryonic form of a new broad church party of the left. It models itself in relation to Syriza and to other successful groupings like the Front de Gauche. It seeks to provide a unifying, coordinating structure within which relative disparate groups and elements on the left can work together and pool their resources. It is precisely the sort of thing that we need. Already the most open and outward looking radical socialist groups such as Socialist Resistance and the ACI, together with the new International Socialist Network – all of these groups themselves relatively pluralistic works in progress – have pledged their support. But, more than this, the most encouraging thing about Left Unity is that, with the help of Ken Loach’s recent appeal, it seems to be pulling in traditional Labour supporters alienated by the party’s inexorable drift to the right. Winning over a sizeable chunk of Labour’s constituency of activists and supporters has long been the Holy Grail of the radical left and Left Unity seems, so far, to be pulling this off – there is a long way to go here, but it’s certainly made a promising start.

Of course, an alliance of revolutionaries, reformists and ‘left reformists’ within a federal type party structure raises all sorts of organisational and strategic dilemmas and potential problems – but what possible sort organisation doesn’t raise its own difficulties? Not the least of these is that it will have to confront the classic (and in my view inevitable) dilemma of socialist strategy – the reform/revolution problem. Certainly a party which aims to transform society fundamentally and which also commits itself to a political strategy that would involve, if it was successful, actually taking part in, or even forming, a government faces the problem of whether it is possible to use state power to help effect a transition to socialism or whether such an approach would, inevitably, saddle it with the responsibility of managing capitalism in capitalism’s interests.

Of course this is not an immediate problem in the UK – though it certainly is for Syriza in Greece. Nevertheless if Left Unity continues to develop we will need to give some serious thought to big strategic matters. I hope to contribute some thoughts in relation to the big strategic picture in a later article on this site.

  1. Darwiniana » The Current Conjuncture in Britain on the Left: Toward Left Unity

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