|Time for The Left
The left in this country has never been so weak.Sounds like an academic essay title. 2 pages of A4. Discuss.And it’s a symptom of this weakness that the first response, to whatever blog or left publication which chooses to publish this, will be to focus on some chance remark I am about to make (whether for or against the SWP, for example, or whether because of some crime against the movement that I am personally accused of quarter of a century ago – that probably isn’t true but equally noone can remember), rather than to engage with the point.
Perhaps its because we have always been too impatient. Perhaps we’ve had the luxury that it hasn’t mattered enough. John McDonnell hasn’t been incarcerated by an apartheid regime for 25 years in top security like Nelson Mandela. Caroline Lucas hasn’t been confined to house arrest by a military junta like Aung San Suu Kyi. Indeed the people who have been victims of that type of treatment – the Irish Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 of the 1970s and the Pakistan Student 10 this year – haven’t, at the time, had the general active and unconditional support of the left as a whole. (Though it seems the same individual legal representative has managed to carry on the same patient defence of such “unpopular” causes throughout all those years.)
In the last three or four decades there’s always seemed the possibility – or even probability – that huge advances were about to take place in the movement. So within the Left one new venture after another has been set up, too quickly, without proper process, without the trust or involvement of the whole of the left, and then dropped again a few years, or even months, later. And each time a few new people are attracted, by the immediacy of the
moment, but a lot more people who’ve tried it before and been burnt by the experience don’t come back.
The truth is that those advances havent come. What weve had is defeats.
The miners lost. Local government lost. The war didn’t stop. The economy has even fallen apart from within but we are in no position to take it over.
Labour was elected – as New Labour. It didn’t even have to change the name – as Blair said to their Conference when he won his new Clause 4. That was perhaps the biggest defeat. Having what should have been our own side elected – only to inflict on us neo-liberal economics, PFI, escalating inequalities…. and war. The dockers maintained their strike for 2 years of the Tories, and collapsed in months after Labour got in and sold them out.
With the help of the unions. The union leadership which in most cases is as divorced from the base of workers organising for themselves in their workplaces as Labour’s expense-soaked MPs are from their constituents.
And now we’ve got fascists elected.
No question but that this is Labour’s fault . Blair and Brown and a succession of Home Secretaries have gone out of their way to legitimise the BNP, in seeking the approval of the Daily Mail for increasingly racist measures before the far right had even thought of them.
Playing up the so-called fears of ordinary people about immigration (thus spake Labour
immediately upon the election of the fascist in Yorkshire) is not just repeating Thatcher’s “swamping” imagery but is virtually writing the BNP’s website for them. No matter that any logical explanation of migration shows that its good for the economy, that the Muslim population is more loyal to this country than any other community, that jobs and houses are just as unavailable for white as for non-white people. That isnt the point.
Prejudice is never removed by information alone. To change individual attitude and behaviour requires tackling the questions of power and prejudice together. What Labour has done is to encourage the prejudice and give power to those who wheel it out.
This alone is a reason for everyone to desert Labour.
Of course its not just about electoral politics. Strategically there are three different strands to fighting the fascist threat. First is to fight the fascists wherever they appear, on the streets, when they try to hold events or meet in public premises. It was disgraceful to see Labour Ministers minimising the nuisance of the BNP as no more than “thoughtless”
in “clashing” with football matches and describing this as merely a question of police resources.
Second we must tackle the distortions and lies that the fascists peddle, in the local communities, and work on the ground with local campaigners, to explain that we are also angry with the lack of housing and jobs, but that there is an alternative, which is not to scapegoat other communities. Racism is not the answer to the recession.
And third is to consider electoral unity – which can include uniting behind one electoral
flag, for particular elections, in particular places. While it may be important to get everyone to vote and reduce the proportion of the fascist numbers, it is more convincing to offer people something positive to vote for. Asking everyone to “vote for anyone else” rings hollow if that means voting Labour. Certainly that remains true in a region such as the North West, which sadly still displays Straw, Blears, Purnell….. and Woolas.
These are the people who have most of all legitimised so much of the BNP agenda, especially regarding immigration.
We have to be tough on the causes of the far right as well as on the far right themselves.
And to carry out these activities, in and out of election times, we need to develop an understanding across the left, industrially and electorally, in the interests of the environment and equality, about how we could work together, in and out of elections, against consumer capitalism, inhumane imperialism, and all the appeasement of racism and fascism and warmongering that has taken place under Labour.
So we may need to define for ourselves a new way of working (reclaim the word “new”), so as to demonstrate unity in action, so as to develop our arguments through debate, and so as to create a framework of policy and action that is environmentally and socially just, inclusive, peaceful, pluralist, tolerant and one that does not rely either on “leaders” or small
sectarian advantage when there is a far bigger common objective that could be shared between us all.
It may matter less what organisation we are in that what we are willing to do – together.
That is what the 2008 Convention of The Left sought to do, in 5 days of discussion and debate last year, as an overt and immediate alternative to the bankrupt new-labour-fest that was going on next door. And that is why there will be another Convention event in Brighton, this September 26th, at the start of Labour’s non-event this year, to put forward that another way of working is possible and another world is possible. We will not blame the recession on its victims. Racism and fascism cannot be the result of the lack of alternatives from the mainstream.
With contributions (not top down platform speeches) from Caroline Lucas (Green), John McDonnell (LRC), Robert Griffiths (CPB), Kay Phillips (Respect), Matt Wrack (FBU) and so on, there will be a clear demonstration of unity in discussion and practical action to put forward as an alternative to the strange death of new labour that the official delegates will witness nearby.
This is just one example of working together. And there is a spirit of unity in the air. Calls for unity are emerging from every quarter of the left.
Our response needs to be committed and long term. It isn’t unity to put a flag in the sand and say,”this is our party, you must come and join it – and if you don’t, you’re the splitter”. It isn’t unity to set up an organisation and then get bored and leave when it isn’t all going your way. It isn’t unity to create a constitution and use the voting mechanisms to stop plural and inclusive discussion and decision making.
Consensus is key. Working together in practical action creates the trust that helps organisational development. Sticking at it is crucial. And it is worth taking some chances. Creating trust includes the risk of losing something. But a practical demonstration of unity is worth more than simply repeating the word as a mantra.
For example, following the Convention of The Left last year, links between the Green Left and socialists in other organisations in the North West were developed. An agreement was discussed, within and between. At the Convention Recall event in January Peter Cranie, leading candidate on the Green Euro list, spoke about fighting the fascists. Later, the loudest applause of the day came for Kay Phillips, Chair of Respect and prospective candidate for North Manchester, who said that Respect was backing Peter in the North West, specifically at this time and in this one election, to stop the BNP. This was both logical and political. Unprompted and immediate was the response from Greens in Tower Hamlets , who said they would endeavour to reciprocate there in the Westminster election.
Many socialists doubted that this would be possible. Previous “deals” with the Greens, locally, have been frustrated by “national” decision making. Candidates haven’t stood aside for each other. And the Greens are middle class, vote the wrong way in local councils, and support the EU.
[Oh, so it would be ok to vote for Labour then – the party of big business, war, privatisation, racism …. ?]
The reality is that the doubters were wrong. The fascists could have been stopped, in the two particular regions where local left activists had identified that the arithmetic and the politics added up to uniting in a vote for the Greens. If all left activists had used their energies not just to put out “hope not hate” literature or to go on anti-fascist bashes but to
encourage, personally, individually and collectively, a vote for the Greens, then we would not have the BNP in power.
Rank and file activists and even just armchair leftwingers can see this. The letters pages of the Morning Star have carried long debates on the subject. People with no explicit political affiliation have seen the sense of the left working together and simply expressed their common sense accordingly.
And the reality is that the links between the left in the Greens and in the socialist organisations involved have strengthened – in both directions – and can continue.
These arent exclusive or the only possibilities. But the sort of electoral alliances that have already been made are a good omen for the future. Ofcourse, they don’t and can’t add up to a new party [- yet?]. They dont require more than a broad understanding [- though maybe we can all find a broad organisational umbrella?] There can be no preconceptions. No illusions. No impatience. No possessiveness. No blueprint.
We have to take some responsibility, as the left. We dont have the luxury of any instant fix. It is, now, too serious.
John Nicholson, convenor Convention of the Left, Manchester
14 years ago Blair announced the abolition of Clause 4 part 4 of Labour’s constitution.
Arthur Scargill formed the Socialist Labour Party – but wouldn’t let Dave Nellist join (Socialist Party / expelled Labour MP), and snubbed Tommy Sheridan and others out right from the start (Scottish Socialist Alliance / Scottish Militant Labour).
Dave Nellist went on to chair the Socialist Alliance in England – joined by almost all the left, including the Socialist Workers Party, and standing over 100 candidates in the 2001 General Election under the banner People Not Profit.
Tommy Sheridan went on to lead the Scottish Socialist Party, whose unity across the Scottish left, including some trade union affiliation, gained them 6 seats in Holyrood and accompanying campaigns against Trident and the council tax and for free school meals and public transport.
But in England the Socialist Party moved out of the Socialist Alliance, in a self-fulfilling fear of an SWP take-over, and the SWP duly took it over, closed it down and formed the electoral party, Respect, which gained George Galloway as an MP and a number of councillors notably in East London.
The SP started their own Campaign for a New Workers Party. And Tommy Sheridan left the SSP, forming his new party, together with the SWP and CWI in Scotland, called Solidarity – and the three way split between the SLP, SSP and Solidarity ensured that almost all the left seats were lost in Scotland in May 2007.
Of course, none of this is reminiscent of the Life of Brian.
Meanwhile the Greens were themselves reduced to two MSPs in Scotland, though a larger number of councillors in England and Wales; and the left wing presence within the party (including at leadership level) has not prevented the party standing against other left candidates locally.
Sound like the Life of Brian? But that was comedy. This year the vote for the Greens in the European Elections was narrowly not quite sufficient to prevent the fascists gaining the last places on the European proportional representation list in the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside. Its no longer a joke.
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