A rolling wave of right-wing politics threatens to engulf Britain in the period immediately ahead. The first thing we have to do is tell ourselves the truth about it.
Socialists have to look realities honestly in the face if they are ever going to learn how to change capitalist society fundamentally and learn how to replace it with working-class democratic socialism. Especially, the grimmest realities.
The slump has massively undermined capitalism's credibility with wide sections of the people. But the dreadful state of the forces of socialism mutes and stifles presentation of a socialist alternative. And so the major movement is to the right.
The present situation in British politics is characterised by the following features
* The New Labour government is massively unpopular and discredited. The Prime Minister is a figure of contempt and pity. The working-class disillusionment with New Labour, which Solidarity thought might come early out of the New Labour government, as a result of its nakedly bourgeois class character and with a left-wing slant, is here now - with a vengeance, and with a right-wing or anti-political drift.
* The Tories are, mostly likely, six months away from defeating New Labour in the upcoming general election, and forming a government. A Brown government too would impose cuts after the general election, but all the indications are that a Tory government will impose far more savage cuts in social services and, maybe, follow the anti-Keynesian, depression-deepening policies which Cameron loudly counterposed to the Brown government's policy of pouring money into the economy. The new Tory government will have to confront and try to break the labour movement, for instance the civil service union PCS.
* The tremendous general sense of disillusion with aspects of the capitalist system is politically and socially ill-informed and demagogy-infected disillusion. It is focused by the press on such obscene but not fundamental aspects of modern capitalism as the enormous rip-off bonuses paid to bankers even after the state has had to intervene so recently with massive sums of taxpayers' money to stop the banks going bust. The anger against the bankers is entirely justified, but, even so, it is a variant of the old delusion that only one part of capital - finance-capital - is intrinsically rotten, and not the exploitative capitalist system as a whole.
* There is widespread loathing of all "mainstream" politicians. That they are self-serving habitual liars and manipulators who talk out of both sides of their mouths is now widely understood - and, simultaneously, radically misunderstood. This is focused on the scandal of MPs' expenses. The atmosphere of savage disillusionment with conventional politics and politicians can not be too far off the sort of disgust that sent fascist-led mobs (initially backed by the Communist Party of France) to invade the French parliament after the Stavisky financial scandal in 1934.
* The British press, very crudely the tabloids such as the Daily Express, and, less crudely and in more measured ways, even the broadsheets, now habitually agitates on social and political questions to a degree that may be unique in the world's press. The tabloid papers assume a major part of the role of severe social and political criticism that a mass-circulation socialist press would play if it existed. They denounce, expose, point the finger of scorn and accusation. They blame the government, government departments, individuals, not the system of which they themselves are a pillar. They personalise everything. They have created a depoliticised political culture in which politicians are evaluated not mainly - and usually not at all - on policy, but on "performance", like footballers, pop-stars, and actors.
* There is massive, especially working-class, hostility to immigration and to most immigrants. Discontent over unemployment, housing, bad social services, bad health care, and so on is now often focused on immigrants, that is, on a scapegoat. Sections of the press agitate on these questions, blaming immigrants, the European Union, and the New Labour government for allowing immigrants in.
In their mixture of irresponsible demagogy, valid social and political criticism, and scapegoating, sections of the press, the Daily Express and the Star for example, come close to playing the political role typical of fascists - demagogy combined with quack solutions and root defence of the fundamentals of capitalism and class society. The Government runs before their agitation, and thus encourages and augments it. It was prime minister Gordon Brown who most notably raised the slogan, "British Jobs for British Workers".
General and proper working-class concerns over social issues are of course expressed here, and socialists, in our response, have to disentangle the different strands involved.
* One focus on which hostility to immigration is expressed now is hostility to the European Union. The anti-EU message now is regaining the political and social resonance it had in the 1970s. Tory party demagogy against aspects of the EU makes it an issue in mainstream politics that it has not been for many years. Meanwhile, opposition to the EU remains an article of faith for most of the would-be left.
* There is a deep cultural and religious as well as a "racial" alienation between sections of the white working class and the people in the Muslim areas of British cities. The press, and the "fascistic" section of it in particular, foment, deepen, and politically exploit that alienation.
Meanwhile, the major forces of the would-be revolutionary left have spent the last decade in politics functioning not as socialist advocates of working-class unity across the divide, but as honorary Muslim communalists, recommending election candidates with such phrases as "a fighter for Muslims". For the "best anti-racist" reasons, they attempt to exploit the communal alienation which the fascists exploit from the "other side".
* The fascist BNP has experienced spectacular growth in influence, electoral credibility, and membership, winning council, London Assembly, and European Parliament seats. They may win seats in Parliament in the coming general election. On the basis of social demagogy, they have created a base in the white working class, even in some traditional Labour Party areas.
* A dozen years of neo-Thatcherite New Labour government, and fifteen years of New Labour - dating it from the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader, though of course its roots go back much further - have wreaked havoc with working-class politics. There is widespread working-class alienation from New Labour. That the alienation has pushed many people towards the anti-immigrant right reflects the failure of the would-be left. Ideas of class politics are less influential than for over a century. The New Labour leaders have strangled most of the life out of the Labour Party - stifling local parties, the party conference, and the National Executive. New Labour lacks credibility as a political force in the coming general election.
* The efforts of the would-be left in the dozen years of New Labour government to mount a credible electoral challenge to the Blair-Brown organisation have been singularly unsuccessful. The growth of the BNP is one measure of that failure.
The fiasco of Respect is another. There you had a "progressive" and "socialist" alliance - with one of the most reactionary political and social forces on the planet, Islamic clerical-fascism - and led by a corrupt ex-middle-of-the-road Labour politician, George Galloway, who had sold himself politically to Saddam Hussein's fascistic regime in Iraq and to other Arab and Islamic forces.
But even before Respect, and even before the SWP used its disproportionate weight in it to liquidate the Socialist Alliance, the electoral enterprises of the would-be left were disappointing and uninspiring. Workers' Liberty, a founder of and central participant in the Socialist Alliance that ran 98 candidates in the 2001 general election, editorialised that the eventual average "was no higher than the common run of scores won by left-socialist candidates for many years now", including long before the Blair coup in the Labour Party.
The sinking of the remnants of the Socialist Alliance into Respect put paid to all hope of creating a sizeable working-class socialist electoral alternative to New Labour. The serious left will have little presence in the upcoming general election - with the exception of Jill Mountford in Camberwell and Peckham and maybe of a few other candidates.
The imminent end of the New Labour government further closes that chapter, of attempts to build on working-class hostility to New Labour in government to build an electoral alternative - but in fact Respect closed it long ago.
* The union-Labour link has - with a couple of exceptions - survived the twelve years of New Labour government. Unions still finance the Labour Party. But union influence, not to say power, is feeble, in part because of the irresponsible abstention of the union leaders from vigorous assertion of their real strength - including potential strength, should they choose to use it, within the Labour Party structures.
* There will be some "left-wing" candidates in the general election - Socialist Party, SWP, and others. They will not be remotely a credible electoral presence, either as an alternative to Labour or as an effective alternative to the fascists. They will be "propaganda" candidates, but with poor propaganda. This is, perhaps, especially true of the SWP, the erstwhile vicarious Muslim communalists of Respect.
They will echo the chauvinist hostility to the European Union - when in fact a more walled-off, chauvinistic capitalist Britain is the alternative. Both SP and SWP candidatures will be more about building their organisations than about credible left-wing electioneering.
Those who want to build the SP, or the SWP, will support their electoral efforts, as will a few leftists for whom not being Labour or New Labour is sufficient recommendation. But for a credible left-wing electoral presence, there would have to be united left-wing candidates with at least some trade-union support - a strong new Socialist Alliance. There is none, nor the prospect of one.
* The Labour-union political relationship will most likely produce new interactions after New Labour goes down in the general election. Both the unions and the out-of-office Labour Party will at least go through the speeches and motions of opposing "Tory cuts", and may be induced to do more. Labour movement - union and Labour - history will, so to speak, resume. The Labour Party is likely to revive, though how much and how soon, we will have to see.
* Paradoxically, therefore, New Labour, or Labour, despite its dozen years of ostentatiously pro-bourgeois neo-Thatcherite government, and its role in creating the present situation, will in the general election still be the default "working-class" force. Not because of its policies - which in toto are anti-working-class - but because it remains the union-affiliated party. Where there is no politically adequate left-wing anti-Labour candidate, socialists will, teeth clenched, advocate a vote for Labour.
* In the 1979 general election, the Thatcherite Tories represented a serious threat to the labour movement; but the unions' alternative was the Callaghan Labour Party, which had been in government since 1974, and had imposed IMF-dictated cuts from 1976. Some socialists resolved the wretched contradiction by launching a "Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory".
Uniting much of the left - including, then, such as Ken Livingstone - and gaining the support of a few local Labour Parties and candidates, the SCLV launched an independent campaign which sharply criticised the Callaghan Labour government and advocated preparation to fight it if it defeated the Tories. It was essentially a propaganda effort, putting forward (as we then phrased it) "a roughly adequate class struggle programme".
It organised some of the forces that went on, after the defeat of the Labour government, to radically shake up the Labour Party in the early 1980s.
In principle that would be a good model of work for socialists today, faced as we are by a serious Tory and right wing offensive on one side and the foul Brown government on the other. The bar to it is a purely practical one. The Labour Party in 1978, and sections of the unions, had a vibrant left-wing rank and file. Local Labour Party life now exists, where it exists, as a series of rumps.
We can organise effective socialist propaganda. We can do effective on-the-ground anti-fascist work. Both require a better-organised and more vigorous AWL. That is one thing we can affect.
We can watch for opportunities in the unions to push for a union (and, where it exists, Labour rank-and-file) drive to recreate a mass union-based working-class political party. We can organise backing for decent Labour Party people such as John McDonnell.
The picture is grim. But if we cannot face and define grim truth when it confronts us, then we will never be able to change things.