The left and the labour movement in the General Election

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2010 - 2:50

Faced with the prospect of a Tory government and little or no left-of-Labour presence at the polls, how should the working-class left respond to the general election and the cuts that will inevitably follow, whichever party wins? Solidarity spoke to a range of activists from across the left. We will continue the discussion in future issues.

Where did it all go wrong?

Dave Osler runs the Dave’s Part blog, and appeared in the Daily Telegraph’s 2007 list of the 100 most influential people on the left.

Urban legend has it that George Best — by this point a rich but has-been alky rather than a footballer of genius — once ordered champagne to be delivered to the five-star hotel room in which he was gallivanting with a half-naked Miss World.
The bellboy arrived with the bubbly, only to find thousands of pounds of casino winnings strewn over the bed. The waiter calmly turned round to the the one-time Manchester United legend and asked him: “So, Mr Best. Where did it all go wrong?”
That’s a question the far left would do well to ponder as it gears up for the impending general election in a condition weaker than any in which it has found itself for perhaps a century.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, I was an enthusiastic advocate of initiatives like the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance. But experience has taught me that a project of this type is impossible to realise in this country.
After 15 years of trying, we are actually further away from that target than we were to begin with. If you want to know why in six short words, the left is too bleeding stupid.

The period that opened up with the birth of New Labour offered it a real chance to build some kind of viable leftwing electoral formation, even if the AWL mistakenly clung to entrism.

Social democracy wilfully cast away the working class it once dominated ideologically, and launched into repeated wars that generated genuine mass opposition. Meanwhile, Stalinism appeared finished once and for all, and there was even a partial youth radicalisation.

It was utterly obvious what the situation demanded of us; unity in a single party and the hard slog of putting down meaningful roots in the labour movement and in working class communities. But we totally fluffed it.

The British left managed to shoot itself in the foot so many times that the ends of both its legs now terminate in bleeding stumps. I guess we got the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce and the third time as something that cannot be described in a family newspaper.

Much of the blame rests with the SWP, which has proven itself so entirely incapable of working with other forces inside a common democratic framework. That has to make the question of alliances with this group problematical.

Its central committee arrogantly assumes that the left cannot put together a meaningful electoral challenge without SWP participation. Much of the rest of the left — even if it diplomatically does not say it aloud — feels that it cannot put together a meaningful electoral challenge with the SWP on board.

Meanwhile, the very SWPers that preach “flair, determination and decisive leadership” — qualities that Georgie Best amply displayed on the football pitch, I seem to remember — are reduced to provoking apolitical beauty contest faction fights by hyping up spurious non-differences. Hey guys, notice the fascists in Brussels?

Once, the Scottish Socialist Party demonstrated what could be achieved with a little nous. But all it took was one overblown male ego to squander that.

The Socialist Party in England and Wales deserves some credit for the years of patient local work legwork it has put in, at least in Coventry and a few other places. But the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition it is sponsoring this time round is clearly on the parliamentary road to lost deposits.

There is little point in putting together ad hoc coalitions just weeks before election campaigns begin, not even bothering to stand under the same name twice in succession.

At the time of writing, the SWP was in talks about joining up with TUSC. I’m frankly surprised that idea was not rejected as a non-starter. We’ll see what happens.

But even if it comes off, any shotgun marriage between Trots and the left of the trade union bureaucracy will prove a semi-tankie nightmare, with a rigid internal regime premised on the deterrence of microsect infiltration. That won’t stop the crackpots sneakily tabling transitional demands in the hope that no-one else will notice, of course.

There will be no prospect whatsoever of leadership accountability or control by the rank and file. That alone will stop such a formation making headway in the working class.

The mosque bloc vote might see Respect fare slightly better than TUSC in percentage terms, but it has no realistic chance of securing any MPs either. It’s saddening to see activists desperately trying to kid themselves otherwise.
And I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already when I remind you that the solitary AWL candidacy may well struggle to poll a three-figure vote. Haven’t you lot got better things to do?

In short, the only socialist MPs that will get to Westminster this year will be the handful that get elected as Labour candidates. I’ll be concentrating my political efforts on securing the return of John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington, and then participating in the debate that will be had after Labour’s imminent crushing defeat.

An agenda of cuts

Camila Bassi is a worker at Sheffield Hallam University, an activist in the University and College Union (UCU) and a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The prospects facing the unionised workforce in Higher Education in the coming period are grave. Whether the Tories or New Labour come into power in the General Election (the former more likely) the agenda of cuts will be far-reaching and part-and-parcel of more general public sector spending cuts.

What do we know already? Mandelson has recently announced a £900 million cut to the higher education budget, risking (in UCU estimates) 14,000 jobs. Heads of almost thirty universities around the country have suggested they might close altogether as a consequence.

So far, the HE sector is at the frontline of cuts. During a recession the logic is surely to invest more in education. Germany, France, and the United States are all putting extra funding into their HE sectors as part of their overall recovery plans, albeit not without problems (such as deeper marketisation). The drive by, at present, New Labour and, probably soon, the Tories to decimate the nature and quality of higher education, and the lives of those working in it is foolhardy short-termism and bourgeois opportunism. The burden and debt from the global economic crisis should not be shouldered by ordinary workers, but by those who caused it in the first place.

What can the unionised workforce do? Well, the joint union campaign “Defend HE” between UCU, UNITE, Unison, GMB, and the Education Institute of Scotland needs to be made real and effective on the ground, which means rank-and-file political ownership and direction, and meaningful solidarity amongst all workers and that reaches out to students as well.

Unions need their own agenda

Steve Hedley is the Regional Secretary of the London Transport region of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT).

It’s very disappointing that the left hasn’t got its act together since the last election. The left should stand independent socialist candidates where it can, and where that’s not possible the left and the unions should put their resources into supporting left-wing Labour MPs. I don’t think having a position of blanket support for Labour is credible.

If the Tories win, the attacks may escalate but as far as I’m concerned we’ve had a Tory government since 1997 anyway so it’ll be business as usual. If the attacks escalate, resistance will escalate too.

The RMT has taken some initiative in terms of political representation — we shook up our parliamentary group and now only sponsor MPs who’ve consistently supported us. But we’re a small union, not an organisation of millions like Unite. People like Tony Woodley and Dave Prentis are political dinosaurs. They need to wake up to the reality that no matter how much money they pump into Labour, workers are going to be attacked.

The unions have got to be flexible about our tactics in terms of the election. We should put forward a minimum working-class platform around workers’ rights, the repeal of the anti-union laws, stopping and reversing privatisation, increasing wages and so on. If candidates — whether within the Labour Party or independent left candidates — are prepared to support those demands and be accountable on the basis of those policies, we should back them.

If people can’t sign up to that, we can’t support them. It’s as simple as that. There’s no mass alternative to the Labour Party at the moment and we’re only a few months away from the election, so that approach may be all we can pull together this time. The unions have to do something; we have to at least advise workers on how to vote, and calling for blanket support for a party that’s consistently attacked us isn’t credible.

The Labour Party may swing to the left after an election defeat; that’s been the pattern historically. But it always swings rightwards in order to make itself “electable” again. What we need is a party that’s based on accountable to working people and the unions. If there are people currently within the Labour Party prepared to work towards that, then we should support them, but the Labour Party as its currently constituted is not a vehicle for social change.

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