The SNP’s reactionary social policies are what Scottish Labour should focus on to counter the nationalist diversion of the threatened new referendum.
By Elaine Smith
Labour MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston
One year on from the independence referendum campaign Scotland is again reflecting on it and whether there should be another referendum any time soon.
The referendum was a momentous exercise that saw me personally speak to a countless number of my constituents last year on the doorsteps, and it was a process that saw unprecedented numbers of people taking an interest in voting.
However, it was a process that also caused tensions and provoked some nasty behaviour on both sides.
In the weeks leading up to the independence referendum families were split between Yes and No, friends, work colleagues and even strangers had bitter arguments and indeed some relationships broke down never to be the same again.
In the aftermath, many who voted Yes feel cheated out of what they perceived as a better future and many who voted No feel that they are being viewed as less Scottish.
There is also an issue that the national flag is used by the SNP as a political symbol and the tensions remain while the “neverendum” hangs over us.
Still, for me the most concerning issue is the complete disregard by the SNP for democracy.
There was a massive turn-out to vote on September 18 last year so there can be no doubt that this was a democratically representative vote. The engagement of so many people in the vote was, of course, a positive outcome of the process and there was a clear 10 per cent differential, which resulted in a decision to reject independence.
There had also been clear statements by the then first minister and others in the Yes campaign that this was a “once in a generation” or “once in a lifetime” decision and that the result would be respected.
The No side were also challenged to respect any decision and the irony is that had this vote gone the other way, even by 1 per cent, then we would have been independent by next April with no second chances.
The No campaign has been accused of scaremongering on issues like the currency, pensions and oil prices. Since there was no clear plan I actually found these issues, along with many others, very worrying and, of course, we now know that concern about oil prices were certainly no scare story but all too real in their predictions of the possibility of the price plummeting.
However, having thought long and hard about it, my main motivation for voting against separation was a class-based one. I believe in solidarity and I have more in common with people in Blackpool than those in Braemar.
It’s not a change of constitution that is needed but a change of government to achieve the fairer, more equal and redistributive society that I want to live in and that Labour would implement.
Ironically the success of the SNP in Scotland and the threat of some kind of coalition down south was enough to deliver a return of the Tories.
There is an argument now about whether the so-called “Vow” is being delivered in full, although later analysis shows that it seemed to have had little effect on the vote.
The Scottish Parliament always had vast powers which were never fully used and we were getting major extra powers over tax prior to the referendum campaign even starting. Like others I expect the Smith Commission recommendations to be fully implemented since they were agreed to on a cross-party basis by all the main parties in Scotland including the SNP.
Even if the so-called vow is not implemented in its entirety we will still have one of the most powerful devolved administrations anywhere in the world.
When Labour delivered the referendum to establish the Scottish Parliament there were two clear votes: Yes to devolution and Yes to tax varying powers. The latter issue, therefore, had a mandate of the Scottish people agreed to by a democratic vote.
Interestingly, the SNP disregarded that democratic vote when John Swinney their finance minister gave up the ability to use the tax varying power in 2010 without even consulting the Scottish Parliament, never mind the people.
The vote for the SNP last May was undoubtedly in part an anti-establishment vote and an expression of displeasure with the perception of Westminster politics. Added to this their very effective propaganda machine was working overtime on the theme of “Standing up for Scotland.”
The reality is that there were always 59 Scottish MPs in Westminster but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
What amazes me though is the SNP’s ability to act like the opposition when they have been the government in Scotland for over eight years. Given the chaos in the police service, the savage cuts to local government, the problems in education and the crisis in our health service to mention just a few areas I am amazed that any police officer, teacher, lecturer, nurse, doctor, paramedic or any other public-sector employee votes for them.
It will take time for Labour to regain the trust of the Scottish people but we have made a good start this week by electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
The negative tag of “Red Tories” was always nonsense but it was SNP spin that stuck with some people — it clearly cannot be levelled at Labour now.
In Scotland, Kezia Dugdale has started to further democratise the party, giving power to ordinary members and changing conference. Together our labour leadership team can show that, unlike the SNP, we don’t just talk about socialism, we act. The SNP have not implemented one single policy to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor in society and have actually done the opposite with their damaging council tax freeze and vicious cuts to council budgets.
Rather than spend time, energy and another £15.8 million on another referendum, the SNP should get on with sorting out the problems they are fully responsible for here in Scotland with the vast swathe of powers they now have.
Scottish Labour will get on with our job of holding the SNP government in Edinburgh accountable for their many failures.
And given time maybe the wounds can heal in families, with friends and across the country and we can all once again be proud confident Scots, living in a tolerant, friendly and inclusive nation.
- This article also appears in today’s Morning Star. It is republished here with the permission of the author
Interview by the AWL’s paper Solidarity with Pete Firmin (Political Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee – ‘LCR’) in a personal capacity:
What are the main lessons of the Corbyn campaign so far?
That the existing left doesn’t have to control everything — the reason the campaign has surged is because it’s got out of control and in the positive sense. Nobody has controlled it or been able to control it top down. It’s flourished in ways nobody’s expected. That has been incredibly positive.
In addition lots of people new to politics or at least Labour Party politics have come around it; there’s a big layer of people who are long-term members of the party but have been frustrated over the years by New Labour policies and attacks on democracy. They’re coming out to support the campaign too. I don’t think the party establishment understand that at all. When people like Blair and Clarke and Mandelson come out and say anyone but Corbyn, the more reaction there is against them and they just reinforce us.
The other thing is how politically mixed the support has been. It’s not a firm left support, it’s much looser and more heterogenous. Of course that doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t be firmly involved and try to influence things, but we won’t do that if we assume everyone is fully paid up to all the things the left is for. That will just turn people off.
What have you and other LRC’ers focused on?
I organised in my constituency, Hampstead and Kilburn, for getting people along to the nominating meeting — we lost to Yvette Cooper by one vote. Interestingly our MP, Tulip Siddiq, was backing Andy Burnham but he came fourth. To give her credit we persuaded her to nominate Jeremy and, though she was not supporting him, she defended the decision publicly when it was attacked.
Our Labour Party branches have been doing a weekly stall on the local High Road for the last two years and in the last two months it’s noticeable that everyone who stops wants to speak about the leadership election and a clear majority support Corbyn.
I’ve been active in the social media stuff, encouraging long-standing political contacts and friends to sign up as members or supporters — some of whom have been purged.
The LRC did a public leaflet early on encouraging people to sign up and vote, and LRC members in lots of places have been doing stalls, or been involved as organisers for some of the big meetings, as well as doing phone banks and so on. We’ve generally helped to build the campaign. Also, and I think this is very important, LRC members played a good role in winning union support, particularly in Unison.
What are the main tasks for the left?
I’d argue that we need a new organisation bringing together the whole of the Labour left, and that’s the only way we’ll attract significant numbers to get on board, a significant chunk of the tens of thousands who volunteered to actively support Corbyn. Obviously people are already joining existing organisations in small numbers, but only small numbers. Those organisations don’t have strong roots in most of the places where there is strong Corbyn supporter — either where it’s not that organised formally or where there’s a strong local group.
I don’t think the right will be stupid enough to try to kick Corbyn out in the next few months, but they will try to undermine him in any way they can, and unless we have strong, organised support inside and outside the party he won’t be able to do things, even opposing austerity. Read the rest of this entry »
Now seems an appropriate time to remember George Lansbury, who led the Labour Party from 1932 (shortly after the defection of MacDonald and Snowden) until 1935 (when his pacifism was rejected by the Labour Party Conference). Below we reproduce Jon Cruddas’s speech at the 2011 unveiling of a plaque in honour of Lansbury, in Bow. The speech was originally posted at Labour Uncut and it should go without saying that we at Shiraz don’t necessarily share Cruddas’s assessment:
Thank you very much. It is great to be with you all this afternoon. We are here to celebrate the life of one of the true heroes of the Labour party: George Lansbury. A man who was – to quote the great historian AJP Taylor – “the most lovable figure in British politics”.
We as a party are really only beginning to understand the true significance of the man and of his leadership of the party; a process of rehabilitation is underway yet is far from complete.
I think of Lansbury as arguably the greatest ever Labour leader. Not in an empirical sense in terms of elections won – he never faced the electorate in a general election as our leader.
Raymond Postgate wrote after George had resigned – and two weeks later an election was called – that “now they had lost their only popular leader, it was enough to wreck the labour men’s hopes of a victory”.
Irrespective of this, to have a third Labour government in 1945, or Wilson’s and Callaghan’s governments of the 60s and 70s – or Blair and Brown’s of more recent years – you had to have a party for them to inherit and subsequently lead; indeed from which to govern.
This is part of Lansbury’s legacy – to quote George Thomas
“He not only saved the soul of the party, he saved the party. We could have sunk into oblivion and the Liberals could have been reborn”.
When I think of George Lansbury I am consistently reminded of the fundamental paradox of the Labour party; the source of great hope whilst consistently being a provider of such profound and indeed bitter disappointments for us all. Its relationship between romance and rationalism.
Consider the events leading to George’s resignation. Half of Baldwin’s 500 seats were vulnerable. There was a possibility of a newly confident Labour Party gaining a majority and prime minister Lansbury. Contrast that with the party of 1932 – totally and utterly beaten – 50 odd seats left. Broken. In that short space of time he had overseen a profound transformation.
Yet what about military support for the Abyssinians through the League of Nations: on this to quote Postgate: “its leader was beginning to answer no; its members yes”. George offers to resign: at the 1934 Stockport conference, at the TUC in 1935 in Margate, Before the party conference in Brighton and finally at the conference itself.
At the conference Lansbury rises to speak to choruses of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” throughout the hall. He starts by saying: “I agree with my friends who think it is quite intolerable that you should have a man speaking as leader who disagrees fundamentally on an issue of this kind”. He then makes the most powerful statement possible about his Christian socialist convictions. Read the rest of this entry »
This article by Sean Matgamna, one of the founders of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, also appears on the AWL’s website and in their paper, Solidarity: ________________________________________________________________________
Seize the chance the left has now
In the three months since the general election hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Labour Party, the party that lost the election.
Over 600,000 people have signed up to vote in the Labour leadership election. 300,000 have become full members of the Labour Party. The rise in Labour Party membership started immediately after the general election. Twenty thousand joined in the first couple of days after the defeat. Opinion polls report that in his campaign to become leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has the support of between 50 and 60% of those eligible to vote. He has the backing of the bulk of the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party.
Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union explained that what the trade union leaders are trying to do in backing Corbyn is to shift the political axis of mainstream labour movement politics radically from the politics that has ruled the roost in the labour movement for the last 21 years, since the Blairite coup in the mid-1990s. Jeremy Corbyn, Ward said, is the antidote to “the Blairite virus”.
The confluence of large numbers of rebellious people joining the Labour Party and union leaders looking for an “antidote” to neo-Thatcherism — that is what “Blairism” in the labour movement is — has produced something very like a mass movement to reclaim the Labour Party for the working class and the left. This mass movement has to be judged for what it is, not by how it measures up to our own working-class socialist politics. It would be a miracle indeed, if such a movement began with adequate working-class socialist politics.
It is for socialists to work to convince this movement of the need for socialist politics.
To do that socialists must be part of the movement, engage in dialogue with it. The alarm at the idea of a Corbyn victory in the press and in the ranks of the Labour Party Blairites tells its own story. The war criminals, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, architects of British participation in the invasion of Iraq, warn against electing Corbyn. Tony Blair: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”
Their’s is the voice of the Blairite virus. Their warnings that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable are beside the point: a left-wing Labour Party could and would have to inform, shape, educate and re-educate “public opinion”. That is what a proper opposition party does. A serious political party is not, should not be, what the Blair-Thatcherite Labour Party now is — an election machine to install venal careerists in ministerial office. The influx into the Labour Party is itself evidence that this is possible. In any case, it is necessary.
There are vast numbers of people in Britain who have been deprived of a political voice and a political party by Blairite rule in the Labour Party. For a quarter of a century, at least, the working-class and the labour movement has been deprived of genuine representation in Parliament. British politics has been dominated by the political-personal rivalry of different strands of Thatcherism.
In a world on which the banks and their relentless greed have brought down catastrophe, Britian’s “public discourse.” has focused on the hunt for “cheating claimants” and an unending outcry against immigrants. The ideas, norms, consequences and ideology of market capitalism has not been contested by the political labour movement. All that can now be changed.
But let us take the worst possible case: what if the Labour Party in the course of educating “public opinion”were to lose an election? In 1931, when the Labour Party leader, Ramsay MacDonald and his associates went over to the Tories and to a Tory-led coalition government, with Macdonald as Prime Minister, the Labour Party was reduced to about the same number of MPs it had had in 1906, at its beginning. But if the Labour Party had not stood up to Macdonald and to the bourgeois economic consensus of that time then there would have been no 1945 victory for a Labour Party committed to the radical reform-socialist programme which created the modern welfare state. Read the rest of this entry »
Bill Hunter (self-portrait above) died on 9 July. He was a leading member of the early British Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, later a member of the organisations led by the thug and (it turned out) sexual predator Gerry Healy, but in the 1980s joined an opposition faction that eventually broke with Healy
By Sean Matgamna (this obituary also appears in the AWL’s paper Solidarity)
Insofar as it is possible to separate personal qualities from politics, Bill Hunter was a model revolutionary: selfless, dedicated, always striving to be “objective” — that is, not to let personal feelings intrude on political attitudes and decisions — willing to pay whatever personal price his politics demanded of him.
When I first encountered him, early in 1960, I thought he looked the part, with a long ascetic face (after a near-fatal car crash in 1962, his face had to be reconstructed), spare frame and his general air of driving political seriousness. Without these qualities no revolutionary movement is possible. They are not enough, of course. Bill’s political life was a tragic proof of that.
I have a fond memory of Bill from the early 60s. I came upon him in Manchester waiting in the little van he drove — he was Lancashire-Cheshire organiser for the Socialist Labour League — deeply engrossed in The ABC of Communism, the early 1920s book by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky. It was perhaps the sixth time he’d read it, he told me; he reread “the books” of the movement frequently.
He’d been a Trotskyist then for at least 20 years. The title he put on his autobiography, Lifelong Apprentice summed up his attitude. It was the right attitude.
• The next issue of Solidarity will carry a longer obituary.
By Alan Johnson
The author has given us permission to republish this article, which first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of World Affairs. Alan welcomes comment, criticism and discussion on the issues raised in the article. As always, when we publish a discussion piece like this, it should not be assumed that everyone associated with Shiraz agrees with it:
“I’m frankly a bit fucked off about all this. Like practically everyone else on the Left, I expected to be able to meet the worst crisis of capitalism in generations with more aplomb.” — Richard Seymour, Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, 2014
Why has the right, including the populist right, rather than the left, been the main political beneficiary of the anger and bitterness that has roiled Europe since the 2008 financial crash, the eurozone crisis, and the resulting deep recession and brutal austerity? After all, these events surely proved the relevance of the left’s critique of capitalism. The crisis has been so deep and prolonged that a kind of social disintegration has been taking place, at least in the Southern cone, without precedent in postwar Europe. (In Spain, youth unemployment is more than 55 percent.) More: the crisis has been managed largely to the benefit of the already well-off, in a spectacularly brazen fashion. The trillions that were handed over to banks too big to fail are now being gouged out of citizens too weak to resist. (This intensely political class strategy is called “austerity.”) The recovery, such as it is, is benefitting almost exclusively the already affluent, as catalogued in Danny Dorling’s cry of moral outrage, Inequality and the 1%. It is a recovery of McJobs, zero-hour contracts, and food banks. One UK charity alone, the Trussell Trust, has handed out 913,000 food parcels in the last year, up from 347,000 the year before.
The left is increasingly marginal to political life in Europe despite the fact that, in the words of Owen Jones, an important voice of the British left, “Living standards are falling, public assets are being flogged to private interests, a tiny minority are being enriched at the expense of society and the hard-won gains of working people—social security, rights in the workplace and so on—are being stripped away.” And the radical parties and movements to the left of the social democratic parties have been faring no better. In the brutally honest assessment of the British Marxist Alex Callinicos, “Nearly seven years after the financial crash began, the radical left has not been weaker for decades.”
But the European left’s inability to forcefully meet the crisis is not due to a failure of individual political leaders, but the fact that it has not developed, in theory or practice, a response to the three great waves of change—economic, socio-cultural, and politico-intellectual—that have crashed over it since the late 1970s.
Social democrats, as Sheri Berman showed in The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century, used to be able to do something that no one else could: bring capitalism, democracy, and social stability into a more or less harmonious relationship. They knew from bitter experience that if markets really were “free” and left to “self-regulate” then society would be devastated; that in addition to degrading the environment, what Marx called the cash-nexus, the reduction of human relations to naked self-interest, would erode communal life and the common good, installing greed and possessive individualism in their place; that merely contractual relations between spectacularly unequal, anxious, and deeply untrusting individuals, acquisitive, philistine, and competitive, would triumph.
But in the 1980s European social democrats lost their nerve, and fell into a suffocating consensus that says there is no alternative to neoliberalism: marketization, deregulation, privatization, financialization, an assault on the bargaining power of labor, regressive tax regimes, cuts to welfare. As “New Labor” architect Peter Mandelson famously put it, social democrats should now be “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy rich,” while sneering at the trade union movement, and often their own alarmed working-class supporters, as “dinosaurs” (or “bigots”) for harboring the idea that it was possible to stop the neoliberal globalization and “get off.”
The fruits of this radical transformation of European social democracy into a political force pursuing a slightly kinder and a slightly gentler neoliberalism—which some dub “social neoliberalism”—have been bitter. At the top of any list would have to be the erosion of the links between the social democratic parties and their working-class base and the “hollowing out” of social democratic parties until they became little more than coteries of leaders, staffers, and wannabe MPs, relating mostly to each other and to media and lobbyists. In a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books last spring, Perry Anderson made a start at a taxonomy of the whole shocking malavita. “In France,” he noted, “the Socialist minister for the budget, plastic surgeon Jérôme Cahuzac, whose brief was to uphold fiscal probity and equity, was discovered to have somewhere between 600,000 and 15 million euros in hidden deposits in Switzerland and Singapore.” The result? When the financial crash occurred, European social democratic parties, in thrall to neoliberalism, were seen as just as guilty as the executants of the neoliberal solution to the crisis (bank bailouts and popular austerity), leading to the overnight electoral meltdown of those parties. In Greece, Pasok plunged to a barely threshold-clearing four percent of the vote, despite having been the country’s dominant party for many decades. Read the rest of this entry »
Despite your relative youth, you are (to judge by your piece in today’s Guardian) representative of an old UK left — and the left in a few other European countries, such as Denmark — who have for decades been anti-EU but in recent years have kept fairly quite about it for fear of seeming to ally with Ukip and the Tory right. They have suggested, though rarely said openly, that the left should welcome and promote every pulling-apart of the EU, up to and including the full re-erection of barriers between nation-states.
The EU leaders’ appalling treatment of Greece, and Tsipras’s capitulation has given a new lease of life to the anti-EU left despite the fact that while in Greece and Southern Europe the EU is a force for neoliberal austerity, in the UK no-one can point to a single attack on the working class that has originated with the EU against the will of a British government: indeed the EU has forced reluctant UK governments to enact limited but real pro-worker legislation.
You seem to think the left can have its cake and eat it: to chime in with populist-nationalist “anti-Europe” feeling, which is stronger in Britain than in any other EU country, but also cover ourselves by suggesting that we are not really anti-European, but only dislike the present neoliberal, capitalist character of the EU.
As if a confederation of capitalist states could be anything other than capitalist! As if the cross-Europe policy of a collection of neoliberal governments could be anything other than neoliberal!
In Britain more than any other country we have seen successive national governments, both Tory and New Labour, repeatedly objecting to EU policy as too soft, too “social”, too likely to entrench too many workers’ rights.
Even the threat of withdrawal that you propose is a soft-soap, “tactical” gambit. In principle Britain could quit the EU without disrupting much. It could be like Norway, Iceland, Switzerland: pledged to obey all the EU’s “Single Market” rules (ie: all the neoliberal stuff) though opting out of a say in deciding the rules; exempt from contributing to the EU budget but also opting out from receiving EU structural and regional funds.
That (as I presume you’re aware) is not what the serious anti-EU-ers of left and right really want. They want Britain completely out. They want all the other member-states out too.
What would then happen?
The freedom for workers to move across Europe would be lost. “Foreign” workers in each country from other ex-EU states would face increased hostility and racism.
Governments and employers in each state would be weaker in world-market competition, and thus would be pushed towards crude cost-cutting, in the same way that small capitalist businesses, more fragile in competition, use cruder cost-cutting than the bigger employers.
Despite your fantasy of a “populist”, independent left anti-EU movement, in reality nationalist and far-right forces, already the leaders of anti-EU political discourse everywhere, would be vindicated while the left – if not completely ignored – would be seen as complicit
The left should fight, not to go backwards from the current bureaucratic, neoliberal European Union, but forward, to a democratic United States of Europe, and a socialist United States of Europe.
Unpublished Manuscript on Their Morals and Ours
Translated: for Marxists.org 2015 by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2004.
Translator’s note: This 1940 manuscript, which we thank the great Victor Serge scholar Richard Greeman for providing us, and which has never before been published in any language, is an essential text in the Serge canon. It demonstrates his distance from what was left of Bolshevism as well as his critique of the dogmatism of Trotsky and Trotskyism. His admission that the germs of Stalinism can be found in even the Bolshevism of the heroic period is a key element in understanding both the Soviet Union and Serge’s development. Of especial interest, as well, are his nuanced comments about the European social democratic parties, a bugaboo of the revolutionary left but which Serge finds to have played and continue to play a valuable role. The illegible sections of the manuscript, as Greeman has pointed out to me, are testimony to Serge’s poverty: he couldn’t afford new ribbons for his typewriter.
The need for this critique recently struck me while translating Leon Trotsky’s remarkable essay Their Morals and Ours. There are surely no other contemporary documents that better express the soul of Bolshevism, by which I mean, of course, the Bolshevism of its great years and also, as we will see, the Bolshevism of its decadence which, while courageously opposing Stalinism, the doctrine of the Thermidor of the Russian Revolution, nevertheless bears its mark. And there is absolutely no doubt that no one will ever write anything comparable on this subject, for the great Russians of the three revolutions of 1905, 1917, and 1927 are dead, and we know all too well what kind of death that was. Trotsky remains the last representative of a great historical event and of the type which was both its product and its highest achievement. The modern world owes these men a great deal; the future will owe them even more. Which is even more reason not to blindly imitate them and to try to discover to precisely what extent the socialism that is on the march owes them its approval.
One is immediately struck by the tone of Trotsky’s book, though not by what is peculiar to it, that is his incisive and clear style , but rather by the domineering tone of Bolshevik speech of the great years, along with its echoes of the imperious and uncompromising style of Karl Marx the polemicist. And this is something of great importance, for this tone is essentially one of intolerance. With every line, with every word it implies the claim to the monopoly of truth, or to speak more accurately, the sentiment of possessing the truth. That this sentiment is born of an assurance that is often useful in combat is undeniable. But that this assurance is at bottom unjustifiable is also undeniable. The truth is never fixed, it is constantly in the process of becoming and no absolute border sets it apart from error, and the assurance of those Marxists who fail to see this is quickly transformed into smugness. The feeling of possessing the truth goes hand in hand with a certain contempt for man, of the other man, in any case, he who errs and doesn’t know how to think since he is ignorant of the truth and even allows himself to resist it. This sentiment implies a denial of freedom, freedom being, on the intellectual level, the right of others to think differently, the right to be wrong. The germ of an entire totalitarian mentality can be found in this intolerance.
Trotsky confounds under the same rubric and with the same contempt democrats, liberals, idealists, anarchists, socialists, left socialists (the “centrists”), right communists, and even left communists (“Trotskyists”) who offer any objections to what he thinks. Through purely mechanical reasoning he considers that they constitute a united front “against the Fourth International.” The existence of the latter is, however, still only a problem, but even if it were already a reality this way of viewing it would still be surprising because of its disdain for the facts. The anarchist Berneri (and quite a few of his political friends), the Menshevik Rein-Abramovich, the POUM militants Andres Nin, Kurt Landau, Arenillas, Mena and so many others) are dead, along with hundreds of thousands of poor Spanish buggers crushed under the weight of international reaction. Along with Rykov and Bukharin, the right communists in Russia [rest of the sentence illegible]. To say after all this that only the Fourth International “suffers the pressure of international reaction” is truly a bit of swagger. But we can see how this swagger has become possible: however weak it might still be – and this means however far from real political existence it might be – the Fourth International alone is the bearer of revolutionary truth. And so… etc, etc. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: Unite general secretary Len McCluskey: bogeyman for Tories and Blairites alike
I’d guess you still regard yourself as being on the left. So why was one of your first comments after the election an attack on the trade union movement from the right?
You can say you weren’t attacking trade unions as such, but that’s how your Spectator article read – particularly when it was published in the house magazine of the Tory right. At a time when the Tories are proposing new attacks on workers’ right to strike and on trade unions’ right to fund a political voice, you chose specifically to assail trade union involvement in politics.
What struck me about your article was how fluently it combined left-sounding arguments with right-wing conclusions.
What sense does it make to point out that “poverty and inequality are everywhere growing in part because of the shocking failure of the trade union movement” to organise the unorganised – but then condemn, not unions’ lack of boldness and militancy, but “sectarian poses that will stop Labour building broad alliances with everyone from the church leaders to Liberal Democrats”?
In this article at least, you do not criticise more right-wing unions affiliated to the Labour Party – eg Unison, whose leadership is so determined to prevent rank-and-file control of its structures and grassroots campaigning that, to take just one instance, it drove out hundreds of low-paid, precarious outsourced workers at University of London. Instead you focused solely on Unite, the main union being targeted by the capitalist media – targeted for allegedly being too left-wing.
Shamefully, you repeat the Blairite/Tory/media lie that Unite has “used its influence to rig selections”, adding in the same breath that it has “sponsored Labour MPs in Westminster”. (The latter is a problem, why? In fact the problem is that Unite fails to hold most of these MPs to its account.) At the same time you say nothing about the Labour leadership’s continual abuses of party democracy and rigging of internal processes (including in Tower Hamlets – and Falkirk).
It is bizarre that you condemn Unite’s forcing out of Jim Murphy – hardly an electoral success story or an ally of low paid workers! Worst of all, your main solution is for the Labour Party to “show Unite the door”.
Whether this means expelling Unite specifically, or ending the Labour’s union link more broadly, what you are promoting is essentially an ultra version of the program of the Blairite right wing of the party.
You’re right that Labour’s program in the election was “incoherent” and “failed to convince millions of voters”. You’re also right that supporting the SNP is wrong; that backing for Lutfur Rahman shows the left going astray; and that McCluskey’s chief of staff Andrew Murray is an extreme representative of the Stalinist politics deeply entrenched in the union.
But such criticisms are useless when combined with de facto support for the Blairites.
The political forces on the right of the Labour Party which, intentionally or not, you are lining up with are enemies of workers’ interests. They are deeply implicated in the weakening of the labour movement, its failure to take opportunities to build its strength, its abdication from struggle after struggle – both through the policies they have pursued, in government and opposition, and their baleful influence over most union leaders (including ones, like McCluskey, who see themselves as being on the left).
Unite needs to be criticised not from the right, but from the left – for insufficient aggressiveness and militancy, for lack of political boldness, for not taking its own agreed policies and strategies seriously, and for failing to inform, inspire, educate and mobilise its members as an essential part of recruiting more. Part of that is its failure to really push forward in the Labour Party, not only declining to campaign for its own policies but more than once voting against them in deference to the Labour leaders (eg voting at Labour’s National Policy Forum in favour of continuing public sector cuts). The latest example is what looks like backing for Andy Burnham over left-winger Jeremy Corbyn in the party leadership race – despite the fact that Corbyn champions numerous Unite policies and Burnham champions almost none.
Issues with what it advocates aside, the fundamental problem with regards to Labour is not that Unite has exercised too much influence over the party, but that it has exercised too little.
For sure, McCluskey et al’s flirtation with walking away from Labour is part of the problem. But this tendency is determined above all by the Unite leaders’ refusal to consider the alternative of launching and carrying through a serious political fight. Least of all is the answer to justify the drive from the Labour right to wipe out union influence in the party. The Unite leadership’s “strategy” should be attacked not for challenging the Labour leaders, but for helping them – in some cases directly and in some through lack of fight.
I would argue that Unite’s current approach has provided ammunition for the labour movement’s enemies, external and internal, without doing much to actually push them back, win gains and make progress. That is very different from regarding Unite itself as an enemy, as you seem to.
You write that after what you regard as “the death of socialism, [many on the left, including in Unite] go along with any movement however corrupt or reactionary… against the status quo”.
Arguing that socialism is dead is bad enough. You also seem to believe that, as a logical corollary, militant trade unionism is and should be dead too. Given that, all that is left is a “non-sectarian” lash up with Blairites, Lib Dems, church leaders – and presumably employers.
This is a recipe to (even) further disorient and demoralise the left. The real left – those who are serious about turning our labour movement around – will oppose and fight the ideas and program your Spectator article suggests.
Alliance for Workers Liberty
PS I just saw your second article, about Unite suing you. Obviously this is absurd and wrong, a scandalous abuse of Unite members’ money. But I don’t think what you write about it changes anything fundamental in the political argument.
We face a government which has promised to continue and increase cuts, and to bring in new anti-union laws which will effectively ban large, multi-workplace public sector strikes.
Yet the small upturn of an industrial fightback which has already begun as the economic slump eases off (for some, at least), and unemployment recedes a bit (from 8.3% in November 2011 to 5.5% today) will continue.
The Tories have only 36.9% of the votes cast, almost the same number as in 2010. Most people don’t like the Tories. Their parliamentary majority is small. So long as activists remain resolute, the new Tory government can be pushed back on many fronts, in the same way as the Tories were often on the back foot in 1992-7, despite winning re-election in 1992.
The Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, sought to capitalise on his party’s victory by claiming that Labour lost because it went too far left and abandoned the so-called “centre ground”. The claim is nonsense, but some people in the Labour Party will pick up on it.
Labour had about as right-wing a leader in Scotland – Jim Murphy – as can be imagined. Result: the SNP landslide in Scotland was even bigger than expected.
Murphy should go, and the left should make a solid challenge in the new Scottish leadership election. There will be a new contest for the Labour Party leadership across Britain. The left should challenge there too, and certainly not let the contest be a shoo-in for Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham or some such.
Ed Miliband’s combination of sporadic sallies against “predators” and in favour of “working people” with commitment to continued cuts; only microscopic, piecemeal additional taxes on the rich or restrictions on big-business profiteering; and no challenge to the banks – that combination didn’t work.
The bulk of the labour movement failed to challenge him. Although all the big unions have, on paper, more left-wing policies, none campaigned visibly on those policies during the election or, by way of loud clear demands on the Labour leadership, in the run-up.
The Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, which we supported, got a better, wider response than we expected. But it was starting from a low base in the labour movement left. Some labour-movement-left bodies which nominally backed the SCLV, such as the Labour Representation Committee, did not even summon up the energy to circulate and publicise the campaign.
With the onset of the great economic slump in 2008, political shifts of some sort became likely. The sober fact so far is that, with exceptions here and there, the left has not gained seriously from the shaking-up effect of the slump. Protests against the cuts in Britain were loud and lively in 2010-11, but have diminished since then even as the cuts have become more damaging. The Tories were able to make some headway with the idea that the cuts were after all “necessary”.
The strand in politics which has gained most from the slump, not just in Britain but worldwide, has been different sorts of “identity politics”. In Britain: the SNP and, fortunately to a smaller extent than once looked likely, UKIP. Elsewhere, very varied forms, in some cases very different indeed: the BJP, ISIS, the Front National, Catalan nationalism…
“Identity politics” comes in liberal or leftish variants as well as its more organic hard-right variants; but even the liberal or leftish variants are a hindrance in the fight against the ruling class. The SNP was able to present itself as leftish despite its record of cuts when governing Scotland. Its showing on 7 May makes another referendum for Scottish separation likely. This signifies, essentially, that anger against the Tories has been diverted into a nationalist blind alley instead of into class struggle.
The labour movement and the left can combat that diversion only by contesting the SNP from a position clearly to the left of it, not by adaptation to nationalism.
The left-of-Labour efforts, TUSC and Left Unity, did poorly, even when they had candidates quite well-known locally and a solid local group of campaign activists. What makes that worse was that both groups decided to run not on full socialist politics but on a trimmed-down “anti-cuts” platform, hoping that would bring them electoral success short-cutting the otherwise arduous process of winning people to socialist ideas. Getting a small-but-solid result for an explicit class-struggle socialist platform may be a real step forward; registering that 0.4% of an electorate have voted “against cuts” is not.
There is no way forward other than redoubled effort in workplaces and within the labour movement to win the arguments for socialism.
In 1992 there was a slightly similar election result. Most people expected Labour, under Neil Kinnock, to win narrowly; in fact the Tories won a fourth successive election victory.
The dismay on the left which followed that result was widespread and harmful, possibly even more harmful than the result itself. Within months of the election, in September 1992, the Tory government’s credibility was shattered by a financial crisis.
Realistically, it now looks difficult to stop the new Cameron administration triggering some developments which will take us backwards: the separation of Scotland (which Cameron doesn’t want, but which he is effectively promoting); the collapse of the Labour Party in Scotland into a rump, or maybe its formal winding-up; and the withdrawal of rump-Britain from the EU (which Cameron is also effectively promoting, and may or may not want). It will be harder to resist those developments because much of the left foolishly sees them as positive.
The point here, however, is that Cameron’s victory on 7 May does not at all guarantee that he can, for example, push through cuts and anti-union laws as drastic as he wants.
The Tory government elected in 1992 was unable to do anything decisive to take further Thatcher’s programme of crushing the labour movement and the welfare state. Then, the damage inside the labour movement from demobilisation after the election defeat was more long-lasting. By 1994 Tony Blair was able to win the Labour leadership by a large majority, on a clearly right-wing programme, and start to shut down the channels of democracy and accountability in the Labour Party. The main union leaders backed him.
Local Labour activists kicked up a stir when Blair dumped Labour’s public-ownership Clause Four in 1995, but the demobilisation of the activist left after 1992 left us much less able to grasp the opportunities created by the Tories’ disarray, and unable to stop Blair’s bandwagon.
The lesson for today is: don’t mourn, don’t mope, don’t mumble. Organise!