If Left Unity and TUSC build a united electoral coalition for 2014 and 2015 it could lay the basis for a new mass party.
Socialists face a major challenge in the next decade. While different fractions of the rich and powerful now have four parties doing their bidding: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour and now Ukip, the working class, as a whole, has none. The socialist challenge is to create a nationally recognised alternative to the pro-capitalist consensus that currently exists. A party that is not simply against ‘austerity’ or ‘neo-liberalism’, but one that is determined to overturn the system that is the parent of both: capitalism.
Presently, with the privatisation of the welfare state going on before our eyes, the driving down of working class living standards and the prostration of the Labour Party in front of capital, the ambition of a nationally recognised socialist challenge that the working class leads may seem an almost unreal scenario. However, the emergence of new socialist and left formations across Europe in the last quarter of a century, as European social democracy has made its peace with capitalism, shows that such a step can be taken. True, these formations have different origins, ideological formations and trajectories, but the matter of their creation and impact on national political formations is without doubt.
As is known, there have been several attempts to create a new party of the left in England and Wales in the last twenty years: the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect and most recently the existing Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The first three attempt to form such an alternative has foundered at a crucial stage of development. At the heart of this failure was the belief that there was only one strategy that could succeed and that it had to be imposed to the exclusion of all others. As if one project was the bearer of all truth about exactly what kind of party should be created and over what time-frame.
The SLP was subjected to a version of this with Arthur Scargill’s ‘me, myself, I’ strategy. The development of the Socialist Alliance was straight-jacketed by the SWP in the first instance and later killed off by the rapid turn to Respect and ‘the united front as a special type’ as war approached. With the SWP gone, Respect itself then refused to countenance the emergence of an RMT led electoral coalition that became TUSC. These types of party projects, dominated by one of the small left parties or very singular individuals to the exclusion of all others, have failed.
The Labour Party has now moved so far to the right that socialists have been provided with yet another opportunity to build a new mass party that can put working class politics at the heart of national politics. In the last three years there have been three significant steps made towards the creation of a new mass socialist party:
First, was the decision by the RMT to back an electoral strategy to the left of Labour – the RMT is a democratic and radical union, and while its break from Labour was forced, its support for an electoral alternative is significant. It should be noted that there are also several trade union leaders of non-Labour affiliated unions who recognize that the space for a new party exists but have yet to be convinced there is a road map to it.
Second has been the capacity of TUSC to get credible votes in local elections (not withstanding some of its poorer votes). A series of three to five per cent plus votes in council by-elections, most recently in Southampton, in spite of the lack of serious organisational infrastructure at either local or national levels and a rather unwieldy name, indicates that the basis for an electoral vehicle for socialism still exists.
Third is the recent call by Ken Loach for the creation of a new mass socialist party (as outlined in his speech to the 11 May Left Unity meeting) that led to the development of the Left Unity project.
So, despite past failures, the idea of a new mass party might now take hold if we are careful enough to think through some past lessons and develop an open strategy to all those who are seeking to build a campaigning alternative to the left of Labour in England and Wales. Put simply, the kind of ‘my way or the highway’ thinking that governed the SLP, Socialist Alliance and Respect has to be abandoned in favour of an approach that I would describe as one of recognising that most of the left are now ‘adversarial allies’ in the formation of a new mass party of the left (a party, in my view, that should be explicitly socialist).
In this regard, the decision by the TUSC Steering Committee to write to Left Unity to request a discussion and the positive response from Left Unity’s National Co-ordination Group is to be welcomed, and could begin the start of a very fruitful process – if each side recognizes the others side’s genuine and legitimate presence in the political process. TUSC and Left Unity should become ‘adversarial allies’ on the path to a new mass party and should openly explore areas of both collaboration and contestation. Neither Left Unity nor TUSC are likely to be the finished article in the short term, nor do they represent the totality of the partners that could be involved, but such a collaboration could have a magnetic effect and draw more forces in.
There are lots of different issues to consider on how, as allies, we might get to our shared destination. Three crucial issues are: who else might be crucial partners in the process? What type of party are we trying to build?; and what role will elections play in the project?
Who are the other partners in the process?
Equally important in this process are the tens thousands of socialist and radial activists who are seeking and alterative to Labour to campaign for. While Left Unity has 8,000 signatures, this just represents just a small percentage of those most likely to be involved in building the critical mass for building a mass party. It is unlikely that rooted trade unionists and community activists will join a project that has any of the traits of previous failures. The vast majority may only come on board if they see the prospect of an approach which is not dominated by a single individual (or individuals) or the far left organizationally or culturally, has a transparent democratic structure that allows multiple points of involvement beyond the local branch, and has a campaigning elan that can break through media indifference and makes the left wing perspective a voice in the mainstream debate.
Another partner, and almost as crucial, are the long standing local socialist and left organizations that have emerged over the last thirty years. To name a few: the Wigan Green Socialists, the Wellingborough Independent Socialists, the Walsall Democratic Left, Lewisham People before Profit; there are others who have held together local networks of socialists in the absence of a reliable national over the last generation – Carlisle, Preston, Leeds and Rugby spring to mind. In this context the local TUSC and Left Unity groups represent only part of the patchwork of local socialist and left organization that will make up the grass roots driving force of a new mass party. No one who does the hard work locally, barring those in the ‘democratic centralist’ organizations, are going to be ‘told’ which body to get behind.
In addition, there are the actually existing small socialist groups. The Socialist Party, who stand in elections in Coventry as ‘Socialist Alternative’ (another part of the local patchwork) and have local groups throughout the country, similarly the SWP, and the smaller International Socialist Network, Socialist Resisistance, the ACI and others
All of these possible partners, alongside Left Unity and TUSC, would like to see the arrival at a mass party of the left in some shape of form over the next decade and, preferably, sooner rather than later. The debate is about how it might be possible to reach that destination.
There seem to me at least four versions of how a new mass party might look:
First, is a ‘broad left’ party that wishes to defend and rebuild the welfare state and is anti-austerity and against neo-liberalism. It is for a society based on equality and justice and against discrimination without raising a flag in support of one type of ideology or another. Respect at its height and its broadest took on this appearance, a sort of ‘small broad party’, (it never reached above 5,000 members) there was even a dash of ‘socialism’ in the mix.
Second, is a recreation of a mass party of labour through an alliance of the trade unions intent on resisting the capitalist offensive. The mass nature of the party is expressed through the affiliation of trade unions that have broken from Labour and want to develop an electoral alternative. This is a federated ‘clause four’ party based on the working class organised in trade unions – so, in the first instance, narrowed to that degree. In essence, this is the TUSC project and an attempt to re-create a new workers’ party with a socialist core.
Third, is a mass socialist party, built across all parts of the working class without privileging one aspect of working class organization over another. Membership would be drawn from the grass roots in communities, anti-capitalist and peace campaigns as well as trade union branches, it would fight for political leadership right to the top of the trade union movement. This party would draw to it all those who wanted a mass democratic, one person one vote socialist organization that would draw all sections of the working class into its orbit and be driven by mass campaigning. The keystone ideology would be socialist but there would self-evidently be a debate about what sort of socialism (just as it is possible to debate what sort of ‘left’).
Fourth, a long held strategy that awaits a cataclysmic split in the Labour Party under the pressures of an economic and social crisis. This strategy seems to me to be so unlikely (irrespective of the hopes vested in trade unions leaders like McCluskey by some) that it should be discounted for the purposes of this article.
The debate over what type of mass party will go on for some time. One matter is clear – none of the exisiting formations can claim to be the immanent crystallization of such a force. In the mean time the fight against capitalism and its latest progenitor, neo liberal austerity, go on. Battles both local and national are raging across the country with each anti-cuts campaign quite rightly trying to build the maximum possible unity against the cut that it is facing. It can make the hackles rise hearing Labour politicians defend their local fire station, while Miliband announces that he will not reverse the Coalition cuts if Labour are in power in 2015, but the strategy of the maximum unity against every cut is correct. The desire for unity against austerity in all its forms produce the enormous turn out at the People’s Assembly, irrespective of the core nature of the project itself. However, whatever the strengths of united campaigns against the cuts, they represent only half the picture in terms of fighting back against the capitalist offensive. In particular they do not answer the government question: what would you do instead? As it stands, and this side of a mass movement that poses the question of power, the only place where the strength of support can be tested for a governmental alternative to capitalism – a government in the interests of the working class – is at the ballot box – and it is this test that offers the possibility of building a space for a mass socialist alternative in the immediate period.
The mass party and the 2014 local and 2015 general election
A clear staging post on the way to a new mass socialist party establishing itself as a permanent feature in the national psyche will be the 2014 local and 2015 general elections. An electoral coalition made up of TUSC, Left Unity, local socialist groups and thousands of independent socialists, as well as the existing far left groups, that stood in over 120 constituencies in 2015, would begin to present itself as a national political alternative for the working class. The seriousness of such a project could draw to it tens of thousands of grass roots militants and campaigners alongside existing leaders of non-Labour affiliated trade unions.
It is possible that the RMT could sponsor candidates as part of a left coalition under the TUSC banner and mobilise its members behind them; in addition, local candidates could call on the branches of other trade unions not affiliated to Labour (eg FBU, POA, NUT, PCS) to support them.
On the ground it might be a patchwork of local alliances depending on local circumstances. Inevitably there would need to be negotiations where more than one probable candidate has backers and we would have to accept that not all negotiations would be successful.
Such an electoral coalition would agree a minimum programme based on a series of demands that would represent a significant step to re-ordering society in the interests of the working class and its allies.
Critically, the coalition would be focussed on a twin track strategy of creating a national media profile and energised local campaigning based on the minimum programme locally, networked through a digital communications strategy. Weeks and days of action based on specific themes would get media leverage and provide a focus for building the electoral bloc in the year before the vote. It would be forward looking and optimistic and reflect the diversity and complexity of the society in which we live.
Now is this possible? No doubt, there would be many difficult and complicated steps along the way, and while Left Unity and TUSC are only part of the mix, a collaboration between them in the 2014 local elections might lay the basis for a wider electoral coalition in 2015. It would demonstrate that although different strategies towards a new mass socialist party exist, it is possible to build a tactical electoral alliance that could bring about the conditions for the birth of that new party. An electoral coalition would begin to express a level of left unity in the interests of the working class that goes beyond any of the particular strategies currently on offer.
Of course, as has been pointed out elsewhere, given the desire to eject the present Coalition from power both 2014 and 2015 will be a tough election campaigns to fight and the results might not be what we want (in my view a median of 5 per cent would be a good result in 2014), but the main question would be have we, as adversarial allies, established the framework for the emergence of a new force on the left of British politics that can take the fight to a probable Lib-Lab coalition? If the answer to that question is yes then a first step to transforming politics in Britain will have been taken.