In the aftermath of the collapse or declining support for recent socialist unity projects in Scotland, England and Wales, and Ireland, there have been renewed discussions throughout these islands about the possibilities of achieving socialist unity.
The negative role of organisations like the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party in the Socialist Alliance, Respect, the Campaign for a New Workers Party, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, Scottish Socialist Party and the United Left Alliance (Ireland) have figured prominently in these discussions.
However, one of the shared features of the Socialist Party and SWP has been to confine their wider united political alliances within social democratic political limits. The Socialist Party, whilst being prepared to use the term ‘socialist’ in its favoured wider political alliances, views its ‘socialism’ as being based on the creation of a Broad Left-led trade union based, Labour Party Mark 2. This is very much a social democratic view, albeit dressed up as ‘socialism’. Where the SWP has more influence, it rejects the use of the term ‘socialist’ altogether, e.g. ‘People Before Profit’, an openly social democratic conception.
Now that we have a Tory government, social democratic nostalgia has gained even wider traction. Danny Boyle took us on a social democratic trip down memory lane, in his Isles of Wonder. Ken Loach’s recent film, The Spirit of ’45, draws upon a lefter version of this social democratic nostalgia. However, the The Spirit of ’45 does not even mention Blair and New Labour’s part in dismantling this social democratic legacy.
Other sections of the Left, including those who have made, or are in the process of making a break with the SWP and SP, have been drawn into the social democratic slipstream. Many argue, in effect, for social democracy today, socialism tomorrow. The RCN has been involved in these debates in Scotland, and has argued against the notion of a social democratic road to socialism.
Ken Loach’s film has inspired the launch of Left Unity in England and Wales on May 11th in London. However, an important division arose at this meeting about whether the current need is for an anti neo-liberal, anti-austerity party, which does not challenge social democratic illusions, or whether we need a specifically socialist organisation.
Nick Wrack of the Independent Socialist Network (http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org) has argued, in one article before, and one after, the Left Unity launch, for the need for a specifically Socialist organisation. This mirrors the debate that is occurring in Scotland. We have posted an edited version of these two articles below.
These are followed by an article by Henry Silke of the Irish Socialist Network (http://irishsocialist.net), which raises questions for the future of socialist unity in Ireland after the collapse of the United Left Alliance.
1. SOCIALIST UNITY IN SCOTLAND
Articles discussing the prospects for socialist unity in Scotland can be found in the no. 21 edition of Frontline at http://www.redflag.org.uk
- A better Scotland is possible and a better Left, Alister Black, Frontline
- Socialist unity – pushing the rock over the hill, Allan Armstrong, RCN
- The SSP and the fight for a better Left in Scotland, Colin Fox
- Left renewal in Scotland – the view from the ISN, Raymond Watt
- Out of the ghetto – why detoxifying the left is the first stage to revival, Cat Boyd and James Foley
2. SOCIALIST UNITY IN ENGLAND AND WALES
A. Let’s get this party started
Building a new socialist party would strengthen the whole of the left by bringing together all those who want a party that challenges Labour from the left, but do not feel inclined to join any on offer at present. No-one should underestimate the difficulties. Over the last 20 years a large scrapyard has been filled with the wreckage of previous failed attempts – the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect.
These projects have failed for a combination of reasons. First is the massive pull of Labour, which persuades lots of working class activists that there is no alternative. Labour must be supported to keep out the Tories. This is a political argument that must be confronted. Voting for the ‘lesser evil’ may keep out the Tories, but will not deliver any prospect of change that benefits Labour voters. Second is the background of 30 years of defeat for the working class in Britain and abroad and the retreat of socialist ideas.
But the more immediate cause of the failure has been down more to the sectarianism of the various socialist groups, who all think they know the path through the woods: a refusal to work together for the greater cause of building a viable party; a lack of democracy and the unaccountability of prominent leaders; a failure to understand that there is no easy way to build such a new party. It will take patience and hard work. All involved will have to have a sense of proportion and perspective. No party can be built without disagreement, argument and dissent. It will take time to establish its own inner life.
Notwithstanding all the obstacles, the objective need for a new party is there for everyone to see. Everything that working class people came to expect in the half-century following the end of World War II is being smashed to pieces – living standards, pensions, access to affordable homes, education and health. In short, the reforms of the welfare state are being wrenched away. And all the main political parties, including Labour, support this. Alongside this savagery comes attack after attack on the most vulnerable in society – the young, the old, the poor, the sick, the disabled, those out of work, those in overcrowded accommodation. All of this is prosecuted with the argument that there is no alternative; that the market dictates and that capitalism is the only possible way of organising the economy.
Socialists argue that there is an alternative. It is to eradicate capitalism and to construct a new society based on need, not profit. Here and now, resistance to austerity is vital, but it is only half of the answer. We need a political response to the economic and social attacks on us. The recent call for a People’s Assembly is to be welcomed, but there is a real danger that it simply becomes a way to drive the anti-austerity vote towards Labour at the next election.
What we need is a political party that not only seeks to resist the attacks now, but also argues for a change in the way that society is organised. Such a political party would have to seek support for its ideas within society. This means standing in elections must be a part of its work. Undoubtedly, the votes it received initially would be generally low. But, as its profile increased and its arguments and policies became better understood, it could begin to make headway. Particularly if Labour forms the government in 2015 and implements austerity policies, such a new party could make significant strides forward. But it is important to try to lay the basis for that now. That is why the self-imposed limitations to growth set by Tusc are disappointing.
There are many socialists active in the Labour Party who argue that it can be won to the ideas of socialism. Whilst I do not agree with them, I wish them well. Socialists inside and outside Labour should collaborate whenever possible on practical issues and to argue for socialist ideas.
The Labour Party has never been a socialist party, but rather an uncomfortable marriage of liberalism and socialism. Ultimately liberalism triumphed completely. But it retains its mass working class support and its trade union links. It is a capitalist party with a working class base and that base has to be won to the ideas of socialism. That is no easy task. And it certainly will not be accomplished in a short time. But the process has to begin.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was an attempt to address some of these issues. It was formed as an electoral coalition to present an alternative at the ballot box. This, in my opinion, was a step in the right direction. The involvement of the RMT transport union in the coalition gave it a greater authority within the trade union movement and beyond.
It should be remembered that it has obtained some good results for a new formation – in 2012 it received 4,792 votes (4.7%) in the Liverpool mayoral election, over 10% in 14 local council elections and more than 5% in a further 39. These have been obtained with few resources and little name recognition, and indicate the possibilities of building an alternative on a much bigger scale.
However, the current model is preventing it from matching up to the possibilities. There is a problem in the fact that Tusc is a coalition created solely for the purpose of standing in elections. This means that it does not participate in its own name in any of the many working class struggles that are taking place in every town and city. It does not participate in the strikes and demonstrations against pension reforms or austerity generally, nor in the campaigns against the bedroom tax, against attacks on the disabled and a hundred other issues.
If Tusc were seen as a stepping stone or a transition towards a new party, then it would have some purpose. But it is increasingly obvious that this is not the case. There have been no developments in that direction. Individual supporters cannot join it. Supporting organisations cannot join it. This leaves the coalition comprising the RMT, the SWP, the SP and a small group of independent socialists organised in the Independent Socialist Network.
It means that the coalition can never significantly increase or expand. The Socialist Party has opposed the participation of Socialist Resistance on the national steering committee and suggested that it reapply when it has 1,000 members. There are no new partners on the horizon. Tusc is therefore condemned to remain at its present size. The consequence of this approach will be that it stagnates and ultimately goes the way of previous projects.
Tusc has no national apparatus and hence no national profile. Some comrades have complained about the lack of media coverage, but this is only to be expected. A small electoral organisation that does not even take itself seriously enough to appoint a press officer cannot really expect to be taken seriously by the media.
The only way that any new alternative organisation or party could force its way into the media is by developing a national profile. That would mean serious interventions in every national and local demonstration, strike, picket line, protest and meeting with leaflets, pamphlets and recruitment literature; a media strategy to promote spokespersons, putting out regular national and local press releases and a serious presence on social media. But primarily the media will only pay attention when this organisation achieves something or does something of significance. They are not going to give us free publicity without good reason.
The current model is based on a misconceived project – certainly as seen by the Socialist Party, which calls for the trade unions to form a new mass workers’ party. This is basically a replication of the formation of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century. The concept is of a workers’ party in which the SP constitutes the socialist wing. Where that leaves all the other socialists is anyone’s guess.
The problem with this concept is, firstly, that we do not need a modern version of the old Labour Party. We need a socialist party. Secondly, the argument that we cannot move to any party formation until the trade union leaders so decide means that we will be waiting a very long time. No such step is going to be taken by any union this side of the 2015 general election and probably not for a long time afterwards. In the meantime, the strategy of sitting tight in Tusc and waiting for another union to break ranks with Labour is simply not good enough.
What we need is those socialists who see the necessity for a new socialist party to come together and to build it from the bottom up. This will be hard, but it is the only way. On the March 1 edition of the BBC’s Question time film director Ken Loach argued that we need a new party of the left – a Ukip of the left, if you like. He has also argued this in a recent interview. We should rally to that call and help make it a reality.
Such a new party should commit itself to ‘defend, extend and transform’. By that I mean that it should be with all struggles to defend past gains, such as the welfare state, the NHS, decent wages and safe working conditions. It should seek to extend those gains wherever possible. In the present economic conditions that would mean mobilising mass, militant action to obtain further concessions. But these campaigns should not be limited to economic issues alone. It should also take up the issues of democracy, civil liberties, war and peace, the media. Thirdly, it should explicitly proclaim that it seeks power in order to fundamentally transform society from the present capitalist system, that benefits only a tiny few, to one based on the democratic common ownership of the resources of society for the benefit of all. That is, it must be a socialist party.
This means the party must have an internationalist outlook and look to work with others, primarily across Europe, to bring about this change. There is no nationalist answer to the crisis we are experiencing.
This party must be completely democratic. There is no prospect of inspiring people to give their time, energy and money to an organisation that only exists at election time, which they cannot join and in which they have no democratic input on questions of policy and activity. It must have members who can democratically participate in the discussion on programme and practice. The members should elect the leadership, who should be accountable to the members.
All of this should be ABC and there is now an urgency to starting the process.
7th March 2013
(for full article see:- http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=1938)
2. Socialism or something less
Let the debate begin
The national meeting of supporters of the Left Unity project on Saturday 11 May 2013 was a significant step towards the formation of a new party. Exactly what sort of party it will be still has to be decided.
Will it be a explicit socialist party, as Ken Loach clearly wants it to be, setting out its aim to create a new form of society based on the democratic, collective ownership of the wealth, natural resources and the means of production – factories, machinery, technology, transport? Or will it be some more vaguely defined ‘party of the left’, a social democratic party that limits its goals to fighting austerity and neo-liberalism but not fundamentally challenging capitalism, as others appear to want?
Will it accept the private ownership of the means of production, with production for profit, or will it fight for a society in which we can all participate in drawing up a democratic plan of production for need?
Now begins a serious period of debate and discussion, which is exactly what Ken Loach called for. So far, over 8,000 have responded to that call.
Such a debate, carried out in a rigorous but comradely manner would show those watching that we are serious about challenging the political status quo.
A serious debate on the nature of our society and how we want to change it would draw in many who are fed up with the existing way of things. Pointing the way forward to a society without exploitation, without rich and poor, in other words, without classes, could attract all those who want to fight for something different.
What is the party for?
Our new party cannot just be against things: against the cuts, against unemployment, against the destruction of the NHS, against tuition fees. It is very difficult to inspire people with a negative. It has to be for something.
A new party starts out with inevitable difficulties. It is small, weak, unknown. It has no purchase in the minds of the nation’s citizens. To begin to change that, the new party will have to be bold and confident in its ideas. In the first instance it will have to organise those who want to build a party against the odds; those with a vision that this new party can become a mass party, with the adherence of millions.
To inspire the pioneers, the party must have some clear guiding principles. Firstly, it must see its task as assisting the working-class in resisting the unprecedented attacks we see on every front. No other party is prepared to do this. Secondly, it must link the daily battles to the overall struggle for a new society, where there is no longer the need for such never-ending defensive battles.
The need for a new party that fights on behalf of and alongside working-class people, who face attacks on every front, is obvious. None of the existing parties represent the interests of the working class. Labour has abandoned any attempt to defend its traditional supporters. The working class is ignored, forgotten or taken for granted.
Perhaps the second point – the struggle for a new society – is less obvious. But so long as we have capitalism – the rule of the minority owning class – we will have exploitation and class division; we will have rich and poor, them and us. So long as we have capitalism we will have to defend what we have previously won. We will have to labour for others’ profit. That struggle will go on until we are able to change things fundamentally.
The Greek king Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a huge boulder up a hill every day, only for it to roll back down when he neared the top, forcing him to begin again each sunrise. Our task is to push the boulder over the top; to build a party that is an integral part of the working class and which aims to assist the working class to become the ruling class, in getting rid of capitalism and of laying the basis for a new stage in human existence, where every individual can develop to their fullest potential.
So, those of us who have taken up the challenge have our work cut out. Our goal is nothing less than the transformation of the way the world is run. It will not be easy or quick. It will take patience and hard work. But the rewards will be wonderful. There is no short-term quick-fix.
Our ideas may be a minority at the moment, but with confidence we can persuade a majority. By being involved in every aspect of working-class life and struggle – at work, in the community, at college, in retirement, in culture and sports – we can show that our party is worthy of support. Linking that daily struggle to the cause of socialism can only strengthen its appeal.
21st May 2013
(for full article see:- http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=2148#comment-84801)
3. SOCIALIST UNITY IN IRELAND
AFTER THE UNITED LEFT ALLIANCE – WHAT COMES NEXT
Lately there has been a re-alignment of sorts on the Irish Left. The still-born United Left Alliance didn’t live up to its early potential after winning five seats in the 2011 election. Those seats were won by long-serving political activists after decades of work; indeed, two of the successful candidates were former TDs. Yet there was a certain excitement surrounding the alliance and openness towards it far beyond its component parts.
The main components of the ULA were the Socialist Party and the People Before Profit Alliance. The PBPA is itself a coalition dominated by the Socialist Workers’ Party, although a substantial group within the PBPA was organized around Joan Collins, an ex-SP member who was elected to the Dáil in 2011. The third main founding organization was the Tipperary-based Workers and Unemployed Action Group, which had an impressive local electoral base.
What went wrong? Within two years, both the WUAG and the SP had walked away from the ULA. Clare Daly, the second SP TD, had resigned from her party, prompting a lengthy and acrimonious media campaign against her by her ex-comrades. The SWP, while nominally still affiliated, have long since abandoned the project and re-launched People Before Profit as a direct rival. There were many problems which we do not have time to go into here but in short the ULA never developed towards a party structure, which made it a very brittle when put under any pressure. When a scandal broke involving Mick Wallace—a developer turned TD who avoided tax and workers’ pension payments and was close to the SP’s Clare Daly—the ULA was not able to withstand it.
But the underlying structural problems long preceded the Wallace affair. The SP believed—very early on—that the ULA hadn’t attracted enough members and opposed any movement towards it becoming a party. It seemed to attach no value to the uniting of the left (including unaffiliated leftists) under a political banner. While happy to keep the ULA going solely as a loose electoral alliance, the SP all but abandoned on-the-ground ULA work. There is a chicken-and-egg problem here as the SP didn’t want to move towards a party until enough people joined, while at the same time fewer people were likely to join—and in fact many left—due to the ULA not progressing. For their part the SWP soon became frustrated when they realized they didn’t have the level of control they were accustomed to.
ULA decision-making processes didn’t include the rank-and-file of either SP or SWP who had no voice on the steering committee bar the usual leadership figures (who don’t generally include the membership in decision-making outside annual conference). Only the independents had elected representation on the steering committee. Meanwhile, the sectarian culture between the two main groups did not change at all. Every issue—even a major EU referendum—had rival campaigns and meetings: one by the ULA, one by the SP and one by the SWP, with the ULA ironically being the poor cousin of the other two.
The remaining forces inside the ULA are attempting to salvage something by creating a United Left pole which will involve Clare Daly and Joan Collins, Declan Bree’s Sligo activist group, the Irish Socialist Network, Socialist Democracy and the few remaining independents. Their aim is to work towards building a multi-tendency broad-left political party in the here and now. The structures of the United Left are extremely democratic on paper, though there is still an issue about the autonomy of the two TDs. Only practice will tell if the branch structures and council will work.
A second, more political problem is the question of Dáil alliances. Both Collins and Daly have worked closely with Mick Wallace and another TD, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. Wallace has little credibility due to his tax avoidance. Recently the four TDs—with the help of police whistle-blowers—launched a campaign to expose the fact that the great and good in Ireland were being excused from driving penalty points in a corrupt fashion. Yet it soon emerged that Luke Flanagan himself had been excused on two separate occasions. Alliances with discredited TDs will merely impede the growth of the United Left amongst present and potential activists.
17th May 2013
(Henry Silke is a member of the ULA’s Dublin Central branch)
(This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Resistance, the bulletin o)f the Irish Socialist Network