Britain: Left unity push amid austerity turmoil

May 10, 2013
Ken Loach made an appeal for left unity, which 6000 people have responded to.

The impact of austerity has thrown politics in Britain into turmoil. Both parties of the ruling coalition government — the Conservative Party (Tories) and the Liberal Democrats — lost heavily in municipal elections in England on May 2 to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

The UKIP is a right-wing, populist, anti-immigration party that is pulling all the main parties to the right. Labour’s performance was better but poor, since its answer to austerity is its own brand of austerity and it has pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment.

The left was nowhere in the election — there was nothing to rally the left in the way UKIP rallied the right. This raised again the desperate need for a broad party of the left that can start to do what SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left) has done in Greece: provide a clear anti-austerity platform to which the working class can relate.

SYRIZA has demonstrated that a coalition of forces organised democratically within a single party can win mass support and break the hold of the main establishment parties. Similar parties have been built in several European countries.

Just a few months ago, the prospects for such a party in Britain looked extremely bleak. Yet the space for such a party was not just there, it was growing.

Opportunities squandered

This grim situation, moreover, was entirely self-inflicted. Prime opportunities to build such a party had been squandered over the past 15 years by sectarianism.

This produced a series of damaging splits that seriously undermined the credibility of such a project.

The key factor in each case was internal democracy, or the absence or abuse of it. It revolved around whether these united groups could have a decision-making process independent of the principal far-left group involved, or the principal important individual.

The Socialist Labour Party, which was launched by Arthur Scargill after Tony Blair took control of the Labour Party in 1994, was eventually torn apart by the personal top-down control on which he insisted and his refusal to allow any plurality.

The Socialist Alliance (SA) was launched in 2000. It embraced almost the whole of the far left, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (SP), along with significant forces from the Labour left.

It was split when the SP walked out in opposition to SA being run on the principle of “one member, one vote” at its conferences.

Respect was launched in 2004 after George Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party for opposing the Iraq war. SA dissolved into it.

Respect had wider appeal, particularly among Muslim people radicalised by the war. It was able to get Galloway elected to parliament (the first left-of-Labour MP since the 1940s) and had many municipal councillors elected, mainly in East London and Birmingham.

It was eventually split between the SWP and almost everyone else when the SWP refused relax its grip on the group’s functioning.

Respect “Renewal”, formed from the split with the SWP, was eventually destroyed when Galloway imposed his own top-down control and turned it into a support group for himself. This was despite Galloway spectacularly winning the Bradford West parliamentary by-election in March last year, opening up new opportunities for a broad party.

The far left

Until a few months ago, the prospects for far-left unity had looked equally bleak. The far-left had been dominated for many years by the two biggest groups, the SWP and the SP, with the smaller groups largely squeezed out.

The SP broke the mold and turned outwards when it promoted the early Socialist Alliances in the 1990s. The SWP (the bigger of the two by quite a bit) turned outwards to join SA in 2000 in quite a sharp break with its past isolationism.

This did not last long in either case. The SWP increasingly acted in its own self-interest. After it split Respect, it went back to an isolationist position.

When it came to the struggle against the government’s spending cuts in 2010, these historic divisions within the far left became replicated in a destructive way in the broader movement.

Instead of a single national focus, we ended up with three anti-cuts campaigns: the National Shop Steward Network run by the SP, Unite the Resistance run by the SWP and the Coalition of Resistance, which was established on an open and broad basis.

Dramatic opportunities

Recent developments, however, have dramatically opened up the situation on the left — both at the level of building a broad party to the left of Labour and at the level of far-left unity.

The most dramatic was an appeal for a new broad party of the left issued by Ken Loach on the occasion of the launch of his new film The Spirit of '45. The latest film by the veteran left-wing director is a strong defence of socialist and collectivist ideas — in particular public ownership and services.

Loach’s appeal for a new party of the left was pushed by a website called Left Unity. Within a few days 6000 people had signed up to the appeal.

Since then, the project has moved at a remarkable pace. There are now more than 90 local groups in various stages of formation.

An organising committee has been set up to administer these developments and support local groups. The first national meeting of reps from branches was set for May 11 to agree on the next steps forward.

A conference to launch a new party could take place early next year.

Creating a new broad party will not be easy, given the propensity of the British left to squander such opportunities. There is the legacy of sectarianism left by the previous failures — particularly the actions of the big far-left organisations. But the urgent need is there and it is the best chance for a long time.

There seems to be a general consensus that a new group should be a broad, pluralist, left-of-Labour, anti-austerity party that is not dominated undemocratically by a far-left group. Also, it should be based on individual membership, and not a federation of organisations.

Neither the SWP nor the SP are involved — other than a few people at local level. Nor does it have a big charismatic leader.

Loach will no doubt continue to support the project, but such “big leader” roles are anathema to him. There is no Galloway or Tommy Sheridan (who split the Scottish Socialist Party) type figure.

This can be a disadvantage when it comes to elections. But it also has a positive side, given the havoc that such figures have wreaked in the recent past. It means that the party will have to establish its own reputation by its work.

Far-left regroupment

As far as far-left unity is concerned, the first positive development started when the Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI) emerged in April last year.

It initially came from a split of young people from the Workers Power left group, joining with some people from autonomous backgrounds and others. By the end of the year, they were making an appeal for a more open and democratic form of far-left group.

The second development came when the crisis in the SWP (or a new stage of it) broke into the open in January at the SWP conference. It was sparked by a huge dispute over how sexual harassment allegations were dealt with (or not dealt with).

Soon after the conference, a group of about 200 SWP members resigned over the actions of the SWP leaders in this case.

They formed a grouping called the International Socialist Network (IS Network). It had its first national level meeting on April 13 and invited the ACI and Socialist Resistance (which has supported left unity) to attend as observers and to give greetings.

The decline of the SWP has dramatically shaken up the landscape of the far left and has opened up a new space for far-left realignment.

It is clear the IS Network had a different approach to others who have left the SWP in recent years — dramatically so. There was a remarkably non-sectarian and outward looking atmosphere in the meeting, and the mood was for a more open and democratic model for the far left.

The IS Network is aiming for far-left regroupment and mentioned Socialist Resistance and ACI in this regard.
There was also strong support for Loach’s initiative, which was seen by most speakers as a separate, but equally important, development.

There was a women’s caucus that presented constitutional proposals regarding the protection of women and how to deal with the issue in a different way to the SWP.

A steering group with 50% women was elected. One of the tasks given to the steering group was to organise a Marxist political conference within the next year and to approach Socialist Resistance and the ACI to jointly organise it.

The crisis of the SWP is in any case ongoing and the IS Network firmly expects more groupings to emerge from the SWP under similar conditions. Since then the SWP’s biggest student group has resigned, also calling for a new kind of far-left politics outside the mold of the SWP tradition.

When I gave greetings to the meeting from Socialist Resistance, I strongly welcomed this approach and said that as far as we were concerned we could see no reason why these three organisations should continue as separate organisations.

The first meeting to discuss regroupment was proposed for May 12 — the day after the first national meeting of Left Unity.

This all reflects a profound change taking place on the far left in England, the extent of which is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that by this time next year things are likely to look very different on the far left.

[Alan Thornett is a member of Socialist Resistance. This article is abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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