frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008
There have been many developments on the left in England in the last year, many of them backwards steps such as the split in Respect and the failed leadership bid of Labour left-winger John McDonnell. What is really happening on the ground can be hard to see from a distance. In this article Danny McGowan, a Scottish socialist who moved to Liverpool in 2001, gives his personal perspective on the left in England.
Driving into Liverpool after you leave the M62, the main route from the east, and you pass by a mile of boarded up terraced houses. This being the ‘Liverpool 08 capital of culture’ year though, the boards have been painted with psychedelic colour schemes, just in case you forgot for a second that the whole thing was anything more than window dressing.
Like Glasgow was in 1990 – and remains today - Liverpool is a city of high deprivation. That isn’t going to change this year, even if local people generally like to celebrate the place and welcome comparisons with ‘working class’ cities like Glasgow. I moved here from Scotland in autumn 2001 and this is simply my own experiences of political adjustment, but I hope it may be of interest to people interested in the English left and those who also find themselves in similar situations.
In the 2006 local council elections 6 separate organisations to the left of Labour stood in various wards across Merseyside: Respect; The United Socialist Party (TUSP); ‘Socialist Alternative’ (The electoral name of The Socialist Party/CWI); The Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA); The Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and The Communist Party of Britain (CPB). It was as embarrassing as it was confusing. Fortunately they managed, in the main to avoid standing against each other but none came close to winning a council seat and all appear even less likely now.
As an SSP member the obvious thing to do when I first moved down here was to gravitate to the local Socialist Alliance (SA, the equivalent left unity project. At the time the main groups involved where The Merseyside Socialists, who had broken from their former Militant comrades now called The Socialist Party (CWI), who themselves soon walked out after the SWP joined. The Merseyside Socialists where experienced activists in the city influenced by the politics of the SSP, and sought to move beyond factionalism and establish the politics of doing things by consensus. Unfortunately there was not a consensus for consensus from the SWP, and the meetings I attended tended to polarise around their differences
The SA was still a step forward and did have potential but when the mass anti-war protests broke out the SWP was instructed to drop it and build the ‘revolutionary party’ instead. And then they claimed the SA had failed to relate to the anti-war movement as justification for ditching it and setting up Respect! What’s left calling itself the SA is now miniscule. Organisations supportive of the SSP in England, like Socialist Resistance, are generally really tiny and have no local members. Respect Renewal has yet to organise anything here either.
Respect itself was initially given a huge boost with the election victory of George Galloway in Bethnal Green. Like many left wing celebrities he got a huge audience at his first public meeting in Liverpool afterwards. Even more impressive was the attendance at the following week’s activist meeting, which suggested it really was pulling wider layers back into active politics.
Standing in Toxteth, however, in the 2006 council election’s still remains the only time Respect has contested an election on Merseyside. Racism is significant in Liverpool and its black community has historically being ghettoised into this area. Respect came third with a decent vote. However with a good local candidate and a high level of resources put into the campaign they appeared to be disappointed with this result. After the elections their candidate was attacked leaving a club, apparently by local thugs. Without following up on the electoral work it appeared difficult to find anyone else to stand in the area and the chance to build a real presence was lost.
As in most places without an independent base of radicalised Muslims, only the most easygoing activists outside the SWP were able to tolerate being in an organisation dominated by them. Many of the independent socialists in Respect had previously been active in the SLP, which nowadays has just enough members left to carry its banner on demonstrations. The SWP itself has never been sizable in Merseyside and only really involve themselves as peace activists in anti-war work now.
Liverpool’s socialist politics are most widely associated with the period in the 1980’s when the Militant influenced Labour Party ran the city council and briefly stood up to Thatcher’s government. A group of 47 Councillors who were later expelled and surcharged for their stance still exist to defend their legacy, which is routinely depicted in the local media as a source of embarrassment http://www.liverpool47.org/.
However the SP/CWI, successors of the Militant, are like the SWP these days, literally reduced to a handful of activists. Their only good electoral result in recent times has been a few years back in Netherton, Bootle, with over 25% of the vote after local campaigning against an open cast dump. Their main initiative, the ‘Campaign fo