TIME TO UNITE AND CAMPAIGN ON KEY ISSUES FACING WORKING PEOPLE
Colin Fox at STUC anti-cuts demo
Colin Fox is the joint convener of the Scottish Socialist Party. In this article he looks at the impact of the most serious crisis of capitalism since the 1930’s and issues a rallying call for resistance.
Working people in Scotland are being hammered by the neo-liberal policies of the four establishment parties. We face brutal cuts in our living standards and in the public services we depend upon. We face increased unemployment when indebtedness is already at unprecedented levels. We face house prices rising beyond our reach, exploitation at work at a level our parents generation would not have tolerated, fees for education that further exclude working class people from the professions and retirement into penury. Add to this Britain’s bloody occupation of Afghanistan which makes the world a much more dangerous place for our children and the consequences of these neo-liberal policies are painfully clear. The class struggle is being fomented day in and day out in workplaces and communities throughout the country. So, don’t let anyone tell you the people of Scotland don’t need a left wing alternative.
The end of ‘the end of history’
For socialists the current economic crisis offers a perfect opportunity to expose the view that modern capitalism has become benign, or that it has magically cured the inherent instability, greed, exploitation and anarchy of the markets. All this is exposed by the 2007 financial collapse. The twenty years of economic growth in Britain was based on nothing more ‘magical’ than prolonged and unsustainable borrowing. The ideological ‘triumph’, which Francis Fukuyama famously posited back in 1992 in his book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’,1 looks irredeemably dated today. Fukuyama concluded that following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe ‘Capitalism [or ‘liberal democracy’ as he preferred to call it] is the only coherent political aspiration left’ adding’….there are no serious ideological competitors to liberal democracy…it is the most rational form of government’ and he emphatically concluded that it ‘meant an end to imperialism, bloody wars and revolution’. How ridiculous such comments look after the financial collapse, the rejection of neo-liberalism in much of Latin America and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This article does not intend to go back over the many failed predictions of political scientists like Fukuyama but it is important to recognise that his conclusions became the ideological touchstone of all 4-establishment parties in Scotland. The increased exploitation of this ‘liberal democracy’ led to unheard of inequalities, to the pauperisation of billions across the world and the collapse of the post war social democratic consensus which had introduced far reaching reforms such as public ownership, universal health care, welfare benefits and educational provision all paid for out of the profits of the bosses and the taxes of workers. That period of reformism is now over. We are now in a prolonged period of capitalist decline, a counter reformism if you will where the previous gains working people won are being withdrawn.
In recent weeks the ‘faux admiration’ expressed by, what may be described as, the ‘commentariat’ in Britain for ‘French methods of protest’ against the austerity package of President Sarkozy in contrast it is suggested to the allegedly more ‘conservative’ traditions of Britain, overlooks two important facts. First the French ‘Liberation settlement’ of 1945 guaranteed employment rights and wide-ranging social benefits in France and these still reach deep into their culture and social order. These benefits remain hugely important to the French people. It was the left, the Communist Party in particular, having led the resistance to the Nazi puppet Government in Vichy France – a government the French bourgeoisie largely collaborated with – that dictated the terms of this far-reaching ‘settlement’. These gains went further than those won in Britain and have been fiercely defended in France ever since.
The second mistake made by the ‘commentariat’ was to pedal the myth that such spirited resistance is an alien phenomenon in British society. It was particularly remiss of the left wing comedian Mark Steel on BBC Radio Four to talk up such a falsehood. He surely has not have forgotten the fantastic poll tax rebellion characterised not just by mass protests on the streets but more importantly by a mass non payment campaign where 16 million people refused to pay. There have of course been many others similarly inspiring revolts in Britain, the miners strike, the anti-war protests and environmental direct action campaigns all spring readily to mind.
The collapse of financial capital in 2007 is not as abject as the 1990’s collapse of communism but it is nonetheless profound. And it offers socialists the chance to rebut claims of capitalist ‘triumph’ and to explain there is a better way to run the banks, the economy and wider society, one that is fairer, more progressive and sustainable. The widespread re-examination of the role of the so called ‘free-market’ which is now taking place in many quarters of society offers new opportunities for the left to articulate the socialist case afresh. Those of us who believe there is a better way to run the world than the misnamed ‘liberal democracy’, which is in truth neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘democratic’ can show that working people have an enormous amount to gain from a socialist plan of production allied to democratic control of all the key institutions.
It is also important to remember that in Scotland today the left still enjoys majority support on the fundamental issues of our time. The population, suffering at the hands of neo-liberal economic policy, has not lost faith in socialist ideas. I spend every Saturday afternoon testing out this theory on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Together with a handful of other SSP activists in the city we have for years now been petitioning the public on key issues such as the war in Afghanistan, public spending cuts and public ownership of industry. Our petitions continue to enjoy mass support. What is particularly noticeable is that the most class conscious in the population are angry with politicians and bosses they feel exploit them and live on ‘easy street’ compared to everyone else.
There is a particular opportunity now for the left to capitalize on the widespread opposition to public sector cuts. All four neo-liberal parties say the cuts are inevitable and recommend severe budgetary reductions of one kind or another. The left can tap into the alternate view that the cuts are unnecessary and intrinsically unfair since they affect the most vulnerable worst of all. The bankers, responsible for the financial collapse, apparently get to walk away from the crisis they caused in the plans of all four parties.
The character of the cuts we can expect from the CON-DEM government will be vicious and painful. Take the Blindcraft factory in Craigmillar, Edinburgh’s poorest district, for example. Here’s a factory that has manufactured beds for over 200 years. It employs 70 people with visual impairment and other disabilities. The City of Edinburgh Council aims to withdraw the funding it provides to keep the company afloat. (Don’t forget to sign the petition to keep it open2). So dozens of people with disabilities will see their standard of living, quality of life and future job prospects disappear ultimately as a consequence of the reckless, greedy decisions taken by bankers in richer parts of the city.
The cuts package announced by George Osborne involves sacking 500,000 public sector workers and attacking the pension rights of millions, among them BBC staff. The National Union of Journalists at the Corporation have rightly gone on strike to halt such attacks.
Octobers impressive protest march through Edinburgh organised by the STUC offers further evidence of the strength of feeling trades unionists in Scotland feel towards the threat of job losses and pay cuts. It remains to be seen of course whether the STUC’s opposition amounts to much more than talk but the anger of union members is perfectly clear. There is a real risk of course that the STUC will eventually offer nothing more than advice to ‘wait for a Labour Government’ unless an alternative left strategy emerges to make it do otherwise. But many workers will inevitably ask ‘why should we wait for Labour? We’ve just had 13 years of a useless Labour Government and Milliband supports half the cuts the Tories suggest!’
So where stands the left today? It seems a long time ago since 2003 when the SSP won 6 seats at Holyrood and 135,000 votes. One of the most important factors in our success was our opposition to the illegal war in Iraq. Although not an issue the Scottish Parliament had any jurisdiction over – or even the opportunity to debate - the issue nonetheless played a huge part in deciding the outcome of those elections and in our success. Today Britain’s is mired in another senseless military operation in Afghanistan. The two conflicts are not the same and the opposition is different it’s true. The failure to stop the war in Iraq despite massive public opposition explains why the protests against the occupation in Afghanistan are smaller. But one important political factor is the same and that’s the SSP’s attitude, which stands again in stark contrast to the position of the four establishment parties.
The Afghan people are courageously resisting an occupation that began almost a decade ago. More than 50,000 innocent Afghan civilians have been killed since Tony Blair and George Bush ordered their illegal invasion. The euphemistically named International Security and Assistance Force [ISAF] was assembled in 2002 and sent in, so we were told, because Afghanistan was responsible for 9/11. Of course not a single Afghan was involved in those attacks. The illegal invasion has over 9 years become a hugely unpopular occupation both in Afghanistan and in both Britain and the USA. Afghans resist it in their millions. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned this month3 that it was ‘impossible’ for Britain and USA to win, as they didn’t understand the nature of the conflict and have completely alienated those sections of Afghan society they needed to win over. Britain’s indefensible occupation of the world’s second poorest country will end in military defeat just as it did in the previous two invasions in the 19th century and just as it did for the Soviets. Back channel talks with the Taliban leadership have been taking place for 2 years now as US Imperialism desperately tries to disengage without losing face. Here at home all the polls show a sizeable majority opposed to the occupation with most seeing it as a war Britain cannot win. Afghanistan is already a serious reversal for British Imperialism and the consequences of defeat will be profound.
But here’s the rub. Afghanistan will only be an issue in the Holyrood elections if we can make it one. The Westminster General election campaign earlier this year showed how the four warmongering parties would not even talk about it because they agree with one another. They all support Britain’s military aggression to the hilt. For the SSP by contrast Afghanistan remains a dishonourable war. The lives of millions of innocent Afghans are at stake and those of thousands of young Scots soldiers too who find themselves economically conscripted to fight in a dishonourable conflict in order to put food on the table back home.
The political centre of gravity of the majority of Scots is well to the left of all four establishment parties. They are for example, against the war in Afghanistan, in favour of replacing the Council tax with a income based alternative, in favour of public ownership of our railways and public transport network, against Trident, against PPP/PFI programmes, in favour of wealth redistribution and measures designed to combat child poverty and against cuts in public services. The challenge for the left is therefore to bundle this support together into a coherent programme with an understandable and popular narrative.
Moving the Left Forward
But the left’s lack of representation at Holyrood these past 4 years has meant working people have had no voice. The opportunities to champion the socialist message have been few and far between. Like it or not both the media and the wider Scottish public do not give our views the same weight as they did when we had elected members. Our socialist message is simply not being heard. This is a crucial issue for the left to address. If as Marx rightly concluded ‘Philosophers have [only] interpreted the world. The point however is to change it’ the forces of change in Scotland have been voiceless and working people and the poor had suffered as a result of the lefts splits and political defeats. Consequently working people across Scotland will continue to suffer as we punch below our collective strength easily outmanoeuvred by the parties of the right.
So how do we move forward? The Scottish road to socialism may not end at Holyrood but it certainly goes through it. If the organised left in Scotland is to win seats at next years Scottish Parliament elections we have to honestly assess where we stand. The left inside the Labour Party are without influence and unable to change the direction of a party that has been hijacked by neo-liberal, warmongering opportunists like Blair, Mandelson, Brown and Milliband. New Labour apparatchiks are more interested in personal wealth for themselves than changing the world for the benefit of the underprivileged and the exploited. At least the left outside the Labour Party has no damaging association with the illegal war in Iraq, the heinous occupation of Afghanistan, the viciously destructive neo-liberal economic policies of a government which embraced privatisation, the unfettered greed of the free market, the Westminster expenses scandal and complicity in the banking crash.
On the other hand we, outside the Labour Party, are not ‘associated’ with popular support either. Repeated electoral failures testify to that. We appear incapable of mobilising the majority support we enjoy on a host of single issues into a wider cohesive political support. Not since the Scottish Socialist Party’s historic success in the Holyrood elections of 2003 where we secured 6 seats and garnered 135,000 votes for a clear socialist programme has the left had much to cheer in electoral terms.
The mood of working people is far closer to our way of thinking than might first appear even on electoral terms. We need to win back the trust of people who we let down by our ‘absence’.
Rebuilding the SSP
The SSP must be rebuilt. We are probably weaker now as a political force in Scotland than when we started in 1998. On the other hand we have come through an appalling political episode and are still the biggest organised force on the left in Scotland today. Those who wished to take this mantle from us had ample opportunity and yet they failed. Who would have predicted after ten years we would conclude that Tommy Sheridan has done more damage to the socialist cause than any good he ever did it. But it’s true!
Notwithstanding this damaging setback there are strong signs of better times ahead for the left. In September an Edinburgh City Council by-election was held in the Liberton/Gilmerton ward. The result provided compelling evidence of the huge electoral potential that might exist for a united left candidate in such areas in future. The Labour landslide victory was entirely expected. The contest was precipitated by the election of the sitting Labour Councillor to Westminster as the Edinburgh South MP. The election campaign was dominated as they increasingly are by national political issues with the electorate particularly focused on opposition to the Tories and their new coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. The SNP vote collapsed (In 2007 they topped the poll, in Sept they got just 19% of the vote). The SSP vote was poor too at just 2.5% (although double the vote we got in 2007) despite running a creditable campaign delivering three quality leaflets to all 12,000 houses. However the most revealing aspect of the result, which will have been noticed by all parties, concerned the distribution of transfers. Whereas the SSP won just 170 1st preference votes compared to Labours 3,000 we received more than 740 Labour 2nd preferences. We ‘won’ twice as many as the next largest ‘beneficiaries’ the SNP. This outcome poses several issues. First, if as everyone anticipates, Labour wins most seats at Holyrood next year and these are principally from ‘first past the post’ contests the implications for the regional list seats are significant. If the Liberton/Gilmerton result reflects a sentiment widely held by voters across the Lothians and we are able to persuade them to give us their 2nd vote we are in with a shout next May. Our key election message must be ‘The SSP is the Left alternative to Labour and the SNP so give us your second/list vote’.
Clearly this is all predicated on there being one left candidate. Uniting the left in Scotland today is clearly easier said that done. The damage that Sheridan’s case has inflicted should not be underestimated and has undermined initiatives to unite the left around a common programme and strategy. The court case was the ‘elephant in the room’ as some called it that crippled all recent unity endeavours. However, now that the trial is moving towards its conclusion those honest initiatives to unite the broadest possible left coalition can get under way and attract fuller attention. The best prospect of success might lie in convening a ‘Scottish Convention of the Left’ to which all interested groups and individuals are invited. A similar UK wide initiative in 2008 taken at a UK level offered a place for everyone to examine how the left might work together in common purpose and enjoyed a degree of success. Such a Scottish event might well act as a stimulus for honest and open debate and further the process of rebuilding the left. The opportunity to come together and discuss joint campaigning work over a weekend could enlist the assistance of those principled left figures held in the widest respect by all sections of the socialist movement. People like Michael Moore, Joe Glenton, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, John Pilger, Tony Benn, Tariq Ali and Ken Loach might be willing to help the building process. Such a weekend event early in 2011 might also for example include workshop sessions on a variety of potentially ‘thorny’ issues before finally offering the chance to examine what had been made and what further progress can be made.
The 2011 Holyrood elections are round the corner. They might be upon us before the unity project really get sunder way but we might be able to examine the possibility of avoiding a clash of left candidates. Even in the Westminster General election such clashes were largely avoided. It is perhaps too early to hope for much more at this stage. But the project itself holds a great many potential rewards.
In the meantime the SSP has to recruit the many new members expressing an interest and to integrate them into the party. That remains our most important task, as ever.
1. Francis Fukuyama ‘The End of History and the last man’ 1992
3. Daily Telegraph, 27/10/2010 Mikhail Gorbachev: victory in Afghanistan is ‘impossible’.