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A Better Scotland is Possible… and a Better Left

Young people on anti-Trident demo
Young people on anti-Trident demo

Frontline hosted a meeting recently which brought together socialists from different backgrounds to look at the question of building left unity in Scotland. In this article Frontline editor Alister Black reflects on the challenges ahead.

As Mayday came around, socialists took to the streets to celebrate international workers day, to campaign against Tory austerity, for international solidarity and for a better world. In Scotland Mayday had another significance this year as it marked 500 days until the referendum on Scottish independence. The referendum has energised activists and is increasingly the context in which protest exists within. The Mayday march in Edinburgh saw a big contribution by independence campaigners following on from similar displays at the Bedroom Tax and anti-Trident demos. Homemade placards can be seen at all these events with the same message – things could be better in an independent Scotland.

The Scottish left is overwhelmingly pro-independence.  At the same time there is an understanding that things will not automatically get better if we replace the union flag with the saltire. Change in favour of working people has to be fought for. To achieve change we have to be organised and we have to be united. The Scottish Socialist Party achieved a real step forward for left politics ten years ago when it united most of the Scottish left, built branches across the country and had six members elected to the Scottish Parliament. The SSP succeeded in pulling Scottish politics to the left – elements of the SSP programme such as free prescriptions were taken up by the SNP administration and enacted into law. An effective and united left can pose a real challenge and make a real difference to the lives of working class people in Scotland.

A Tale of Two Cities

Left politics in Scotland is in a very fluid state. The success of the Radical Independence Campaign in bringing the left together is one side of this. The other side is long term activists leaving their parties, of splits and new formations and sometimes of people dropping out of politics altogether. The last issue of Frontline detailed some of these trends. Since it was written we have seen a formal split in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) with a new group the International Socialist Network (ISN) being formed. Other SWP dissidents remain in the party to fight their corner, for now.

Activists in Edinburgh have been able to work together in increasingly cooperative ways. Radical Independence in Edinburgh hosted the biggest rally of RIC’s ‘Peoples Assembly’ tour with 150 packing in to hear speakers and debate. Recent branch meetings have seen crowds of 50 turn up and have been full of enthusiasm, plans are underway to launch local branches across the city. It was RIC in Edinburgh who organised a hugely succesful protest against UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s visit to the city, which brought dozens out on the streets with just a couple of hours notice and made virtually every front page of the national press the following day.

In Glasgow, by contrast, the atmosphere has been described as toxic with conflict arising over the attempt by Tommy Sheridan to make a comeback in Scottish politics on the back of the campaign against the bedroom tax with the help of elements of the SWP. The fallout of the SWP rape scandal has also led to some bitter confrontations.

Is Left Unity Possible?

It was against this background that Frontline organised a fringe meeting at SSP conference which asked ‘is left unity possible in Scotland?’ The SSP conference itself had set a positive tone by passing a motion which called on the party to look into the possibility of a broad left platform for the European elections in May 2014.

Thirteen people attended from five different groups. These were the SSP, including co-spokesperson Colin Fox, the ISG, the ISN, the Republican Communist Network (RCN) and some who were still members of the SWP. The discussion was comradely and participants are to be congratulated for having the courage to come together to discuss these issues.

The meeting was addressed by Gregor Gall, a member of the Frontline editorial board and also an SSP member and by Pete Ramand of the International Socialist Group (ISG). Both outlined the position the left found itself in and the opportunity of the current period for building unity.

Firstly there was general agreement that there is no real programmatic difference between the groups, or at least in the broad demands they would put forward. There was a recognition that the division of the left was unsustainable and that some sort of renewal of the left, drawing on the spirit of the Radical Independence Conference was the way forward.

 Identifying issues

The speed, scale and feasibility of unity were areas where differences could be seen. For the ISG and most likely the ISN, the sooner this can be achieved the better. The ISG made clear that they saw themselves as a temporary formation who would be happy to dissolve into a broader group. The ISN perspective seemed to be that left unity was one of their key priorities. This is certainly supported by their activity in England where they have been in talks with Socialist Resistance and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and have oriented towards the new Left Unity formation.

However many speakers, particularly from the SSP, were concerned that we needed to make sure we did not repeat the mistakes of the past. After all the SSP had formed as a party of left unity, but despite all the constitutional safeguards in place, that unity was wrecked by the split. How, they argued, could we trust those who had taken part in this split without a full accounting for what took place?

Similarly the RCN emphasised the need for a political balance sheet to be drawn up of events – something they argued had not been sufficiently done by either side.

 Learning Lessons

Of course as well as the negative lessons of the SSP split it is also important to assess the positive aspects and learn the lessons of how the SSP built. The SSP was able to capture tens of thousands of votes and gain six seats in parliament as well as building dozens of branches across Scotland and attracting the best working class militants to its ranks, including affiliation from the likes of the RMT and Lothians postal workers. It was to the fore in every arena of working class struggle.

The party did not materialise out of thin air or because some of us thought it was a good idea. It emerged from the mass struggle against the poll tax, a struggle which had a positive effect on one of the key groups who led it, Scottish Militant Labour (SML). SML began a process of working with those allies it had encountered in the poll tax struggle. It formed the Scottish Defiance Alliance to campaign against the Criminal Justice Act, and organise illegal protests against it. This group encompassed everyone from anarchists and radical greens to community groups and the Marxist left.

The Defiance Alliance led to the creation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Not everyone stayed on board for this development and some who did remained distrustful of the intentions of SML. Relations between groups in the early stages could be antagonistic. It was a process of working together in campaigns, in elections and in meetings and discussions which began to overcome this distrust.

Trust remains a key issue in building left unity today. Activists from all sides need to demonstrate in practical terms that they have rejected the methods of the past, the methods of cynically using struggles as nothing more than an opportunity to recruit to their own brand of socialism, or of building party-front type organisations.

This is not to say that there should not be open debate and discussions about our differences. Far better to have an open and honest discussion than to hide our differences or rely on back-room maneuvers. Building unity is a process and not something we can simply declare.

 Next steps

Some meetings have already been hosted by the RCN and these are likely to continue with a broader range of participants. The ISN also stated that they intend to host meetings on the subject and would be inviting participants

Frontline is happy to play its part in this process and we are glad that many of the organisations and individuals involved have offered their perspectives for this issue of Frontline.

There is a long way to go and different views regarding the way forward. However there are some key events coming up.  The SSP conference passed a motion calling for a broad left slate for the 2014 European elections. This could be a rallying point for the next stage in rebuilding a serious socialist force in Scotland.

The SSP and the fight for a Better Left in Scotland

Colin Fox on Edinburgh Mayday march 2013
Colin Fox on Edinburgh Mayday march 2013

Scottish Socialist Party co-spokesperson Colin Fox reflects on the lessons of the rise of the SSP and the way forward for the Scottish left today.

I attended the Frontline fringe meeting on ‘The prospects for Left unity’ at the Scottish Socialist Party conference in Edinburgh recently and enjoyed listening to Gregor Gall (SSP) and Pete Ramand (ISG) outline the issues facing us. Whilst nothing new arose from the discussion it nonetheless offered a chance to examine the issues afresh with representatives from the SWP, ISG and ISN. So I welcome this further opportunity to calmly consider the position facing those of us committed to building a broad based, mass socialist party in Scotland.

Looking at the left in Scotland today reminds me of Tony Benn’s observation, offered to me as a young socialist some 30 years ago, ‘there are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists.’

In this article I look at the current situation, the lessons of previous successes, the type of programme and model of unity we need, the impediments to unity and offer suggestions on how progress might nonetheless be made, and last but not least, I consider the views some have presented about abandoning the need for a party altogether. Inevitably an article like this can only scratch the surface of this debate, but I offer it nonetheless.

SSP Success

Before I consider all those issues however I feel compelled to focus this discussion on one incontrovertible truth, the Scottish Socialist Party remains the most successful Left unity model in post war Scottish history. That fact seems to be lost on many people, not least those former SSP ‘comrades’ subsequently blinded by their desire to bury us. I would respectfully suggest that instead of writing off the SSP they might be better served studying why we succeeded and what lessons are to be learned from that early experience. No student serious about this discussion would surely dispute that such an exercise offers a treasury of valuable information?

The SSP’s emergence in 1998/9 was no accident. Rather it was the result of a strategic political decision and a lengthy process of deliberation, discussion and agreement. Scottish Militant Labour, the project’s driving influence, began making overtures to others on the anti-capitalist Left in Scotland in 1995/6 about the possibility of a political realignment. This realignment would give voice to substantial sections of the Scottish working class who felt disenfranchised by Labour’s historic lurch to the right. Contact was sought and made with like-minded comrades from the Labour Left, the SNP Left (gathered around Liberation magazine), the Communist Party of Scotland, trade union activists, intellectuals, peaceniks, direct action environmental campaigners and many non-aligned socialists across Scotland. Agreement was reached on a substantial political programme based on shared anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro public ownership policies and not least a pro-Independence programme and to enlist SML’s skills base, its finances, its elected representatives, its full time organisers, its weekly newspaper [Scottish Socialist Voice] and its membership to help launch the Scottish Socialist Alliance. We had been heavily involved in campaigns like the Liverpool Dockers Support Group, the Hands off our Water campaign, the Glacier Metals dispute on Glasgow’s Southside and we had worked well together on single issues. Through this Alliance we achieved a remarkable degree of political unity, cohesion and trust around a programme that enjoyed the support of everyone on most key issues. Where there was discord on policy, such as Ireland, we agreed to ‘park’ those debates for the time being having reached the maximum consensual agreement possible.

On top of this programmatic unity we built organisational strength and trust by adopting a groundbreaking constitution which included a series of clauses based on a pluralist and democratic model. Comrades from SML, for example, recognising the need to display unity and respect in action as much as in words, suggested all platforms, tendencies and groups should have equal voting rights regardless of their numerical strength. This was an important commitment designed to emphasise the politically pluralist nature of the new alliance and build the necessary understanding, trust and respect between all the groups involved.

The undoubted success of the SSA – modest at first – developed into the Scottish Socialist Party. This crucial step from a loose alliance to a tighter party was deemed necessary if we were to win a seat in the inaugural Holyrood elections of 1999. We felt this victory was within our reach and we saw the huge electoral opportunity it offered in gaining further political credibility and mass popular support.

Of course not everyone on the Left joined in this left unity project. The Socialist Labour Party of Arthur Scargill for example rejected the idea as they did not support Independence and also opposed the ‘bottom up’ democratic structure of the new party preferring a powerful hegemonic role for Scargill instead. They were nonetheless an important part of the Left in Scotland at that time and went on to stand against the SSP in the 1999 Holyrood elections. Despite polling more votes across Scotland they did not win any seats. Had there been one left candidate in each region we would have won 5 socialist MSP’s.

The Socialist Workers Party also dismissed the SSA/SSP project out of hand. In fact the SWP denounced the SSP as ‘reformist’ and ‘nationalist’ because we called for an independent socialist Scotland. Whereas until recently they have been ambivalent on the issue of Independence at that time they opposed it. They preferred to call for a vote for Labour in 1997. ‘Vote Labour and build a socialist alternative’ was their slogan as we in the SSA were building that very ‘alternative’. To be fair they did change their minds when the SSP won a seat at Holyrood and tripled our membership in the 12 months following.

The SSP continued to operate on this pluralist basis with an unparalleled democratic constitution unmatched anywhere else on the left. We enshrined open platform rights for all registered tendencies including the newly joined SWP with branches meeting fortnightly, elected Regional Committees, a quarterly National Committee and an annual delegate Conference whose decisions were sovereign.

We built the SSP inside and outside Parliament and confounded sceptics inside and outside the left with our progress. We effectively led the anti-war movement in Scotland and were present on every picket line, community fight back and progressive campaign in the land. In 2003 we won 6 MSP’s, secured 131,000 votes for a full-blooded socialist programme and changed the face of Scottish politics entirely.

We soon had 3,000 members in 80 branches organised across 7 regions.

And what are the lessons? That with a pluralist, inclusive, democratic and bold orientation to the masses, in particular to new layers of activists entering the fray, it was possible to build a popular and effective broad, socialist party. This impressive achievement was widely acknowledged and respected.

SSP Lives On

The SSP remains at the heart of an albeit diminished left in Scotland today. Yet there has been a tendency for many on the left to write the SSP’s political obituary over the past few years. And the words of the American author and wit Mark Twain seem most apt here. ‘Rumours of my death’ he famously noted ‘have been greatly exaggerated’.

And as the National Convenor/Spokesman of the SSP throughout the last 8 years I pay tribute to the incredible dedication, unbreakable loyalty and personal nobility of those hundreds of members who stuck with their party, and indeed who joined it afresh, and carried out important groundbreaking work often in the face of ‘tortuous’ provocation. We defended our party in the bourgeois courts, in the bourgeois press, and most importantly of all, in the court of working class public opinion despite being vilified and blackened by almost everyone including so called former ‘comrades’ to a degree non-members can barely imagine.

So I feel duty bound to insist, and here I put it most modestly, that the SSP has a great deal of experience, judgement and knowledge to offer this debate. Those who talk of a ‘post SSP’ political landscape are guilty of wishful thinking. The Scottish Socialist Party, now 15 years old, has every intention of being here in another 15 years!

Despite the obvious setback the Sheridan debacle inflicted on our project, and I will return to that presently, the SSP today remains the only socialist party in Scotland with an elected Councillor(SSP Cllr Jim Bollan in West Dumbartonshire), the only party with a fortnightly socialist newspaper edited, printed and published in Scotland (the Scottish Socialist Voice), the only socialist party with a seat on the Yes Scotland Advisory Board, with a network of full time organisers and branches throughout Scotland, active on the streets, in communities and in the trade unions. Moreover in former MSP’s John McAllion and Campbell Martin we have two figures hugely respected within the Labour and SNP Left respectively. And last but not least we have a profound knowledge of working class struggle in Scotland, both at community and workplace levels, with an unrivalled track record of engaging in such struggles raising our socialist vision and alternatives.

So whilst I have no intention of belittling anyone else’s role, I am sure no one will want to see the SSP denied the respect we are due.

A Better Left in Scotland

All that having been said I entirely accept the Left in Scotland could and should be doing far better. Our shared frustration then must surely compel us to re-examine what progress might be made.

On the positive side there is much that unites us on policy. Nor do we disagree by and large about the possibilities for advancing socialist ideas. I will therefore not take up much space here outlining those possibilities suffice it to say that the worst economic recession in 80 years is forcing many people to draw conclusions favourable to ours. And their widespread experience, of falling living standards and corrupt mainstream politics, opens up minds previously closed to us. Moreover the movements growing in opposition to austerity and the cuts augurs well for the left. And the rising Independence movement provides further substantial possibilities for advance as Stephen Maxwell points out in his book ‘Arguments for Independence’.

Yet whilst we can be positive about the strength of the programme we share and the rise, albeit uneven, in working class consciousness we must all equally recognise that the Lefts divisions often confuse, demoralise and even anger many sections of the working class looking to us for assistance and leadership.

What then are the impediments to progress and how can they be ameliorated?

If ‘we agree on 90% of issues and disagree on 10% ’ how profound is the 10%?

There is certainly a fundamental difference between those of us who believe you start with a socialist party and try to build it and those who aim to transform existing non-socialist parties like Labour or the SNP. Whilst I respect all tactical considerations, for me this ‘entryism’ appears pointless as Labour continues to move further and further to the right and encompass a neo-liberal model that is the antithesis of social democracy far less socialism. So whilst I respect those socialists like Neil Findlay, MSP, who argues (in ‘The Scottish Road to Socialism’ 2013) that since Labour and the SNP enjoy mass support the Left must work inside them otherwise it confines itself to the electoral wilderness, I think this position is just not credible or sustainable. Either way it is certainly no basis for uniting the left in Scotland.

So if the first aim is a common programme, the second is surely an agreed political orientation. And the best way to build an effective broad left party is by orienting to new layers of activists not joining neo-liberal parties.

There is one other issue that cannot be avoided in any honest examination of the prospects for principled, sustainable Left unity in Scotland today. And that is the rather euphemistically referenced ‘Sheridan’ issue. Tommy Sheridan’s decision to sue a tabloid newspaper over stories he knew to be true was foolhardy in the extreme. His demand that all 3,000 members of the SSP traipse into court and perjure themselves for him was worse. But his all out attempt to destroy the Scottish Socialist Party did more damage to the socialist cause here than Margaret Thatcher could ever dream of. And despite a 3 years prison sentence, convicted on several counts of perjury, he has never shown an ounce of remorse. Were he capable of taking responsibility for his actions he might eventually be forgiven. In the meantime he remains an utterly divisive and widely ridiculed political figure. Too many people would not work with him again nor trust him not to wreck the socialist movement a second time.

After examining these impediments what do we find? Is any progress possible? I believe it is. After all we work well together in the Yes Scotland movement, in the Radical Independence Campaign, in Trades Unionists for Independence, in the anti-Trident coalition, in local cuts groups and against the hated ‘bedroom tax’.

European Elections

The SSP is keen for example to engage with others on the left to examine the possibility of presenting a common programme and joint slate for next years European Parliament elections. Now it might be possible and it might not, but we are fully prepared to give the project our best efforts.

Clearly working together in joint campaigns with shared goals is one thing, constructing an organised mass party is quite another. The SSP has developed a comprehensive socialist programme over the years that takes up the rights of working class people and links their immediate concerns and struggles to policies that challenge capitalism and promote socialism. No other group on the left in Scotland has invested as much in such a rounded-out socialist challenge to capitalism that can appeal to broad masses of working class people.

A Party or A Movement?

And this brings me to the question others have posed in this discussion ‘Is such a party desirable’? In my view it is essential. For me there are no realistic or workable alternatives to a party. I hear people talk about how the era of political parties is over, bypassed by events and that single-issue campaigns, networks or groups, like the ‘Occupy’ movement, are the way ahead. And I must say whilst I listen carefully to their case I must confess I have never found it persuasive. Groups, networks and alliances have their place of course but they are transitional. The Scottish Socialist Alliance for example was always clear it would aim to become a party.

And as I understand for example that the SNP has just reached 25,000 members in Scotland it would appear they have found a way forward as a party.

There are in truth no short cuts to party building and no substitute for painstaking effort and patient party organisation. The distilled experience and learning a party collects is invaluable to the socialist struggle. There is a quote Jack Straw celebrated as leader of the National Union of Students. Unfashionably it was from Stalin and went ‘When the political line has been decided organisation is everything’. Dare I say it, there is much sense in Josep Djugashvili’s famous aphorism. To suggest the socialist struggle can be advanced in the face of ruthless capitalism and the state, its political instruments and our political enemies without an organised, disciplined and effective party organisation is to deny history and to prepare for failure.

So whom are we all aiming at in trying to build this new party? For me it’s the new layers of young activists changing their political allegiances and open to democratic, pluralist and above all socialist ideas. And in this regard the Yes movement and the Radical Independence Campaign are key. A ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 Independence Referendum will transform politics in Scotland and throughout Britain. That prospect offers up enormous opportunities for the left in the run up to the crucial 2016 Holyrood elections where we again have a realistic prospect of winning seats.

And what model of party is required? For me the SSP at its height remains the most successful, democratic, plural and disciplined example I’ve ever seen. Regardless of whether you agreed with it or not it had, and still has, a coherent narrative with a fully worked out anti-capitalist programme. The SSP remains a central feature of the socialist landscape in Scotland and can again provide the basis for building the broad based, mass party of socialism we desire. Our party has seen clear and welcome signs of renewal these past few months. We have seen a tremendous improvement in the numbers attending our public meetings up and down the country for example on ‘The case for an Independent socialist Scotland’ with John McAllion, Campbell Martin, John Finnie, myself and Sandra Webster. More than 100 people have applied to join via our national website in the past two months as our support for an Independent socialist Scotland and our opposition to the bedroom tax and the worst recession in 80 years reaches a wider and wider audience. The Scottish working class badly needs a well-organised mass party of socialism and the SSP has proven it can play that role with aplomb. Toughened by recent experiences, this time we are wiser.

The Scottish Socialist Party remains open to all genuine Left unity initiatives but this must mean more than stitching together tiny groups on the Left. It must involve a rather more ambitious vision attracting those considerable sections of the Left who are not members of any political party.

Notes

Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’ [2013] Edited by Gregor Gall, Published by Scottish Left Review Press, Biggar.

Scotland’s Economy: the case for Independence’ [2013] Published by The Scottish Government, Edinburgh.

‘Arguing for Independence’ [2012] By Stephen Maxwell, Published by Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh

Europe – What should the left say?

European flag
European flag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Bonnar looks at the choices facing socialists over the referendum on EU membership.

For the Left it used to be fairly simple. When it came to membership of the Common Market the position was one of unequivocal rejection and a call for British withdrawal. The Common Market was an institution specifically set up to protect and extend the interests of monopoly capitalism. For those who embraced the different versions   of a British Road to Socialism which was almost all of the Left from the Communist Party to most of the Labour Party Left this would be impossible to implement while Britain was part of the Common Market. Withdrawal was a key part of any Left programme.  However as the Common Market has evolved into the European Economic Community and then the European Union it has also evolved from simply an economic union to become a political, social and cultural union which required a more sophisticated response from the Left. At the same time, opposition to the EU, which historically was centred on the Left, is now driven by the Right across Europe.

The economic structure of the EU has not changed from its inception; in fact it has developed to embrace much of the neo-liberal agenda inflicted on Europe over the past 30 years. Its core purpose; to defend and extend the interests of monopoly capitalism remains unchanged. But this is not the whole story. In many parts of Europe, particularly Germany, the social democratic consensus remains strong and that agenda has woven itself into the fabric of the EU much to the hostility of successive British governments. This has created the idea of a social Europe where a broad range of measures have been introduced over the years. These include measures on worker’s rights, the minimum wage, health & safety, women’s rights and measures to protect the environment. In themselves none of these are earth shattering but given the experience in Britain over the past 30 years it has been precisely these areas which have been under attack. Those trying to resist the neo-liberal onslaught have often tried to use Europe as a counter balance; this particularly true of the TUC.

A major turning point was the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1980 from which something quite startling has occurred. This treaty allowed for the free movement of capital and labour across the EU without reference to borders. It was a measure to facilitate the interests of capitalism on a European wide basis but as a by – product has created something additional; one of the largest cross migrations of people in history. Since 1980 literally scores of millions of people across Europe have migrated within the EU. French moving to Spain, Spaniards moving to Italy, Italians moving to Germany and the biggest migration of them all; British people migrating all around Europe.  It is now reckoned that around 4 million British citizens live and work or are retired in other EU countries. In recent years this has been added to by mass migration of people from central to western Europe forging  more of a European identity; particularly among young people who tend to comprise most migrants.  As an aside, how many people have noticed in Britain the way migrants from eastern Europe have replaced those from the Indian sub-continent as the new migrants of choice to be hated by papers like the Daily Mail. This recent migration has also affected the character of many cities particularly the major capital cities of Europe. More than ever cities like London, Paris, Madrid and Rome have become international centres; European rather than national capitals. This more international and cosmopolitan picture is something to be welcomed by a European Left uncomfortable with being identified with ‘national’ movements.

In turn, this mass migration has fuelled a reaction from the far right. In many countries, mass movements of the radical right have emerged in recent years; examples being Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria, Northern League in Italy, Golden Dawn in Greece, National Front in France and our own UKIP. At the centre of the programmes of all these parties is strong opposition to the EU driven by racism and xenophobia fuelled by  mass migration resulting from the Maastricht Treaty. Opposition to the EU used to be the almost exclusive property of the Left. Now most Left organisations across Europe accept, to a greater or lesser degree, membership of the EU while almost everywhere else  opposition is  being led by the Right.

This poses a major strategic dilemma for the Left none more so than in Britain. If a referendum was to be held tomorrow on Britain’s membership of the EU, what would the rival YES/NO campaigns look like? The No Campaign would be a festival of reaction. With a direct appeal to British patriotic feelings it would be a campaign driven by xenophobia and racism and cheered on by the most reactionary sections of the British media. It would be a campaign marching to the tune of Rule Britannia and wrapped in a great Union Flag. It would also be a campaign supported and financed by those increasing sections of the capitalist class who no longer believe that membership is in their interest. Any attempt by the Left to organise an alternative No campaign would simply by squeezed out. The YES campaign would certainly be more progressive sounding. Common European identity, rejection of narrow nationalism and stressing the social and cultural advantages of membership. It also likely that progressive opinion in Britain would coalesce around the YES campaign with reactionary opinion doing the opposite. For the Left, being on the YES side of the divide would certainly feel more comfortable.

In Scotland, this debate takes on a particular focus. Again, if a referendum was to be held tomorrow opinion polls would suggest that England would vote overwhelmingly for withdrawal while most people in Scotland would vote to retain membership. Why is this? In part it is because European migration to Scotland has been proportionately less than in many parts of England. Also, immigration is ranked as much less of an issue in Scotland and is generally seen in positive terms. On the economic arguments for or against membership while a case can be made either way as to whether Britain has been a net beneficiary of EU membership the situation in Scotland is more clear cut. Scotland has been a significant beneficiary particularly through the European Structural Fund. A key plank of the Better Together Campaign was that an independent Scotland was a threat to Scotland’s membership of the EU. This has now been completely turned on its head. It may well be that such membership can only be guaranteed by independence.

Where does all this leave the Left? To go back to the beginning. The Left’s economic analysis of the EU is as relevant today as when it was first formulated. The EU is a capitalist club with institutions and procedures designed specifically to promote the interests of monopoly capitalism on a European level. In fact many of the reforms over the years have been aimed at strengthening this raison detre.  Of course, another way of looking at this is to ask the question; what did we expect? The EU is composed of capitalist economies whose interests are reflected in the institutions of the EU. For this to change the individual and collective economies of these states would have to be very different.

As for the social changes ranging from the social charter to the emergence of more of a European identity; there is much that the Left would be broadly in favour of while recognising that we are not talking about a socialist Europe here.

On the issue of whether Britain should retain its membership in the eventuality of a referendum the Left should support a YES vote. This does not invalidate our critical analysis of the EU but simply recognises that this is as much a strategic and tactical issue as it is an issue of principal. Any approach we adopt has to take into consideration the objective conditions which help inform that approach. To put it simply, the Left cannot be a single voice in a choir of reaction.

At the same time the left must project an alternative vision for Europe. The ultimate aim is for a socialist Europe; part of a socialist world and we should not shy away from proclaiming this even if it sounds idealist and a bit utopian. If we don’t believe in this why are we here? Short of this we can present a picture of a different kind of Europe in the short to medium term. This would centre on the following;

Democracy; the current institutions of the EU are undemocratic and even anti-democratic in nature. Even the elected European Parliament is hardly a shining example of a democratic body. We should support measures to strengthen the European Parliament as a counter weight to the other institutions; making it more accountable and relevant.

Social Cohesion; many countries in Europe are well ahead of Britain in terms of equality, workers’ rights, social provision and environmental protection. The very best examples of these should be established as a standard and enshrined in a new European Charter.

Immigration; Fortress Europe should be ended and the myth that Europe would be swamped by countless millions of migrants from outside be challenged. The cross migration within Europe has been an overwhelmingly positive phenomena; there is no reason to believe that increased immigration from beyond Europe’s borders would be any different.

Regulation; The EU was established to regulate the European wide interests of capitalism in the interests of capitalism. Regulation can also involve the opposite. An example of this would be bringing in regulation to curtail the massive tax avoidance by multi-national companies across the continent.

Vision; It is clear that the current crisis in the EU is in part because people increasingly do not buy into the vision of European unity as currently constituted. We need to come up with an alternative vision perhaps borrowing the slogan from a related campaign;  ‘Another  Europe is Possible’.

Because successive governments, fearing the result, have resisted a referendum on EU membership it is becoming clear that such a referendum is now inevitable. All that remains to be decided on is the detail of the question and the timing. To an extent this has let the Left off the hook in agreeing a position on EU membership. It no longer has that luxury.

 

France: One year after Sarkozy’s defeat: an anticapitalist view

"Le Front de Gauche, c'est le front du peuple"

John Mullen is an activist in the Gauche Anticapitaliste, part of the Front de Gauche (Left Front). In this article he looks at the first year of Socialist Party President, François Hollande.

One year ago, in May 2012, we were celebrating the defeat of an arrogant right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy. François Hollande, newly elected, immediately took a thirty per cent wage cut for himself, promised to tax the rich, give the vote to non-French residents at local elections and take French troops out of Afghanistan.

How is it then that one year later, Hollande’s popularity has plunged faster than anyone thought it would? According to recent polls, only 24% of French people trust him to change things for the better, a lower score than Sarkozy ever had. The liberal weekly Le Nouvel Observateur carried the headline this month: “Is Hollande done for?” Such is the atmosphere of political crisis that Nicolas Sarkozy, who has kept out of politics for a year, is thinking of a comeback.

The main reason for all this is Hollande’s seeming incapacity to do anything effective while unemployment figures are standing at least eleven per cent (the highest for 14 years), tens of thousands are being made redundant and living standards are dropping. Also, the recent discovery that Hollande’s budget minister was himself hiding millions in a Swiss bank account and lying about it in parliament caused a huge uproar in a country where distrust of politicians  was already at a very high level.

Hollande in the European Union has supported the institution of stricter rules on budget deficits which are the excuse for ever-harsher austerity measures in several countries. In France, he is clearly opposed to any real resistance to ruling class priorities. His government refused a bill which would have given an amnesty to a number of trade union activists charged with offences linked to strikes, and last week he declared to 300 businessmen he invited to his home that the “first duty” of the government was “to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit”. While rafts of redundancy plans destroy many thousands of jobs (in oil, tyres, steel, cars and elsewhere), Hollande insists there is nothing a government can do about this, since the market is King. He has ruled out nationalization of industries to save jobs, and the new law he passed, making it easier for bosses to sack people and harder for workers to oppose their sackings at an industrial tribunal, was actually initially drafted by the MEDEF, the bosses’ federation!

Social budget cuts and deregulation continue apace. Reducing the cost of social services to the ruling class is at the centre of attacks on workers worldwide : One of Sarkozy’s major victories was to push through a law which meant people had to work longer for their pension, despite millions going on strike over the issue. Now, Hollande is already saying more sacrifices “are necessary” and 76% of French people do not trust the present government “to guarantee the future of retirement pensions” (which for the moment are considerably higher than in countries like the UK after Thatcher and Blair). We are expecting a major government attack on pensions soon.

 Reforms

This doesn’t mean that Hollande’s government has not made any reforms in favour of our class, just that his general policy is in support of the dictatorship of market priorities. One very important reform was the recent legalization of gay marriage. This change came mostly, initially, from the Socialist party itself. Once the Right began organizing enormous demonstrations against marriage equality, gay organizations mobilized in favour of the law, and almost all the radical Left moved into action to build the demonstrations.

In other areas, modest reforms have been carried through. A little more taxing of  the rich and better health insurance for the poorest, for example. The government has hired thousands more teachers, is opening far more nursery school places and has moved to stop richer parents choosing more privileged public high schools outside their local area. They have had more social housing built, limited some rent rises and improved retirement pensions for those who started work very young. A ministry for women’s rights has been set up, and women no longer have to pay part of the cost of an abortion. To please another constituency, they have reduced taxes for small businesses and given consumer organizations more power.

On questions of racism, the record is extremely poor. While a law was passed to make it much easier for foreign students in French universities to work in France, other even more important promises have been abandoned. Hollande had said he would make police officers give a receipt whenever they checked someone’s ID papers in the streets, so as to improve the present situation where Black and Arab people are often checked several times a week in Paris and you never see White people being checked. The interior minister, Manuel Valls, abandoned the idea because he says he trusts the police. As for the right to vote for immigrants, this promise, first made by the Socialist Party in 1981, has been abandoned. Meanwhile Valls is carrying out a policy of demolishing Roma encampments, and the numbers of unauthorized immigrants being given papers are no higher than under Sarkozy.

Worse still, the government seems keen to use Islamophobia to gain support. A recent court case where a tribunal found in favour of a woman sacked from a private crèche because she wore a Muslim headscarf was the excuse for the president to insist that he would examine the “need” for a law to stop women wearing headscarves from working with young children ! Interior Minister, Manuel Valls has declared that “The veil, which stops women from being what they are, will always be for me, and should be for the French Republic, something to combat.” In this atmosphere, criminal damage to mosques and to Muslim cemeteries is becoming commonplace.

Resistance on the industrial front

Faced with the social-liberal government, the Trade Union leadership is divided. Several unions have signed away workers’ rights in order to support a ‘left’ government, while others have been organizing resistance, if sometimes rather lukewarmly. There have been several radical strikes over the last year: airline staff, railway workers and television company workers, for example. An important car factory North of Paris has seen a strike lasting several months against its closure, and other fights against redundancies have been highly visible. Local teachers’ strikes against understaffing and arrogant management are not uncommon. And a national mass one-day strike and demonstration against austerity was well-followed, if not at the level of five years back. What is sorely needed are some clear victories for workers in order to inspire further resistance.

Naturally enough the fascist National Front is hoping to gain from the crisis and the disaffection with established parties. It has managed to modernize its image with its new leader, Marine Le Pen, got over six million votes in the presidentials and intends to use the local elections in 2014 to rebuild its weak activist organization, which has not yet completely recovered from the battering it took fifteen years ago from anti-fascist movements, a defeat which led to a damaging split in the FN. The traditional Right is now deeply divided over whether to begin alliances with the fascists.

Left Front

Anti-fascist campaigning is therefore crucial in this period, but only the rise of a Left alternative can brake the rise in fascist influence. And indeed, the situation has led to a sharp rise in political activity by those who don’t think that capitalism can be overthrown any time soon, but who think radical changes can and should be made through a combination of trade union and street struggles and electoral politics (that is to say, there has been a revival of what Marxists usually call Left reformism).

This is what is behind the rise of the Left Front (Front de Gauche), a political bloc including two big parties – the Communist party and the Left Party (Parti de Gauche), and six or seven smaller organizations of a few hundred each, mostly anticapitalist groups and including three organizations which split one by one from the New Anticapitalist Party over recent years.

Its main spokesperson, Left Party leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has thrilled millions of workers who want to fight with his impressive capacity to sum up the anger they feel.  “Immigrants aren’t the enemy, bankers are!” he declared, and has several times wiped the smug smiles off the faces of conservative journalist interviewers with devastating critiques of the political establishment. “We need to sweep away those in power” he said. Socialist Party reps accused him of dangerous rhetoric which could only help the far right, but were left red-faced when Mélenchon brought out a 1930s Socialist Party poster which carried… exactly the same slogan!

The Front de Gauche is popularizing, with impressive creativity, proposals for left reforms in the interests of workers, for example a ban on redundancies in firms which are making profits. Mélenchon says that social-democracy across Europe has abandoned the workers’ interests and calls for the establishment of a maximum salary, retirement at sixty and a big rise in the minimum wage. Around the country a series of dynamic public meetings and teach-ins keep the political alternative in the public eye. A major conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, is asking in its readers’ poll this week ” Is Jean-Luc Mélenchon a political danger for François Hollande ?”.

Naturally, Mélenchon’s ideas include all the contradictions of wanting radical change through the state and without social revolution. In particular, he defends the supposed ‘positive rôle’ of the French army abroad and France’s position as a nuclear power, and believes in the possibility of a revolution “through the ballot box”. In the long-term, in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, no doubt he will not go all the way. But for the moment, the role he plays is very positive, galvanizing and encouraging both workers’ struggles and the struggle for a Left alternative on many questions of great importance for workers.

The Front de Gauche is an umbrella alliance in which each organization keeps to its own principles. The Communist Party is by far the biggest component. A contradictory organization, sections of it concentrate on running town councils and on electoralism, while others are very much involved in trade union and other resistance actions. The Parti de Gauche (which split from the Socialist Party in 2009) has become more of a dynamic activist organization over the last year. It now has 12 000 members and can be seen recruiting students on university campuses, something the activist Left has not been strong on of late. The smaller organizations which are part of the Front de Gauche, each with two to five hundred activists, have been working closely together to form an ‘anticapitalist pole’, an ‘eco-socialist current’ within the Front de Gauche. A joint bulletin produced by six of the organizations, including mine, is making this joint work visible.

Taking the Bastille

The Front de Gauche called a mass demonstration for the 5th of May, one year after Hollande’s election, to demand real left policies, and constitutional change. The demonstration was led by contingents of trade unionists from recent and ongoing strikes and found a tremendous echo. Hundreds of coaches came from around the country. A carnival atmosphere reigned in the Place de la Bastille, with thousands of placards and posters carrying such slogans as “It’s time for the people to take power”, “We will not give up”, “Finance markets are the problem, not the solution” and “Wages are the solution, not the problem”. Many people carried brooms to represent the need for a clean sweep of politics and policies. (Photos at http://www.mediapart.fr/portfolios/bastille-nation-un-dimanche-5-mai ). This collective expression of anger was a great success, and must be only the beginning. Recent dynamic protests against nuclear power and against the building of a new airport confirm that the desire to fight back is widespread.

If the Front de Gauche represents right now the centre of gravity of resistance politics in France, the revolutionary New Anticapitalist Party maintains significant activist forces. It is considerably smaller than it was a few years ago, principally because much of its leadership insisted that Left reformism could not exist or revive and therefore the NPA had nothing to say to activists close to the Front de Gauche except that the Front de Gauche would never fight against Socialist Party policies, an opinion which has proved to be hopelessly out of touch with reality. In a positive move, the NPA participated in the demonstration on the 5th of May, despite some sectarian articles in its paper. The other main revolutionary organization in France, Lutte Ouvrière, denounced the demonstration as “fomenting illusions” in the possibility of reform from above.

Islamophobia

As readers are probably aware, Islamophobia, rooted in a very old French Left tradition of hostility to religious believers, remains rife across all the Left in France, including the Front de Gauche and the New Anticapitalist party. In the Parti de Gauche there are several leaders who would like to see Muslim headscarves banned in workplaces where children are present, for example. The minority of Left activists who want to fight Islamophobia is however bigger than it was ten years ago when headscarves were banned from high schools. At Sunday’s demonstration a ‘collective of Front de Gauche activists against Islamophobia’ gave out leaflets calling for a rally against further islamophobic legislation.

The coming months will see if the widespread anger Hollande faces can be transformed into effective action against government policies and against redundancies.

A Marxist Case for an Independent Scotland

Yes

Eddie Cornock writes on the Marxist arguments for independence.

Marxists have an ambivalent attitude towards the national question. On the one hand, they are wary of the dangers of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ whereby the ruling class employ a divide and conquer strategy to split people by language, race, ethnicity, or religion, so as to distract the working class from engaging in a class struggle against their capitalist oppressors. On the other hand, Marxists defend the right of ‘oppressed’ nations to self-determination, up to and including independence, because, as Lenin explained, ‘nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice’. (The Collected Works of V I Lenin, Volume 36, pp 608-609)

On the question of Scottish independence, the Left in Scotland is similarly caught on two minds. There are those in the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) who maintain that independence would disunite the British working class and only go to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. However, others on the Left, most notably in the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Communist Party of Scotland (CPS), believe that the breakup of the British state is a precondition for securing progressive, socialist change for the residents of these islands since it would open up opportunities for the Left, both in Scotland and south of the Border, to promote a radical political agenda that otherwise would remain excluded from mainstream politics.

In this essay, the following questions will be addressed with the aim of building a Marxist case for an independent Scotland:

• What is Scotland’s current status?

• How did Scotland lose its independence?

• What support has there been for Scottish self-determination?

• What’s the Marxist perspective on the national question?

• Is there a Marxist case for Scottish independence?

Scotland’s current status

Scotland is a country (i.e. a geographical region) that occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain and is part of the sovereign state known as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). It has a population of just over five million, compared to 52 million for England, 3 million for Wales and 2 million for Northern Ireland which make up the other parts of the UK. Although it lost its status as an independent nation-state when it became a constituent part of the UK over 300 years ago, few if any would deny that Scotland remains a nation.

Under the terms of the Acts of Union of 1707 that created the UK, Scotland’s legal system constitutes a distinct jurisdiction in public and private law from those of England and Wales and Northern Ireland. The continued existence of legal, and also educational and religious institutions distinct from those in the remainder of the UK have all contributed to the continuation of Scottish culture and national identity since the Union of Parliaments.

In 1999, a devolved legislature, the Scottish Parliament, was created with tax varying powers (i.e. power to vary (down or up) the basic rate of UK income tax by up to 3p in the pound) and authority over many areas of home affairs following a referendum in 1997. However, as Enoch Powell once observed: ‘Power devolved is power retained’, and consequently the devolutionary settlement for Scotland has had only a limited impact in terms of UK government arrangements and Parliamentary business at Westminster. There remains in place a Secretary of State for Scotland in the Cabinet, and at Westminster, Scottish Question Time, and a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and a Scottish Grand Committee, both of which have a complement of English Conservative MPs to ensure that party balance reflects the overall balance in the House of Commons.

Be that as it may, in 2011, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won an overall majority at the Scottish Parliament and as a result a referendum on independence is to be held in the autumn of 2014. This will determine whether Scotland becomes once again a sovereign nation-state or remains a constituent part of the UK.

Scotland’s loss of independence

Tradition has it that Scotland emerged as a sovereign kingdom in 843 under the rule of Kenneth MacAlpin although this is now disputed by historians. What is not disputed is that his successors during the Middle Ages ruled a unified kingdom roughly corresponding to the geographic boundaries of modern day Scotland.

When King Alexander III, died in 1286 he left an infant granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway as the heir to the Scottish throne. However, Margaret herself died four years later in a tragic shipwreck en route to Scotland. Following the death of Margaret, an opportunity arose for Edward I of England to place a puppet king, John Balliol, on the Scottish throne. When a rebellion broke out against Edward’s suzerainty, he sent troops to subjugate Scotland.

The resulting Wars of Scottish Independence were fought in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Scotland’s ultimate victory in the Wars of Independence under the leadership of Robert the Bruce confirmed Scotland as a fully independent and sovereign kingdom.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English and Irish thrones when his aunt, Queen Elizabeth I, died childless. Although there was a Union of the Crowns, Scotland continued to be ruled as a separate state for the next century.

On 1 May 1707, however, Scotland entered into an incorporating political union with England to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This union resulted from the Treaty of Union agreed in 1706 and enacted by the twin Acts of Union passed by the Parliaments of both countries, despite popular opposition and anti-union riots in Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland. Therefore, from 1707, Scotland ceased to exist as an independent sovereign state.

Support for Scottish self-determination

The 1787 massacre of striking weavers by British soldiers in Calton, which then was a village in the outskirts of Glasgow, is generally recognised as marking the beginning of an organised, Scottish labour movement. The Calton weavers’ banner on the day of the massacre showed Scotland’s national hero from the Wars of Scottish Independence, William Wallace, striking down the beast of tyranny.

Scots Wha Hae was written by Robert Burns, Scotland’s Bard, in 1793 to give covert support to those like Thomas Muir of Huntershill who were being persecuted for their republican and nationalist views. It has since been adopted as the SNP party song on account of its strong patriotic sentiments.

Burns deliberately, if obliquely, with Scots Wha Hae set out to support the radical movement against the reactionary Pitt government in London and its despotic manager in Scotland, Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville.

Another indication that there has been a longstanding popular struggle for Scottish self-determination was the Radical War of 1820. This ill-fated insurrection and general strike rallied workers behind the slogan “Scotland Free or a Desert”.

That tradition was carried into the 20th century by the likes of the pioneering trade unionist and politician, James Keir Hardie, who managed to secure a commitment to Scottish home rule from the political parties he helped create, namely the Scottish Labour Party, Independent Labour Party and the British Labour Party.

Perhaps most notably of all, the struggle for worker’s rights and Scottish self-determination was upheld by the Red Clydeside leader and Marxist teacher, John Maclean, who called for an independent Scottish Socialist Workers’ Republic. He believed that workers in Scotland could develop in a revolutionary direction more swiftly than their counterparts in England and Wales since Scottish society had been structured along the lines of “Celtic communism” in the past. He argued that “the communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis” and raised the slogan “back to communism and forward to communism”.

An upsurge of Scottish nationalism occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. This coincided with the discovery of oil reserves in the North Sea that opened up the possibility of a prosperous future for an independent Scotland. However, what is often forgotten is that there was a manifestation of large-scale support for the principle of Scottish self-determination prior to the 1960s. Around two million Scottish people between 1947 and 1950 signed the Scottish Covenant which was a petition to the United Kingdom government to create a home rule Scottish parliament.

The national question

It’s a matter of historical fact that people typically based on shared culture, religion, history, language and ethnicity and living within recognised geographical boundaries have strived successfully to breakaway from the rule of perceived oppressors and form self-governing sovereign ‘nation-states’. Since World War Two, well over a hundred new independent states have joined the international community, most recently in 2011 with South Sudan.

The recognition of national struggles for independence led Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to develop a theory of the national question although it was left to Vladimir Lenin and others later on to provide detailed elaboration and development of the theory.

In the Communist Manifesto, written in late 1847, Marx and Engels explained that the coming into existence of new nation-states was the result of class struggle, specifically of the capitalist class’s attempts to overthrow the institutions of the former ruling class and establish the economic, social and political conditions most conducive to their class needs.

Marx and Engels in their writings produced three themes which were to be important for the future development of the Marxist theory of national self-determination:

1. Only the national liberation of the oppressed nation enables national divisions and antagonisms to be overcome, and permits the working class of both nations to unite against their common enemy, the capitalists.

2. The oppression of another nation helps to reinforce the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie over workers in the oppressing nation-state: ‘A nation that enslaves another forges its own chains’. (Marx & Engels Collected Works, Volume 21 p120)

3. The emancipation of the oppressed nation weakens the economic, political, military and ideological bases of the ruling class in the oppressor nation-state and this contributes to the revolutionary struggle of the working class of that nation-state.

Lenin, building on the foundations laid by Marx and Engels and applying them to the new era of imperialism in the early years of the twentieth century, put great emphasis on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Through defending the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, he believed, socialists in oppressor states demonstrated solidarity with workers of oppressed nations and laid the basis for an internationalist, socialist-inspired alliance between the workers of all nations against their common enemy, the capitalist class.

Moreover, Lenin maintained that small nations, as Scotland is, could also play a role in defeating imperialism which he regarded as the highest stage of capitalism:

“The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat to make its appearance on the scene.” (The Collected Works of V I Lenin, Volume 22, p357)

Marxists, therefore, support the proliferation of nation-states to the extent that it results in the emancipation of oppressed nations and promotes a growing awareness among workers, both in oppressor and oppressed nations, of their shared interests in opposing the capitalist system. Once capitalism is abolished and there is a transition to socialism, Marxists believe, state structures will gradually be dismantled, resulting in a stateless, classless communist world society.

Arguments for Scottish independence

Tom Nairn, arguably Scotland’s most influential left-wing intellectual of recent times and the author of The Break Up of Britain, famously claimed that the theory of nationalism is Marxism’s greatest failure. What he meant was that although Marxist theory correctly identifies the capacity of nationalism as a divisive, reactionary force that diverts the proletariat from the class struggle against the bourgeoisie it, nevertheless, fails to recognise fully the potential nationalism also has as a progressive force.

A case in point is the issue of the ‘civic nationalism’ (aka as liberal nationalism) championed by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and others in their campaign for a Yes vote at the 2014 Independence Referendum. Is it effectively a form of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ that would serve the purposes of the ruling class by dividing British workers and preventing the working class from uniting against them? Something Marxists would want to oppose. Or does it open up new possibilities to create a fairer, more equal and more democratic society in Scotland that could then act as a beacon for the working class in the rest of the UK? Something Marxists would be inclined to support.

In answer to the first question posed above, if the aforementioned civic nationalism is, as critics on the Left maintain, just another form of bourgeois nationalism then one would expect the business community to be overwhelmingly in favour of Scottish independence. That is not the case as indicated in a speech by Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director-general John Cridland when he said: ‘CBI Scotland council is not convinced of the business and economic case for Scotland seceding from the Union and judges that businesses – Scottish, English, British – would lose out from the fragmentation of our single market.’ (London Evening Standard, 06.09.2012)

In answer to the second question, all three parties (i.e. SNP, SSP and the Scottish Green Party) affiliated to the Yes campaign have a track record of supporting progressive reforms. Moreover, both the SSP and the Greens in particular see themselves as parts of global movements dedicated to advancing progressive causes and can be said to have a broad internationalist outlook rather than a narrow (bourgeois) nationalist focus.

On the issue of Scotland breaking away from the rest of the UK, Marxists cannot argue for independence on the grounds that Scotland is an oppressed nation within the UK since there has been no systematic attempt by the British ruling class, in modern times at least, to deny Scottish people their democratic rights including the right to secede from the UK. However, there are other reasons for supporting Scottish independence from a Marxist perspective, not least that working people in Scotland, in common with those in other parts of the UK, pay a heavy price for being ruled by the British state. The price of remaining in the UK includes the following:

Britain has a permanent seat at the UN Security Council due in no small part to being the fourth highest military spender in the world with expensive nuclear weapons based on the Clyde. The tax money diverted to military spending by our political leaders to maintain the illusion that Britain remains a world power is money denied for much needed improvement of education, health and welfare provision.

Britain is a belligerent state that has been engaged in twenty-two separate wars and conflicts since the end of World War Two. British interventions in the likes of Iraq in 2003 until 2011 and in Afghanistan from 2001 until presently have been largely counter-productive but nevertheless costly in terms of money and more importantly, human suffering and lives.

Successive British governments’ adherence to neo-liberal ideas that free capital flows, a deregulated financial sector and powerful private banks would be good for the economy has proved a costly mistake to the tune of £1.2 trillion. That is the amount incurred by the public purse since 2008 to bail out banks and financial institutions that were on the verge of collapse. As a result of the bailouts creating a financial black hole for the Treasury, an austerity programme has had to be implemented involving massive public spending cuts, job losses and a decline in living standards for working families.

Britain is officially described as a ‘parliamentary democracy’ but, nevertheless, has a political system which includes many features that are far from democratic. For example, we are not citizens but subjects of a hereditary monarch, a Head of State by accident of birth, who is also commander-in-chief of our armed forces; sovereignty or political power in the British state is invested in the ‘Crown in Parliament’ and not with the people; we have an unelected second chamber in the British Parliament, the House of Lords; we have an electoral system that underpins a two-party system which offers voters little real democratic choice and often results in Scotland being ruled by a party decisively rejected by the Scottish electorate. As a consequence of features like those outlined above, there is a ‘democratic deficit’ in Britain which is in addition to the other shortcomings that people living in the UK have to endure.

There are distinct disadvantages of Scotland remaining a part of the British state for the Scottish population as outlined above but for Marxists the vital question is would Scottish independence open up new possibilities for socialist advance not only in Scotland but in the other nations of UK as well?

Scotland has had its own devolved Parliament and government since 1999 and already significant divergences from the rest of the UK are apparent. For example, unlike in England, people living in Scotland benefit from free medical prescriptions, free social care, and no tuition fees for universities as result of Scottish governments coming under stronger pressure to pursue social democratic policies than governments of the UK. Independence would give Scottish governments increased powers to formulate the social democratic policies required to tackle more effectively the complex social and economic problems that currently beset Scotland. The improved capacity to align Scottish government policies with Scotland’s values, needs and opportunities would be one of the greatest benefits of independence.

However, in the event of Scottish independence not only would there be a transformation of the economic, social and political contexts for Scotland but also important consequences for the rest of the UK. For example, Trident would have to leave the Clyde and probably be scrapped on cost grounds; the UK would have a diminished status on the international stage and would likely ‘shrink’ its foreign and security policies; the severe British anti-union legislation would go north of the border, and be undermined south of the border; the loss of the Scottish bloc of Labour MPs would initially favour the Conservatives at Westminster but, nevertheless, could provoke a significant political realignment resulting in a boost to progressive centre-left politics; Wales and Northern Ireland would become a smaller periphery to the UK’s core in England and might well look to establish greater levels of autonomy or even full-scale independence in the case of Wales.

Be that as it may, it is important to note that independence is not the same as ‘separation’. We live in an increasingly interdependent world in which national independence goes hand in hand with international interdependence. An independent Scotland would continue to have close economic ties, cultural links, and bonds of kinship with the other nations of the UK no matter what new constitutional arrangements are made. Moreover, there would be no reason why the ‘unity of the British working class’ could not be maintained through existing trades unions and social movements operating across borders as happens in Ireland and North America. They would have the opportunity to show the way cooperation across national boundaries could and should be pursued to further the interests of working people and their families in the ‘globalised’ world we live in.

Lastly, a widely held misapprehension, including by many on the Left who oppose Scottish independence, needs to be cleared up. While it is true that the SNP, a pro-capitalist party, is the main force driving the campaign for Scottish independence and that some of its policies for an independent Scotland are far from progressive (e.g. low corporate taxation, retention of the monarchy, staying in NATO, retention of the pound sterling and financial regulation from London), a Yes vote cast at the forthcoming independence referendum will NOT be an endorsement for the SNP and its vision for an independent Scotland. It will be a vote for independence and the opening up of a range of possibilities for Scotland in the future.

In the event of a majority Yes vote in 2014, then it is likely a two year period of intense political activity and realignment will ensue, culminating in an historic election at which Scottish voters will deliver their verdict as to which of the competing visions for an independent Scotland they prefer. There is no great certitude that the SNP by 2016 will have retained its present configuration and political identity and even less certainty that it will emerge victorious, happy and glorious after the first election to be held in an independent Scotland for over three hundred years.

Conclusion

From a Marxist point of view the most important question as regards nationalism is whether support for a specific national movement would advance the interests of the working class or not. When a struggle for national independence weakens the forces of imperialism and brings tangible benefits in terms of improved living standards and more democracy to the working class, then socialists should support the cause; when a nationalist movement justifies imperialism and threatens the advances secured by the working class, socialists should oppose it wholeheartedly.

Nationalism, therefore, has to be judged concretely, on the basis of the particular effects that its actions have in a specific context. In the case of Scotland, the choice at the forthcoming independence referendum is stark. Vote No and continue as before inside a neo-imperialist and reactionary British state that imposes legal restrictions on trade unionism, attacks the living standards of working people and provides military and diplomatic back-up for the USA to help maintain a neo-liberal world order. Or vote Yes and begin the dissolution of the UK in the name of political progress and social advance and in so doing help realise the potential for the Left not only in Scotland but across Britain that has for far too long lain largely untapped.

Can We Achieve Left Unity in Scotland? Frontline Meeting and AGM

SSP Conference Fringe Meeting and Frontline Annual General Meeting

Saturday 20th April, 5 p.m. (after SSP conference)

St. Augustines, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.

Can We Achieve Left Unity in Scotland?

Speakers

Gregor Gall. Frontline Editorial Board

Pete Ramand. International Socialist Group

Chair – Alister Black, Frontline editor.

The crisis of capitalism has led to an attack on workers by the Tory government and an unprecedented level of cuts. In Scotland we face a constitutional debate in the run up to next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. Yet the left remains divided and marginalised just when it should be taking centre stage. The Radical Independence Conference pointed towards the potential to overcome division and present a left vision for an independent Scotland. This meeting will discuss the possibilities and obstacles. All welcome, please come and have your say.

Frontline AGM

We will also be having the Annual General Meeting for Frontline in which we will elect our Editorial Board. If you want to get involved with Frontline whether  writing articles, taking photos, or helping with our web presence we welcome your contribution.

Argentina: political outlook at the start of 2013

La Juventud del MST marchando en Buenos Aires

The year 2001 saw an uprising in Argentina as citizens rejected all of the old parties and took to the streets. Hyperinflation, unemployment and the near collapse of the Argentinian banking system led to mass demonstrations and ‘piqueteros’ blockading roads around the country. New social movements sprang up with neighbourhood assemblies and many workplaces were occupied and turned into workers co-operatives.

As this movement ebbed, the old parties re-established themselves. The current government of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner comes from the Peronist tradition and represents a particular strand of this tradition. This tendency is nationalist but left of centre. This government has nationalised important energy resources but has run into problems around their attempts to control currency exchanges and in the last few months demonstrators have returned to the streets both from the right and from the workers movement as the economic situation has deteriorated.

In this article Alejandro Bodart and Mariano Rosa, two leading members of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores – MST (Socialist Workers Movement) outline the current position in Argentina, the battles that are coming and the prospects for building a political alternative. The MST currently works within a broader coalition called Proyecto Sur (Project South) and has a number of members elected to state assemblies in Argentina.

Setting, conflict and elections

A first definition of the situation in Argentina serves to put things in place: the international crisis did not stop, nor the effects it has on our economy.

Industrial activity fell, led by carmakers and metalworking. The building sector had already reached a low in 2009, but that trend is now more pronounced. Inflation remains high and price controls are a fiction that cannot cover a nonexistent policy of industrialization accompanied by the complete lack of controls over large price makers. The parallel dollar soars, and the fall in the stock of that currency at the Central Bank, shows that large companies doubt the force of government to take care of business.

As for state finances, the situation is similar. Desperate for their emergency-election – this year there are parliamentary elections – and for economic reasons, the national government continues to cut funds to the regions, causing further strain on already beset provincial finances. There are several districts with financial difficulties, including the Province of Buenos Aires. Governors seek carbon taxes, while refusing to eliminate tax breaks on big banks, corporations and landowners. State and teachers’ salaries, pensions and social assistance programs are already feeling the effect of these decisions.

With things as they are, what comes next is the fight over who gets to pay for the crisis in our country. At the top, governments are scrambling to see who is responsible for most of the adjustment to be applied. Underneath, workers and the people gather fury over wages that are never enough, struggle against cuts in salaries, or loss of family allowances. There exists social conflict, and a teachers’ nationwide strike is on the cards. The truck drivers’ union marches – this is quite an important union. And trade unions opposing the government are calling for a CTA-CGT mobilisation, for March 14.

Government Setback

Last year ended with the confirmation of two key political points. The national government suffered severe setbacks, receding in popularity with many of their voters. This is important enough by itself and will have multiple consequences. But there are other factors that go along with this. That is that the governments declining popularity was seconded by the people’s rejection of the main policies of the bourgeois opposition. None is seen as an alternative to solve a situation that is worsening for most. That’s because, in addition to not offering solutions to the structural problems that we live with every day, they also govern against the people.

The combination of these factors provides an overview of great political debate, where millions are seeking a change, not convinced by the options provided by the current system. This can be seen in any conversation on the street, at work, in the schools and colleges.

 Electoral battle, and the alternative

Whilst we cannot discount sudden changes in the situation (given that since 2001 we live with a permanent social tension), the more likely outcome is that of an electoral battle which expresses the changes which erupted last year. This does not minimize the social conflict and the importance of mobilizing that the workers and the people are developing and will surely continue throughout the year. But it provides a tremendous opportunity to those who want to bring about change in the country. The worn out state of the old, presents a huge opportunity for an alternative political force to become strong and move forward as an alternative to the government and the right-wing opposition.

This may be the case with the candidacy of Senator Pino Solanas at the Capital, for the Movement South Project (Movimiento Proyecto Sur) which we, as the MST, are part of as its anti-capitalist wing. An achievement in the city could lead to a positive phenomenon with social influence. So, with our main leaders all around the country, we are committed to develop Proyecto Sur thoroughly, and fight any attempt to transform it into a new centre-left force. It would be really positive if – in this course of events – other anti-imperialist forces would also come together, that is, social movements and those left currents who – abandoning sectarianism – join us to fight for a fundamental change, in unity.

Three tasks for the coming months

A very important one is to support and participate actively in the struggles of workers and the people, contributing to the emergence of new leaders who replace the old ones within trade and students’ unions, or social organizations. It is a vital and present task, to guarantee that the thousands who come to fight come to recognize the usual traitors.

At the same time you have to accompany it with anti-systemic transformation proposals to end the sufferings of the underdogs, defeating the double discourse of ruling capitalists and old recipes that have already sunk us before.

Finally, we must be able to build an alternative to fight for these causes. And the election battle is a major challenge in this field. Here, as in the struggles, currents and their leaders are tested. And the results influence the daily fight.

The political landscape makes us very optimistic about the potential for progress in each of these areas. The international context does as well, with the peoples of Europe in the streets facing their capitalist governments.

To carry out all these tasks, across the country, it is essential to strengthen MST within Proyecto Sur. That is why we invite workers, young people, neighbours, social activists, artists, intellectuals, retired citizens, to join us and together build a party that is seriously determined about these objectives. It is our future that is at stake. No time to lose.

Alejandro Bodart, General Secretary – Currently Deputy – MST.

Mariano Rosa, National Secretary of the Socialist Youth – MST

Radical Independence Conference and Beyond

Untitled-1Alister Black reports on the success of the Radical Independence Conference, and what comes next for RIC. He also looks at the issues facing socialists who are campaigning around Scottish independence and how best we can build a strong socialist force in the post-referendum world.

November’s Radical Independence Conference was a highly significant event both for the Scottish left and the independence campaign. It brought together 900 participants from a broad range of political backgrounds for a day of debate and discussion.

It sought to thrash out a radical consensus on the type of independent Scotland that we want – one where social justice, equality and workers rights were central. It talked about a Scotland where the environment and culture were cherished and peace and internationalism were at the heart of our policy.

Who was there? What was clear was that this was nobody’s ‘front’ organisation. The conference was attended by Greens, with Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie speaking at the opening plenary. There were also those who were not embarrased to call themselves nationalists coming from the left of the SNP and ‘Labour for Independence’ supporters. There were many from campaigns such as CND and those who were members of no organisation.

The socialist left were, of course, well represented. It was significant, given the poisonous splits of the past few years which have seen groups denounce each other in meetings, the media and the courts, that there was little visible rancour. Whilst there were not exactly hugs being exchanged, people listened to each other and behaved respectfully for the most part.

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and International Socialist Group (ISG) were the largest contingents of the socialist left in Scotland who were present.

The mood at the conference was reminiscent of the social forums that galvanised much of the left in Europe and Latin America in recent years. Broad movements that could agree on much.

Unanswered Questions

There are some underlying questions that need to be addressed in regards to how RIC intends to participate in the fight for a Yes vote. Most agree that economic questions will be the key factors determining how most Scots will vote. RIC needs to make the case for independence in a way that demonstrates that jobs, conditions, social services, health and housing will be in a better place in an independent Scotland which rejects the capitalist consensus.

Just how to best organise across campaigns like those against cuts, the ‘bedroom tax’ and in defence of public services is more difficult. However, whilst important, campaigning on issues like Trident and Palestine alone, or focusing on campus votes will not win the thousands in the schemes and workplaces of Scotland  that we need to win.

Just what RIC’s economic vision is was also unclear from the conference which unfortunately did not have a session on the economy. Questions we need to answer include, what will we do with the banks, how will we secure the resources to make sure all Scots have a job, an education and somewhere to live?

Next Steps

Organisers and participants were on a high following the conference. It was no surprise therefore that proposals were soon made to step up and expand the remit of RIC. At a recent steering committee group an aside was made regarding changing the name of the RIC facebook page from Radical Independence Conference to Radical Independence Campaign. Moving from being a conference to being a campaign is quite a significant move and one which a few will have issues with. But with hundreds having contacted RIC on top of the 900 attending conference, it was to be expected.

The next steps planned are to hold local assemblies across Scotland, including areas where the left has never had a strong presence such as Inverness and Dumfries and Galloway. The aim is to form grassroots groups across Scotland with immediate campaigning priorities being voter registration and building for the anti-Trident weekend of action.

Another plan is for a series of ‘Red Papers’ from campaigners and academics laying out our vision of an alternative Scotland in more detail. A campaign appeal of £10, 000 has been launched.

Yes Campaign

How does this fit in with the official ‘Yes Scotland campaign, with its team of full-time staff, big budget and the electoral experience of the governing Scottish National Party? Yes Scotland also has plans underway to establish local groups across Scotland. For example they want to see a local group in every council ward in Glasgow and in every village and town in the nation.

The answer is that the independence campaign is a movement. It is a movement which ranges from wealthy businessmen and entrepreneurs to impoverished socialists. RIC is the left of that movement. It aims to speak for working people, for the poor, for those who will suffer from cuts and from the crisis-ridden capitalist system.

Whilst attitudes towards Yes Scotland differ within RIC, many are active in both. Yes Scotland recently invited young trade-unionist Cat Boyd to speak at the well-attended Glasgow launch of the campaign on behalf of RIC and First Minister Alec Salmond sent a congratulatory message to the November Radical Independence Conference.

So far there is little evidence to suggest that the two are rival campaigns.

At launch meetings for the official Yes Scotland campaign, campaign officials have made it clear that the campaign will not be talking about policy or ‘taking sides’ over issues like council cuts. RIC is not held back by those constraints and it can speak for those for whom independence does not just mean hauling down the Union flag and replacing it with a Saltire.

What next for the Scottish left?

The success of the Radical Independence Conference has raised questions about the future for the socialist left in Scotland. If we can all get together in a room and agree on a broad range of issues, then why can we not have some kind of united front or electoral list in preparation for new political realities post-referendum, whichever way the vote goes?

Some, like the Scotsman commentator George Kerevan went further writing “New movements are difficult to predict or direct, which is why they are movements not parties. But the emergence of RIC suggests that there is a space in Scotland for a Red-Green Republican Left Party (or coalition of parties) committed to Scottish independence – a grouping that could command 10 or maybe 15 per cent of the popular vote on a good day.”

Certainly the experience of similar parties in Catalonia, the Basque Country and elsewhere would support such a claim. There are real obstacles to overcome even with the lowest level of unity. The split in the Scottish Socialist Party around the Sheridan trial left a bitter legacy with many simply leaving politics and others deeply hostile to working with those who split ever again.

But nature and politics abhor a vacuum and there is clearly a space to the left of Labour and the SNP. New generations of activists have no interest in the splits of the past and will be attracted to organisations who are unsectarian and hold socialist unity as a principle. A new electoral list, coalition or party remains necessary to give us the strength to stand up to the neo-liberal onslaught that we will face regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

Scottish Socialist Party

The SSP has survived, although it is clearly in a much weaker state than in its heyday when it united virtually the entire Scottish left and had six members elected to the Scottish Parliament. The number of branches and activists has shrunk but recently it has been recruiting and holding well attended public meetings.

Attitudes towards RIC within the SSP are not homogenous. Some, particularly the youth, were enthusiastic and played a key role in building the conference and indeed, SSP conference voted to back RIC. Others within the leadership seemed suspicious and played down the potential for a big conference, a perspective that was not borne out. SSP co-convenor Colin Fox sits on the Yes Scotland board and has strongly encouraged members to throw all their energy into the official campaign with RIC being seen as a sideshow.

The Yes Scotland campaign is seen as a way to appeal to a broader layer of pro-independence activists both inside and outside the SNP and to hopefully bring some of them into the SSP.

Whilst ‘building the party’ is ABC for socialists and it is healthy to recruit to the SSP, it is not an end in itself and it is important that other socialists are not simply seen as rivals. The danger is that unless the party has a more strategic approach to the variety of social movements making up the pro-independence campaign it could lose opportunities and lose members. The SSP was founded on the principle of uniting the left and sectarian attitudes should be an anathema to it.

International Socialist Group

The International Socialist Group are one of the newest groups on the left. They formed recently from a split within the Scottish SWP which saw most of the youth and student members leave to form the ISG. The ISG have been the driving force behind RIC and have been able to work constructively with the rest of the left.

The largely student membership base of the ISG has advantages and disadvantages. Their members are young and have time, energy and elan – all of which have been clearly seen in the RIC. They reflect the makeup of the recent youth and student campaigns, inspired by the Arab Spring and the rise of Syriza in Greece. The downside of this is a lack of any base in the workplaces and communities and the problem of membership turnover as courses end. The ISG have been clear that they see their organisation as transitional and are open to collaborating with other forces.

Socialist Workers Party

As detailed in Gregor Galls article in this issue of Frontline, and many other places, the SWP are in crisis. The Scottish SWP are already reeling from the ISG split and now face further division. Leading members such as Neil Davidson and many of the key activists in Edinburgh have come out against the leadership. Whilst in Glasgow most seem to back the leadership.

The SWP has had some involvement in RIC and has continued to attend RIC meetings and events. Whilst there is an element of ‘kremlinology’ in trying to predict what will come next for the SWP, it is clear that things are moving. Another significant split in the SWP in Scotland will mean some kind of re-alignment of forces.

Everything solid melts into air

The Radical Independence Conference offered hope to activists in Scotland. In particular it offered hope to the new generation of young activists many of whom can barely remember the anti-war demos of ten years ago, let alone the poll-tax battle or miners strike.

Those older activists who have been through those battles owe it to them to listen. We also owe it to them to help teach the lessons of those struggles. To do that we need to think about what is best for socialism not just what is best for our particular socialist party.

We also need to consider the shifting elements of the Scottish left, the wider groups of unaligned activists and the thousands of current and former SNP members who are unhappy at the party’s shift to the right over issues like NATO membership.

There are no easy options and no guarantees of success in any strategy but socialists seeking to change the world need to recognise that Scottish politics is changing, with or without them.

France: After election win, what course will Francois Hollande take?

 Murray Smith on the results of the French elections

Paris, France
Following on the victory of Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande in the May 6 French presidential election, legislative elections were held in two rounds on June 10 and 17. The results confirmed those of the presidential election, but with some particular features.

Only since 2002 have the presidential and legislative terms been harmonised. Previously the decision to hold legislative elections or not was the choice of an incoming president. Now it is automatic. This sequence tends to produce elections that are simply a prolongation of the presidential contest, leading to a marked bipolarisation. On one side there is a strong push to give the incoming president a majority. On the other side of the political spectrum there is a tendency to vote for the main opposition party to provide a counterweight. Other parties tend to be squeezed out in the process.

And that is what happened this time. Despite polls indicating that there would not be a big wave of support for the Socialist Party, there was. Not on the scale of the landslide that followed Francois Mitterrand’s victory in 1981, but substantial. The Socialist Party won a majority on its own, reinforced by a couple of small parties of fellow travelers and further amplified by its Green allies.

First round

Let us look at the first round of the legislative elections compared to the first round of the presidential election. First, the rate of abstention was much higher, as it now is for every election except the presidential; more than 42 per cent in the first round and more than 44 in the second (comparable figures for the two rounds presidential election were 18-20 per cent). So naturally, with one notable exception, every party’s support dropped in absolute terms, but not necessarily in percentage terms. The Socialist Party vote, at 7.6 million, was about three quarters of its vote on April 22. The conservative UMP vote was 7 million, compared to 9.75 million. In percentage terms the Socialist Party won 28.63% in the presidential election, 29.35% at the legislative elections. The percentages for the UMP were 27.18 and 27.12.

Things fared differently for the other parties. The far-right National Front vote fell from 6.4 million to 3.5 million, and from 17.9 per cent to 13.6. The Front de Gauche (Left Front) went from just under 4 million to 1.8 million and from 11.1 per cent to 6.9. Only 44 per cent of those who voted for the Left Front presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon on April 22 voted for the Left Front on June 10 (also, 5 per cent of Hollande’s voters did so).

As for the centre candidate, Francois Bayrou, who won more than 3 million votes at the presidential elections, his party, the MoDem, got less than half a million votes, and Bayrou himself lost his seat, a victim, according to his own admission, of his electorate not having followed him in his choice of voting for Hollande in the second round of the presidential election.

Greens

The exception was the Green party, EELV, but it is one of those exceptions that proves the rule. Its presidential candidate got a modest 2.95 per cent, 828,000 votes. But in the first round of the legislative election EELV won 1.4 million votes, 5.46 per cent. “Won” is perhaps the wrong word: “received” would be more appropriate. EELV got those votes and obtained 17 seats (as against four previously) because in 61 seats, as part of a political pact, the Socialist Party did not present a candidate. So EELV’s progress did not go against the grain of bipolarisation but was part of it: Greens were elected with Socialist votes, something which is very obvious when you see that EELV averaged got just 3.9 per cent in the seats where it was confronted with a Socialist candidate.

Left Front

The Left Front did not make any such deals with the Socialist Party. Negotiations to have a common candidate of the left in a few constituencies where the National Front posed a threat fell through because the Socialist Party did not want to stand down for Left Front candidates. So the traditional rule applied: if the Socialist Party got more votes than the Left Front in the first round, the Left Front candidate withdrew before the second round, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, the vice versa was not very widespread. Left Front candidates came first in 11 constituencies, and were beaten by the Socialist Party elsewhere and stood down. In the Saint Denis constituency, the long-standing MP refused to accept this rule, stood against the Socialist Party in the second round and lost. After the second round the Left Front had 10 MPs, as against 19 before the elections.

This was clearly not a good result, but it was not as bad as one might think by just looking at the seats lost. The only comparison is with the results of the Communist Party in the 2007 elections (before the Left Front was formed). That shows a gain of around 600,000 votes, which is not so bad. But the result came as a shock to the Left Front. It had been widely expected that, on the strength of the result of the presidential election, not only would it keep its seats but win more. The figure of 30 seats was considered a reasonable objective.

So what happened? In the first place there was what might be called the objective factor of bipolarisation. There was a strong drive by left voters to give Hollande a good working majority. Whereas, at the on April 22 first round of the presidential election 30 per cent of Hollande’s voters are estimated to have hesitated between him and Melenchon, 38 per cent of Melenchon’s voters voted Socialist Party on June 10. However, there were also weaknesses on the part of the Left Front.

In the presidential campaign, which was a national campaign par excellence, the difference in program between the Left Front and the Socialist Party was very clear. The legislative campaign was of course a national campaign, but it was also a sum of more than 500 local campaigns. And it appears that the central, national aspect was not sufficiently emphasised and that the case was not sufficiently made as to why it was necessary to have a strong group of Left Front MPs and not just a presidential majority in general.

This was particularly necessary given that the first measures of the Ayrault government (seehttp://links.org.au/node/2902) were well received on the left – 70 per cent of Left Front voters were fairly satisfied with them and 23 per cent very satisfied.

There has also been some criticism of the decision to stand Melenchon against Marine Le Pen in the North of France. In the event Melenchon came third in the first round, behind Le Pen and the Socialist Party candidate, and had to stand down. In fact he was not very far behind the Socialist, and actually ahead in the main town of the constituency. But a miss is as good as a mile. The criticism is that the ex-presidential candidate engaging in a duel with Le Pen encouraged the idea that the Left Front campaign was essentially anti-National Front, and not centred on the need for a strong force of the radical left in parliament. There is certainly something in that, but it should be emphasised that the choice was not taken by Melenchon individually, but collectively by the Left Front, after considering other options. In the second round the Socialist Party beat Le Pen by a handful of votes.

Distorted result

It should also be underlined that the electoral system, one of the most undemocratic in western Europe, completely distorts the relationship between votes and seats. With proportional representation the Communist Party (PCF) would have had 25 seats in 2007 and the Left Front 40 seats in 2012.  Today the Socialist Party would have less than a third of the seats in parliament, as against more than half.

When we look at the Left Front results in terms of votes the picture looks brighter. Compared to the PCF in 2007, the Left Front progressed in 90 per cent of the constituencies in metropolitan France. In 330 it scored more than 5 per cent (135 in 2007). In 69 constituencies the score of the Left Front was between 10 and 20 per cent (37 in 2007). In 26 out of the 95 departments in metropolitan France its score in 2012 was more than double that in 2007 and in eight it more than tripled. However, at the top end of the scale the number of constituencies where the score was over 20 per cent fell slightly from 23 to 20, thus not reversing a long-term trend.

As the historian Roger Martelli put it in an analysis of the first round, the foundations are becoming stronger, but the roof is fragile. You don’t need to be an architect to know that that’s better than the other way round (which was the tendency before). But that’s a long-term view and in the short term seats were lost. However, they were mostly narrowly lost — less than 5000 votes, distributed in the right places, would have secured six more MPs, mostly the sitting ones who were defeated despite their vote rising by between 2 and 4 per cent compared to 2007 – but the Socialist Party vote increased more.

Setback for right

The elections were a severe setback for the UMP, which lost 3 million votes and 119 seats compared to 2007, whereas the Socialist Party gained 1.2 million votes and 94 seats. The result has accentuated the crisis of orientation within the UMP, with some candidates, including prominent ones, openly courting the National Front, not usually successfully in terms of getting elected this time round. The (strong) current within the UMP that is closest to the ideas of the far right, the Popular Right, fared worse than the UMP as a whole, losing half its MPs.

The National Front made its entry into parliament for the first time since 1997. The defeat of Marine le Pen was a setback, but two MPs were elected, both in the south: Le Pen’s 22-year-old niece, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, and the lawyer Gilbert Collard, who is not a National Front member but part of Marine Le Pen’s “opening out” strategy and who may turn out to be a loose cannon. In the Provence-Cote d’Azur region, the Socialist Party president of the region won a narrow victory over the National Front candidate for whom the UMP candidate had stood aside. In spite of its overall drop in votes compared to the presidential election, in 33 constituencies the FN vote in the legislatives was higher.

Communist Party (PCF)

The biggest non-surprise in the aftermath of the second round was the decision of the PCF not to take part in the Socialist Party-led government. Whereas the other components of the Left Front had made it clear during the campaign that they would not go into government with the Socialist Party, the PCF had always said that it would take its decision after the second round. However it was pretty clear what the decision would be, for anyone listening to what PCF leaders were saying during the campaign. The Socialist Party was not going to modify its program to accommodate the Left Front, and the PCF was not going to go into government to apply the program of the Socialist Party. The only thing worth noting was the scale of the refusal.

At a PCF’s National Council meeting on June 18, a three-point resolution was adopted. The first point stressed the importance of taking political initiatives and mobilising to impose radical policies. Second, it was decided that the conditions did not exist for the PCF to take part in the government, though leaving open the possibility that these conditions could change in the future. Third, the continuation and reinforcement of the strategy of the Left Front was reaffirmed. The resolution was adopted by 93 for, 11 against and 17 abstentions. A consultative vote of party members in their branches on June 18-19 produced a majority of 93.44 per cent. The final decision was taken by 500 delegates at a national conference on June 20, with four against and 16 abstentions.

What course for Hollande?

The question that is posed now is what course will Francois Hollande and his government pursue? For the moment the answer is not absolutely clear. Of course Hollande will not pursue an anti-capitalist policy, no one expects him to. What he will do is less clear. It is quite clear what capital, in particular finance capital in France and internationally, wants him to do. He has to impose government spending cuts, drop any ideas of taxing the rich, carry out structural reforms, in particular reforms of the labour market that reduce workers’ rights, pension reform, reduction of the public sector. In other words the program that is advocated and pushed forward in Europe by the “Troika “of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, supported by the OECD and the whole panoply of employers’ organisations.

How is Hollande shaping up? Let us look first at the opinions of two eminent organs of finance capital, theEconomist and the Financial Times. The Financial Times says in its editorial of June 20: “The sweep of the National Assembly by Mr. Hollande’s Socialist Party should have marked an end to populist initiatives. So far it has not.” Let us note in passing the FT’s conception of democracy: get yourself elected and then forget your promises and fall into line. The editorial goes on to criticise Hollande’s idea of a (3 per cent ) tax on dividends, his failure to define spending cuts, and so on.

The Economist is much more forthright. In an editorial titled “Powerful as well as dangerous” (a reference to its April 28 front page, “The rather dangerous Monsieur Hollande”, see http://links.org.au/node/2902). The sub-heading was “Investors beware; Francois Hollande is set to take France in the wrong direction even faster than you feared”.

The editorial has a reasonably good word for Hollande’s 120 billion euro European growth pact, also backed by Italy and Spain. It might have complimented him for joining in the chorus of advice to the Greeks to vote responsibly on June 17 and his expression of satisfaction when they did. But the Economist’s preoccupations are elsewhere. The editorial states: “Mr Hollande will start by cutting the retirement age for some workers to 60, putting the top marginal income-tax rate up to 75%, raising taxes on wealth, inheritance and dividends, increasing the minimum wage and making it much harder for employers to fire workers. Far from curbing the size of the public sector, at 56% of GDP the biggest in the euro zone, he seems likely to expand it. With these policies he is acting against the grain of change in the rest of the EU. This will do nothing to improve France’s competitiveness which, as its gaping trade deficit shows, has declined fast. Nor will it make the business climate any friendlier”.

In an article in the same issue, we read: “So it has been hard to distinguish what part of his speechifying—calling ‘the world of finance’ his main enemy or the rich ‘grasping and arrogant’—has been purely electoral. Now he will be forced into real choices. For he has, in effect, campaigned with two contradictory messages: a pledge to keep to France’s commitment to bring down the budget deficit to 3% next year (and to eliminate it by 2017), and a promise to increase benefits and fight austerity in Europe.

“Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, has insisted that France would meet its targets ‘without austerity’. The government plans some immediate fiscal changes on July 4th, a day after Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, outlines his legislative plans to parliament. They will include a vast array of tax rises—on the annual wealth tax, companies, oil firms, financial transactions and inheritance—focused on the rich and on business. There may be an extra 3% dividend tax to be paid by companies. Mr. Sarkozy’s planned VAT increase will be abolished. Further tax rises are expected in the full 2013 budget, due in September, including a new top rate of income tax of 75% on incomes over €1m.

“The government is ducking an even more crucial issue: France’s loss of competitiveness inside the euro zone. In an unusually blunt outburst this week, Laurence Parisot, head of Medef, the employers’ federation, said that she feared the ‘strangling’ of companies. Besides tax rises, there are plans to tighten redundancy rules for profitable firms and to raise the minimum wage. When David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, said cheekily that he would ‘roll out the red carpet’ to French firms seeking to flee, the Socialists dismissed it as cross-channel rivalry. The real danger of Mr Hollande’s plans has yet to sink in”.

The Financial Times wrote on June 18: “Potential deep cuts in France’s huge public spending bill will have to be made in the 2013 budget. But the new government has avoided any detail on this highly sensitive issue until it has safely negotiated the elections. It has indicated it will resist calls from the European Commission and others for structural reforms and deregulation, preferring instead to toughen employment protection legislation.”

The Economist editorial concludes: “In the end Mr Hollande will meet reality, just as Mitterrand did. A weakened France has no alternative but to embrace structural reforms and liberalise its economy. And it will surely take less than the two years Mitterrand had before changing course. In the meantime a powerful President Hollande could wreak much damage on his country.”

The reason for such long quotes is that they sum up very well the opinion of the ruling class, in France and internationally, about the Hollande presidency. They have expressed such criticism and disquiet before during and after the electoral sequence. Theirs fears may be exaggerated: if we were to go through the measures over which they express outrage, we would find that they are in most cases not as radical as they seem to believe. However, there is a problem, which can be summed up by the Economist’s sentence, “With these policies he is acting against the grain of change in the rest of the EU”. It does seem that Hollande would prefer to reduce the deficit by taxation rather than cuts, that he is not enthusiastic about cutting the public sector, or about the much-demanded structural reforms.

The problem is that “the grain of change in the rest of the EU” is not some general tendency, it is a clear, well-defined policy imposed by European institutions, by the IMF, by Germany and its allies. If it is not frontally opposed, it will over-determine national politics. Hollande can only give himself room for manoeuvre to apply heterodox policies in France if he is prepared to take on those forces, to engage in a real battle with them. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. But there will very soon be a test, at the EU summit on June 28-29.

Fiscal pact

In a preparatory meeting of the “big four” of the euro zone (Germany, France, Italy, Spain) on June 22 Hollande got agreement  on the ”growth package” of 120 billion euros, most of it not new money. But Merkel did not budge on anything substantial. The real test will come at the summit. In fact, among Hollande’s promises there is one that could be explosive, if he keeps it – his promise to renegotiate the fiscal pact, which Merkel and her allies refuse. If France then refused to ratify it, the whole project would be holed below the water line. If Hollande dug his heels in on that and furthermore demanded serious changes in the Greek bail-out conditions, that would be a real breach in the wall of austerity. If he accepts the fiscal pact, claiming the growth package as a victory and then France ratifies it, he will have placed himself on the defensive, and he will have great difficulty maintaining any independence in terms of his policies in France.

In any case, we will soon have some indications as to where Hollande is going. First of all at the EU summit, then with the report by the Cour des Comptes on France’s public finances, then the presentations of the legislative program, then the summit between the government, the employers and the unions.

To come back to the conclusion of the Economist’s editorial, it is certain that Hollande will meet reality; indeed he is already meeting it. It is also true that he will have less time than Mitterrand. He may resist the idea that “France has no alternative but to embrace structural reforms and liberalise its economy” and fight what would probably be a rearguard action. Or he may, more or less quickly, just cave in.

Whatever course Hollande pursues, the analogy with Mitterrand has its limits. When Mitterrand did his U-turn in 1983, there was no serious challenge from the left. The Communist Party was still in the government and the reaction among those who had put the left in power in 1981 was one of disillusion and disorientation. There were some defensive battles, against the destruction of the steel industry in 1984, for example, but no coherent fightback.

Since then people have learned, for example under the Jospin government, that sometimes you have to fight back against a left government. And there is today in the Left Front a credible political force that is outside and independent of the government. It may be a case of supporting measures of the Socialist Party government that go in the right direction and trying to make further advances. Or it may be a case of opposing austerity measures and reforms that “go with the grain of change in the rest of the EU”. But the opposition will now come not on the electoral terrain but from popular mobilisations. In that context, the links that have been established or re-established in the last period between political and trade-union activists will be invaluable.

Murray Smith is a member of the anti-capitalist party Dei Lenk (The Left) in Luxembourg.

This article originally published in Links magazine and reproduced with the permission of the author.

Left far behind at the polls – again

Gregor Gall looks at the council elections across England and Scotland of May 2012

polling station by secretlondon on flickr
Image by secretlondon on flickr

Left far behind at the polls – that is the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the latest outing of the political formations to the left of Labour in local May 2012 elections. Despite the age of austerity and workers paying for a crisis not of their own making, the radical left could not make any hay out of the situation.

This is not only desperately bad but desperately frustrating. And, given that the crisis has being going on since 2008, it is a little too late to talk of any sense of putting down markers for the future. The radical left should already have been put down, especially as the future is here and now.

Bradford Spring

Beforehand, there was much hope that the ripples of the Bradford spring – following Galloway’s victory in the parliamentary by-election – would wash out to elsewhere. No such effect was discernible other than in Bradford where Respect won five council seats. Indeed, Respect barely stood anywhere else and without any candidates being elected. Its old heartland of the east end of London has withered on the vine.

Other than three individual successes for the radical left in Preston (Michael Lavalette TUSC), West Dunbartonshire (Jim Bollan SSP) and Walsall (Peter Smith Democratic Labour Party), the election was a wipe out. Even worse was that former MP, Dave Nellist, lost his seat in Coventry after fourteen years as a sitting councillor.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), standing 134 candidates in 133 wards in England and Wales, received just 21,046 votes. Eighty of its candidates got less than 5% of the share of the vote and only ten got more than 10%. Tony Mulhearn’s candidature in the Liverpool mayoral contest received 5,000 votes. In the Greater London Assembly elections, TUSC gained just 17,686 while UKIP, the BNP and National Front collectively gained 155,000 votes.

Scotland Votes

Meanwhile in Scotland, TUSC’s sister organisation, the Scottish Anti-Cuts Alliance stood in 38 areas, receiving a paltry 3,200 first preference votes. This included the 472 votes for Gail Sheridan who came fifth. The Scottish Socialist Party, standing in 31 areas, did not much – but a little – better with 4,185 first preference votes

Pointing out the odd good vote in Glasgow, Barnsley, Cambridge, Salford, Sheffield, Lewisham and so on does not change the dimensions of how bad the situation actually is.

Credibility Gap

So what explains the pitiful outcome of this latest electoral outcome for the radical left, and especially when things are so different in Greece, Portugal, Germany and France? In one word: credibility.

It was not the lack of the right political programme or set of policies or election manifestos that has any bearing on the situation. The difference between wanting to fight most of the cuts and all the cuts would be lost on anyone but the most vigilant voter.

But it was the credibility of the programme, policies and manifestos – as well as the organisations and individuals who authored them – that explains the gap between the widespread anger and the lowly number of votes.

Building Profile

Put very simply and bluntly, no one on the radical left can hope to stand in an election and get elected – let alone just do well – by running an election campaign that lasts for a matter of weeks or a few months in the run up to the election.

To have any chance of doing well, candidates and their organisations must have a widely-known and high-profile track record of effective and successful campaigning. The organisations must exist in a genuine sense between the elections, not just being dusted off a few weeks or months before the election (and since the last time).

Exceptions

Of course, there is an exception to every rule. This exception is one George Galloway. But he is actually the exception that proves the rule. His election campaign started just weeks before the vote but because of who he is – rather than just what he was saying – he was able to tap into a series of networks as Helen Pidd’s reporting in the Guardian made clear. Galloway’s credibility allowed him to speak to people who normally would shut their eyes and ears off to such a radical message.

And, of course, it has taken Galloway years of high-profile activity to be able to stand as a candidate from outside of the mainstream parties and beat them at their own game. This was true with the rise of Respect and his election in 2005 to the Bethnal Green and Bow seat in London.

The only other exception is recent times has been the Scottish Socialist Party from 1999 to 2004 under the leadership of Tommy Sheridan. His and the SSP’s prominence were built on the back of not just the anti-poll tax revolt but all the campaigns since them.

Long journeys start with small footsteps but the radical left should already have been in a position of being ready for lift off on 3 May 2012.

Professor Gregor Gall, University of Hertfordshire and Edinburgh resident