This issue of Frontline focuses on a crucial question. Can the left in Scotland unite? Frontline recently hosted a meeting on this topic which brought together participants from several groups. To build on that discussion we asked participants to write for this issue of Frontline outlining their views.
Socialist Unity – Pushing the rock over the hill? Allan Armstrong, of the Republican Communist Network, and Editorial Board member of Emancipation & Liberation, examines the renewed shoots of socialist unity in Scotland, and some of the remaining pitfalls and possibilities
Left Renewal in Scotland – View from the ISN
The International Socialist Network is a new group bringing together socialists who have recently left the Socialist Workers Party. In this article Raymond Watt outlines the view of ISN supporters in Scotland concerning the way forward for the left in Scotland.
Out of the Ghetto: why detoxifying the left is the first step to revival Cat Boyd and James Foley are activists in the International Socialist Group and have played leading roles in the Radical Independence Campaign. In this article, which is taken from the book ‘Time to Choose’ and published online for the first time here, they address the issues around reviving the left in Scotland.
Cleaning up the City – Unionising London’s Cleaners
Attempts to unionise cleaners in the City of London have shone a spotlight on an exploited group of largely immigrant workers. Gregor Gall, Professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford looks at how the campaign was built.
Will the real European Left stand up?
This article by Murray Smith was written as a contribution to the debate around the Left Unity initiative which followed Ken Loach’s call for a new left party, and in response to a contributor who instead argued for building the left within the Labour Party. Murray is a member of the anti-capitalist party déi Lenk in Luxembourg, and of the Executive Board of the Party of the European Left.
Naked: Institutional fear and bodies in public spaces
Artists, film makers and academics from Scotland and Argentina recently collaborated on a project which used the case of the Naked Rambler to explore different ideas of ‘nakedness’, and reactions to bodies seen as out of place. Dr Sarah Wilson of the University of Stirling writes in this article about some of the surprising responses to Argentinian filmmaker Syd Krochmalny’s project and some of the issues it raises in terms of access to ‘public’ space and the fear and self-censure provoked by risk management practices in the workplace.
Norman Lockhart of Tweeddale/Borders SSP looks at how the left can best take up the cause of oppressed groups in society
More or less conscious of the connection for many years socialists have seen a close identity with the struggles of the oppressed and those trying to transform the exploitation of the unfair economy that is the basis for capitalism. So we try to build alliances that can unite the various forces in joint action. However it is worth going beyond the mechanical economic links and also looking at some practical measures that socialists can take to advance this process.
There are also people like Sharon Smith in USA who are developing a wider Marxist appreciation of the oppressed. Generally organisations since the ‘60s have been restricted to seeing that special measures are appropriate in the case of for example Youth, LGBT, Black and ethnic minorities as well as Disabled. However the oppression of the majority gender, Women, is central to addressing the whole issue of oppressed groups for socialists. The consequences of getting it a bit wrong are widespread and severe. This applies in general to working class practice so many unions e.g. RMT, UNISON, UNITE now have some form of internal groupings for women, youth, blacks & gays etc
There has been a big change in trade unions and campaign organisations so that it is common to find recognition of women gay black organisations inside unions that are more or less self organising to ensure their needs are addressed.
It is socialist organisations that have failed to meet our own standards especially in Britain this century.
Some of the most obvious examples have been where individuals have been the highlight of weaknesses in our parties as we have not been able to address them. One of the reasons for this has often been the attitude to internal democracy and the political culture that dominates as a result.
The SSP brought together much of the different positive and negative experiences of comrades originally from different organisations. A few notable examples without attaching details would be the WRP and Healy, Respect and Galloway and of course the SSP and Sheridan all have left a bitter trail of damaged personalities and parties. Now this damage is being repeated in the SWP where the limits on internal democracy have had disasterous consequences for the left’s reputation.
Highs and Lows
Clearly it is not enough to combat the impact of bourgeois ideology and culture to only make technical guarantees of representation both internally and publicly but also take steps to encourage their practical implementation. The SSP executive for the last year has had virtually zero representation of the women only places besides the other posts are overwhelmingly male. The recent conference of the party has not made any significant differences. This in contrast to the time when it had 4 women out of 6 MSPs. A high point that illustrates what is possible and on which more can be built.
Socialist politics often still confines itself to making a mechanical economic connection between class struggle and the obvious allies of the oppressed in capitalist society. Recent history of the left parties in Britain suggests this might be a step forward in consciousness and cadre education.
Forces such as trade unions as well as businesses and parties in society did change in appearance. More genuine attempts meant this was often in structure as well so that gender balance in committees and educational caucus groups became considered a norm of campaigns and organisations.
However during the last 25 plus years we have seen this being reversed or absorbed by capitalism or even become integrated as a part of niche marketing.
Turning it Around
It is worth noting that societies that have started to transform and have paid attention to gender balance have only been successful where it has been a permanently recurring feature of political life.
A small starting measure for consciously trying to transform campaign organisations, parties etc would be to actively encourage the formation of different minority and oppressed caucus for all the groups but particularly to address the set back to women’s liberation since the marked successful changes in late 60s early 70s.
This is only to start a cross gender debate about how to reactivate consciousness raising that also recognises that while it might appear harder in this defensive time it is also when we need to be an attractive option for those about to start fighting back.
A gentle introduction to feminist issues for socialist might be debates stimulated after watching a DVD of the film Dagenham since that dispute was so instrumental in getting Equal Pay on the agenda while the film Vera Drake could stimulate a wider debate about class nature of abortion.
Argentinian artist Syd Krochmalny’s recent project ‘The Naked Soul’ explores different ideas of ‘nakedness’, public space and justice drawing on the case of the Naked Rambler here in Scotland. Dr Sarah Wilson of the University of Stirling writes in this article about some of the surprising responses to Krochmalny’s project and some of the issues it raises in terms of access to ‘public’ space and the fear and self-censure provoked by risk management practices in the workplace.
A recent art performance involving the projection of a video in a public place in Edinburgh raises key questions regarding freedom of expression, ‘public’ space and how it is controlled in contemporary Scotland. The video (‘The Naked Soul’) was made by Argentinian artist, Syd Krochmalny. Syd was invited to Scotland to give two seminars (one at the University of Stirling and one in the University of Edinburgh), an exhibition and to create this art work. After months of discussion, the resultant video draws on Biblical and philosophical texts, poetry and Scottish history to reflect on the case of Stephen Gough, the ‘Naked Rambler’, who spent over 6 years in Scottish prisons. It highlights different ideas of ‘nakedness’, attitudes to the body, imprisonment as a response to bodies seen as out of place, and ultimately of the kind of society Scotland is and could be. Do we want a society in which debate and ideas are valued as, we are often told, during the Scottish Enlightenment? Or one in which notions of ‘freedom of expression’, the ‘public’ and of dialogue are decaying in the wake of an all-encompassing institutional fear of controversy and the bureaucratisation (and potential criminalisation) not only of protest, but of any public gathering?
In the beginning was the word. And the fears provoked by the word. The ‘Naked Soul’ refers to the Greek myth of the origins of justice recounted by Plato. But the inclusion of the word ‘naked’ on our application for permission to project in public was ‘alarming’ to Council officials though I assured them no naked genitalia would be shown. Indeed, much less of the body than in many television programmes and advertisements, than on the covers of lads’ mags freely displayed in most supermarkets, than in the flesh during stag or hen party antics. In conjunction with the word ‘naked’ however, even arms and legs can become dangerous. A visceral fear of ‘offence’, of something ‘inappropriate’ seemed to pervade. It seemed an excuse to veil the fear of nakedness itself.
Don’t Push the Boundaries
Yes ‘freedom of expression is important’ but we don’t want anything that ‘pushes the boundaries’ said one official awkwardly, anything ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’. Our first idea was to project the video onto the statue of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume in the centre of Edinburgh in front of the High Court of Justiciary. This attracted an aggressive response from the sculptor (backed up by implied threats from Edinburgh artistic and legal Establishment ‘heavies’ based on interpretations of Copyright Law that ignored established Scottish customs of hanging traffic cones on public statues and of rubbing Hume’s toe.) The sculptor’s representative suggested that if we didn’t believe in the aura of a work of art such as this sculpture, we should consider projecting onto a poster with the words ‘David Hume’ on it. In spite of having accepted a commission from an organisation with a definite political purpose (the Saltire Society), the sculptor himself employed Kant’s argument of the ‘Kingdom of ends’ and ‘art for art’s sake’ against the idea of temporarily projecting anything not only onto ‘his’ work but also onto the space around it.
The idea of political debate in a public place, or even of public space itself, seemed to be disturbing for artists, public bodies and others. It was suggested that ‘as a matter of courtesy’ we should ask the permission of the courts if the projection were to hit ‘their’ walls. Naïvely, we suggested that the walls of public buildings might be seen as ‘public’ property and not ‘theirs’. ‘That sounds like sedition’ was one response. Commercial suppliers were also frightened of causing ‘offence’. A company of equipment suppliers suggested we do something less ‘political’, concerned that they might lose contracts if they were seen to be ‘involved’. A Council official then suggested that one way to appease local artists and the ultimate local commandment of ‘Thou shall not interfere with the traffic even minutely… except during the commercially successful Festival’ was to transfer the projection to a local cemetery in which no one had been buried for over a century. Of course, this would also be a transfer to a less visible public place. This official in a public institution happily engaged in discussion around the project, but was afraid of censure from superiors concerned to ‘manage’ risk rather than encourage freedom of expression or dialogue. ‘I don’t want to get a call from the local newspaper about this’. No one was unhelpful. Most were interested in the project and wanted to chat. But as employees they knew well the contemporary concern of institutions to avoid anything ‘controversial’. They were scared and preferred to pass the decision onto someone else.
But the cemetery which contains David Hume’s tomb was, we realised, a good location for a project related to myths around death and judgment. A liminal place, for souls banished from too public places: Jews originally, transported activists such as Thomas Muir, prostitutes, Naked Ramblers perhaps, and artists wishing to explore certain issues (while still not offending against another British commandment ‘Thou shalt not show willies in public places ..at least not outside of a commercial context’). Sorted we thought, with the blessing of two Council departments. But unbeknownst to us, the cemetery took us outside of the invisible boundary lines of these two departments and inside those of another, according to whom, even though Old Calton Cemetery functions more now as a tourist attraction than as a ‘live’ cemetery; ‘The families of the dead might be offended’. The idea of offence takes multiple forms and multiple spaces then. We’d seen no sign of mourners in amongst the detritus of local drinkers, which we offered to clear. How many people might be the descendants (or the potentially offended) of these people buried over century ago? What kind of offence related to never known ancestors might this be? How far might such offence travel over time? The project was coming to resemble its subject: the banishment of the (nearly) naked body to the margins, the fear of sexuality and death. But still there was no official response, yes or no. The official processes left us hanging despite several phone calls; with the blessing of some departments, but passed to others who did not respond. Was this silence the result of miscommunications….or a type of silence intended to silence, to lead us to self-censure? …..better to not engage in anything ‘controversial’, right? An effective silence too. It was beginning to get to me. I realised that I, too, was scared.
Our final no came through an unexpected but revealing source. The afternoon before the projection, a university press official phoned the Council media department which suggested the Council did not know of our previous negotiations, or that we had been directed to the Cemetery by Council officials, and stated that the cemeteries’ department’s response was a definite ‘no’ (not that anyone had told us this). Rather than questioning this process or broader theories of freedom of expression or notions of public space, the increasingly cautious and commercialised university, too, preferred to avoid anything ‘controversial’, anything that might tarnish its monolithic, clean ‘brand’. A university officer suggested that the video would be better shown in a more ‘private’ space, such as, in his view, the university itself. The Council media department’s gratitude to the university press office was obvious in an email ‘thanks for the heads up’; two institutions managing the risk posed by employees and their pesky, creative ideas.
Furious, and animated by an Argentinian who could not quite believe that this was happening in the country of Hume and Smith, we went ahead. After the cemetery we projected in the AugustineCentralChurch. In contrast to other institutions, this church honoured its tradition as a place of public dialogue and welcomed us with open arms. Here, at last Syd was shocked and impressed by an Edinburgh institution!
Is Another Scotland Possible?
We are left though with many broad questions at this crossroads in Scottish history. Is another Scotland possible? One in which the body provokes less official fear and revulsion, and in which children are not taught that the naked body is exclusively sexual or something perverted? One in which the many intelligent, creative workers within institutions –whether in the public or private sector- are allowed space to engage with ideas and spaces around them without fear of censure? One in which dialogue is welcomed, rather than ended by risk management practices in institutions relating to (potential) ‘offence’ to a few and the reaction of powerful media outlets? More broadly, can a society administered, explicitly or otherwise, through such a state of fear and self-censure, in which words such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘controversial’ are used to close down rather than to open debate, be truly democratic? If democracy is constructed through dissensus, then does the aversion to such debate within some Scottish institutions reveal a latent timidity, and from an Argentinian perspective, proto-fascist, spirit at their heart? The spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment may still haunt CaltonCemetery, but it seems to be well buried in today’s institutions and (increasingly privatised) public spaces.
Cat Boyd and James Foley are activists in the International Socialist Group and have played leading roles in the Radical Independence Campaign. In this article, which is taken from the book ‘Time to Choose’ and published online for the first time here, they address the issues around reviving the left in Scotland.
A socialist strategy in Scotland must necessarily involve two parts. The first is a consideration of the objective possibility of and need for an anti-capitalist party in Scotland. This is the question of “political space”: how much room do we have for an alternative at the ballot box when we are squeezed between SNP and Labour? The second is about our own behaviour, the trust we have for each other and our legitimacy with social movements and working class communities. This may be called the subjective factor.
Our position is that there is space for a radical Left alternative in Scotland. There is a crisis in Scottish society, lying somewhere between the nationalisation of RBS/HBOS (economic crisis) and the referendum of 2014 (constitutional crisis). This Scottish crisis presents definite opportunities. But to anticipate and shape this process, we must face up to our own need for reform. Due to the SSP split, the left in Scotland has a toxic reputation that extends far beyond our own ranks. We do not think our own crisis can be resolved by the final defeat or victory of any sector of the left. What is required is a three step detoxification process.
In the short term, we must fight for left unity. This is not just about united action with the Greens, trade unionists, and so on. It means active steps to restore working relations in the post-SSP left. In the medium term, we must regain the trust of protest movements and the wider radical left currents in society: we may call this left renewal. Lastly, there is the broad task, to win the leadership of society in the battle to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. This hegemonic task clearly requires winning over “reformist” voices in the SNP, Labour, and the unions. We call this left realignment. These steps, we wish to argue, depend on each other. But they stem from a reading of objective difficulties in maintaining existing Holyrood alliances.
Space for the Left?
Scottish politics is often thought of as a “village” in which “everyone who is anyone knows everyone else who matters”. Few will deny that there are elites who shape the policy framework in Holyrood. But we also need to remember that Scotland is a capitalist, class society with staggering inequalities of wealth and power. One study, in 2003, showed that two Edinburgh districts have more millionaires than anywhere in Britain but Hampstead, London. “Blackhall is better heeled than Belgravia and Morningside is more upmarket than Mayfair,” reported The Telegraph. Contrast this to the figure that men in the Calton ward of Glasgow live to an average age of 54. With these facts in mind, we dispute any idea that Scotland has a distinctively “collectivist” civil society. The neoliberal trajectory in Scotland, like elsewhere, has led to extreme polarisations of income.
Reversing these trends is the goal of the anti-neoliberal left. The size of this group may be disputed. At the higher end of estimates, 43 percent of Scotland favours government action to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. In practice, this is unlikely to form part of the platform of either Scottish Labour or the SNP. But this should not lead to the conclusion that this group is liable to switch allegiances to the Left anytime soon. Winning this layer of Scotland to the left is the long-term goal. In the short term, we must seek to win back those who have deserted anti-capitalist politics in recent elections.
It is over-simplistic to attribute the decline of the radical Left in Holyrood to the SSP split alone. Clearly, there are objective socio-economic and political factors to account for. Some argue that the Left was always liable to get squeezed in the battle between the SNP and Scottish Labour, and thus view recent results as inevitable irrespective of contingent factors. Conveniently, this “objective” account draws attention away from our own flaws. There are certainly good reasons to look at objective circumstances. But the thesis is flawed in three respects.
Firstly, the fact that Scottish Labour is consistently positioned to the right of the SNP government puts the identity of trade union politics in question. Trade unions will not jump ship to SNP; such an arrangement would suit neither party. But their current link with Labour is not feasible so long as the neoliberal turn continues. The Left could, and should, play an active role in resolving Scotland’s crisis of working class representation.
Secondly, there is lasting evidence of anti-capitalist and left-of-Labour sentiment in Scotland. A decade ago, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was able to command 130,000 votes and 6 MSPs. The Greens secured a similar vote, roughly 7 percent, with 7 MSPs. The Iraq factor played a strong role in this. But it is evidence that there is a significant part of the Scottish electorate that can be won to leftist ideas. Anti-war sentiment in Scotland did not emerge from nowhere. It built on frustration with the “village” atmosphere of Scottish politics, especially the failings of Scottish Labour to tackle poverty and class inequality. These frustrations have only intensified recently. While we may disagree on the actions of the SSP in Holyrood, we can surely agree that they had some success in tapping into this current of anger.
Thirdly, the last few years have seen a significant revival of the extra-parliamentary radical Left in Scotland. The student movement against fees and cuts was the precipitating factor. But this has helped to reinvigorate other currents as well, such as feminist, environmental, and international solidarity campaigns. Many of the people involved with these campaigns will strongly disagree with us on the need for political organisation. But we ignore them at our peril. Our belief is that they can play a strong role in revitalising the Left, but only if the existing Left is ready to change its own habits and routines. We have as much to learn from the movements as they have to learn from us.
A crisis of radical Left politics is not peculiar to Scotland. All across Europe, the victories of anti-capitalist forces after Seattle and during the Iraq war have been pushed back for a decade. The organised Left has failed to offer a coherent challenge, system-wide, to the crisis, the bailouts, and the cuts post-2008. But the defeats have not been even. In some nations, the Left has positioned itself well to present a challenge to the dominant austerity narrative. If Syriza in Greece is at one end of the spectrum of left-wing success, Britain has most definitely been at the other end.
For these reasons, we believe there is no reason for fatalism. We are a victim of contingent events, largely of our own making. By contrast, there is a much more protracted, structural crisis of Scottish politics. Qualitatively new forms are likely to emerge from this. We can help to shape this process, by putting poisonous recriminations aside, by participating in grassroots campaigns, and by leading the battle for a break with Britain in 2014.
The Perverse Glocalization of Labour
Scottish Labour is at the centre of the Scottish crisis. Accusations of “machine politics”, of “negative campaigning”, and of “tribalism” are common in all accounts of Scottish Labour. It was widely accepted that Labour had to learn from its Holyrood electoral hammering in 2011. Iain Gray, a “flop” as a leader, was replaced by Johann Lamont last December. Lamont conceded that Labour had an image problem, coming across as “a tired old politics machine which was more about itself than it was about them.” But this dour public face is symptomatic of deeper factors.
Adapting factional local politics and “patronage networks” to demands to “think global” is a particular challenge. Hardly a month goes by without new reports of a hornet’s nest of factional antagonisms and interest group politics in Labour, often, but not always, grouped in the West Coast of Scotland. Most recently, Labour’s chief Scottish spin doctor, Rami Okasha, was suspended amid allegations of “insubordination”. This exposed East-West coast divisions, and also divisions been the Holyrood and Westminster arms of politics. These often express themselves as divisions within groupings, as the recent debacle over candidate selection for the Glasgow Council elections exposed.
At the same time, Scottish Labour is open for business when it comes to the amorphous benefits of “globalization”. It has proved far too intellectually timid to challenge Blairite norms. Gordon Brown summed up this new spirit: “The message London’s success sends out to the whole British economy is that we will succeed if like London we think globally…advance with light touch regulation, a competitive tax environment, and flexibility.”
A consensus held that London was a “model” to imitate for other urban economies. Glasgow City Council, in any case, had long been at the vanguard of neoliberal “urban boosterism” and place-marketing strategies. Thus, when Jack McConnell implored Labour to act as “the party of enterprise” in 2004, he was merely stating conventional wisdom and long-established practice. It is telling that Scottish Labour has not produced critical figures like John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP. They would almost certainly find other political homes in Scotland, perhaps even in the SNP.
There has thus emerged a perverse “glocalization” effect in Scottish Labour. On the one hand, there is a far more ingrained policy consensus in Labour than in any other organisation. The “race to the bottom” in regulation and the virtues of competition were accepted with little resistance. The only qualification was the need to preserve the “cherished values”, lying somewhere between “Britishness” and “social democracy,” of the Labour movement. A very British and very “global” consensus thus prevails. The monetarists won the intellectual debate; but social democracy still has “the right values”. There is no dissent from this flimsy intellectual framework.
But imposing neoliberal demands in practice needs a party machine built on a tough local fabric of council housing, local council employment, and trade unions. Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw refer to a (mythologised) “Labour Scotland” that services Scottish Labour in this regard. These factors are still largely responsible for Labour’s core base of support in Scotland, despite decades of appeals to “professional” middle class voters through “modernization” policies. Trade unions, to take one key example, are still by far the biggest funders of Scottish Labour. The result is that loyalty to Labour is corrupting local representation with intellectual complacency and widespread factionalism. Although working class voters may be less inclined to vote Scottish Labour, the tissue of representation is still poisoned by its local feuds and its superstitious respect for “global market forces”.
The Lamont Moment
It might be argued that these factors culminated with the diabolical election performance of Iain Gray’s Labour in 2011. But we wish to extend this a step further. The apogee of Labour’s factional-intellectual crisis has arrived only this year, with Lamont’s attacks on universal benefits and Scotland’s supposed “something for nothing culture”.
Two factors have been identified here. The first is a lack of vision about Scottish taxation that Hassan calls “Block Grant conservatism”. The result of thinking of Holyrood in terms of fixed fiscal parameters is to regard funding as a zero-sum game between “middle class benefits” and tackling poverty. Of course, there is no intellectual wriggle room in this straightjacket, since any leeway is likely to lead to further calls for “fiscal autonomy”, a slippery slope to independence.
A second issue is that Lamont is trying to massage internal disputes between roving bands of councillors, MPs, and MSPs. The attack on “freebies” like free education and prescriptions may satisfy the need for daylight between the SNP and Labour in policy terms. But how will the public respond? The problem is that these “freebies” are inexpensive and highly popular.
The assumption that universal benefits are primarily a tax-break for the middle class, and a distraction from fighting poverty, is also highly dubious. Certainly, there is a problem of poverty in terms of direct material deprivation in Scotland. But often the deepest impact of poverty is the humiliation and stigma of it. Means-testing benefits, to save very meagre sums, will do what it always does: pile up bureaucracies and pile on humiliating poverty exams for the most vulnerable in society.
Even if Labour can successfully mount a defence of this policy, which seems unlikely, there is little prospect of any minor “cost savings” getting used to fight a war on poverty, in any sense of the word. Scottish Labour finds itself on the right of the Scottish government on almost every social issue, never mind Trident and war. At the same time, Labour’s roots and its funding base remains in the trade unions. This settlement is surely unstable and fundamental revisions in Scottish politics are possible.
The many hats of nationalism
While the Lamont factor has forced Labour further to the right, it has reigned in some of the more neoliberal tendencies in the Scottish government, at least temporarily. Education Secretary Mike Russell used a 2006 book to claim that Scotland should scrap universal benefits, as part of a sweeping set of cuts to the public sector. He was forced to retract these claims under pressure. “I am more than prepared to say today that my experience of the recession and the loss of 25,000 university places south of the border makes me believe I was wrong.” It would be foolish to read into this a change of heart from the SNP’s small, but influential, free market wing. What it represents is an attempt to unify the shifting imperatives between Scottish government, SNP party organisation, and the Yes Campaign for 2014. How these tensions play out will shape the future alignments of Scottish politics.
With a more or less fixed income from Holyrood’s block grant, Salmond’s team will be under pressure to make cuts as part of the Britain-wide austerity squeeze. There is no escaping this, all things being equal constitutionally. On the basis of its defence of the NHS, its opposition to tuition fees, and its defence of universalism, the SNP government has a legitimate claim to the identity of “real Labour” against New Labour. But this political manoeuvring does not change the social base of Salmond’s power amongst elements of the new middle class, small businesses, unorganised sections of the working class, and nouveau riche “entrepreneurs”. This clash between collectivist “values” and social structure was dramatised over the N30 strikes, in which SNP ministers happily crossed picket lines. The idea that N30 was an act of London-based “vested interests” with no relevance to Scotland was uncritically accepted in some sections of the Scottish broad Left.
Since the SNP membership is not, and cannot be, built out of trade unions, breaches like this are inevitable. However, this does not mean the SNP is a right-wing wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a party built on the class faultlines of a nationalist platform. There is clearly a very genuine enthusiasm for anti-war and anti-nuclear politics in the SNP ranks. This has been qualified by a sad oversight on Afghanistan, where leaders have stuck to mainstream complacency. But this is a telling contrast with Labour, where any anti-war politics is a dirty secret.
The debate on NATO clearly reveals the fractures of trying to win the public to independence. On the one hand, Yes Scotland repeats the official line: let us not talk about the precise details of a future nation, let us unite for today and all issues can be democratically agreed after 2014. But all the while the media and “civil society” demands answers about “security” after independence. The British establishment is adept at manipulating the politics of fear, and Yes Scotland has no basis to tackle this. Thus, the SNP is buying time with the Left using Yes Scotland’s sterile optimism, while shifting its own positions to make ground to the right in practice. This has already led to a humiliating public spat with the Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie. This wrangling has resolved itself, for the time being, but serious divisions remain over the function of Yes Scotland.
For the time being, the SNP is still clearly to the Left of Scottish Labour. Only the most dogmatic determinist would pretend otherwise. In a peculiar twist, the SNP got a majority of working class votes in 2011. It even managed to break Scotland’s Catholic community away: 43 percent voted SNP against 36 percent for Labour, testament to its break with a toxic perception of pro-Orange politics. But these factors cannot withstand the elements forever. Divisions have been held off for the time being. But after the 2014 referendum the SNP’s contradictions must start to unravel, or it will move back to the right of Labour under pressure from the pro-market wing of the party.
No consideration of the future of the Left can leave aside the question of the extra-parliamentary movements. There are two aspects to consider in this respect: trade unions and protest groups. We would defend the decision to consider these forces separately. Sadly, the evidence of surveys has suggested that these rarely crossover. While there are many honourable counter-examples, we feel these are two separate strands. It goes without saying that it is incumbent on trade union leaders, at the top and the bottom of organisations, to change this.
Trade union adaptation to devolved Scotland has been very uneven. The apparatus of the major, Labour-affiliated unions have been reluctant to acknowledge a Scottish dimension to politics. Many still deny that any substantial changes to the “united British working class” are worthy of consideration, or constitute anything more than a distraction. Labour tribalism is deep rooted in many unions. A huge proportion of trade union officials belong to Labour. Attitudes to devolution have thus often fallen into the same complacent, business-as-usual mode.
However, the STUC has a somewhat different approach. They have a long record of campaigning for devolution, and to some degree have shown willingness to work engage with “Scottish civil society”. This has led, in practice, to a tendency towards “popular front” mobilisations, which are often accused of defining “broadness” by how many priests they can put on a platform. A more radical case is the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which at one stage considered affiliation to the Scottish Socialist Party. The RMT actually affiliated to the SSP, before the split. Sadly these openings have been the exception, not the rule, and the Left has failed to capitalise on disenchantment with New Labour.
Not surprisingly, trade union officials have been awkward and stilted when responding to 2014. They have not given direct material support to Better Together, an openly reactionary coalition of interests which has been startlingly uncritical of the British status quo. An explicitly pro-British line would be difficult to maintain for the unions. Their core supporters are divided, and the most likely supporters of independence are the manual and routine working class. Thus, the unions have instead played a peculiar game of brinksmanship, flirting with devolution max while claiming to “facilitate debate”. Anecdotally, it is often claimed that many trade union leaders actually support independence, and privately they will vote for it. Of course, they can never state this publically, for fear of breaches with London central offices. But many are keeping their options open in this fluid Scottish conjuncture.
By far the most inspiring recent challenges to Scottish neoliberalism have come from outside the organised Left. There is a broad, confused ecosystem of protest movements that has become a significant factor in its own right. The catalyst for this was a highly successful student-led movement against cuts and fees in Scottish universities. This took its momentum from England, but unlike the English movement it was ultimately successful in forcing the SNP into a dramatic policy u-turn prior to the election. The context of anti-cuts protests was undoubtedly a huge factor in Labour’s heavy defeat in 2011.
A significant consequence has been the radicalisation of a layer of young people against the violent arm of the Scottish state, as campaigns have been mounted to defend student protesters against victimisation. But the youth-led protests have reinvigorated other dormant leftist trends: Palestine solidarity, feminism, and anti-racism to name but a few. Perhaps the most inspiring example was the sight of young activists from Coalition of Resistance and the Hetherington Occupation joining with community campaigners to save the Accord Centre in East Glasgow. Meeting the organisational and intellectual needs of this sort of “movement from below” is precisely the reason for rethinking old habits on the Left.
What needs to happen on the Left
Ironically, both the trade union and the protest movement have reached a similar dead end after the concessions post-N30. It is at a time like this when an organised Left is most needed. Sadly, our authority has been badly tarnished by the aftershock of recent splits. Only a Panglossian optimist would claim that the post-SSP left in Scotland has clarified anything about socialist strategy or tactics. The split has generated a volcano of heat and precious little light. Electoral programs of post-SSP groups have been nearly identical. Any promise that the split would bring new opportunities for the Left to relate to political movements has surely been refuted in practice.
We believe that restoring the health of the Left in Scotland requires three points. Left unity, the restoration of working relationships in the post-SSP fragments, is a logical first step. It is very difficult to build trust in wider society when paranoia and suspicion is rife in our own ranks. Some will object that any future moves towards unity, however desirable, must be made Britain-wide. But this does not take full account of the territorial changes in British governance. The Holyrood system offers far greater opportunities for the Left to gain a purchase in parliament. This may not be the end goal of revolutionary politics. But it is surely desirable to have a permanent voice of opposition to cuts, war, racism, and sexism in public focus.
The referendum in 2014, whatever the result, is another reason for restoring working relations in Scotland without waiting for consent to break out in the rest of the UK. The last thing we want is to end up like Scottish Labour, belatedly forced into accepting the need for Scottish organisation after years of pummelling defeats. Left renewal needs to happen. It is our job to ensure that left dis-unity is not a roadblock to the organisational needs of the movement from below. At present, the organised left has a toxic reputation. Only unity can solve this.
The subjective factor, the modification of habits and “behaviour”, is thus highly important. Objective factors do count. But when opportunities open up to shape the debate, the Left’s intervention will be lacking if we put our own bad blood over the needs of the movement. Even if we profess good intentions, an “end to sectarianism”, etc, we must prove it in practice.
A last factor is that the wider, societal left, i.e. those concerned with fundamentally changing the pattern of wealth and power in society, is fragmented across various organisations. Many belong to no group. To win the respect of this group is contingent on left unity and left renewal. That is to say, trade unionists who wish to see a radical left-of-Labour force will not take us seriously until we have won the right to represent the needs of the movement.
In Holyrood, the centre cannot hold, and things as they stand are liable to fall apart. One way or another, this is the trajectory of the 2014 referendum. The SNP’s credibility as a moderate party of government will come to a head with its credibility as a force of constitutional change. Labour’s base of financial support from nurses, school teachers, and cleaners will conflict with the needs to make Westminster the hub of pro-market politics in Europe.
We are not claiming to offer a blueprint for the sort of party we need in the future. It is merely our intention to say that the patterns of the last five years do not have to recur forever as in Groundhog Day. We can choose to put an end to this. Another five years in the ghetto is unforgiveable. The renewed radical left current in Scotland is already emerging from below, and there is space for it to grow. Unity is about ensuring that the toxic waste of past splits does not poison the future.
 On anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal programs, see Daniel Bensaid (2007), “The Return of Strategy”, International Socialism no. 113. See also Alex Callinicos (2003): An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge: Polity)
 Alf Young (2002), “The Scottish Establishment: Old and New Elites”, in Hassan and Warhurst (eds): Tomorrow’s Scotland (London: Lawrence and Wishart) pp. 154
 Tom Peterkin (2003): “Edinburgh is UK’s Millionaire Hotspot”, The Telegraph 06/02/03
 See Neil Davidson et al. (eds.): Neoliberal Scotland (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press)
 The figure for England is 34 percent. See John Curtice and Rachel Ormston (2011): “Is Scotland More Left-Wing Than England”, British Social Attitudes no. 42
 Iain MacWhirter (2012): “Scottish Labour’s Battles Could Spell the End for the UK”, Herald 20/09/12
 Gordon MacLeod (2002): “From Urban Entrepreneurialism to a ‘Revanchist City’?”, Antipode 34(3)
 Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw (2012): The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
 Gerry Hassan (2012b): “Let’s Start the Debate over the Future of Scotland’s Social Democracy”, The Scotsman 29/09/12
 Robin McAlpine (2012), “Is this the End of Scottish Labour?”, http://reidfoundation.org/2012/09/is-this-the-end-of-scottish-labour/
 Adrian Cousins (2011): “The Crisis of the British Regime: Democracy, Protest and the Unions”, http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/theory/37-theory/14906-the-crisis-of-the-british-regime-democracy-protest-and-the-unions
 Mark Irvine (2004): “Scotland, Labour and the Trade Union Movement: Partners in Change or Uneasy Bedfellows?”, in Gerry Hassan (ed): The Scottish Labour Party (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
 TNS-BRB (2010): “Independence Poll 13th December 2010”
The International Socialist Network is a new group bringing together socialists who have recently left the Socialist Workers Party. In this article Raymond Watt outlines the view of ISN supporters in Scotland concerning the way forward for the left in Scotland.
Since this is the first public article by International Socialist Network supporters in Scotland, it may be useful to introduce ourselves. The ISN (International Socialist Network formed from the recent split in the SWP) is very much in its embryonic stage and therefore we greatly welcome being part of discussions in Scotland and across the UK with other socialists, anti-capitalists and non-aligned activists around the possibilities and way forward for left unity/renewal.
The ISN is based on the principle, revolution from below as the sole means by which socialism can be achieved. It is refreshing that those currently engaged with the network are working to develop our ideas, which come out of Marxist revolutionary politics, on such questions as revolutionary organisation, feminism and left unity – and we recognise that we have much to learn from others in doing so. Marxism should be a living, breathing tradition. This means healthy and open debate, taking a realistic look at the past decades of neo-liberalism, changes in the composition of the working class, identifying the challenges faced by the left in the 21st century and seeking to modify revolutionary theory and practice to meet those challenges. The ISN seeks to be a forum in which such debate takes place and a network of activists committed to revolutionary socialism form below.
The Broader Context
Readers will be aware of the circumstances in which the ISN came to be formed by members of the Socialist Workers’ Party – more information is available here. Rather than rerun that history, we want to take this opportunity to engage with others in developing our understanding of the present period and working through our attitude to concrete issues of left realignment in Scotland.
We start, as most socialists do, from the principle of “fighting in the interests of the working class”. There are those that argue that these interests are best fought through elections, parliaments and governments and those,like the ISN, who believe that this goal can only be achieved through revolution. This is, of course, the division into ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ strategies that we, and others on the left, became very comfortable debating because it offered us a series of ready-made answers.
Yet, the movements of the first decade of this century from the anti-capitalists of the early 2000s to the ‘Indiginados’, Occupy and anti-austerity protests have forced us out of this comfort zone. These two roads to socialism have faced a direct challenge from many other forms and methods of organising and activity. Many of these new forms of organising emerge from anarchist and self-defined ‘horizontalist’ movements – leading to hasty and counterproductive dismissal of these alternative ways of organizing by those who keep a focus on independent political organisation within the working class and trade union movement as the main strategy for revolutionaries. Many new activists have come into politics through those movements. And therefore it is crucial to understand why over the last couple of decades many more new activists have been attracted by such movements rather than avowedly socialist organisations, whether they be reformist or revolutionary. We agree with Ben Wray of the International Socialist group that this reflects a great weakness on the part of the Marxist left. Of course, the utter capitulation of all mainstream political organisations to neo-liberalism has led to disillusionment with the whole electoral system and any kind of “party organisation’ – not to the generalised apolitical apathy with which middle-class commentators comfort themselves, but nonetheless an enormous challenge for socialists. Furthermore, it is not enough simply to point to the mainstream parties as the source of this disillusion: many activists are repelled by party-based politics not because of a lack of contact with left-wing parties, but because of their own experience within those parties.
Does that just mean we were wrong about revolutionary socialism and organisation? Capitalism is still here, and the problems to which revolutionary socialist organisations were an answer are also still posed. This is not the first time historically that left organisations and working class political representation has been in crisis. As Jules Alford’s article (Some Notes on The British working Class 1900-1914) argues on the ISN web site, that… “There are instructive parallels with the long ‘downturn’ that proceeded the Great Unrest 1910-14 when only one in eight workers held a union card and today when union density in the private sector has fallen so low.” The institutions and consciousness of the class are at a historically low-level and as a result the left is in a critical state and needs to adapt. It is not a pretty picture but we are where we are – or, as Marx put it “the conditions of this new movement must result from the premises now in existence”. Marx, German Ideology (1845). The door to a revival of the left has been opened. It is up to us to decide whether we take the doors off their hinges or re-close them. We have a historical role to play now in the development of a new left movement.
The Scottish Situation
The shift in working class votes from the Labour Party to the SNP has highlighted the continued shift of the Labour Party away from the working class. Recent changes to its internal structures and election processes, and the increasing dominance of a middle class professional elite who control the party, can only further detach working class people from the Labour Party – and we would expect therefore from the notion that Labour can be transformed from within. From its foundation the Labour Party has always pursued the goal of building an electoral machine, with the final result that the party leadership now competes to best serve the interests of neo-liberalism. It is shifting away from being a working class “movement” , with a growing fetishisation of parliament and leadership of civil society functionary bodies. The Labour Party currently sees its aim for working class people as attempting to lift a minority out of the working class (as Joahnn Lamont put it out of the”something for nothing society”) as opposed to building a movement that, in John Maclean’s words, encourages the working class to “ rise with their class not out of their class”.
The SNP electorally has out flanked the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) to the left and over the question of independence the SLP has shot itself in the foot by alignment with the NO Campaign. The STUC’s position was recently stated by General Secretary Grahame Smith rather than engage with the Radical Independence Campaign he argued that “The challenge that matters in Scotland, ‘whether independent or as part of the UK’, will be how wealth is redistributed and that is a question of tax, public services and how we go about improving pay equality in Scotland.” First of all, this is not just a question of tax, services and pay equality but of class struggle – a struggle for which the independence campaign may change the terrain.
The Labour Party & Trade Union Left as Part of the Movement
It would be premature to extrapolate from the current poor state of the Scottish Labour Party the terminal decline of the party as a whole in terms of its relationship to and support within the working class. This leads to the question: should we seek to involve and work with those who view themselves as left-wing activists who exist both within the Labour Party left and/or in the Trade Unions in the discussions over left unity/renewal ?
We would surely have welcomed and indeed tried to win STUC and Scottish Trade Union representation into the Radical independence Campaign so why not encourage those who campaign to regain the Labour Party to a reformist road to socialism, even if we are sceptical of this strategy, into the process of building left unity?
One obvious difficulty would be around the question of winning the unions to a position of breaking the financing of the Labour Party by the trade unions. However, although there exist many such contradictions within the trade union movement – any possibility of raising the levels of trade union membership and increasing its participation within grass roots anti-cuts movements, should certainly be something we would welcome and engage with.
This lays a challange at the feet of those Labour Party and trade union left activists to break with their fears of the radical left and sectarian fears of “the Trots under the bed”. As Sarah Collins stated in (Issue 75) of Scottish Left Review the trade unions must learn to “Dance with the people that brung you. Those on the left are not your enemy”. To date, certain left union officials have been keen to speak on a plethora of “united front” anti-cuts platforms but then never to be seen to positively and actively back such campaigns or encourage their union members to become active in them. The only exceptions are when such activity has been specifically called by their union sector and only if ever raised and discussed within the tight confines of the union offices or branches and with “trusted” reps.
If the trade union left is to play a serious role in the fight against austerity then it must break out of its comfort zone, open its doors to the movement and fight with the anti-cuts movement, not just in words but in day to day action and activity. As John McDonald also states in (Issue 75) of Scottish Left Review “…it is the trade union movement that now needs to step up to the plate to mobilise and support a wider community campaign of resistance and austerity”. However, local community campaigns alone will not be enough to stop the austerity attacks on the working class unless linked to a national co-ordinated campaign which works to bring together both political and industrial action.The trade unions must begin to flex their ‘industrial’ muscle if they are to be viewed by the wider movement as any more than “boardroom” activists. The trade union movement cannot continue to confine itself within the restrictions of anti-trade union laws or wait for the glourious day when some elected Prime Minister miraculously reverses the law . Unite’s setting up of community branches is very welcome, but when Len McLuskey also thinks that Ed Miliband is the political answer to austerity, it does raise the question ; are the community branches a base for recruitment of possible electoral campaigners for Ed Miliband and his brand of austerity lite or a genuine attempt to rebuild fighting unions? It is one thing building branches in the community but quite another to build a union prepared to fight!
The truth remains to be seen in relation to union community branches, but one thing is for sure we cannot afford to go through another 30 years of broken promises from the Labour Party both when it is in power or in opposition neither can we suffer to wait until the “time is right” approach of the trade unions, if we do, we will end up where the Chartists had to begin.
We cannot begin to build the left unless we are genuinely prepared to bury many hatchets from the past, for many. This will not be easy for any of us, yet it is essential. Of course, the experiences of the past leave divisions that will not be buried over night. Hence, open political meetings and open discussions on future joint activities must be viewed as a process of rebuilding trust and confidence amongst those who have been active for the last couple of decades and more.
For the International Socialist Network this process of left unity/renewal has the potential to gain pace and growth but only if we assist in creating more open, democratic and less rigid structures which permit those coming into left politics the space to develop new left organisational structures fit for the battles of the 21st century and for regeneration of a new left. This does not mean that we become less ideological but have to become more ideological – in the sense of having a more up-to-date, accurate and fundamental analysis of contemporary capitalism that can guide our struggle.
Questions around the development of theory and its relationship to practice become more crucial, therefore. For too long, the left has been guilty of saying to new activists: “here is our theory and here’s how you will apply it”. Such a dogmatic approach has led on many occasions to wrong practices and ultimately contributed to the failure to retain new activists and grow the left. Hence the type of democratic structure within any new left project must be one which is developed and led from the bottom up. We would rather see 1000 more new grass roots activists fighting for the interests of the class and making mistakes along the way as they cut their political teeth, than a small group thinking they have all the answers.
At the high-point of the Stop the War and anti-capitalist movement in the early 2000s, a left realignment on an electoral basis did occur. In 2003 the left thought it had found the answer with the election of 6 SSP MSP’s and in 2004 Respect in England made important electoral gains. The successes of Rifondazione in Italy soon passed into defeat following party’s compromise with the participation of the Italian state in imperialism – although the current ground being made by Syriza in Greece may provide a more positive example. Just as the organisational formulas of the revolutionary left cannot simply be repeated and replicated, so we should also be cautious about thinking these organisational models, which brought about electoral successes during the aforementioned period, can be repeated as a strategy for helping the left to grow today. Of course a debate on and balance sheet of this period is both welcome and necessary but should not be the central focus and starting point for the future shaping of the left. The relationship between the level of concrete social and political struggles and the electoral process is extremely complex and indirect.
The Potential for Left Unity/renewal
Currently the left in Scotland have two central areas of work, one on the question of independence through the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and the second through the fight against austerity, via the anti-Bedroom Tax Campaign and other anti-cuts movements, both of which offer an opportunity for the left to work together including those of the left within the trade union movement, the SLP and the SNP. The key to the success of both these Campaigns, will be to ensure that one does not take precedence over the other. We do not wish to predict what the result of the referendum will be nor the resulting impact on Scottish politics, but what we do know is that left unity must be based on going beyond 2014. Therefore it is crucial that we continue to work in other campaigns which involve those not supportive of Scottish Independence.
As Alister Black stated in Issue 20 of Frontline “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.”
At the May Day rally in Edinburgh an activist in the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign stated in conversation that “there are many more people who consider themselves “socialists without a home” than there are with a home”. By this they meant that the current state of existing left organisations and there attitude to one another has disillusioned and prevented activists involved in other campaigns from joining the left.
It is to the activists of a new generation, activists in other campaigns who view themselves as socialists and older activists who are prepared to drop ultra-left sectarianism of the past, that we must listen to.
The ISN in Scotland believes that the potential to build a new left unity movement exists, and currently in Edinburgh roads towards such unity are being slowly but openly and positively discussed. As Marx said “ We have nothing to lose but our chains”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism, Time to Choose’  Edited by Gregor Gall, Published by Scottish Left Review Press, Biggar.
‘Scotland’s Economy: the case for Independence’  Published by The Scottish Government, Edinburgh.
‘Arguing for Independence’  By Stephen Maxwell, Published by Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh
Allan Armstrong, of the Republican Communist Network, and Editorial Board member of Emancipation & Liberation, examines the renewed shoots of socialist unity in Scotland, and some of the remaining pitfalls and possibilities.
The quest for socialist unity can often seem a bit like The Labour of Sisyphus. This is the ancient Greek myth about pushing a rock up the hill every day, only for it always to roll back down again. Only in that uphill struggle for socialist unity, there has been an added drama, when many are flattened as the ‘rock’ rolls back once more.
a) The problem of celebrity left politics and the socialist sects
So, what problems confront socialists trying to achieve such unity? We only need to examine the record of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), Socialist Alliance (SA), Respect, Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP), Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) to see many of these.
Socialist sects, celebrity left populists, or combinations of both, have created havoc. They have either held back the ascent of the socialist unity ‘rock’, or contributed to its spectacular descent and fragmentation, whenever some upward progress has been achieved.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or the Socialist Party (SP), controlled the SA, Respect mark I, CNWP and TUSC. Celebrity left populists, Arthur Scargill and George Galloway, made the SLP and Respect mark II their own creatures.
The SSP appeared to be different, though. It had a number of more promising features. However, it eventually split over whether it was to be a party in which all members were considered equal, or whether it was a vehicle for another celebrity left populist – Tommy Sheridan. Celebrities notoriously pursue their own personal interests above all else. They want only adulatory fans, not discerning and questioning equals.
Until the ‘shock, horror’, News of the World revelations, the SSP leadership had strongly promoted Sheridan. They had thought that by promoting a celebrity politician, this would finally help to push that ‘rock’ over the top of the hill.
As a result of ‘Tommygate’, the socialist unity ‘rock’ in Scotland split into two pieces– ‘Continuity’ SSP and Sheridan’s Solidarity. They both ended up rolling back downhill at increasing speeds, knocking into each other on the way, splintering into further fragments. Both can still found at the bottom of the hill today. Each is now preparing to make another ascent, largely oblivious to the lessons of the past.
The SSP leadership has not accounted for its own shortcomings, which contributed to the ‘Tommygate’ fall. It has produced no public balance sheet, and indeed they rejected such a course of action at the 2011 AGM (1). With Solidarity, now all but vanished, they think it is back to business as usual. It is just a case of finding the best issues, and mounting big enough campaigns, to push the SSP ‘rock’ back up that hill again.
The SSP leadership also thinks, that it has finally seen off Solidarity, and found a new helping hand. The SNP leadership has awarded the SSP the official socialist franchise in it’s ‘Yes’ campaign for the 2014 ‘Independence-Lite’ referendum. They think this will soon see them up that hill again.
However, although the Solidarity ‘rock’ has all but disappeared, Sheridan and his fan club (which still includes the SP and the pro-Central Committee wing of the SWP) have now metamorphosed into something else. They have found the anti-‘bedroom tax’ campaign, hoping this will give them a new upward impetus.
Back in the late 1980’s, Scottish Militant Labour (SML) had helped to form the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation (SAPTF). Many local anti-poll tax groups participated in the SAPTF’s campaign of mass defiance. After the defeat of this hated tax, first SML, and then later, the SSP, built on this success. They gained seats in local councils and the Scottish parliament. In the process, they unwittingly launched ‘Tommy’, the celebrity politician.
Hoping for history to repeat itself, Sheridan has now become leader of the Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation (ABTF), with the backing of the SWP and the SP. The idea has been to quickly cobble together a national leadership to pre-empt any more critical voices emerging from newly formed independent minded local groups. These might just question why neither Sheridan, nor the majority of other ABTF office bearers, is directly affected by the tax, and therefore ask – in whose interests is the ABTF being run?
The cynical purpose behind the ABTF is to relaunch Sheridan’s political career. Meanwhile, the ABTF also provides another recruiting opportunity for the SWP and SP. The ABTF national demonstration on June 1st is meant to duplicate the SAPTF’s first Glasgow march in 1989. Only today it is fronted by the politically tarnished ‘Tommy’ and backed by the sectarian SWP, which did not support that earlier march. If the ABTF proves not to be the best vehicle for further career or party-sect advance, then they can move on to something else.
b) The political dawning of new days?
However, there have been growing signs of opposition amongst socialists to these long-standing bad practices. The failings of celebrity politicians have been evident for some time. Nevertheless, they have been given life support, by the activities of the socialist sects.
But many members of these sects have also been experiencing increasing self-doubts. The SP and its Scottish satellite, the SPS, are the much diminished remnants of a once much larger Militant, which has shed Socialist Appeal (still in the Labour Party!), and the International Socialist Movement (ISM) (formed inside the SSP). Furthermore, the SP’s bid, through TUSC, to build up a new Labour Party based on Broad Left trade union officialdom has been dealt a major blow. Recent TUSC supporter, Nick Wrack, of the Independent Socialist Network, has provided an incisive socialist critique (2).
And a growing crisis has also overwhelmed the SWP, after the revelation of its leadership’s blatantly unjust handling of a rape accusation directed against a CC member. This has highlighted the much wider problem of continued male chauvinism and the bureaucratic organizational methods on the Left.
Growing numbers of former and current members of the SSP, Militant/SP, and the SWP, have started to openly question past bad practices. In the process, organisations like the Republican Communist Network (former SSP platform), the International Socialist Group (ISG) and now the International Socialist Network (both coming from the SWP), have been formed. They have become involved, with others, in the first stages of a radical reassessment of the Left’s recent past in Scotland. They have begun discussions about how to achieve principled socialist unity on a higher level than those recent failed projects. Frontline (magazine of the former Scottish Militant/ISM) has also been involved. These are welcome developments.
c) The continued problem of Social Democracy, Left Labourism and Broad Leftism
However, although there are signs that growing numbers of socialists are questioning celebrity politicians, party-sect fronts, the continued sexism and blatant lack of democracy on the Left, other obstacles to principled socialist unity still remain, Foremost amongst these is that deep-seated Scottish legacy of social democracy, claimed by Labour, the SNP, and accepted, in practice, by many claiming to be socialists.
It is not just Tommy and the socialist sects, which have tried to create their own fronts. The STUC and Unite the Union have backed the No2Bedroom Tax Campaign (No2BTC). No2BTC’s somewhat naïve organisers seem to think that bringing the STUC and Unite officials was a positive move, not realising they only come on board to take over. The STUC leadership wants something like its ‘Axe the Tax’ campaign, back in the 1980’s. That represented an earlier attempt to control a growing movement of opposition, and to divert it into electoral support for the Labour Party. It disappeared once a Scottish Labour conference had decided to implement the poll tax.
Playing to form, STUC and Unite officials called off the No2BTCs proposed May 18th demonstration in Glasgow, under pressure from the city’s Labour council. Scottish Labour only wants a campaign which will embarrass the SNP government at Holyrood, not one that mounts the direct action required to take on Cameron and Clegg, and to expose Miliband’s hypocrisy.
The role of the local Unite official in this climb down was revealing. This has just been just one incident in a wider Broad Left offensive promoted by Unite’s General Secretary, Len McCluskey. Unite is the largest union in these islands with over 3 million members. Broad Leftism is designed to derail any moves towards unity on a principled socialist basis, based on independent grassroots working class organisation. Instead, Broad Leftism seeks to divert such challenges into the social democratic schemes of trade union officials and the Labour Party. Above all, control remains in their hands.
Broad Leftism puts its faith in the having the right leaders in place to bring about change. These leaders seek election where they have to, but often get their jobs through appointment. They usually have a strong belief they are far more capable than the rank and file. Therefore they should be suitably rewarded – £122,000 a year plus perks, in McCluskey’s case!
McCluskey is very aware of the continued slippage of support away from Labour, particularly at the grassroots level. This is why he has mounted a campaign to try and win back that support. He gave his union’s backing to Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership election back in 2010. He hoped Miliband would move Labour to the left – in words, if not in deeds. Left social democrat that he is, McCluskey ensured that John McDonnell’s more socialist leadership challenge was killed off. McCluskey arranged for Miliband to be given Unite’s block vote, which secured him the Labour leadership.
However, ungrateful Miliband did not move left. Instead, he began to promote himself as ‘One Nation’ Labour. The only debates at Labour leadership level have been between Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ supporters – or ‘Tory-Lite’ for the middle class (e.g. Harriet Harman and Stephen Twigg); Blue Labour – or ‘UKIP-Lite’ for the working class (e.g. Jon Cruddas and Chuku Umanna); and some unreconstructed Blairites (e.g. Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy).
With the Con-Dem government’s austerity drive taking its toll on Unite’s members, McCluskey hoped that a Labour leadership in opposition could at least make a few more leftist noises. Miliband, however, knows that Unite’s aspiring full-time officials are not going to abandon their future careers prospects. These are best ensured by a future Labour government – any Labour government.
Miliband, following Blair and New Labour, wants big business support, especially from The City. He is an avid British nationalist and upholder of the UK maintaining its imperial interests in alliance with the US state. Miliband clings on to a belief in a nice capitalism – an illusion, Eric Schmidt, Chair of Google, confidently laughed off.
McCluskey may mount some token protest actions, but the last thing he is going to do is let the rank and file call the shots. He might have seen off the old Right officials in his 2010 General Secretary bid, but Jerry Hicks, the Grassroots Left candidate, emerged in second place, something which has obviously rankled McCluskey.
McCluskey has been involved in a series of manoeuvres to contain any challenges from below. He has already showed his penchant for purely token actions. He made sure that Unite was one of the first unions to break away from the ‘unity’ shown on the public sector pensions strike of November 30th, 2011.
McCluskey wants actions confined to publicity seeking events. He certainly has no intention of challenging the anti-trade union laws (supported by both Tories and Labour). Unite officials sometimes try to divert workers’ actions into parliamentary channels – by making rhetorical attacks on Tories and Lib-Dems (or the SNP in Scotland), or lauding the work of Labour members (including Ian Davidson!!!) on Westminster and Holyrood select committees.
The idea is to pull back support back towards Labour, in preparation for the next Westminster General Election. McCluskey did not want to embarrass Labour in 2015, so he decided to stand for re-election as Unite General Secretary, two years before this was necessary. He hoped that he would face no challenge. However, Jerry Hicks opposed him again. Jerry’s considerably increased his vote, in the face of McCluskey’s disgusting red-baiting campaign, somewhat dented the triumphalist ‘coronation’ he had hoped for.
Nevertheless, McCluskey used his re-election to try and assert his influence on the Labour leadership. Behind-the-scenes, he no doubt pointed to the possible threat to Labour support amongst the working class, highlighted by Jerry’s unexpectedly large vote.
Therefore, McCluskey wrote an article in the New Statesman, calling for Miliband to dump such Blairites as Alexander and Murphy from his Shadow Cabinet. This could only move the Labour leadership a nanometer to the Left, but it would publicly demonstrate McCluskey’s influence.
But, as we have seen, Miliband has the measure of McCluskey and Unite officialdom. Miliband thought that his future election chances would be better advanced by appealing to the Right wing press over this unwanted trade union interference. So he very publicly told McCluskey’s exactly where to get off! A bruised McCluskey claimed he had been misquoted!
Rebuffed for now by Miliband, McCluskey still knows that, in the Broad Left game of seeking influence over Labour, he must continue to build up his machine, and hold down the rank and file.
McCluskey supports appointed not elected union officials. In the North Sea, Unite is involved in sweetheart agreements with the oil companies. These benefit the officials not the members, who may not even know they in the union under these agreements. Unite is absorbing yet another union, the Transport and Salaried Staff Association. This is being done, not with the intention of organising wider more effective action, but to increase the union HQ income, and to provide the Unite leadership with even more patronage opportunities. McCluskey has also attempted to get his favoured candidate, Karie Murphy, former Unison official, selected as Labour candidate in Falkirk.
However, in a bid to buy over, or to deceive some of the more credulous some on the Left, McCluskey has become involved in some Unite ‘outreach’. Superficially, the recent Unite Community initiative appears to be an attempt to organise in working class communities beyond the traditional workplaces. Such social unionism is very much to be welcomed.
What happens, though, if any new Unite Community branch activities go beyond what is acceptable to McCluskey and Labour? The fate of Unite’s ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign provides a warning. When London migrant cleaning workers in Unite started to take the more decisive action needed to challenge intransigent companies, a union official viciously turned on them. They had to continue their campaign outside Unite. We may have an inkling of Unite Community officials’ future actions, in the climb down over the No2BTC demonstration in Glasgow on May 18th.
d) The Unite Broad Left, the Labour Party and the UK state
It is also significant that the Red Paper Collective (RPC), which consists of what remains of the Labour Left and the old British Communist Party in Scotland, is a vocal backer of McCluskey and his Broad Left politics. RPC supporter, Neil Findlay MSP, is involved in Unite’s campaigns, continually trying to boost Labour in the process. Just as McCluskey has tried to derail any rank and file socialist challenges in Unite with left rhetoric and bureaucratic manoeuvres; so the RPC wants to divert the growing movement for Scottish self-determination into dead-end attempts to bring about reforms through the UK state under a future Labour Westminster government. They must think we have very short memories! (3)
Indeed, in the face of this very real challenge for greater Scottish self-determination, the Scottish Labour Party has been forced to create its own anti-independence campaign, headed by Gordon Brown. This is because trade unions in Scotland have been less than forthcoming in their support for ‘Better Together’ – the Labour/Tory/Lib-Dem coalition, financed by businessman, Ian Taylor, who also provided funds for a Serbian death squad leader.
Trade union officials in Scotland will now be able to back the opposition to greater Scottish self-determination, by saying that it is Labour, not ‘Better Together’ they support. This duplication, purely for the sake of appearances, must be a bit irksome for the British Labour Party, since like the Tories and Lib-Dems, they also support the existing UK state and its Crown Powers, the City of London, Trident, NATO and all its wars, a clampdown on migrants, and are preparing to dismantle universal benefits and end free student fees. Labour is already in coalition with the Tories in six Scottish local councils.
e) The need for socialists to meet up with the new challenges
So, where lies the social basis for a new principled socialist unity? There are growing number of anti-cuts and anti-‘bedroom tax’ groups, actively basing themselves on local communities. In the Lothians we have such examples as East Edinburgh Save Our Services, Greater Leith Against the Cuts, the Midlothian Campaign Against the Cuts.
These include activists who are well aware of the pitfalls of dependence on celebrity politicians, socialist sects and the Labour Party. Whilst these groups are quite prepared to support any public demonstrations organised by others, they know that their current strength lies in retaining their independence. But many participants are also on the look out for others, who want to develop more links on a democratic and fully participatory basis. Principled socialists can help in this process.
We have also seen the first signs of rank and file movement in the trade unions, willing to defy both the anti-trade union laws and trade union bureaucrats. The latter are either tied into social partnerships with the bosses and the state, or limit their actions to what is acceptable to Labour. The sparks’ successful campaign of strike action and direct action, against the bosses’ attempt to tear up their national agreement (BESNA), was inspirational.
Another battle has emerged against the Blacklist. The nature of this will be hotly contested. Unite’s current official ‘Leverage Campaign’ will not deliver a victory. Those Grassroots Left and rank and file Siteworker activists know they have to push beyond the limits imposed by McCluskey and Unite officials, who do not want to embarrass Labour in the lead up to the next election.
Neither do Unite nor UCATT officials want any public exposure their own officials’ earlier collaboration in the employers’ and state’s blacklists. Only a willingness to expose such odious practices can prevent their re-emergence. And, the imaginative use of independent (unofficial) strike and other direct action, in defiance of the anti-trade union laws, as used in the BESNA dispute, will be the only way that the bosses can be forced to back down.
Jerry Hicks, very much the antithesis of the celebrity-seeker, highlighted some vital socialist principles in his recent rank and file bid to become Unite General Secretary. He stood on the principle of taking the average pay of Unite members, and supporting the election of all union officials, as well as backing independent action, and active defiance of the anti-trade union laws.
This contrasts with Len McCluskey, who believes that he should earn nearly five times his average member’s pay, has the right to appoint union officials, and must observe the laws of the state, no matter how they cripple effective union action. But this sums up social democratic politics – the belief in having the right people in place to impose reforms from above, through use of the existing union, Labour Party and state machinery.
We also have the example of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC). This has been one of the most effective campaigns seen for many years – a fact conceded by pro-Zionist apologists for the apartheid Israeli state. The SPSC has not only brought together socialists from different backgrounds, but has involved Muslims, Jews, Christians and secularists. It has also been scrupulous in challenging any anti-Semitism. It has pushed the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against the Israeli state to the centre of Scottish politics. The SPSC has avoided domination by any socialist sect, celebrity politician, or by trade union officialdom.
However, the arena with the biggest potential is the campaign for Scottish self-determination. It is not often that socialists are in the situation, where the very nature of the existing state is brought into question.
Indeed, it is very clear that the SNP leadership wants to downplay this at all costs. Their ‘Independence-Lite’ proposals are designed only to bring about the changes that would benefit a wannabe Scottish ruling class. They want a junior managerial buy-out of the Scottish component of the UK state, before continuing with business as usual with British Imperial Ltd and the US Global Mega-Corp.
Socialists have the chance to put forward the case for the genuine Scottish self-determination, denied whilst Scotland still remains in the UK under the Crown Powers, the austerity stranglehold imposed by the City of London, and continuing involvement in imperial wars ordered by the British High Command and NATO.
The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) was initiated by the ISG, but now involves considerably wider forces (4). It has become the arena in which such issues can be raised and linked to the immediate perspective of creating a democratic, secular and social republic. For this to become a reality, RIC needs to become the most effective political voice for all those campaigns mentioned earlier.
Old challenges and new opportunities mean that socialists do need to become united around firm principles. The political dead-ends offered by socialist sects, celebrity left politicians, trade union bureaucrats, the Labour Party and SNP, need to be opposed. There is no social democratic road to socialism, just a return to more rapacious forms of capitalism, as the recent experiences of Papandreou in Greece, Zapatero in Spain, Blair and Brown in the UK, Sigurdottir in Iceland, and the current experiences of Gilmore in Ireland, Berzani and Letta in Italy show, with Hollande in France and Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark, following the same path.
The required socialist principles could be summed up as:-
i) Countering the multi-facetted crisis which capitalism is currently facing, through the active promotion of a socialist alternative (which means seriously beginning to develop a socialism fit for the 21st century).
ii) Opposing the bureaucratic unionism and imperialism of the UK state and its British Left apologists, and the wannabe Scottish ruling class separatism of the SNP within the existing global corporate order, by championing socialist republican ‘internationalism from below’.
iii) Actively dealing with the rampant sexism still found on the Left, and developing new social relationships, which provide emancipation for all.
iv) Ending the sectarian and bureaucratic practices, which have caused so much havoc on the Left, by the development of new democratic and genuinely comradely forms of association.
And hey, why push a socialist unity ‘rock’ up a capitalist ‘hill’ in the first place? We should be creating a far more effective instrument to tunnel into capitalism’s foundations, meet up with others, and take us on to that global commune.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frontline, an independent Marxist journal from Scotland