Socialist Unity – Pushing the rock over the hill?

Protestor at Anti-Bedroom Tax demo in Edinburgh
Protestor at Anti-Bedroom Tax demo in 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.


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