Piety: no substitute for hard political decisions

Indecision and irrationality

March 29 is very likely to be just as frustrating as the November founding conference, writes Mike Macnair

Car designer Alec Issigonis famously said that “a camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee”. The immediate metaphor is obviously senseless beyond its aesthetic context: the camel is well-adapted to the conditions in which it lives. But the “planned by a committee” problem is real: or at least it is real where the committee attempts to work by consensus, rather than recognising that real decisions require that some people must accept that their preferences will be rejected, or simply agrees to dodge essential decisions.

The Austin Champ was a story told in the past as a classic case: war office committee negotiations ended with a vehicle designed for conflicting goals, which was as a result too expensive for even the notoriously spendthrift British armed forces to buy and run, and was abandoned in favour of the cruder and cheaper Land Rover.

The Left Unity party project is, in a sense, founded on a similar refusal to take necessary decisions. The most basic is the decision between loyalty to the existing British state and constitutional order, on the one hand, and an orientation for the working class to act and an independent class and internationally to replace this, and other, states with its own power, on the other. The first - constitutional loyalism (commonly and misleadingly called ‘reformism’) - is the foundation of Labourism, but also of the ‘left’ British-nationalist illusions of ‘No to the EU, Yes to Workers’ Rights’. The second - proletarian class-political independence and internationalism (commonly and misleadingly called ‘revolutionary politics’) - is the historic source of the anti-war, internationalist and socialist beliefs (or in some cases residual prejudices) which many of Left Unity’s leaders and members share from their histories in the radical movement and in this or that left group. The aims adopted for LU at the founding conference in November 2013 intentionally avoid this choice - comrades have been quite open about this evasion.

Refusal to decide between these very fundamental policy options cannot but affect - if only indirectly - the ability to decide on more immediate policy issues. This is most obvious in the LU policy commissions documents on “economics policy” and “foreign policy”, to which we will return later. But the tendency to paralysis was already incarnated in the elaborate ‘checks and balances’ and ‘rights-based’ structure of the constitution adopted in November. And it descends - as was already apparent at that time - to an inability to take clear and rational decisions on the agenda of national meetings.

Hence, LU’s policy conference on March 29 will have another overcrowded agenda. This six-hour meeting is planned to cover (1) 10 motions on “priority campaigns”, covering five separate topics (austerity and NHS, trade unions and work, housing, national question, climate change), which the November founding conference failed to reach, and presumably the two motions on “electoral strategy” also deferred then - unless the movers have withdrawn their motions; (2) a further 31 motions from branches and 16 motions from individual proposers and seconders, covering 14 separate topics; and (3) if there is time - which is pretty unlikely - five policy documents submitted by the ‘policy commissions’, on four topics (economics, foreign policy, health, racism).

A rational agenda for democratic deliberation and decision-making for March 29 would select two of these topics and allocate three hours to each of them - or three topics and two hours each. The discussion of the individual topics could then include the relevant policy commission documents and motions, whether put forward to the November conference or since. We would then defer discussing and voting on other topics to later meetings. But LU’s procedural methods are aimed not at democratic deliberation, but at the opposed goal of compliance with rule-of-law constitutionalism; and workable agendas would in addition require potentially controversial political choices. LU’s procedures are also derived partly from the practices of the Labour Party and trade unions - delegate conferences lasting for several days, as opposed to six hours, and in which, in any case, the conference is an opportunity for the activists to let off steam, with the leadership left free to take the real operative decisions. March 29 is therefore - unfortunately - very likely to be another messy and frustrating day like November 30.

The motions contain many good things as well as a good deal of redundant information (the result of the traditional practice of campaigns and left groups in the trade unions, Labour Party and student movement using long preambles in motions as a form of propaganda), and a few more problematic ideas. The Communist Platform will be meeting on March 23 to discuss our views on the motions and any amendments to them, and I will not try here to go through them all in detail (in any case, 10 of the individual motions were submitted by Communist Platform supporters and are based on the platform’s previously published proposals for LU policy). There is, however, something political as well as procedural to be said about the framework in which most motions were placed in November.

Priority campaigning

The motions not reached in November were introduced under the head of ‘priority campaigning’. This is a misconceived idea and one which can poison policy choices.

LU has as yet neither the numbers nor the mass-circulation daily media which would allow it to actually shape the national political agenda by adopting campaigning priorities. As such it has - like the rest of the left - to be reactive to this agenda, which changes not only from year to year, but also from month to month and week to week. A conference therefore largely cannot determine ‘priority campaigning’.

LU members have rightly, if inexplicitly, rejected the model which has been chosen by the Socialist Workers Party and far-left groups spun off it or influenced by it: that of having a central committee which freely directs rank-and-file members to move from one strike support activity or protest to another from week to week in pursuit of what is moving, exclusively on the basis of the CC’s judgment, without any leeway for branches to take local initiatives. This Cliffite model of a party produces an organisation which cannot sink long-term roots, and ‘doers’ at the base separated from ‘thinkers’ at the centre by bureaucratic control (and thus, in the end, cases like that of ‘comrade Delta’).

But this observation misses another point about what is wrong with the Cliffite model. This is that it is totally unclear why this sort of party should be any use to the people involved in strike, protest movements, etc, except insofar as the SWP (or its imitator groups) provide a temporary addition of committed and experienced activists to their ranks. Since the nature of the ‘campaigning priorities’ is that this reinforcement will inevitably be withdrawn when the party’s attention shifts to another newly fashionable topic or movement, it provides no more than a ‘sugar rush’ to the campaign.

The root of the model is the anti-parliamentarism of the post-1956 ‘new left’ and its descendants in the modern far left. Since electoral activity is regarded as prima facie opportunist and the base-level work in trade unions, cooperatives, etc as ‘routinist’, the left counterposes strikes and protest campaigns to these tasks. But the left cannot set the political agenda: strikes and protests come and go, and so do ‘priority campaigns’.

In reality, what a political party has to offer to trade unionists and people involved in protest campaigns is not more and better activism and militancy within those spheres. It is drawing together the inherently multiple sectional experiences and threads of the mass movement into a single political alternative to government in the interests of capital. It is a matter, in other words, of proposing policy for action of the society as a whole. And this requires electoral activity, and forming and publicising policies which are for legislation even if we are a long way off being able to form a government and implement them.1

My point is not to suggest that LU branches and members should not be involved in trade unionism, strike support work and all sorts of protest campaigns consistent with our goals. On the contrary. But what LU can add to these projects is to work to develop the idea that an overall political alternative exists. On this basis we should be aiming to discuss and vote not on ‘campaigning priorities’, but on long-term policy, which can form the basis of election manifestos and orient writers, artists and so on.

Electoral strategy

It follows that the question of electoral strategy is pretty pivotal to the future of LU, and more so than almost any of the substantive policy/campaigning motions. In our recommendations on the motions submitted to the November conference, the CPGB Provisional Central Committee said of Crouch End’s motion on electoral policy that it is “in substance a do-nothing motion, by making the best (election campaigns with mass local support) the enemy of the good (election campaigns as a means of building local support and getting ideas across). The amendment proposed by Huddersfield and West London is a substantial improvement on the original motion.”2

This remains true; but in a certain sense, the poison in the original motion is left intact by the antidote in the amendment. There is unlikely to be any way to get to mass local support without engaging in the electoral process as a minority, fielding candidates who initially get poor votes. Crouch End’s motion thus plays to the far-left anti-electoralism likely to be common in LU and also expressed in the idea of ‘priority campaigning’. To adopt this policy has the logic that LU mutates into just another far-left group, albeit one to the right of the existing groups in its substantive policy.

Bristol LU proposes adoption of an eight-point plan and calling on Labour and Green candidates to join us in campaigning for it. This is the method of the People’s Charter/People’s Assembly, and again within the framework of refusing confrontation with overall policy issues and choices, and hence with electoral tasks. It adds to the problem the common confused idea that the Greens are ‘part of the left’. At least Crouch End’s motion recognises that electoral work has to be based on “working class communities”.

Rugby LU proposed in November, and Pete McLaren and Dave Landau propose again now, approaches to other left groups, coalitions and parties to avoid electoral clashes and move towards electoral pacts. This proposal is obviously sensible if LU is to attempt to do electoral work. But it has been rejected by the transitional national council; it is unclear whether this mistake flows from anti-electoralism or simple sectarianism.

Moshé Machover and Steve Cooke from the Communist Platform propose our agreed motion on participation in government. Like McLaren/Landau, this obviously makes sense only if LU is to do electoral work and to do it successfully. The motion is one for long-term orientation: to avoid, if LU has real success, the sort of political disaster which resulted from Rifondazione Comunista in Italy participating as a minority in the ‘centre-left’ Olive Tree coalition.

Useless consensus

The policy commissions documents3 fall into two classes. The first consists of the health and racism documents, in relation to which the commissions have agreed clear lines (which are, in fact, pretty much the consensus of the left in its broad sense, including much of the Labour Party). The second consists of the “economics policy” and “foreign policy” documents. As I said above, these have a ‘planned by committee’ character. The commissions are made up of volunteers, in the absence of a clear political orientation of Left Unity as a whole, and hence inevitably have to work by consensus. The result is not just aesthetic ‘camels’, but political ‘Austin Champs’ resulting from the failure to take necessary decisions one way or the other. The health policy document is so-so. It is ‘reformist’ in the sense that it assumes that the drive towards NHS privatisation, with a second-class service maintained for the poor, which has been going on for some time, could be reversed without overthrowing the global capitalist order. But this drive fundamentally emanates from the USA and the US-led global turn towards financialisation and liberalisation, and reversing it would not just be in violation of the proposed EU-US Free Trade Agreement, but of existing treaty commitments of the UK in relation to public spending, non-tariff barriers under the EU treaties (particularly Maastricht and Nice) and the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt)/World Trade Organisation.

However, supposing purely for the sake of argument that in a couple of months time the reblown financial bubble was to burst again, this time irretrievably, and the resulting dislocation of money and banking produced global mass mobilisations which did unexpectedly overthrow the hegemony of the US and the capitalist constitutional orders of the vassal states (UK, etc), the new regime created would still be confronted with most of the NHS policy choices posed by this document; so that its ‘reformism’ is a secondary matter.

The issue which is absent from the document is what the workers’ movement should do in the event that capitalist collapse leading to revolution does not arrive in the very near future, and in consequence the capitalists succeed in forcing through their privatisation agenda. The consequence would then be, unavoidably, that the working class needed to construct its own healthcare system based on the trade unions, mutualism and cooperatives (as in fact existed before 1940, and exists in some other countries to this day). The movement needs to make contingency plans now for this possibility.4 This would not, however, be an objection to passing this document as it is.

The anti-racism documents consist of a long version with more motivation and a short version mainly on immigration. The main policy prescription - opposition to all immigration controls, and to ideas like ‘British jobs for British workers’ - are sound. The problem is that the documents are characterised by the consensus left view of making ‘racism’ the source of all sorts of objectionable phenomena, thereby missing altogether the role of official ‘anti-racism’ and the various mechanisms by which ‘communities’ are taken to be led by elders and religious leaders and divided up as supplicants by the state. This document should be referred back.

‘Economics policy’

“Economics policy” is a very odd expression, which on its face means a party policy about economic theory and the teaching of economics in schools and universities. This might not be an entirely bad idea - perhaps LU should advocate a general purge of the editorial boards of the top academic economics journals and a general visitation of university economics departments, to break the stranglehold of the mathematical-marginalists and enforce pluralism in economics teaching. But this is not what the document is about: it is about what is conventionally called ‘economic policy’.

Lenin famously said that “politics is a concentrated expression of economics”5 and more recently James Carvill said of election campaigning, “It's the economy, stupid”.6 The political-economic framework is thus central to all other policy decisions. But Britain is not just any old middle-rank industrialised country, with an economy dominated by an internal market (to the extent that such a thing is at all possible under the regime of financial globalisation). The question of political economy immediately poses the question of Britain’s place in the world.

The “economics policy” and foreign policy commissions both make their proposals - which nonetheless remain incoherent - within a framework of socialism in a single country and peaceful coexistence. This may appear to be an obviously untrue statement, given that the economic policy document says explicitly that “we cannot put an end to capitalism in one country alone, nor abolish Britain’s reliance on exchange and trade both with Europe and with the rest of the world.”

The problem, however, is that the commissions are still seeking national solutions which break with ‘neoliberalism’ - ie, the policy of US and British financial capital - within the framework of the continuation of the existing world order. They refuse to recognise how tightly this framework constrains the options of single states and their governments; and Britain is a case a fortiori because of its historical development and consequent present dependence on financial services.

Very early in the document comes the statement: “It is a myth that there is no money available. Private sector corporations were sitting on cash reserves of £671 billion (almost 50% of national income) in 2013, which they were unwilling to invest productively.” This statement is quite extraordinary. Suppose that it were said of an individual, ‘I have plenty of money: I have in a deposit account half a year’s wages’, we might regard this person as pretty well-off as long as their job continued, but would hardly regard them as effectively insured against the loss of it. The blog UK Public Spending gives the admittedly estimated figures for total UK public spending in 2014 as £718.8 billion, including pensions (£144.1 billion), healthcare (£129.7 billion), education (£88.6 billion), defence (£46.6 billion), welfare (£112.5 billion). The £671 billion is then less than a year’s spending.

It is certainly true that the cuts could be reversed; partly because in spite of their brutal impact on individuals, they are largely cosmetic (aimed to win votes from Daily Hate Mail readers) at the level of total government spending. It is also true that that there is money in the economy which could be extracted to pay for state spending by higher income and property taxes (which the document duly proposes, though not quantifying the expected take). It is also true that the UK could run a much higher public debt, as it did in the post-war period. But it is certainly not the case that corporations’ cash hoards provide the solution. The document is thus making an attempt here to pretend that there is a national solution which will immediately only affect the British elite and not implicate a government in direct conflict with the US and the global capitalist elite.

“The response of Labour to threats of capital flight and investment strikes”, they say, “has always been to capitulate. However, we would help to build international networks of solidarity to support any government introducing such measures within Europe and elsewhere.” All very well, and a good idea for present tasks - long before any possibility of a LU government arises. But how will merely political solidarity from movements themselves out of power - short of parallel seizures of state power - allow the British to pay for the massive adverse balance of material trade, and in particular the 40% of all food consumed which is imported?7 The problem, as with the reference to corporate cash hoards and the failure to do the numbers on tax, is that the document is characterised by too much hand-waving.

Very incoherent as originally published, the document has been massively improved in the most recent recension (March 4). But it remains within the framework that a radical change in orientation is possible in a single country, even if “we cannot put an end to capitalism in a single country alone”.

The blunt fact is that capital flight and investment strikes are not an unusual response of capital to leftwing policies, against which solidarity cannot readily and effectively be mobilised. Indeed, we have seen the limits of international protest campaigns very recently in relation to the Iraq war, a much softer target politically than the diffuse phenomena of capital flight and investment strikes (and, as Vietnam showed, a war can be a softer target in relation to actual disruption of military operations if there is a determined and effective opposition). Excessive strengthening of trade unions normally evokes investment strikes in relation to well-organised factories and capital flight. The extremely mild left rhetoric of the Hollande administration in France has evoked a (small-scale) capital flight and investment strike; not much, but enough to cause a collapse in Hollande’s popularity.

Britain is exceptionally vulnerable to such a shift. The reason lies in its history. Achieving world dominance after 1815, Britain held a global empire and was for a while the ‘workshop of the world’, and London the world’s financial centre. But world dominance carries with it costs - as financial inflows push up land prices, and as enormous wealth among the elites delegitimises them - which in turn push up local labour costs and lead to foreign investment and offshoring. The result is a shift of industry, which creates competitors in production, which in turn creates a shift towards high-end production and a further shift from production towards finance.

By the later 19th century British productive capital - including shipping - was in relative decline, though British world dominance could continue on the basis of financial and military dominance. 1914-18 nearly saw the end of this world empire, but it continued on a shaky basis until 1940, when the whole geo-strategic structure came crashing down. In 1940 it was agreed between Britain and the US that the latter would take over as world-dominant power; and, though elements of the British elite tried to squeeze out of the implications of the deal, in 1944 at Bretton Woods and in 1956 in the Suez crisis the US enforced the terms of the transfer of power.

Britain was retained as a subordinate ally of the first rank, playing the role in Europe that the Netherlands and Portugal had played for Britain in the 18th century. The full implications for British industry were deferred because the US, after adopting the policy of ‘containment’ of communism in 1946, had to keep the European working classes onside and thus accepted extensive statisation and protectionism under the 1947 Gatt I. After its defeat in Vietnam, the Portuguese revolution and so on, the US moved from ‘containment’ to ‘roll-back’ which was the beginning of the policy of ‘neoliberalism’ and financial globalisation. Under Thatcher, therefore, domestic industries were hammered and the British economy became - as the policy document recognises it is - more overtly and completely dependent on finance. To the extent that there has been a revival of productive industry since, it has been largely in the form of foreign direct investment aiming to sell into the EU without the costs of the labour regulations of France, Germany, etc.

This is not a novel or peculiar phenomenon: the same was true of 16th-17th century Venice and Genoa, and of 18th century Netherlands - all former Europe-leaders in shipping and declining or former imperial powers. The Venetians became dependent on luxury tourism. The Genoese and the Dutch both tried to regenerate productive industries, but failed to do so because their competitors’ wage costs were so much lower than their own. Britain is in the same situation today.

The practical consequence is that Britain has a large and standing deficit in ‘visible’ trade (the country imports more than it exports; notably, as mentioned above, in food). This deficit is paid for in ‘invisibles’, which means the overseas earnings of City finance (and to a lesser extent City law firms, accountants and so on). The sources of this income are deeply obscure, but a substantial part in it must be played by the large network of offshore operations, which, though they are formally based in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and various British dependent territories, are actually run out of London. The abolition of tax avoidance devices and international tax cooperation (proposed in the document) would therefore hurt Britain more than any other country other than the ‘treasure islands’8 themselves; indeed, in the absence of an immediate and radical restructuring of the productive economy, it would provoke famine in the short term. It is possible that all that would be needed to trigger this effect would be the removal of the various exemptions given to the City under US offshore regulation, money-laundering legislation, etc. Certainly capital flight could ‘do for’ Britain much faster than comparable countries.

The “economics policy” document should be referred back. In spite of the recent improvements, it still fails to face up to the real situation faced by Britain (and therefore by workers living here) or to present real choices.

Foreign policy

Once we see this point, it becomes apparent that the foreign policy document is even more an example of fantasy, hand-waving and refusal to take necessary decisions. It is entirely constructed on the basis of an independent British policy in a world that remains much as it is. It overstates the degree of decline of the US hegemony, which has by no means given way yet to an effective multi-polarity. It also, implicitly, overstates the extent to which Britain - a country which has for the last 74 years been a dependent ally of the US - could manoeuvre between the supposed multiple poles. Indeed, several of its foreign policy prescriptions are merely traditional ‘official communist’ policy modernised: for example, “We should recognise the historic concern of the ruling party in China to better their own population [!] and the historic fear of Russia about the encirclement by ‘western’ power.”

Equally, the document fails to recognise that Britain’s imperialist history makes it decidedly odd for those on the left to argue that “Reducing military intervention does not mean withdrawing from our still considerable influence in the world” (emphasis added).

The document refuses decisions on two fundamental issues. The first is that, while proposing to abandon the replacement of Trident (a decision which would now involve either paying off the US contractors, or if they were not paid, US sanctions), it leaves open the question of retaining Trident itself as a bargaining chip for multilateral disarmament - the old argument of the ‘multilateralists’ against CND and the Labour left in the 1980s. This is a very odd position for a party in which Kate Hudson plays a leading role.


The second is, of course, Europe. “We debated Britain’s relationship to the EU in some detail, but with quite polarised views. The balance of opinion in the commission is that we should stay in the EU and join with other left parties in Europe in changing the neoliberal policies and reforming the very undemocratic institutions of commission and parliament.”

The foreign policy document should be referred back. In its present form it represent fantasy politics.

The reality is that the question of Europe is the central strategic question. Britain, this US attack dog and offshore financial centre with a moderately sized material economy attached to it, has two strategic options. The first is to continue as it is. Not a good option for the still substantial working class in this country. The second is to join in and promote a project of reconstructing Europe as a whole in the interests of the working class: which is the only realistic alternative to British financialism and US-dependence.

Fortunately, if the foreign policy document is useless and the ‘economics policy’ document badly inadequate on this issue, there are substantially better motions on offer on the question for March 29; and, since this is a fundamental orienting question, it is one that should be discussed at the conference if at all possible. Crouch End proposes that LU should adopt the declaration of the 4th Congress of the European Left Party, which calls for a “refoundation of Europe ... based on solidarity, social justice and popular sovereignty”. Perhaps not very radical in the continental context, this declaration would be a major step forward in relation to the dominant nationalism of the British Labour and far left.

Going into more detail, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s model motion has been adopted by Lambeth and Manchester and proposed by Nik Barstow and Ruth Cashman. And the Communist Platform’s model motion has been adopted by Milton Keynes and proposed by Sarah McDonald and Phil Kent. There are differences of detail here - perhaps important ones - but discussion and compositing should in principle be possible. Southwark’s resolution, which commits LU to dodging the question in the 2014 Euro elections, should be rejected: yet more deliberate indecision.


Voting in LU elections

The Communist Platform is standing the following candidates for the Left Unity national council (directly elected section). We recommend that in this single-transferable-vote ballot members voted for candidates in the order stated below. You have until March 24 to cast your vote. All LU members should have been sent instructions on how to vote, so if you have not received such an email please contact the LU office.


1. Some of the arguments are well made by Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien in the second part of their ‘Strategy of attrition’ article, entitled ‘Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside of the church there is no salvation): emancipation through organisation’: www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11769 (I do not mean by this to endorse the first part of the article, which is badly confused on the state and the constitutional order).

2. ‘How to vote at conferenceWeekly Worker November 28 2013.

3. Available at http://leftunity.org/submitted-con­ference-motions-commission-documents.

4. Arthur Bough argues that this would be a supe­rior policy for the present: http://boffyblog.blogs­pot.co.uk/2013/07/the-nhs-another-failure-of-state.html (and other posts). I am not persuaded that it is feasible to argue for beginning again, as if the NHS had never existed, until the point at which the capitalists have succeeded in privatising it; even then, the general feasibility of cooperatives is greatly reduced by the land price bubble.

5. ‘Once again on the trade unions’, January 1921: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/jan/25.htm.

6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_the_econ­omy,_stupid.

7. www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/issue/uk.html#refs, citing the 2008 report ‘Food matters: towards a strategy for the 21st century’ (http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130128101412; www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy/work_areas/food_policy.aspx).

8. N Shaxson Treasure islands London 2011.