Dispelling delusions of easy success
Last weekend’s Communist Platform meeting discussed electoral strategy and tactics. Peter Manson reports
Left Unity’s Communist Platform met in London on May 31 to assess last month’s local and European elections and discuss what LU’s electoral strategy ought to be. First, Mike Macnair introduced the debate on the May 22 poll and this was followed by a session in which Yassamine Mather, a newly elected member of LU’s national council, gave her thoughts on what a principled electoral intervention ought to look like.
In his opening, comrade Macnair began by examining the significance of the substantial gains made by the UK Independence Party. Here, crucially, there is the question of migration, he argued. Immigration into Britain as a result of the free movement of people within the EU has led to pressure on wages, which has resulted in the perception of migration as the problem - it is a nationalist perception which regards the conflict as one between nationalities, not between classes.
Despite the surge in votes for Ukip, the Labour vote remained intact, said comrade Macnair. However, votes for left-of-Labour candidates, particularly in Britain, showed a very clear decline. While the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition stood 560 candidates, where their results could be compared with a previous showing in the same ward it was almost always lower this time. The votes for the handful of Left Unity candidates were also disappointing. All this served to demonstrate once again that the idea of a mass reformist space to the left of Labour is an illusion.
Comrade Macnair contended that Ukip seemed to be replacing the previous protest party, the Liberal Democrats. Ukip was a party of the petty bourgeoisie that did well in the countryside, in small towns and in the suburbs. It had not really damaged Labour, with its working class base. Indeed Labour still represents a class vote, albeit the “bourgeois politics of the working class”.
Nevertheless, while Ukip’s success may be overstated, concluded comrade Macnair, the political dynamic is to the right - David Cameron is “way to the right” of Margaret Thatcher, he said. And, while the political space to the left of Labour is small, there is definitely the space for an alternative to Labourism. That was the lesson for Left Unity.
The first speaker from the floor was Jack Conrad, who said that, while there was a rightward dynamic, this was contradictory - there was also gay marriage and official anti-racism. He disagreed with comrade Macnair’s implication that the move to the right within bourgeois politics was also responsible for the poor results of the left. Those poor results, he said, were a reflection of the left’s own organisational and political ill health. The tragedy of Tusc was that it had put all that effort into the “joke” of trying to create a Labour Party mark two. While he admired the dedication of Socialist Party members, he pitied them for their commitment to “this form of madness”.
He also thought that we should not play down Ukip’s vote. The Ukip factor meant that Labour could win next year’s general election on a vote as low as 30% because of ‘first past the post’. In addition a populist party like Ukip was for him more dangerous than the British National Party - a group led by vicarious German nationalists could not hope to win mass support in Britain. Our answer must be to rebuild the left on solid, principled foundations, not try to respond to Ukip’s right populism with left populism.
Comrade Moshé Machover pointed out that Labour’s strong showing in London was down not to the ‘Ukip factor’ - Nigel Farage’s party did poorly in the capital - but to the decline of the Liberal Democrats. As for Left Unity, this year’s results were “not significant” because they involved so few contests, but next year’s general election will be another matter. A reformist party must have electoral success, but that is unlikely to be forthcoming and comrade Machover could see trouble brewing within LU as a result.
Comrade Mather was one of several who pointed out that Ukip was less attractive to people living in big cities - if you do actually live next door to Romanians you tend not to have a problem with it. Nevertheless, Ukip’s nationalism was dividing the working class and causing polarisation - for the moment it was the new “third party”, displacing the Lib Dems.
Sarah McDonald wondered how the Socialist Party in England and Wales managed to retain the loyalty of its members in view of the effort and energy it had put into such a misplaced idea as Tusc, but comrade Macnair came back in to say that the left’s derisory performance was not just down to its own “uselessness”. Most voters do not actually have personal contact with members of left groups and are not necessarily aware of the left’s shortcomings. Society is moving to the right, so people tend to cast protest votes for rightwing parties.
For my part, I pointed out that Tusc’s ambitious number of candidates had overstretched SPEW. Even though its leadership had decided not to publish The Socialist in the final week of the campaign, the addition of a relatively small number of full-timers and journalists made little difference to the campaign’s reach.
Ian Donovan also thought that much of the left’s ills were self-inflicted. The Socialist Workers Party had “shot itself in the head” (rather than the foot), while SPEW was uninspiring and had no sense of strategy. In view of this he believed we should consider a critical vote for Labour in the general election. Paul Demarty was another one who thought the left had a lack of vision: “We can build up a class counterweight - but not like this.”
In his reply to the debate comrade Macnair summed up by concluding that things were unstable - while politics was tending to move to the right, there are “contradictory undercurrents” with possibilities for the left. That was why there is a battle to be fought within Left Unity.
In the second session comrade Mather began her remarks about the election strategy LU needs to adopt by pointing to a “worrying aspect” - the absence of any discussion on the LU website about the politics of the candidates that stood in the local elections. This is a reflection of the attitude of many members to theoretical questions, upon which policy should be based. There is a tendency to rely on a ‘lowest common denominator’ consensus, focusing on local issues and left platitudes. The emphasis over the next few months must be the development of a coherent set of principled policies rather than on individual candidates and local issues.
There will be a variety of views within LU about the scope of our challenge in the 2015 general election. There will be many who will be eager to nominate candidates, but others will stress our limited resources and the need to concentrate on targeted seats. We have to combat the illusion that overnight success is a possibility. Here comparing LU with Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain is not very useful. Syriza has had a much longer history and started as a sizable wing of the ‘official communist’ party. As for Podemos, its overnight success should be assessed in the light of the severity of the economic crises in Spain and other southern European countries.
We also expect to see within LU the widespread tendency on the left to write off the Labour Party, said comrade Mather. But, for all the rightwing policies of the leadership, the party still enjoys the allegiance of large parts of the working class and this will show itself again in the general election. We must win within LU a position of critical support for left Labour candidates and must certainly not stand against any Labour candidates who are prepared to sign up to some key principles.
Nor should we take a cavalier attitude to candidates of other left groups - we must do our utmost not to split the left vote. With that in mind, every effort should be made to draw up an electoral pact with such groups. Comrade Mather stressed she was referring to political groups committed to class politics, and certainly not to the likes of the Green Party.
She concluded by suggesting a series of key policies that we should urge LU to prioritise in the general election.
In the debate, comrade McDonald was first off the mark, commenting on the illusions in the Greens shared by many in LU with others on the left. So in the North West EU constituency LU had a position of voting Green to ‘keep out’ the British National Party! She also raised the question of a recent ‘aggregate’ of LU members in Scotland, which had voted to adopt a ‘yes’ position in the September referendum on independence, thus overturning the LU line of neutrality agreed at the March national policy conference. Comrade McDonald stated that opponents of a ‘yes’ had not had sufficient notice of the meeting and so its decision should not be recognised by LU.
On this point, comrade Conrad thought that we should not get into procedural wrangles. We have to accept that at the end of the day LU opponents of a ‘yes’ are in a minority in Scotland.
Turning to next weekend’s first meeting of LU’s national council, which comrade Mather will be attending, he drew attention to its “strange” agenda. It was fair enough to begin with an assessment of May 22, as this Communist Platform meeting had done, but it should then discuss on what basis LU should stand in 2015. What should our policies be? Instead the NC is to debate the extent of the LU electoral challenge, choice of seats and so on.
Taking up comrade Mather’s proposal for LU to adopt a set of key policies for the election, comrade Conrad thought that we should “cherry-pick” the best of what LU had already agreed to put forward as priorities. He predicted that there would be some enthusiasm to stand candidates locally, but part of our job was to ensure questions of left unity (lower case) were addressed, when it came to ensuring a single left candidate in constituencies we contested. He agreed that our attitude to Labour was another central point.
Comrade Simon Wells introduced a note of contention when he suggested that some on the LU leadership were acting like a “cabal” in adopting policies on the hoof. But comrade Macnair thought that it was more a question of incoherence and confusion resulting from the labyrinthine LU constitution than any deliberate attempt to act undemocratically. In any case, said comrade Conrad, our task was to raise politics.
In her reply to the debate, comrade Mather also disagreed with the notion of a “cabal”. She pointed out that the membership should not expect to be consulted over the issue of press releases. But the overall problem, she concluded, was that the LU leadership was looking to build a Labour-type party with a basically passive membership. She proposed that a draft manifesto based on alternative, principled politics should be drawn up by the Communist Platform.
The meeting concluded with a brief update from comrade Macnair on the CP’s alternative to LU’s so-called ‘safe spaces’ policy document. A slightly amended version was, in fact, subsequently agreed by the CP’s steering committee and has since been forwarded to Left Unity’s national council for consideration.