Holes in the balance sheet
As the general election approaches, Paul Demarty wonders what happened to the left’s ebullient predictions four years ago
Following Labour’s damp squib of a conference, and the Tories’ litany of concessions to their own right wing, it is the turn of Liberal Democrats to convene.
Yes, with election season in full swing, it is time for every senior politician to make rash and unrealisable promises. Ed Miliband will save the NHS - sure. David Cameron will single-handedly reform the European Union to the satisfaction of John Redwood - good luck with that.
The wildest assurance of the season so far, however, has come from the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable, who declared to The Observer that, in spite of trailing the UK Independence Party in the polls, his party does not necessarily face a wipe-out.1 Optimism in the face of opinion polls is, of course, fair enough - they tend to vary from sample to sample. Still, it seems undeniable that this has been a bruising term for Cable’s party, with widespread public contempt resulting in a series of batterings in local elections, which will be bitterly felt everywhere outside the Lib Dems’ most entrenched strongholds.
In fact such an outcome has looked rather likely almost since the outset of this government. Since Nick Clegg’s dramatic reverse-ferret on the subject of student tuition fees, his party has been a sorry sight. There have been no poll bounces; with scant few exceptions (the Eastleigh by-election, for instance), electoral results have been appalling. The old joke about fitting the Liberal parliamentary party into a London taxi has been muttered in fervent anticipation by all manner of people in the intervening years. Such a fate is richly deserved, given that in a sane world the level of mendacity displayed by Clegg and co would amount to criminal fraud.
So the battle lines are drawn: Cameron shores up his right flank against Ukip, while trying to reassure big business; Miliband nods towards the Labour heartlands, while ham-fistedly trying to placate the media; and Clegg pitches again on the cynicism of his opponents, and hopes it will wash, in spite of everything. With such an appetising menu, May’s turnout, we are sure, will be impressive.
With this depressing vista in mind, it is worth recalling the start of this parliament, and how the brave new world of coalition government seemed to observers then. There can be few who believed the promises, made by Cameron and Clegg in the back garden of Number 10, that politics would be ‘different’, that the days of partisan braying at PMQs were done and other such nonsense. Normal service resumed promptly.
The trouble is that leftwing opinion, in the broadest sense, tacked too much the other way; not only was the coalition government likely to be fractious and prone to fratricidal bickering (common enough within each Westminster party taken alone), but it would be hopelessly weak and therefore short-lived. It was a government, moreover, that had set itself unpleasant tasks: finding countless billions of what were once called ‘efficiency savings’ (whatever happened to that euphemism?) and thereby taking an axe to public services and public-sector jobs.
The strategy of the Labour Party, in the first year or so in opposition, seemed to be to do nothing - let the Tories and Lib Dems eat all the public opprobrium for the inevitable decline in living standards, and then coast into victory when the whole thing came down in a heap. Labour has inevitably had to adjust, but has rather flailed around from one branding exercise to the next, tacking marginally left and right, seemingly according to the mood of the wonks in central office on a given day.
The further left we go from there, alas, generally the sillier things become. In the immediate aftermath of May 2010, the fact that the two more rightwing of the main bourgeois parties had formed a coalition government was all but treated as a glorious victory: “The government will be very nasty, but also very weak. That means we can beat it,” declared Socialist Worker.2
The result placed “the ruling class in a real hole”, declared Stuart King of Permanent Revolution. In advance of the poll, John Rees of Counterfire was even more ebullient: “Since Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979 every government for the last 30 years has been able to rely on substantial, sometimes massive, majorities in the House of Commons.”3 The absence of such a majority would be deleterious for the political establishment: “A weak government may alter the balance between parliamentary government and extra-parliamentary action to the benefit of the latter.” In fairness, comrade Rees allowed for the possibility that the far right could profit just as much as the left, but, on the whole, big things were expected - in the words of comrade King, “with a bit of luck we could be moving into a period of ruling class crisis”.4
At this paper, however, we were never convinced by such predictions. If it was not clear from the outset, it should have been clear by the parliamentary vote on student fees: this government was not going to collapse, was not going to be blown over by the first one-day strike or anything of the sort.
The weakness of the Lib Dems was a strength of the government - at almost any point since 2010, for Clegg to collapse the government would have amounted to the end of his ministerial career. So he did not rock the boat. A fortiori, lower-ranking Lib Dems could look forward to complete oblivion, not merely gardening leave in the Lords, if they forced such a thing on their frontbenchers - so they behaved themselves too.
Cameron has faced far more problems on the right of his own party than from his coalition partners; but not enough to stop the coalition completing its term in relatively good order, with the Tories jostling respectably for pole position with Labour. This was, by any measure, a strong government, whose repugnant agenda has been pursued successfully despite day-to-day difficulties.
What of the “extra-parliamentary” forces whose day, in comrade Rees’s contemporary view, had come? On the far right, his prediction has hardly come to pass - the British National Party is a corpse, and the English Defence League was treading water long before Stephen Yaxley-Lennon noisily decamped (a brief shot of energy in the wake of Lee Rigby’s murder aside). The indubitably electoral Ukip has instead emerged as the standard-bearer for rightwing enragés.
As for the left, the last four and a half years have been, more or less, one continuous and unmitigated catastrophe. Barely two months after the “very weak”, “very nasty” government came to power, Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party was forced to shift his emphasis from the former description to the latter. No matter: the student protests later that year saw the comrades reach a pitch of such excitement that one found oneself searching for a tranquiliser dart: May 68 had come again, and what parliament had done the streets could undo!
It was around then that worrying allegations began circulating about Martin Smith - whisper-quiet amid the din of Millbank megaphones. Two years later, the same allegations, plus a few others, led to two substantial splits and irrevocable damage to the SWP’s reputation.
Few other groups have fared well, however. The Socialist Party’s electoral vehicles have produced merely a heap of embarrassments; Counterfire has succeeded in producing lower-end satellite TV careers for some members, but failed in recruiting above the level of natural wastage or reproducing the glory days of the anti-war movement. Smaller groups have gotten smaller still, or in the case of comrade King’s Permanent Revolution, simply winked out of existence.
If there is a common element here, it is an almost universal failure of perspectives: while the left expected a mass movement to develop against cuts, this simply did not come to pass. Anti-cuts groups have been almost without exception creatures of the far left, picked up and soon abandoned when the masses unaccountably failed to flock in. Industrial action has ticked up episodically, but overwhelmingly in the form of one-off protest strikes rather than sustained industrial unrest.
This failure of perspective has been so disastrous for the left because it is perpetually looking, in the words of comrade King, for “a bit of luck”. Something will bring the masses into the movement, and the far left (or perhaps one’s own group specifically) will succeed in winning leadership of that movement, transforming politics in short order. You can only tell people the ‘big one’ is just around the corner for so long, however; grumbling mounts, and with the right spark (the Martin Smith case, say), patience finally snaps.
The purpose of this retrospective is honest accounting: and it is hardly true that we in the Communist Party of Great Britain got everything right in our own predictions. We certainly expected more industrial struggle than has taken place; we expected more active antagonism to the government than we got; we even expected one or two Lib Dem defections (nothing massive, just a Charles Kennedy or two to cross the floor). We identified the government as a strong one, but then that was rapidly obvious to all who did not deliberately delude themselves on this point.
The accounting practices of the far left at large, however, would embarrass the bean counters at Tesco - and even those lost to the old confessional sects have failed, on the whole, to grasp the reasons for their predicament, instead doubling down on the worship of spontaneous mass action and equivocating, in libertarian fashion, merely on whether anyone needs to lead anything at all (we think here of the defunct Anti-Capitalist Initiative, and the floundering International Socialist Network).
The lesson no-one seems able to learn is that political movements, like football teams, make their own luck; and that doing so is a task, in our straitened times, that will outlast a good few governments: majority, minority or coalition, weak or strong l
1. The Observer October 5 2014.
2. Socialist Worker May 18 2010.
4. Quoted by Eddie Ford in ‘An enemy that should be treated seriously’ Weekly Worker May 20 2010.