A wasteful dead-end
Left Unity should not agree to stand under the Tusc banner, argues Paul Demarty
Sure as night follows day, and intestinal discomfort follows a cheap takeaway, so calls for ‘unity’ on the left follow a bad day at the polls.
The Socialist Workers Party is a little ahead of the curve this time, of course, having called in extremely abstract terms for united left electoral challenges for several months now, without giving any indication that it is prepared to change its sectarian and bureaucratic modus operandi sufficiently to actually achieve it. It did, however, manage to field a few candidates under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition banner, which it shares principally with the Socialist Party in England and Wales and a smattering of randoms.
The SWP is probably the least enthusiastic of the three component parts; politically speaking, Tusc is SPEW’s baby, and several of the aforementioned randoms are also members of Left Unity, wherein their project is in substance to obtain unity between the two organisations on terms favourable to Tusc.
Thus we read a letter from Clive Heemskerk, SPEW stalwart and Tusc election agent, to LU national secretary Kate Hudson, seeking a meeting between “representatives” of both organisations “in the next few weeks”.1 Comrade Heemskerk notes that most LU candidates in the general election stood under a joint ticket with Tusc anyway; argues that “the flexible, federal character of Tusc does allow different organisations to genuinely collaborate under a common ‘umbrella’, while retaining their own structures and identity”, and urges LU to consider becoming a “participating organisation” of the coalition.
Perhaps anticipating some reluctance, comrade Heemskerk seeks to assuage doubts:
The participating organisations within Tusc have always been anxious to achieve the broadest possible united left challenge and have recognised that Tusc is a step in the right direction, not the finished product. However, we are proud of what has been achieved under the banner of Tusc over the last five years. Tusc polled 118,000 votes in the local and parliamentary elections that took place on May 7, which means that nearly a third of a million votes have now been cast for Tusc since our foundation in 2010. This is not an electoral profile to be lightly discarded.
The reality is, as any reader with an ounce of sense will know, quite different. Tusc’s electoral achievements are laughable. It is doomed to similar failures for the rest of its natural life. This is ultimately because, contra Heemskerk, Tusc is a step in the wrong direction. Thus we recommend that LU reject any proposal to join up to Tusc as presently constituted.
I suppose we ought to start with those election results. Tusc’s first run at Westminster saw them field 37 candidates in 2010, getting an average of 322 votes per head. On May 7, 128 candidates managed 284 votes each. We could call this a decline of roughly 10%, but it is probably more an indication of general stasis. In the intervening years, Tusc has run candidates in all local elections, including some quite large slates. One or two successes - a defection here and there - aside, their results have been entirely abysmal, comparable to all-but-defunct rump organisations like Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.
Summing the Tusc experience up neatly, in May 7’s local polls, a comrade Paul Dennis - running in Medway - managed the stunning achievement of obtaining no votes whatsoever. He claims there is funny business going on; after all, he and his wife, at least, voted for him. (Assuming there were no petty arguments about the washing up in the previous week, anyway … )
I put it to comrade Heemskerk that, all things being equal, this is, in fact, “an electoral profile to be lightly discarded”.
‘All things being equal’, because there is nothing inherently terrible about derisory election results, especially for young organisations like LU and Tusc. Certainly non-Tusc LU candidates fared no better in this election. Electoral performances are to be measured against the aims of the organisation standing, and it is here that Tusc’s uselessness becomes obvious.
In order to see why, we have to reiterate that it is, in substance, a SPEW project, and reflects the strategic conception of that organisation far more than that of the SWP or any other participants. That conception follows from the assertion that changes in the Labour Party at the beginning of the 1990s, during which time the Militant Tendency was effectively hounded out, represented ‘quantity turning into quality’, and the death of Labour as any kind of working class organisation.
Deep in Militant/SPEW’s politics is the axiom that, when workers move into struggle, they inevitably gravitate towards their mass party, a role in former times played by Labour. Now that the latter is unable to meet these requirements, it is necessary to recreate it on the same basis - ie, as a party of the trade unions. Thus SPEW activity is focused on hectoring union executives to disaffiliate from Labour, and support the creation of a ‘new workers’ party’.
Today, this means pushing people towards Tusc, whose ‘federal’ structure is designed such that the sole supporting union, the RMT, has a veto over all policy. Its refusal to base itself on individual membership prevents it from having any life beyond the interests of its participating organisations, which are inevitably otherwise engaged outside of election season.
It also means, thereby, restricting its politics to the warmed-over left Labourism acceptable to the RMT (and, in truth, upheld for all practical purposes by SPEW). This political opportunism can only be justified on the basis that class-consciousness is not ready for a full socialist programme, and we have to meet the workers where they are, etc, etc.
So here is the essential point: Tusc’s justification for existence is that it is currently the only and necessary way to do working class politics on a mass scale. Look at your results, comrades.
We recall, as often we do nowadays, the curt refusal of comrade Heemskerk to allow the CPGB (and other interested organisations) to field a handful of candidates under the Tusc banner in 2010. We lacked “social weight”, apparently. Since then, in the pursuit of election broadcasts and sundry intermediate objectives, things have wrenched back in the other direction - to the point that an earthworm of average intelligence, provided it was not a member of the Labour Party, could easily become a Tusc council candidate today. Alas, even small invertebrates do not want to end up like Paul Dennis.
This brings us to the most importance difference between Tusc and LU: LU is a party project. Reading between the lines of comrade Heemskerk’s letter, it is plain that he does not have any such ambitions for Tusc: “The need for a mass struggle against austerity has never been clearer and one vital aspect of that struggle is creating an electoral voice for the anti-austerity movement,” he writes: an “electoral voice”, but not a party. The latter already exists, naturally, and it is run by Heemskerk, Peter Taaffe and the other political geniuses that brought us the stunning political advances of the past half-decade.
Left Unity has problems of its own on the electoral front, to be sure - not the least of which is that there does not seem to be anything like a consensus on what standing in elections is actually for. Is it to build the profile of the organisation? To advance local single-issue campaigns? To seize control of local authorities? To make socialist propaganda? Many answers are available from different quarters, which is surely only a symptom of the fact that electoral efforts thus far have been purely a matter of local initiative - we all approve of local initiative, but a general election campaign surely requires centralism, and thus a clear strategic goal, to be effective. Hopefully a serious discussion on this subtle - and crucial - question will take place before the next major poll.
Whatever your view on the purpose of elections, however, Tusc is not the answer. If Kate Hudson was a CPGB member, her reply would be simple, and go something like this:
‘Clive, we are naturally prepared to discuss the practicalities of making sure our two organisations do not fruitlessly fight over the small number of votes really available to leftwing parties. Every effort will be made to avoid clashes, provided you do the same. We will urge our comrades to vote for yours where appropriate.
‘We will not, however, join Tusc: our movement needs a party, not an on-off flag of convenience come polling day. Your comrades, of course, are welcome to join Left Unity; and we hope they do so. Nor will we run candidates under the Tusc banner, which has been proven conclusively to be a pointless exercise’.