Fragility of class politics
CPGB members have been debating the post-election situation. Peter Manson reports
An aggregate of CPGB members took place in London on May 16 to assess the situation after the May 7 general election. However, the meeting began with a discussion introduced by Jack Conrad on the recent internal elections within Left Unity and their aftermath.
He began by reminding comrades that our strategy is to engage with leftwing ‘unity projects’, no matter how unsatisfactory their basis and without necessarily having a great deal of faith in the outcome of such projects. In his view Left Unity was just about the “most rightwing” of those we have engaged with, compared to, say, the Socialist Alliance or even Respect. Partially this resulted from the reaction on the left to the unsatisfactory nature of those organisations - run as private fiefdoms by the sponsoring groups. The paradox, said comrade Conrad, was that in private LU leaders might well “tick the right boxes” when outlining their political beliefs, but, when it came to the policies LU ought to adopt publicly, they would insist (with a few notable exceptions) that they ought to be ‘broad’, appealing to the existing consciousness of the mass of workers.
Turning to the internal elections themselves, comrade Conrad thought that from the point of view of the Communist Platform there were grounds for some satisfaction with the results. Whereas previously Yassamine Mather had been the sole CP representative on LU’s national council, this time she had been joined by comrade Conrad himself, plus Dave Isaacson and Sarah McDonald on the regional lists. Of course, the latter two had benefited from the paucity of candidates - comrade McDonald in particular had been elected in London, because all the women nominated were automatically elected in order to meet the quota.
This rule highlights one aspect of the totally unsatisfactory LU constitution. Another is illustrated by the suspension from his branch for almost one year of CP supporter Laurie McCauley simply for writing a Weekly Worker article critical of other branch members (see pp6-8). The national leadership is powerless to get the case reviewed, since that is the job of the disputes committee, which does not have enough members to operate. Meanwhile, Steve Freeman, who stood against the LU-backed candidate in the general election, is not subject to any disciplinary action, as the constitution stipulates that there must first be “mediation”.
Turning next to the 2016 elections for the Greater London Assembly and mayor, comrade Conrad put forward the CP view that LU should stand, while openly stating its opposition in principle to the post of mayor. However, comrade Conrad predicted that LU members of the Independent Socialist Network would agitate for LU not to stand under its own name, but instead be part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. While he favoured discussing the elections with others on the left with the aim of reaching a deal, comrade Conrad labelled Tusc a “ridiculous Labour Party mark II project”, for whom the “anti-sectarian sectarians” of the ISN were acting as fifth columnists. The approach of the CPGB Provisional Central Committee was to try and differentiate between ISNers. Which was the original point of our seven questions to candidates in the LU elections, although these were eventually posed to all nominated candidates.
The comrade also dealt briefly with the problems relating to CP candidates whose nominations were rejected by the LU returning officer. The CP had accepted that two of the three concerned had allowed their membership dues to lapse, while a third, Tina Becker, had not been correctly nominated by her branch. While all the members who normally attend branch meetings had agreed she should stand, they had not taken a formal decision to that effect at a properly convened branch meeting. He reiterated the PCC view that this was not an issue over which to mount a fight - the comrades concerned had made inadvertent mistakes and both the CP and comrade Becker herself had issued principled statements accepting that this was the case.
In the subsequent discussion Yassamine Mather pointed out that in London the LU general election campaign that had generated most support from amongst LU members was that of Simon Hardy in Vauxhall - the only LU campaign in the capital not fought under the Tusc banner. But now Tusc has issued an invitation to LU to mount a joint GLA campaign - in exactly the same terms as it did before the May 7 poll. While Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson wondered what the point of pre-GLA discussions with Tusc were if we were opposed to standing under the Tusc banner, Mike Macnair stated that in his view we could support a unitary candidate of the left that was not standing as Tusc.
He went on to say that in certain respects we were closer to the likes of Kate Hudson than we were to ISNers and Tusc - over our attitude to the European Union, for instance. Nevertheless, he agreed with comrade Conrad that the CP was a principled oppositional faction within LU, even though we had been able to win support on many issues, not least the question of the constitution and the current ‘safe spaces’ draft.
It was comrade Macnair who introduced the afternoon session on the general election. He compared May 7 with the 1907 ‘Hottentot election’ in Germany, when the bourgeois parties formed a bloc against the Social Democratic Party. Even though the SDP vote rose, it lost over 100 seats in the face of this “united pro-imperialist front”. This led to the SDP right going onto the offensive, in favour of what comrade Macnair dubbed a “progressive imperialist policy”.
Similarly in 2015, by coalescing around the Conservative Party, even though the latter won a lower share of the vote than did the Tories and Liberal Democrats combined in 2010, the bourgeoisie was able to inflict a heavier defeat on Labour. Of course, a large part of this was down to Scotland, where a section of the bourgeoisie, epitomised by Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, rallied behind the Scottish National Party in order to “boost the Tories overall”, said comrade Macnair.
The SNP had been able to take advantage of the English nationalism on display following the September 2014 independence referendum, where Labour and the Tories had formed a pro-United Kingdom common front. The SNP had been able to sell itself as to the left of Labour.
However, for the Labour right, Ed Miliband’s campaign had been too leftwing - not enough consideration of the “aspiration to be middle managers and look down on those below”, said comrade Macnair. And Labour is much more fragile than was the SDP in 1907: maybe the right will succeed in finally changing Labour, so it was no longer a bourgeois workers’ party, by completely disenfranchising the unions; maybe the right will walk out.
Identifying the major questions - in addition to more powers for Scotland and the corollary, ‘English votes for English laws’ - comrade Macnair identified what he dubbed the “Promotion of Corruption Local Government Bill” and the Tory move towards elected mayors. Then there was the European Union referendum, of course - he predicted that changes to the European Convention on Human Rights would be presented as progress on the EU favouring Britain. A fresh batch of anti-union laws and more austerity measures, including the proposal to reduce welfare spending by £12 billion, were also key issues.
Comrade Macnair was scathing about the majority of the revolutionary left, which seems to believe it can win power on the back of mass politicisation arising during generalised strike action. This was an illusion - power can only be won under the leadership of a mass working class party. But, instead of posing the necessity for the overthrow of the current international state system and the goal of a new society, we had the “fatuous” election campaign under the umbrella of “Tusc Against Cuts”.
He reminded comrades that, while Labour more or less retained its support in England, there was a “derisory vote” for Tusc’s Labour Party mark II. He thought that the outcome of the election was the “worst since the 1960s” from the point of view of Marxist ideas.
In the debate that followed comrade Mather reminded the aggregate about the pre-election attempt of LU’s officers to form an “anti-austerity alliance” with the Green Party. And, of course, in Scotland former working class Labour supporters had voted SNP. The radical left was moving to the right “in response to the perception of society moving to the right”, she said.
Other comrades also discussed the state of the left - Simon Wells said that there is a tendency to “latch on to any protest as a way forward”, while comrade McDonald pointed to the Socialist Party in England and Wales complaining about a “media blackout” against Tusc, and the Socialist Workers Party claiming credit for Nigel Farage failing to win a seat in parliament. But she disagreed with comrade Macnair about the Scottish version of The Sun - rather than backing the SNP to aid the Tories, Murdoch had opportunistically adopted a pro-SNP position, having seen which way the wind was blowing in Scotland.
However, both Paul Demarty and Jack Conrad agreed with comrade Macnair on this question. Comrade Demarty also agreed about the left’s failure to promote a different vision - he mentioned the idea mooted within Left Unity that we should not stand against the National Health Action Party as an example of prioritising single-issue campaigns.
On the left’s results, comrade Conrad said they were “not a disaster”, but confirmed once again that the left has no “social weight” - an allegation once levelled by SPEW against small groups like the CPGB. However, we are still in the era following the collapse of the Soviet Union - there is no widely perceived alternative to capitalism. Today parts of the left are adopting left nationalist positions, he said - in fact the Scottish Socialist Party hailed the SNP landslide north of the border. And to think that the SSP itself was once held up as a model by the left in England and Wales.
Comrade Conrad questioned whether a Tory majority government was objectively worse than one led by Ed Miliband. Of course, for much of the left, bad Labour governments lead to good Labour governments, whereas in reality they lead to Conservative governments, he said. That is why the strategy to put Labour in power - not to expose it, but as a “first step” - was wrong.
In his reply to the debate, comrade Macnair clarified his statement about strike action. In response to points raised about the possibilities arising from such action, he said he was not denying the “emancipatory potential” of a general strike, but merely emphasising the necessity for a mass Marxist party - as against the “illusion” that small left groups will be “catapulted” into becoming that party through a general strike.
He concluded by noting that a vote for Labour still represents a class vote, but Scotland had shown that this was now very fragile. But that is symptomatic of the fragility of class politics, full stop - so much of the far left is “doing identity politics”, not class politics, he said.