It is a ‘binary choice’
Working class independence and nationalism are two conflicting outlooks, writes Peter Manson
Like most of the left, Philip Stott of Socialist Party Scotland has welcomed the victory in the Scottish Labour leadership election of Corbynite candidate Richard Leonard over his Blairite rival, Anas Sarwar. Writing in The Socialist, paper of theSocialist Party in England and Wales,he says that the result “can potentially open up the possibility of building a real left and anti-austerity Labour Party in Scotland” (November 22).
Comrade Stott’s article, ‘What does the left victory in Scottish Labour mean?’, then moves on to pose a list of demands on the new Labour leader in Scotland:
... this will only be possible if the Labour Party under his leadership pursues a consistent anti-austerity policy, ends the acceptance of Labour politicians carrying out cuts, and recognises its mistakes on the national question and Scottish independence.
In addition, a wholesale transformation is needed to the democratic structures of the party to allow for the reselection of councillors, MPs and MSPs who refuse to fight for left and socialist policies in words and deeds.
Leaving aside Labour’s “mistakes on the national question and Scottish independence”, which we will come to shortly, yes, it would be good news if the party began to oppose austerity and cuts to public services - in practice, as well as verbally; and, yes, a “wholesale transformation” of its “democratic structures” would be entirely appropriate.
But what does SPS - or SPEW, for that matter - intend to do to aid this process? It is still refusing to call on all unions to affiliate to Labour, in order to swing the balance away from the right and win reforms that would favour the working class.
Comrade Stott rightly rubbishes Leonard’s claim that within Labour there is now “a consensus established on a radical policy agenda, which will form the basis for our unity in going forward”. He is correct to point out:
There simply cannot be a “consensus” with the pro-capitalist forces of the Labour right ... The idea of peaceful coexistence between left and right is a utopia. The rightwingers in the Labour Party are ruthless. They will do everything in their power to defeat the left and remove Corbyn and, for that matter, Leonard over time. In this they have the full backing of the capitalist establishment.
A broad socialist Labour Party is one thing. Socialist Party Scotland is in favour of trade unions and socialists from all backgrounds being in one party, with the right to organise into trends and platforms to assist democratic debate and discussion. But the avowedly pro-capitalist and pro-war right is another question altogether. They should be removed through methods like democratic reselection of MPs, MSPs and councillors, in order to create a genuine anti-austerity and leftwing Labour Party.
Once again, we agree with the broad thrust of all this. But the obvious question is: what will the comrades do to back up their words? Elsewhere SPEW and SPS are still making it clear that, far from affiliation or reaffiliation, those unions that are presently outside the party should not reverse this position until the battle to defeat the right has already been won.
According to SPEW and SPS, affiliation for unions like PCS, RMT and NEU, the new teachers’ union, would mean ‘wasting’ tens of thousands of pounds at a time when the right is still in control of the party machinery. After all,
the reality is that Labour is still two parties in one. The right wing has major influence in the party and is, at council level especially, voting through cuts at an unprecedented rate.
So the message is: I’m afraid you’ll have to get on with the fight to transform Labour without our help!
The statement that Labour is “still two parties in one” is an interesting one. Does that mean that Labour is still a bourgeois workers’ party, consisting of a working class base, but a largely pro-capitalist leadership? In our view that is certainly the case, even though quite clearly the top leadership, in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, is no longer in the hands of pro-capitalists. But it is worth asking the question, because for three decades SPEW and its Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) insisted that Labour was now a bourgeois party pure and simple - in other words, no longer “two parties in one”. We are still waiting for the comrades to admit they were wrong.
Referring to Sarwar, comrade Stott writes:
The fact that a millionaire, whose family firm … does not pay the living wage or recognise trade unions, and who sends his children to private school, won almost half the votes among Scottish Labour members underlines the lack of a Corbyn surge in Scotland.
So, on the one hand, comrade Stott states that, because of its previous rightwing leadership, Labour in Scotland has had “limited appeal to leftward-moving young people and workers”. But, on the other hand, he claims that “Sarwar’s opposition to Corbyn and his previous backing for the coup in 2016 counted heavily against him”. So which is it? Is Corbyn’s Labour Party appealing to Scottish youth and workers or isn’t it?
Incredibly comrade Stott takes issue with Leonard’s excellent-sounding statement that “there will be no ground ceded to nationalism at the expense of progressive socialism under my leadership”. Therefore, Leonard goes on to say, he is not in favour of a second independence referendum.
This position will apparently be “an albatross around the neck of Scottish Labour”, hampering its ability to “reconnect with vast swathes of the working class”. Even if Labour in Scotland vigorously opposed cuts and austerity, writes comrade Stott, that would not be enough “to recover ground lost to the SNP”.
That is because, although comrade Stott admits “the intensity of the mood around a second referendum has dipped”, support in Scotland for independence is still at around 45% and a “new upsurge in the national question at a certain stage is very likely”. So to win back working class supporters who have switched to the Scottish National Party, Labour must adapt to nationalism itself, it seems.
No, no, continues comrade Stott, it is wrong to talk about the “false binary choice of ‘socialism or nationalism’”. After all, “It is possible to fight for the unity of the working class across Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, while defending the right of Scotland to self-determination.”
Absolutely correct. But the online version of this article links this statement to a 2014 piece by the same author, in which the comrade reported on SPS’s enthusiastic support for … not “self-determination”, but independence. In other words, for SPEW/SPS, as with so much of the left, self-determination is somehow conflated with separatism - the two seem to have the same meaning.
But for Marxists they are very much distinct categories. While we are totally in favour of the right of nations to determine their own future, that does not mean we encourage them to exercise that choice in favour of independence. In fact we actually advocate separation only in exceptional circumstances - when it is apparent that it is the only way, for example, to end the oppression of a minority nationality and rebuild working class unity. Clearly that is not the case with Scotland.
But for the CWI, because support for Scottish independence has massively increased in response to a decade of austerity, we must advocate separation ourselves in order to make up lost ground. This is totally counterproductive. We cannot build support for a mass working class party through nationalism - the effect of adapting to the latter is to reduce the potential for working class combativity. Workers’ power and nationalism are two conflicting outlooks - support for one undermines the other.
So, yes, it is good news that the Labour right has suffered another setback, this time north of the border. But it is totally self-defeating to demand that Labour now goes for a second independence referendum. Instead we must do everything we can to continue the process of transforming the Labour Party, so that it appeals to all workers of whatever nationality and provides a counterweight to the nationalists.
We ought to aim for a Labour Party that is a united front of a special kind, to use Trotsky’s expression. As comrade Stott says, it must be open to all working class bodies, including the groups and parties of the left.