The failure of some left groups to back the Labour Party is the fruit of deep-rooted problems in method, argues Paul Demarty
The prime minister’s resignation in advance of the European election result said a great deal about what was likely to be in them. A fractious, fratricidal Tory Party could hardly be expected to beat the mother of all protest votes.
The result, however, was also a sobering one for Labour. While the prevailing media line in the wake of the local elections that both parties had suffered equally was transparently false and self-serving, it would be very much harder to make that case here. A poor third place to the Liberal Democrats is not something Labour can easily brush off, not least because it stems from a political tactic of deliberate vagueness and negativity on the Brexit issue that is designed to win in elections to parliament in Westminster, not Brussels.
It was a weak offering last Thursday - a vote that was successfully turned into a plebiscite on Brexit both by the insurgent Brexit Party and the government’s shambolic failure to deliver on its promises in this regard. (If there is to be a ‘people’s vote’, you would almost have to call it a third referendum now.) As Lib Dems were often heard to remark after their Westminster wipe-out in 2015, if you stand in the middle of the road, you are liable to get run over. Thus it is not surprising to find the latest attempts to bounce Labour into support for a second referendum more successful than previously - a matter to which we shall return.
That said, the Labour leadership could be forgiven for hoping for just a little more help from people claiming to be on their side. The combined efforts of Britain’s far-left groups, to be sure, were never going to move the needle too far; but the decision of some groups basically not even to bother demonstrates a profound political disorientation on their part.
We could start with the most absurd case, wherein the Socialist Party in England and Wales consciously decided not to make any voting recommendation - an extraordinary dereliction of duty. We can only speculate as to the immediate cause of this; perhaps the divisions opened up by Peter Taaffe, as he prosecutes a split in SPEW’s pet ‘international’ are reaching closer to home than he would like.
It is undeniable that it is an awkward one for SPEW. There was no lash-up with the RMT union to be had, as with the laughable No2EU in 2009; so it was basically Labour or a boycott. Voting Labour would raise questions as to SPEW’s wider electoral tactics - after all, it insists on refusing to vote in local elections for rightwing Labour candidates who do not promise to run illegal no-cuts budgets, and the Labour lists for the EU parliament brook no distinction between establishment remainer types and shiny new Corbynites. A boycott was a possibility, but one already implemented to wide derision by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. So that leaves embarrassed silence and foot-shuffling. Another political triumph for the great helmsman, Taaffe!
We did it!
As Peter Manson noted in last week’s paper, the Socialist Workers Party did in the end get round to recommending a vote for Labour, in a piece by Alex Callinicos:
In the short term, the only force standing in the way of this prospect [of a Boris Johnson government] electorally is Labour under Corbyn. Therefore what we need to see on Thursday is the biggest possible Labour vote.1
This is a perfectly reasonable analysis. Yet if it was so important to get the biggest possible Labour vote, would it have killed the comrades to have mentioned it more than two days beforehand? Instead, the SWP - mainly via its Stand Up to Racism front - had focused almost entirely on opposing the UK Independence Party and Tommy Robinson’s ‘independent’ ticket in the North West constituency. In the wake of the election, things are no different - very much the leading item on Charlie Kimber’s hot take is the defeat of that perfidious Stephen Yaxley-Lennon:
Anti-racists were celebrating in North West England as, after a campaign by Stand Up To Racism, fascist Tommy Robinson failed to be elected. He took just two percent of the vote and lost his deposit.
Nahella Ashraf, from Manchester Stand Up To Racism said: “We have shown that there is no place in mainstream politics for a fascist. I’d like to thank the hundreds of activists that came out across the North West to make this happen. The campaign run by Stand Up To Racism showed that we can pull people together regardless of how they voted in the EU referendum. However, we cannot be complacent.”2
Comrade Nahella’s sign-off is, of course, unintentionally hilarious to all outside the impenetrable outrage bubble of the modern SWP. Spending the whole period of an election campaign hysterically talking up the importance of a no-hoper candidate and a party in utter disarray that was clearly facing wipe-out, and then claiming credit for their failure on the day - surely there has been no greater display of political complacency since (alas!) the 2017 Tory manifesto.
As we have noted repeatedly in these pages, the distinct peculiarity of SWP campaigning in this period has been the almost total absence of Farage’s Brexit Party and the Tory right from its calculations. At first sight, this sits a little oddly with the argument made by Alex Callinicos already cited in favour of a Labour vote - that the dynamic is towards a far-right-leaning Tory government led by Boris Johnson or similar, and cosying up to Donald Trump. This seemed, to put it mildly, both a far more likely and a far worse outcome than Robinson making it to a virtually powerless parliament on his own ever could have been.
There is, however, a hidden link. Callinicos’s argument is not, remember, in favour of a positive programme of intervention in the Labour Party, but merely to avoid the disaster of Britain under Boris. It is a lesser-evil policy. In this it is united with the other half of the SWP brain - chasing Tommy Robinson around with cold beverages and what-not, which is lesser-evilism reduced to the level of self-parody.
The main utility of lesser-evil politics for the SWP is its focus on, precisely, evil. There can be no doubt that Tommy Robinson is a thuggish, fascist scoundrel; nor can it be doubted that Ukip’s latest leader, Gerard Batten, has adopted a conscious policy of bringing his party closer to the uglier European far-right outfits. It is thus trivially easy to get people in a fearful lather about Ukip and Robinson in a way that is certainly not so easy for Farage’s grotesque rainbow coalition, which has dialled back the overt rightism so successfully (for now). It is certainly easier for groups, like the SWP, who still support Brexit (albeit a sugar-candy-mountain ‘internationalist’, ‘anti-racist’, etc Brexit).
The problem is that it clearly does not work. Remember Nahalla Ashraf, quoted above: “We have shown that there is no place in mainstream politics for a fascist.” Leave aside the question of why the SWP is so concerned to preserve the virtue of “mainstream politics”; it is an utterly empty victory, in a wider political context that saw a triumphant performance for a party of the far right and likely to soon shed its fig leaf of non-partisanship, and a great stride towards a Tory Party - and a Tory government - seriously infected and led by far-right politics.
The underlying problem is simple. The SWP’s protest fetishism leads it to treat everything in social life as a series of isolated, individual issues - and in fact SPEW’s method is the same, although it does, at least, also fetishise routine trade unionism, bringing much-needed variety to proceedings. In both Socialist Worker and The Socialist, we are often told that such and such an issue (be it women’s oppression, anti-racism, nationalist separatism or whatever else) must be linked to the struggle against austerity and capitalism - or variations thereof. Yet the use of the passive voice exposes the entirely formal, external link being made: the link, such as it is, is that the SWP (or SPEW) happens to have a bee in its bonnet about both.
It is - if perhaps an accident - nonetheless appropriate from the poetic point of view that this method should be so decisively shown up by the political crisis caused by the Brexit vote. For what it amounts to is an essentially plebiscitary view of politics. An issue is posed, and a decision must be made now, without deliberation or subtlety, and then ‘linked’ to more fundamental matters after the fact. It so happens that, in this case, the SWP, SPEW and the Morning Star’s CPB adhered to their organisations’ historic opposition to the European ‘capitalist club’, but their wider milieux in the labour movement and among right-on youth are overwhelmingly on the opposite side, which leads to their particular paralysis and shamefaced silence. But it would hardly be an improvement if they were simply to switch teams.
Posing questions in this way caters to the most backward layers of the popular classes, offering them the semblance of meaningful participation in political decision-making. From the point of view of authentic democracy, this is a disaster - it divides classes and their parties around questions that turn out to be phantoms. In doing so, it diverts us from the fruitful combat of coherent world views and class leaderships, which alone offers the possibility of a choice that might actually mean anything.
Kimber spots some aspect of the problem when he writes:
Not everyone who voted for the Brexit Party is a racist, let alone a fascist. But racist Farage pulls in people who are angry at the political establishment and focuses them towards Islamophobic and racist solutions.
Here is the nub of the matter: Brexitism - including in its predominant anti-migrant (‘racist’, in SWP terms) form - is not in reality an autochthonic urge to evil, but a diverted and backward form of class-consciousness. Thus, paradoxically, neither half of the SWP’s intervention works: its splenetic anti-racism will be interpreted as elitism by the average working class Brexit voter; its own Brexit position will be interpreted as a concession to bigots and wrong ’uns by the radical youth.
The Labour Party’s response to that problem, so far, has been to hold back from explicit remainism (and its dishonest proxy, the ‘people’s vote’), but to criticise the Brexit policy actually on offer from the Tories and demand a general election. As noted, this has served the leadership well on the whole, but very badly indeed last week. And so - it seems at the moment - Corbyn appears to be being pushed in the direction of support for a second referendum. This sets up a gruesome dynamic, whereby such a policy is forced through a fragmented parliament, and the Labour Party cast as the betrayer of the national will. It thereby sets itself up at the wrong end of a Dolchstosslegende - conditions are clearly set up for a further lurch to the far right.
The alternative, for the SWP, is at last taking democracy seriously as a question in its own right, instead of merely contrasting the excitement of protest with the tedium of high politics. For those who take the Labour Party seriously as a site of struggle, it means fighting against the fear of short-term failure in this or that election, and instead for a policy of rebuilding from the base, so that wider layers of the class might be educated about the inherent interconnection of political issues and the fundamental standpoint of class. Then, the crooked demagogues of the far right would be robbed of the prolier-than-thou shtick, and the right-on social liberals divested of their unearned influence in the official labour movement.
The question is getting more urgent.