No answers from the left

Who to vote for in the 2005 general elections? The pathetic advice given by most of Britain's revolutionary organisations reflects the fragmented nature of the left, writes Tina Becker - and the terminal decline of the sects

Four years ago, the main left groups were united in the Socialist Alliance, standing just under 100 candidates in the 2001 general elections in England and Wales. Now there are almost as many different electoral experiments and platforms as there are leftwing groups - and advice as to how to vote. Amajor divide is, of course, over the attitude to the Labour Party. In our view, Lenin's definition still holds water: as long as there is the link with the big trade union battalions, it is correct to define Labour as a bourgeois workers' party. This understanding requires us to have an active relationship with the left of that party. In the case of the 2005 elections, it means that we will support those Labour candidates who call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq. This position is tailored to today's concrete political circumstances - it is a position for today, not a shibboleth for the next 20 years or even 20 months. However, much of the left has simply switched its automatic support for the Labour Party into equally automatic anti-Labourism - without any theoretical explanation. In 1997 we were told that socialists had a duty to vote the Labour Party into government: the "fructification of hope" would quickly lead to a "crisis of expectations" that would sweep masses of people into the arms of socialists. When this did not materialise, it caused another crisis - this time for auto-Labourism - resulting in a welcome, if untheorised, gravitation towards the Socialist Alliance. But the left continued to disintegrate and this process was only temporarily slowed down through the SA. Clearly, the key question that the left needs to seriously address is how to build a Marxist party. On paper, all of the sects are united in upholding the need for a such a formation. In reality, however, none of them come even close to mapping out a strategy which can make it a reality. Their programmes are hardly distinguishable, all of them being characterised to a greater or lesser degree by economism (which dismisses the need for the working class to take the lead in fighting for democratic demands, favouring instead trade union and economic demands, thereby replicating capitalism's separation of the political sphere from the economic). None of them take the question of the monarchy seriously, for example. And when they do you wish they hadn't. As in the case of the Alliance for Green Socialism, which would replace the monarch with a president and instal an elected second chamber to act as a check and balance against the House of Commons. The comrades are crass, but they are hardly alone in their dismissal of the fight for extreme democracy. Despite this common thread of economism (usually of the Trotskyist variety), even the slightest political difference leads these sects to split into even smaller grouplets. Organisation follows programme. Because their programmes cannot possibly bring us any closer to the self-emancipation of the working class and certainly cannot serve as a guide to democratic action, neither can their organisational structures aid the coming together of the most advanced sections of the working class. Which is of course what is needed: only a Communist Party (which is the scientific name for a real Marxist party, as opposed to the Labour Party mark two most sects are attempting to promote) can overcome the division of the economic and political spheres. The internal regime of most left groups is appalling, putting even some religious cults into the shade. Bringing up differences with the leadership or the majority is seen as an act of betrayal. Opposition needs to be weeded out as quickly as possible. It must not be allowed to see the light of day, let alone find its way into the party press. Thinking is forbidden. Trust the leadership: they will do it for you. Much of the left still calls this 'democratic centralism'. In reality of course, we are witnessing the increasing decay of the rotten manifestations of bureaucratic centralism. The attitude these organisations are promoting in the forthcoming elections therefore sheds some light on their programme for socialism. Not surprising then that most of them are far from clear and principled. Respect and SWP There is no direct advice on how to vote on either website. As the dominant force in Respect, the Socialist Workers Party has proved repeatedly that it will subordinate its programme to George Galloway, the Muslim Association of Britain and the largely phantom right wing in Respect. So it is no wonder that both the SWP and Respect suffer from the same lack of concreteness and straightforward advice, reflecting of course the SWP's lack of confidence in its own, formally revolutionary programme. What should members do in areas where there is no Respect candidate? You would think that Respect does not have a position on the rest of the left and their candidates, although one was agreed at its conference in October 2004. Undoubtedly though they will support the Scottish Socialist Party, not least because the SWP operates there with its own platform. But the only official answer we get is that Respect members should come out and canvass for George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow. The elections are therefore seen as being almost entirely about getting members of Respect (or more precisely one particular member) elected into parliament, not as a heightened political period that can be exploited by socialists all over the country in order to make propaganda for working class rule. A period in which working class politicians can actively engage with much wider forces in society. A period where we could, for example, exploit the divisions inside the Labour Party and increase the pressure on the Labour left to come out fighting against the occupation of Iraq - and expose those who just pose left. Still, there is a difference between the attitude of the two organisations, though you really have to do some detective work to find them. This concerns the attitude to the Labour Party. In a piece on Respect's website, entitled 'An invitation to Labour Party members and supporters', John Rees, Oliur Rahman, Michael Lavalette and former Preston Labour councillor Elaine Abbot assure us that "we understand why generations of working people have given their loyalty to Labour. For many it was the obvious party to join if you believed in equality, peace and justice. "But Tony Blair has transformed Labour into New Labour. And New Labour no longer stands for those traditional working class values. New Labour stands for privatisation, bringing market-inspired mechanisms into the NHS and education." So let's go back to the good old days and build another Labour Party, yes? Nonsense - when did the Labour Party ever stand for "working class values"? Was it ever in favour of the rule of the working class? Extreme democracy? Socialism? Of course not. No, the comrades are looking for an easy way to shortcut the historically necessary break of the working class from Labourism - by presenting Respect as a Labour Party mark two. The comrades might be stating that "there is no reason why the growth of Respect should harm the Labour left. We are deliberately not standing against left wing Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn or Diane Abbott". But at the same time they clearly advise Labour sympathisers to cut their links and "not waste your vote, your time or your energy on electing another government bent on war and privatisation". In a rather tortured way this seems to express support for some Labour left candidates, without specifying all their names. Surely, comrade Galloway would have insisted on an active relationship with his former chums on the Labour left. The SWP puts forward a slightly more clear position, even though it is tucked away in a small article in the latest issue of Socialist Worker. The unnamed writer urges readers to "vote Respect and for those clearly opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Let's punish Blair and all those New Labour MPs who meekly trailed after him into the lobby to vote for war and imperialism" (April 30). In the latest issue of Socialist Review, SWP leader John Rees claims to show why Respect represents a break with the past: "The critical thing is not to, as some people with long memories will claim we are doing, regurgitate the Labour left formula of the early 1980s: 'We want a left outside parliament and a left inside parliament.' When they articulated this view, the left were attached to the Labour Party and through the Labour Party to the government, and through the government to the ruling class. But Respect is organisationally independent of Labour. Therefore the chain of links which bound the left of the Labour Party to the establishment is broken. This can break the chain of loyalty between the working class and the establishment at a higher level than it would otherwise be broken. That maximises the forces on our side and minimises the forces on theirs, divides their side and increases the unity on ours. This raises the probability of victory in any given struggle" (Socialist Review May 2005). The Marxist approach is that what is key, what is essential, is not so much "organisational independence": rather political independence. Yes, that necessitates a Communist Party, but one which systematically builds a whole chain of alliances with the organisations of the working class, going deep into the trade unions and into the Labour Party wards, constituencies and conferences. Lenin advocated CPGB members joining the Labour Party and the CPGB applying to affiliate. That would certainly be organisational attachment to Labour. The fact of the matter is that Respect is politically dependent on the trade union bureaucracy and Labourism through its (un)popular front subordination to George Galloway and MAB - eg, on issues like migration, faith schools, secularism, abortion and a workers' representatives committing themselves to only take the average wage of a skilled worker. Socialist Party The old Militant Tendency used to define the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers' party - until its members were thrown out. At this point, the Labour Party changed into a purely bourgeois party almost overnight. Quite obviously, it was not the trade union link after all that represented the 'workers' part of the party - it was the Militant Tendency itself! Following on from this massively overblown assessment, no Labour Party candidates deserves the SP's support in the 2005 elections. Nor does anybody else, for that matter. "If you agree with what we are saying, then vote socialist in those areas where we are standing," they advise. "But don't leave it there." No? Are there any other candidates that might deserve the vote of readers of The Socialist? Er, no. What the comrades are saying is: don't just vote for the Socialist Party - "why not join us? "¦ An important part of that campaigning work is the fight to build a new party that can give a voice to workers and all those who want an alternative to the profit system" (The Socialist April 27). The comrades do not even state their official support for other candidates in their wretched non-aggression pact, the Socialist Green Unity Coalition. Scottish Socialist Party Not surprisingly, the SSP is putting forward pretty similar politics to their old co-thinkers in the Socialist Party. Scottish Militant Labour (the leading SSP faction) might have officially split from the SP's 'international', the Committee for a Workers' International, in 2000 - but their politics are still pretty close. So no vote for any Labour Party candidates. At the last Scottish parliamentary elections in 2003, the comrades actually stood down in favour of Labour rebel John MacAllion - but this was not a theorised attempt to change the SSP's tactics in relation to the Labour left. In fact, it was a pretty obvious attempt to recruit a single disaffected politician. MacAllion has indeed left the Labour Party since, but to the dismay of SSP leaders has not joined any other organisation. This automatic anti-Labourism incidentally led the comrades to stand against George Galloway in the 2001 general elections. Heather Ritchie achieved 6.9% in Glasgow Kelvin (not quite threatening Galloway's 44%, a majority of over 7,300 votes). Add to that the fact that the SSP is now an out-and-out nationalist organisation and it is perhaps no wonder that they give no official advice on which 'foreign' candidates to vote for. Flicking through their weekly Scottish Socialist Voice, I could not find a single reference to recommended candidates other than themselves and Rose Gentle (as readers of the Weekly Worker know, they have withdrawn their own candidate in East Kilbride in favour of the anti-war campaigner). Through deduction we could hazard a guess at who they might support if they could be bothered to put it in writing. They would undoubtedly call for a vote for Respect, despite a cooling of relations: after George Galloway's call to Tommy Sheridan to leave the SSP and join Respect instead, the atmosphere became rather tense. This came to a head in hostile email exchanges between the SSP's Allan Green and Rob Hoveman and John Rees of the SWP-Respect in December 2004, in which the SSP tried to pressurise the SWP-Respect into stating categorically that they would not stand any candidates in Scotland (see Weekly Worker December 16 2004 and January 6 2005). In previous elections (and when asked) they have also not been fussy about which 'other' socialist candidates to support. "This strategy keeps both the SWP and CWI platforms happy", as one SSP member told the Weekly Worker. In a letter to Respect's NEC in April 2004, the SSP leadership also made clear its support for the rather pathetic Forward Wales: "The SSP executive are of the view that it would be divisive for Respect to stand in opposition to Forward Wales, a party that has been launched after the success of John Marek in the Welsh assembly elections. Just as the SSP would urge socialists not to stand against Respect in the elections in England, we urge Respect not to stand against Forward Wales." This support for an insignificant, Wales-only organisation shows once again that the SSP has no interest whatsoever in building a Britain-wide workers' party that could effectively take on the UK state. Quite the opposite. The comrades explain that "the SSP has had a mutually supportive relationship with the Socialist Alliance in England and the Welsh Socialist Alliance "¦ It was explicit that the three organisations would only organise in their own country." They presumed that "the same would happen with Respect". So in fact they are now supporting Forward Wales - not despite, but because of, the fact that it is small, nationalistic and insignificant and has not a chance in hell of ever becoming a serious force. Alliance for Workers' Liberty The AWL's position is certainly not unique. While the comrades take the question of the Labour Party seriously, they end up supporting New Labour against Respect. Colin Foster writes in Solidarity: "Even in the present miserable half-dead condition of the Labour Party, far more of the forces for those [working class] struggles are in the ambit of the Labour Party than in any of the other parties. The trade unions, the biggest of which are still affiliated to the Labour Party and still have great potential strength in the Labour structures, are the bedrock organisations of the working class. "Socialists need to be involved in that struggle. And that is why we say: where we haven't got the resources and forces to propose a socialist candidate, vote Labour" (Solidarity April 14 2005). That would be most seats then. The organisation seems quite close to going back full circle to the good old days of auto-Labourism. "Don't vote Respect!" writes Colin Foster - and makes some correct, some well-trodden and some plain wrong observations about the organisation: "The Respect coalition of George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party presents itself as a leftwing alternative in this general election. But it is not. Its leftish policies - against privatisation and so on - are all encased in a framework of promoting personalities like George Galloway and Yvonne Ridley and appealing for muslim votes on a communalist basis." That still does not mean Respect is not a "leftwing alternative". What is it then? Rightwing? Its programme is pretty indistinguishable from that of the AWL's single candidate, Pete Radcliff, who is standing in Nottingham. While comrade Foster correctly points out the problematic participation of members of the Muslim Association of Britain and the SWP's programmatic subordination to their politics, he reserves his main fire for George Galloway: "Galloway, the public leader of Respect and its best chance to win in the election, has already been an MP for 18 years. Over most of that time he has been at best a Labour 'soft-left', rebelling rarely, distinguished from the rest only by his unabashed fondness for the old USSR and his close links with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Electing him to parliament would be a shame, not a victory, for the left." Maybe Galloway could also be "distinguished from the rest" by the small fact that he was the most public figure in the anti-war movement"¦? That he has spoken out publicly and openly against the horrendous war on Iraq and the inhuman occupation of that country, for which he was duly expelled from the Labour Party? Issues on which the AWL is rather weak, to put it mildly. Its softness on imperialism has certainly been highlighted by the war and occupation. The AWL cannot and will not call for the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of British troops and the right of the Iraqi people to self-determination. No wonder they hate Galloway with such passion. That blinds them to the task at hand: to play an active part in positively resolving the crisis of the SWP and the rest of left. Of course, the comrades are in favour of a "new workers' party" - but without the participation of the SWP and without George Galloway and without"¦who is next? With such pro-New Labour tactics, the slogan is nothing more than empty rhetoric. Instead, just like the SP, the AWL is focused on building its own little group. Such sectarianism clearly shows that the AWL is part of the problem. Workers Power The comrades' position is my favourite, because it is so honest about its lack of any vision: "Under present circumstances, the fight for a new workers' party can only be expressed by a call for abstention under the slogan of 'No vote for the war party - Build a new workers' party'". Yes, just like all the other little sects, Workers Power is keen to stress that it wants to build a new workers' party. They are less clear about how this could be achieved through an "abstention". In fact, the comrades have some advice, but do not worry if you get confused - it is not very logical. First the easy bit: no support for any Labour Party candidates, because "support for Labour could only boost Blair and Brown's standing. Like George Bush after his re-election, they would be able to say, 'We have made our political capital, and now we intend to spend it' - against us "¦ They have been tested and, in the eyes of millions, found wanting." Fair enough. That is a clear, though wrong, position. Next to Respect. This organisation cannot be supported because it is "not socialist": "Respect does include the word 'socialism' in its name, but it doesn't dare say what it is or how to achieve it. It wants to attract all classes in society apart from the biggest capitalists. But it doesn't dare say that it is the working class who must lead the struggle to bring about a society without war, exploitation and the threat of environmental catastrophe." Very true. Presumably that means that Workers Power cannot support any candidates in the forthcoming elections then? Or is there a lone candidate somewhere who puts forward the full socialist programme? "North of the border, a vote for the Scottish Socialist Party can deepen Labour's crisis. Such a vote is principled as the SSP represents between five and 10 percent of the population who have already broken from Labour. The RMT and other trade unionists support them." No mention is made of the SSP's despicable nationalism - presumably that can be ignored in the face of the support from the RMT. The SSP's version of socialism is no better or worse than Respect's. It equally skirts around uncomfortable issues such as open borders. Most importantly though, a 'socialism' that is based on not even a single state, but a small part of a single state, is quite obviously doomed to failure - and doomed to produce horrendous results, as history has shown. In terms of deepening "Labour's crisis" - could not a vote for the few genuinely anti-war and anti-occupation candidates of the Labour Party aid that process? Then we get a further twist: "In England and Wales, we should support genuine candidates of struggle, who are standing on a ticket of combating Labour's policies and are pledged to continue fighting the next Labour government. But these are few and far between. Most people do not have the option of voting for such candidates." Surely, Galloway and the SWP candidates standing for Respect would fall under this category. The RMT London has even pledged £700 towards Galloway's campaign - surely that must count for something with Workers Power. Having set out this illogical and sectarian position, let us now look at WP's election leaflet, which says: "This time we can't vote. It's frustrating, but there's no one who deserves our vote. We should use the time to convince our friends, our workmates, our family, and put pressure on the trade union leaders to form a new workers' party. That way we won't be wondering in four years time who to vote for. We'll have a party of our own." A party presumably where members are not supposed to question the confusing and contradictory orders coming from the leadership. Now that is quite a vision.