You couldn’t make it up

With the general election now, at most, seven months away, what is happening with left unity projects? Peter Manson surveys recent developments

While both the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales have talked about a conference or convention of the left “in the autumn”, with a view to standing joint candidates next May, nothing at all has been arranged.

What there is so far is an SWP-organised meeting on October 31 to which SPEW, Respect, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the Barrow People’s Party (!) are invited (two representatives each); to be followed the next weekend by the RMT union’s so-called ‘conference’ entitled ‘Crisis in working class representation’ on November 7.

I understand that the October 31 meeting will see the first face-to-face formal discussion on the general election between the SWP and the other groups - although there has been email correspondence, not to mention a rather unproductive SWP-SPEW public exchange. It seems the SWP had hoped to time an announcement of a ‘unity conference’ to coincide with last weekend’s Brighton demonstration outside the Labour Party conference, but it has just not been able to garner enough backing from other organisations or union leaders for its June “open letter to the left”.

Meanwhile, the ‘core groups’ involved in the ‘No to the European Union, Yes to Democracy’ platform to contest the June 4 European Union elections - SPEW, CPB, RMT and the Alliance for Green Socialism - have been meeting monthly (apparently Pete McLaren’s Socialist Alliance is considered not quite ‘core’ enough to get an invite). In August they agreed that a “convention” would indeed be organised, but mysteriously nothing further has been heard about this at all.

Well, perhaps it is not so mysterious really. The closer the general election, the more the CPB backtracks. In July, its general secretary Robert Griffiths talked optimistically about the need to “develop forms of left unity” that will include “an agreed approach to the coming election”, including the possibility of joint candidates.

Admittedly, “Trying to prevent a Tory victory will require a vote for hundreds of Labour candidates”, and comrade Griffiths expected there would be “wide-scale agreement on the left” on support for those who “opposed New Labour’s imperialist wars and backed the Trade Union Freedom Bill”. Moreover, “In other seats, the Labour candidate may be best placed to keep out the Tories”.

All in all, then, the message was: vote Labour - “except for the worst of New Labour’s privatising war criminals”, against whom the CPB, RMT and others would hopefully stand candidates. Mind you, comrade Griffiths warned “those sects which specialise in ultra-leftist posturing” (including the SWP?) that they “have nothing to offer the process of left unity which needs to proceed” (Morning Star July 9)

A few weeks later, however, he was stressing even more the central need to defeat the Tories by voting Labour: “The Communist Party of Britain is clear that a Tory victory will ensure that the ruling class offensive will be released with full force. In many constituencies the labour movement and the left will therefore have to campaign for Labour candidates - keenly so for social democratic and socialist rather than New Labour ones.”

And another condition was added for when, in other seats, “the left and non-Labour-affiliated unions” might “unite around socialist and progressive candidates”: in addition to standing only “where Labour is being misrepresented by a warmongering, police-state privatiser”, they should also only contest “where there is no danger of a Tory victory” (August 25). In other words, the CPB favours a handful of token protest candidates in prominent safe Labour seats, but in reality will be wholeheartedly urging a Labour victory - including for every “warmongering, police-state privatiser”.

In fact the September 30 Morning Star comes very close to praising Gordon Brown for his conference speech: “It was one of your better speeches,” the Star editorial tells him, and the leader-writer resorts to the kind of pleas to the Labour right we have come to expect in the run-up to elections from Britain’s ‘official communists’ (who then go on to urge an unconditional vote for the Labour right, of course): “Mr Brown, if you are serious that the people ‘won’t have to pay for the banks’, stop trying to make them cough up via attacks on public services and wages.”

The front-page report of the prime minister’s speech, headlined “Brown rolls dice for the last time”, contains not a word of criticism, but is full of quotes from Brownite union leaders extolling its merits.

Stark contrast

This is hardly the message that SPEW wants to put across. For it, Labour ceased to be a bourgeois workers’ party with Neil Kinnock and certainly with Tony Blair and there is no point voting for a capitalist party just because it promises to implement anti-working class cuts with less enthusiasm. What is needed is … a real Labour Party!

Looking to Germany and the success of Die Linke, an unsigned article declares: “In Britain a trade union-backed left coalition would mark a significant step forward in the struggle to create an independent voice for working class people. It could stand candidates that argue for a socialist programme and demand that working class people do not pay the price of the capitalist crisis.

“Such candidates would stand in stark contrast to all the establishment parties, and would play an important role in giving confidence to the struggle to defend public services, which will be crucial after the general election, whichever of the axemen is prime minister” (The Socialist September 22).

And this, of course, is in “stark contrast” to the CPB’s clear preference for one of the “axemen”: “It is certainly true that what Labour has achieved is far beyond what the Tories would have attempted” (Morning Star editorial, September 30).

No wonder, then, that all talk of a left convention to discuss a joint electoral challenge by the No2EU components has stopped - a bit embarrassing for SPEW, which had insisted that No2EU, and not any coalition dreamt up by those SWP Johnny-come-latelys, must form the basis of any general election alliance. But the CPB wants none of it (and may not turn up to the October 31 meeting with the SWP either).

It now seems perfectly evident that Bob Crow is not going to call anything approaching a democratic, decision-making conference. He much prefers a combination of behind-the-scenes committee meetings, where the real decisions are taken, and impotent talking shops, like the RMT’s November 7 ‘conference’ on ‘The crisis in working class representation’.

Comrade Crow is not exactly going all out to build for this event. Look carefully on the RMT website and you will find the details hidden away under ‘Events diary’: “The conference will be non-binding and non-resolution-based to discuss with like-minded socialists and trade unionists how best to defend and promote working class interests.”

So, as was the case with previous such gatherings mandated by RMT annual conferences, November 7 will decide precisely nothing. This meeting (which the SWP has so far failed to mention, by the way) cannot even be viewed as a step towards an electoral coalition. SPEW is clearly making the best of a bad job when it calls on everyone to build for this “representative conference” (The Socialist September 22).

There is no doubt, however, that comrade Crow wants some kind of leftwing challenge in May. In an interview in The Times, he talked of a “workers’ alliance” to contest the general election. He said he had been in discussions with union leaders, socialists, greens and other campaigners with a view to drawing up a joint manifesto (September 19).

Meanwhile, Socialist Worker is still talking about the “urgent need” for “a political alternative to Labour that can unite the left”. Editor Chris Bambery calls for a debate “over the necessity of creating an alternative electoral force for working people” (‘This is how to beat their cuts’, September 26).

The CPGB, for one, has responded positively to the SWP’s open letter, but we have not as yet received a response to our proposal for a meeting to discuss it. We, like other left groups that replied to the SWP in the same vein, have not been invited to the October 31 discussions.

Musical chairs

No wonder some on the left seem to have given up all hope of an electoral coalition. For example, former Labour left Liz Davies does not even think it worthy of a mention in her Morning Star article of September 24. Comrade Davies provides us with a useful résumé of the attempts made over the last decade to build a left alternative to Labour.

In the Socialist Alliance, which she joined in 2001, she watched “the so-called revolutionary political parties destroy any chance of effective left cooperation”. First SPEW “was terrified when the Socialist Workers Party joined the alliance. The SP formally walked out …” Then the SWP, “having promised that it would not use its members to dominate the alliance, reneged on that promise and started to use the Socialist Alliance entirely in its own interests and to flout principles of democracy and accountability”. (Not that comrade Davies attempted any kind of principled fight - she simply walked out herself in 2002).

Afterwards, the SWP “wound up the alliance because it had found a new project - setting up Respect with George Galloway. The Socialist Alliance had failed to provide the SWP with instant electoral success and so it was to be abandoned.”

Following this there was the whole Respect debacle, with the SWP splitting with Galloway, just as the Scottish Socialist Party “split in appalling circumstances”, when Tommy Sheridan abandoned the SSP to set up Solidarity.

So what are we left with? SPEW’s stillborn Campaign for a New Workers’ Party is referred to, as is the AGS, CPB and Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, which is “still around” - the last three sometimes stand in elections, after all. Comrade Davies confesses she did not support or vote for No2EU - she “didn’t agree with the slogan”. Instead she voted for the “best of a very bad choice” in the EU elections, casting her vote for the Green Party in a vain attempt to keep out the British National Party. But “Sadly the Green Party does not offer the way forward either”.

Comrade Davies sums up the whole farcical situation with the comment: “You couldn’t make it up. It’s deeply tragic.” As for next year’s general election, we “simply won’t have any realistic socialist or even social democratic party to vote for. We’ll vote Green, or one of the various small left parties, or tactically vote Labour with gritted teeth to keep out the Tories, or stay at home.”

Comrade Davies does, however, urge those within reach of Hayes and Harlington to “do whatever it takes to re-elect John McDonnell”. She names no other Labour candidate worthy of support and clearly believes there will be no serious left electoral alliance either.

As I say, this is, by and large, a useful summary, but comrade Davies’s conclusion is absolutely dire: The Convention of the Left … has the grace to recognise and try to avoid many of the previous pitfalls … It has insisted that no-one … has the absolute right to speak and has abolished platforms. Everyone sits around in a circle.”

Well, if the COL (which met last Saturday in Brighton) is prepared to rearrange the chairs in such a revolutionary fashion, it must be an organisation with a future. Especially as it “doesn’t hold national meetings in London” and “doesn’t have a constitution or policy-making structure. If it did, it would be immediately bogged down in sectarian rows.”

I suppose if such an ‘organisation’ does not actually take any decisions, and does not actually do anything, then its constituent parts will be less likely to fall out. I do wonder, though, if comrade Davies realises how ridiculous she appears by holding up the COL as some kind of model.

At the convention, by the way, SWP national secretary Martin Smith called for an electoral coalition in order to “build an alternative to Labour”. But the CPB’s comrade Griffiths contemptuously rejected any such notion of “a new party”. Instead we should all go out campaigning for the People’s Charter.

Ironically, that was more or less what the SWP was saying last year, when it was claiming there was no electoral space for the left - only it proposed gathering signatures for a different document: the ever so inspiring People Before Profit Charter. But now that the SWP pretends to think the left can make a serious electoral intervention, it has quietly dropped the PBPC.

Comrade Davies is right: the revolutionary left is not serious. Either it runs around pulling stunts or it chases those to its right. Even when all the main revolutionary groups did come together in the Socialist Alliance, every one of them apart from the CPGB thought we should keep our own Marxist politics under wraps.

But she is dead wrong in rejecting any “policy-making structure” ‘at this stage’. At what stage would it become possible or desirable, without provoking “sectarian rows”?

It is perfectly possible for the left to unite. But the organisation we need is a democratic centralist Marxist party, not a top-down, reformist dictatorship or Labourite halfway house.