Accentuate the positive
At last the establishment of a left unity electoral coalition has been confirmed by the highly secretive 'core group'. But, asks Mike Macnair, is this unity built on sand?
The name of the newly confirmed leftwing alliance to contest the election is ‘Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’ (Tusc) and a provisional programme has been issued. This resulted from secret talks between the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, the RMT union, Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, the Alliance for Green Socialism and Indian Workers Association.
However, contrary to the hopes of its promoters, the RMT executive has decided not to back the project. Although general secretary Bob Crow will be at the forefront of the campaign and other union leaders, including Brian Caton of the Prison Officers Association, will also be centrally involved, the coalition, despite its name, will have no official union backing.
According to a statement on the website of SPEW’s Committee for a Workers’ International, “Places have been reserved on the committee for the core organisations which participated in No2EU, who will now decide on their involvement in the new coalition” (www.socialistworld.net/eng/2010/01/1302.html).
In other words, it is by no means certain that all the “core organisations” will take part. In fact the AGS has for one pulled out, because the agreed name, which I understand has already been registered, does not contain the word ‘Green’ or ‘Environmental’. The IWA has not attended ‘core group’ meetings for months, and even the CPB did not attend the most recent meeting. Unlike ‘No to the EU, Yes to democracy’, which contested the June European Union elections, when the CPB called the shots and SPEW was forced to go along with the CPB’s dire Europhobic British nationalism in No2EU, it seems that comrade Crow has this time leant more towards SPEW, and this is reflected in the provisional programme. In turn, this could re-ignite divisions on the CPB leadership, which previously caused it to pull out of ‘core group’ meetings until the decision was overturned.
In the December 31 Morning Star CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths only mentioned a possible left coalition at the very end of his article on the prospects for 2010. Setting a Labour victory as a high priority, he added that “it will also be vital that a range of left candidates, including Communist Party, Greens, Respect and socialist coalition ones in carefully selected seats, ensure that progressive, working class and anti-imperialist policies are put before millions of electors” (emphasis added).
SPEW, by contrast, is expected to stand a couple of dozen candidates, and the Socialist Workers Party hopes to stand six, including two in London, as part of the coalition. Socialist Worker’s report of the SWP conference states: “The SWP is in negotiations with others on the left over the prospect of standing candidates in the election. In many places, the SWP will call for a vote for candidates to the left of Labour, including Solidarity in Scotland, Respect and individuals such as Dai Davies in Blaenau Gwent and the left Green Caroline Lucas. A debate developed over whether to call for a Labour vote where no other left candidate is standing. Conference agreed to arrange a longer discussion on the election at the next party council” (January 16).
The latest internal Party Notes is more specific, however: “Conference agreed that the SWP should be part of the new socialist and trade union coalition, backed by Bob Crow, Socialist Party, CPB and RMT branches that will stand in a few seats in the general election” (January 11).
It is quite clear then that the hopes of comrades like SPEW’s Dave Nellist for a contest on the scale of the 2001 Socialist Alliance campaign (98 candidates) have been dashed. What is more, as this paper has pointed out, and as George Galloway said at the Respect annual conference in November, the extraordinarily dilatory secret proceedings of the ‘core group’ - when the major parties are already launching their election campaigns - pretty much guarantee that the coalition will have negligible electoral impact.
There are both positive and negative aspects of this news, though it is a bit of a stretch to identify the positives. There are three of these. First is the involvement of the SWP. If the SWP and SPEW actually get involved in serious joint work around a coalition for the general election, that would have a significant ‘gravitational pull’ towards broader and longer-term united action of the Marxist left - that is, towards a Communist Party.
The second positive element is that, once again according to the CWI, “Candidates from community campaigns, and other socialist organisations that have not been involved in the discussions to date, will also be able to stand under the Tusc banner. The coalition has agreed a core policy statement which prospective candidates will be asked to endorse. As a federal ‘umbrella’ organisation, however, coalition candidates and participating organisations will also be able to produce their own supporting material.”
The CPGB wrote several weeks ago to the coalition asking to participate, but received no reply. Hopefully we will now receive a positive response to our proposal to finance our own candidates, who will stand on a communist platform, outlined in our “own supporting material”. This would go some way to recognising that the organised left has a responsibility to unite its own forces to put “working class and anti-imperialist policies” before the electorate (to borrow Rob Griffiths’ phrase); and that this responsibility is not dependent on the (illusory) possibility of creating a new ‘broad workers’ party’: ie, a new Labour Party based on the trade unions. This would be a real, if small, step forward.
The third positive element is that the name and provisional programme are better, or at least less bad, than the No2EU platform from which this coalition originated. No2EU presented itself, in effect, as a labour movement version or left wing of the United Kingdom Independence Party. It also appeared as a left version of the right-populist campaign against ‘parties’, based on the MPs’ expenses scandal, which was at its height at the time of the Euro elections. The name ‘Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’ presents the alliance as an unambiguously working class and socialist choice; and the programme is a pretty standard leftwing wish list, though as muddled as these wish lists usually are.
We in the CPGB want to see the largest and most effective possible leftwing challenge to New Labour in the next general election. Such a challenge is made if anything more urgent by the cabinet Blairites’ use of the Hewitt-Hoon ‘stalking horse’ to extract concessions from Brown - namely promises of harder cuts and the presentation of Labour as a party of “aspiration”: ie, of the managerial middle class.
The biggest negative element is the fact that after months of secret talks and with campaigning effectively underway (everyone knows the last possible date for the election is in early June), it has taken so long for a left contest to be confirmed; and it is still not clear which groups will participate.
This is a symptom of the same phenomenon as the secret talks themselves and the complete silence - not even a negative response - in response to our letter. Top-down, bureaucratic control-freakery, relying on secrecy. It was a major factor in the failure of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party; in SPEW’s walk out from the Socialist Alliance and the SWP’s subsequent destruction of it; and in the SWP’s astonishing blunders with the Respect project.
At the end of the day election campaigns depend on mobilising people on the ground to leaflet, canvass and so on. And election campaigns are - as No2EU half understood - about democracy and people getting some small degree of control over their own future. The bureaucratic method is precisely demobilising and paralysing. With Tusc its probable effect will be a stillborn project like No2EU itself and like the SWP’s Left Alternative.
The other negatives are in the provisional programme. Much of this is entirely worthy. Parts of it are utterly vague or incoherent: like “Invest to create and protect jobs, especially for young people.” But there are two really fundamental weaknesses.
The first is the question of Europe. As I said on the positive side, at least we are rid of the dominant Eurosceptic tone of No2EU. But this reduces the programme’s comments on Europe to two.
The first is on anti-union laws: “Repeal Thatcher’s and the EU’s anti-trade union laws.” This is perfectly supportable, though inadequate: the anti-union laws are not just Thatcher’s but were begun when the 1974-78 Wilson government incorporated large parts of Heath’s (1970-74) anti-union laws in its own legislation. But it is entirely correct to demand repeal of the EU’s anti-union laws. How? The answer is going to have to be common political action of the workers’ movement across Europe.
The second is under the heading ‘Solidarity, not war’: “An independent foreign policy based on international solidarity - no more US poodle, no moves to a capitalist, militarist United States of Europe, no Lisbon Treaty”. Opposition to the Lisbon Treaty is now politically meaningless; and the clearly anti-working class elements of the rejected ‘European constitution’ were, in fact, already in the Maastricht (1992) and Nice (2001) treaties and the original Treaty of Rome (1957). “No more US poodle, no moves to a capitalist, militarist United States of Europe” is purely negative but unobjectionable.
The alternative offered is “an independent foreign policy based on international solidarity”. This is, of course, a contradiction in terms: solidarity and independent policy are counterposed. But the larger question is: solidarity with whom? The Blairites, of course, claim to pursue a foreign policy “based on solidarity” - that is, the solidarity of the ‘international community’ or of ‘the west’. Perhaps, like Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity website, our foreign policy should be based on solidarity of the ‘anti-imperialists’: ie, solidarity with the theocratic regime in Iran against the Iranian workers and students; or solidarity with the emergent proto-imperialism of the Chinese Stalinist regime against Chinese strikers, or Tibetan or East Turkestani protesters.
The real alternative is a foreign policy based on the solidarity of the international working class as a class. And this policy has positive implications for Europe. Yes, repeal the EU’s anti-union laws - through common political action of the workers’ movement across Europe. But the implications are much more extensive. Just imagine for a moment that Tusc actually stood in all seats and won the general election. To attempt to implement the left wish list of the provisional programme in Britain alone would merely crash the economy, bring in sanctions from other capitalist countries, and open the road to a far-right coup. But common action of the working class on the scale of Europe, in contrast, really could win the cherished goals of the left - and more.
Here the residual ‘socialism in one country’ of the programme - the heart of the CPB’s ideas, of course - renders it wildly implausible. A programme based on the aim of common international political action of the working class could transform the wish list into real aspirations.
The second fundamental weakness of the provisional programme is the question of democracy - despite the fact that the word ‘democratic’ is scattered throughout it. Thus the programme talks of public ownership of services and utilities “under democratic control”, of education “under democratic local control” and of public ownership of the financial sector “under democratic control”.
But when it comes to the issue of democracy as such, the heading ‘Democracy, diversity and justice’ says nothing about what the idea of “democratic control” implies. After commitments to anti-racism and to gender equality, we get “Defend our liberties and make police and security democratically accountable.” - which Conservative shadow home secretary Chris Grayling could agree to. And then: “For a democratic socialist society run in the interests of people, not millionaires. For bringing into democratic public ownership the major companies and banks that dominate the economy, so that production and services can be planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the environment.”
The British state claims to be a ‘democracy’ and to be ‘democratic’. The reality is, of course, that it is not: it is “run in the interests of ... millionaires” (more exactly, of corporate capital). But how does this mechanism work? The answer, in part, is that Britain has a mercenary media (funded by advertising), a mercenary political class (career politicians dependent on large donations to keep their parties funded), a mercenary judicial system (through the ‘free market’ in lawyers’ fees giving success in lawsuits, on average, to the parties who spend more on lawyers), a mercenary senior civil service (overpaid and expecting to retire early and take up jobs in business) - and a mercenary army. Hardly surprising, then, that the corporations can pay for the policies they want.
Going alongside this system of corruption and back-stopping it are the ‘checks and balances’ of the constitution: the judicial power on the one side, and autonomy of the ‘executive power’ on the other. The executive is headed by the plutocrat queen, head of state and holder of loyalty oaths from MPs, ministers, judges and army officers. It is generally entitled to act in private: Tony Blair is reported to have said the Freedom of Information Act was “the worst mistake his government had made” (The Guardian December 31 2005). Behind the screen of government privacy and official secrets lie the lobbying efforts of business and its representatives and the reminders of favours past and possible favours future.
Conversely, there are positive needs of democracy, if working people are to win the final say in social decision-making. We need far more information about decision-making processes. We need more freedom of speech and the press, now subject to the dominance of the corporate media monopolies. We need more frequent and freer elections - without the undemocratic system of party registration and the big parties’ access to state funds and to media - on the basis of a more proportional system of representation. We need to restore power to local government, taking it away both from ministers and from judges. And so on.
Why has the Tusc provisional programme so little to say about the substance of democracy? The answer takes us back to the beginning of these negatives: the bureaucratic, top-down approach of the creators of this initiative itself. They may say they are for democratic control - but when they themselves are asked to act democratically, they think like leftwing versions of Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes minister.
No2EU meant by ‘democracy’ the restoration of the British ancien régime before ‘we’ joined the Common Market in 1972. It is hardly surprising that its successor coalition has little to say about what democracy actually means.
Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. If Tusc actually gets a serious election campaign underway in which SPEW, the SWP and CPGB actually work together, it will have a real, positive dynamic, however bad the core politics. At present, however, it looks as though the bad politics - especially around democracy and bureaucracy - will make Tusc yet another stillborn election-only initiative.