Localist separatism can only produce crazy confusion
Mike Macnair reports on the latest attempt to create a national grouping to the left of Labour
On Saturday July 24 I attended as CGPB delegate a meeting in Rugby organised by Pete McLaren of the micro-Socialist Alliance and Nick Long of Lewisham People Before Profit. The aim of the meeting was to set up a ‘national network of progressive, community and socialist political parties’. For reasons of travel time, the meeting was limited to three hours, between 1 and 4pm.
The meeting was attended by delegates from 14 groups. Five were small national organisations, the Alliance for Green Socialism, CPGB, Convention of the Left, Socialist Alliance and Socialist Resistance. One factional grouping within a larger party was represented, Green Left. Eight local groups sent delegates: Coventry and Warwickshire Socialist Alliance; Epping Forest Green and Democratic Left; Kidderminster Independent Community and Health Concern; Lewisham People Before Profit; Rugby Red-Green Alliance; Tyne and Wear Left Unity; Wellingborough Independent Socialists; and Wigan Community Action.
A number of observers brought the total number present up to 33. Perhaps notably, Nick Wrack and Will McMahon (formerly at least of the pro-Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition wing of Respect) were there “not representing anything” (their own words) and as literal observers, since they did not participate in the discussion.
Apologies were received from (among national groups) the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (polite, but the meeting was obviously in the AWL view not important enough for it to find a delegate), the Morenista International Socialist League (similar), and Workers Power (a pro-forma communication suggesting the meeting should adopt WP’s action programme). Local groups which sent apologies were Walsall Democratic Labour Party; the United Socialist Party (in effect a local Merseyside group); Bermondsey Socialist Society; Brighton Tusc; and Bracknell Socialists.
The first half of the meeting was taken up with reports from all the groups which had sent delegates, of their groups’ nature, background and political activity. The predominant character of the groups present was local ‘left unity’ projects involving ‘independents’ and some freelancing members of other national groups. They were involved in basic socialist propaganda, campaigns on local issues, and had had some engagement in electoral campaigning. In keeping with the localist spirit of the meeting, Mike Tucker from Socialist Resistance discussed its work in Birmingham, Mike Davies reported on AGS activity in Leeds, and Dave Landau of the micro-SA told us about Steve Freeman’s electoral campaign in Bermondsey and anti-BNP campaigning in outer east London, leaving only myself and John Nicholson of the Convention of the Left outlining national political projects.
Kidderminster Independent Community and Health Concern stood out like a sore thumb among the other groups: its report described its project as a “centrist” one, meaning by this not the standard far-left usage, but as in ‘centre-left’ or ‘centre-right’ in mainstream politics. Though originating in a campaign against a hospital closure, the group is now plainly a pure-localist ‘independent’ group of the sort commonly found on rural local authorities, given slightly more coherence by the fact that between 1997 and this year it had an MP, Dr Richard Taylor.
After a half-hour break for ‘networking’ and people to get drinks and food, the remainder of the meeting was a cramped discussion of the proposal to set up a network, what, if any, name this should have, and arrangements for a future meeting.
Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance offered cogent arguments that even launching a ‘network’ was, in practice, launching yet another national unity project, which was clearly premature on the basis of the forces represented at the meeting. Paul Crofts from Wellingborough Independent Socialists pointed out that before setting anything up it was desirable to have some idea what it was for. Mike Davies of the AGS argued that there was not, as of this meeting, any basis for adopting any name: the first task was to sort out “where we’re going”. These arguments were, however, effectively ‘not heard’ by most participants.
The predominant issues discussed were two. The first was fear, expressed strongly from Wigan and from Tyne and Wear, but given wider support, of setting up any national organisation which could potentially tell people in the localities what to do: therefore they were against electing a committee or officers. This fed into the suggestion that there should be simply meetings rotating from locality to locality - Tyne and Wear offered to host the next one. It was pointed out that this would involve travel difficulties for many. John Nicholson offered to give the project a room and an hour or two at the next Convention of the Left event in September; Mike Davies commented that this would be the “kiss of death” and received murmurs of support. Wigan then volunteered Leeds for the next meeting. No decision was taken on this, or on whether we should elect officers or a committee, and so comrades Long and McLaren volunteered to continue coordinating till the next meeting.
The second question (discussed in parallel) was the issue of name. The Kidderminster group objected to the inclusion of the word ‘socialist’ as tending to narrow the project and suggested ‘National Network of Independent Community Parties’. Several people said this was too long. Wigan suggested ‘progressive’ as capturing the common elements of all those present. Nick Long said that the point of the project was to hold the line and coordinate people who have started to organise against Labour from the left. ‘Progressive’ in this context was the common ground of the mainstream parties, though ‘community’ might work. Susan from Lewisham suggested the meeting should launch a national network of anti-cuts campaigns, but this was generally rejected.
By now, the 4pm deadline was rapidly approaching. Dave Landau said that it would be depressing to go away without anything at all decided, and suggested the adoption as an interim name of ‘People Before Profit Network’. Nick Long, from the chair, said that there was clearly no consensus to actually create a network, but we could adopt a provisional name and agree to meet again in the autumn. After some more toing and froing ‘People Before Profit Network’ was put to the vote and adopted by a large majority, with three against (Kidderminster, AGS, Socialist Resistance) and three or four abstaining (CPGB included).
If this sounds like the report of a pretty unproductive meeting, that is because in my opinion that is what it was. The reports from the local groups were interesting indications of the positive work that people can achieve on the ground through united action. But the political framework of localism, of ‘network’ or ‘movement’, and the idea of decision-making through ‘consensus’ actually paralyses decision-making - the meeting could have provided a classic example for Jo Freeman’s The tyranny of structurelessness, right down to the fact that the absence of elections means continued control by the initiators of the project as ‘volunteers’.
One of the Wellingborough comrades made the point at a late stage of the discussion that the creation or non-creation of a network would make no difference to what the local groups were doing on the ground. This is perfectly true. But something will make a difference to what the local groups are doing on the ground. The unseen elephant in the room is the probable responses of Labour Party members and trade unionists to the Con-Dem government’s cuts, privatisation and anti-local democracy (‘Big Society’) offensives.
What the local groups have been doing is useful to the extent that it is a part of the underlying basic tasks which are posed to the working class by its needs under capitalist rule and therefore form objective tasks of the workers’ movement. These tasks can be summarised very roughly as follows:
- The organisation of trade unions and the ongoing guerrilla struggle with the employers over wages and conditions.
- The organisation of cooperatives both on the producer and consumer side, and mutual savings associations, as partial alternatives to dependence on the employers and on the capitalist mercantile and financial industries.
- The organisation of local groups (tenants’ associations, etc) to defend working class interests in relation to exploitation through rent and in relation to distributive issues in local government.
- The creation of forms of working class self-education, posed by the failure of capitalism to provide education to the working class at all (in the past), at low standards and under state control (in the present) or in religious forms (in the future), and workers’ positive need for education in the history of our movement and the skills of trade unionism, political action and so on.
- The independent political representation of the working class in elections, on the basis of self-determination of party policy by the members, to escape dependence on the competing groups of ‘professional politicians’ who are actually paid agents of the capitalists.
- The organisation of workers’ independent press and media, to escape dependence on mass media which are either directly controlled by capitalist advertisers or (like the BBC) controlled by the state.
- The organisation of a political party which stands for the idea that the working class should take over the running of society, as opposed to loyalty to the existing state, and therefore provides the basis for working class solidarity across unions, industries, localities and countries, and which can carry on agitation against the legitimacy of the capitalist governments, judiciary, police, armed forces and so on and the illusion of a ‘national interest’ shared by the opposing classes.
Historically, a large number of these tasks were performed (imperfectly) by the trade unions, the Labour Party and connected organisations - though these organisations were loyal to the capitalist constitution and therefore provided only very limited political independence of the working class.
The last task was performed (also very imperfectly) by the ‘official’ Communist Party. This also had an important role in practice in workers’ education and workers’ media. The sectarian divisions of the groups to the left of the CPGB prevented them - as they prevent the modern left as a whole - from playing more than a very marginal role in workers’ education and workers’ media; their members play a limited but significant role in trade unionism, but not the groups as such.
The liquidation of the ‘official’ Communist Party and the creation of New Labour by an alliance between pure political careerists (like Blair) and elements of the Eurocommunists and their fellow-travellers meant that almost all these tasks were undermined. A regime was created in Labour and the trade unions which used Stalinist organisational methods to prevent any dissent unacceptable to the capitalist media. This meant that organising at the base was positively discouraged. The sudden rise of Labour Party membership in the 1990s was a purely advertising-based consumer phenomenon. New Labour’s entry into government accentuated these phenomena.
Nonetheless, these changes did not amount to a metamorphosis of the Labour Party into the old Liberal Party or modern US Democratic Party - a simple capitalist party based on the petty bourgeoisie. The Labour Party remained and remains a mass party of political representation of the working class - although the New Labour regime has made it even less independent of the capitalist class. This character was reflected in the results of the 2010 general election.
Under these conditions the task facing the remaining left is to recreate a communist party on a higher basis: that is, one which is more democratic, more committed to the general solidarity of the working class, than the old ‘official’ CPGB, and without the British nationalism and constitutional loyalism of the old British road to socialism programme. Such a party, starting small, could have an influence well beyond its ranks in reviving those tasks of the workers’ movement which even Labourites at the base could support (unions, cooperatives, workers’ education and so on), as well as performing the independent task of promoting the idea of working class solidarity and working class rule.
To do so, however, would require the left to unite its forces on the basis of its common ground as against Labourism. And this would require it to subordinate the material interests of the leaderships of the groups, both in their separate ‘brands’ - Cliffism, Grant-Taaffeism, nostalgia for the lost USSR, and so on - and in their bureaucratic control of their own membership and local organisations.
Instead, very much the larger part of the left has combined an unwillingness to change with the illusory belief that Labour has ceased to be a mass party of political representation of the working class. We have therefore seen a series of bureaucratically controlled ‘unity projects’ which aim to recreate old Labour: the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect and - almost farcically - No2EU and Tusc. None - with the partial exceptions of the SA and SSP at their height - has offered the sort of unity which could really be built on the ground. Each in turn has failed (Respect in the form of being reduced in substance to local groups, with a real base only in east London and Birmingham).
The splintered and bureaucratic-centralist organised left produces as its necessary negation the localist projects which were predominantly represented in the July 24 meeting. But the localist projects are generally - the Tyne and Wear group was perhaps an exception at the July 24 meeting - as committed as the national groups to the delusion that Labour has lost its connection with the working class. This was politically reflected in the July 24 discussion by the desire to use the words ‘community’ or ‘progressive’ or to avoid ‘socialist’: the object is to create a ‘broad movement’ which should not be narrowed by its name.
Under the New Labour government such local projects could have real purchase. The reason is that Labour was not attempting to build on the ground, but - on the contrary - maintaining an organisational regime which necessarily tended to hollow out all sorts of organisation at the base, so that opposition to government policy could not find more than marginal expression within Labour.
It is illusory to imagine that this will continue. Labour Party activists and Labourite trade unionists will become prominent anti-cuts campaigners. The Labour Party will revive at the base. The rightwing leaders will begin to talk left: the leadership contenders have already done so. Even if David Miliband wins the leadership, he will be forced gradually to shed his Blairite skin - or be replaced.
Under these conditions, local left anti-Labour electoral projects on a low political base will be as sharply squeezed at the polls, just as the national ‘unity projects’ were in the general election. And low-level local campaigning activity of the sort the groups represented on July 24 are doing will either have to join with Labourites in the locality or be marginalised as sectarian.
Unity on the basis of localism - or of nothing more than an enmity to New Labour - is an illusion. That, at the end of the day, is why the July 24 meeting was unproductive.