Svengali: Left unity - good politics, not cynical manipulation

Sectarian left: Svengalis of Left Unity block unity

Peter Manson examines two contrasting views of the new attempt to revive Labourism

What attitude should revolutionaries take to organisations such as the newly formed Left Unity grouping? Clearly, when over 8,000 people sign a petition in favour of a new leftwing initiative, and the most active set up dozens of local groups across the country, this is something that should be welcomed.

Precisely the opposite view has been taken by Peter Taaffe and the Socialist Party in England and Wales. True, in an article in The Socialist last month, comrade Taaffe conceded that “Ken Loach … has opened up a very welcome discussion on the need for a viable alternative to the Labour Party.” But that is far as he is prepared to go. The main problem with Left Unity is … it is not the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition! Comrade Taaffe writes: “Learning from [previous failed attempts to form a new left party], the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition … is the first serious attempt to create the foundations of a new movement expressing the voice of the working class for their own independent party. It is in the best traditions of the labour movement with a federal constitution, and, moreover, unlike other attempts, is firmly based in the trade union movement.”1

Well, in that case, clearly everyone should just join Tusc instead of wasting their time in organisations that are not controlled by SPEW. But, returning to reality, why does comrade Taaffe claim that Tusc is more “serious” than, say, the Socialist Alliance? Because it is “firmly based in the trade union movement”? By which I presume he means that the RMT (but no other union) is affiliated to it and that most of its activists are trade unionists (who also happen to be SPEW members). Because it has a “federal constitution”, which, as everybody knows, is “in the best traditions of the labour movement”? What? Do worthwhile working class bodies - parties and unions, for example - usually have a “federal constitution” then? Like the RMT or SPEW itself? That is a new one.

Finally, perhaps Tusc should be regarded as the “first serious attempt” to express “the voice of the working class for their own independent party” because it is garnering such outstanding election results. For instance, in the May 2 county council elections in England, its 119 candidates picked up 8,266 votes all told. That translates into a 2.5% average in the seats where it contested. Just 14 of its candidates managed over five percent, the highest being in Bolsover North, where Peter Neeve received 247 votes (9.4%). At the lower end of the Tusc results table, 17 comrades won less than one percent.

And in between elections, of course, Tusc effectively closes down. SPEW comrades organise local meetings under their own name, not that of Tusc - as do those from the Socialist Workers Party, who only bother with Tusc in a few carefully selected areas in any case. As for Tusc supporters who are not SPEW or SWP members, well, I’m sorry, they just have to wait for the next round of elections. First serious attempt indeed!

Comrade Taaffe concludes: “Therefore, any discussion that is opening up with Ken Loach and his supporters cannot ignore the importance of Tusc.” Yes, Tusc is just so important.

However, the SPEW general secretary does have one thing going for him. He writes: “Some, including many of those gathering around Ken Loach, are political grasshoppers leaping light-mindedly from one project to another. Their ‘projects’ invariably fail.” This does indeed get to the heart of the problem. Such projects either rely on the discipline provided by the likes of the SWP or SPEW just to tick over and, if that is not forthcoming, generally cannot survive for long. What a pity that the SWP and SPEW cynically use the ‘unity initiatives’ which they do support in the same way as they use all their ‘united fronts’: as recruiting bodies for the mother ‘party’.

Having dismissed the “political grasshoppers”, comrade Taaffe concludes: “We do not need at this critical juncture miracle workers searching for an easy route to the solution of the problems of the working class. We need, instead, a mass movement to defeat the cuts - and the trade unions offer the best hope for the vehicle that can do this.” This comment shows just how “serious” Tusc really is: “instead” of trying to set up a new party - Tusc’s avowed aim - the main task is to build a union-led “mass movement to defeat the cuts”. However, showing he can face both ways, Taaffe immediately follows this statement with: “On a political level Tusc also offers the best hope for furthering the process of creating a viable new mass workers’ party.”

SWP dismissal

The above comments appeared in a lengthy article entitled ‘Tory cuts blitz: we must stop them’. And, strangely enough, the SWP’s judgement on LU is also published almost as an aside at the beginning of April - in an article by Alex Callinicos, headed ‘Tories in crisis allow chance of left revival’. As far as I know, this is the only mention of LU in any SWP publication to date. Neither Socialist Worker nor The Socialist reported on the May 11 conference (of course, neither ‘reporters’ nor observers were permitted to attend, but you might have thought that both SPEW and the SWP would have found a way to inform their readers on the proceedings).

Comrade Callinicos, noting “the enthusiastic response that film director Ken Loach’s call for a new party of the left has received”, states that the austerity onslaught against the welfare state and, in particular, the national health service, has provoked a response both within and outside Labour: “Defending these achievements … also provides the Labour left with their benchmark. So what we have is, in effect, two different projects for reviving the reformist tradition in Britain. Both have to be taken seriously.”2

Well, yes, reformism dominates both the Labour left and the LU, but we have to take both formations seriously nevertheless. However, should we not attempt to intervene in them in order to combat that reformism? It appears not. The most the SWP aspires to is some kind of cooperation: “This makes it all the more important that all those who want to see a left alternative to Labour work together.”

Work together to do what? To help build that left alternative? If so, what kind of left alternative should it be? Comrades will no doubt recall that the SWP closed down the Socialist Alliance in order to build Respect, which, in its hands, espoused reformism “of a special type” - it appealed to and incorporated those who were not even part of the working class tradition.

Or does he mean that we should just “work together” in common campaigns against the cuts and so on? Either way, the SWP is very similar to SPEW in its approach - it views itself as the revolutionary party in embryo and so it is all just a question of manoeuvring to increase its own influence and size. New organisations such as Left Unity are regarded almost entirely from the point of view of their usefulness, or otherwise, to the cause of a greater SWP.

So, while both SPEW and the SWP may seek discussions with Loach and co, do not expect them to participate in a formation that they did not set up and are unlikely to be able to control.

‘Broad left’ fan

One group that takes a diametrically opposite approach to the grudging indifference of SPEW and the SWP is Socialist Resistance. In fact, although the organisers have made clear that the left groups are not invited to participate, SR comrades are very much involved and in the know. As Alan Thornett states, “… we as SR had been involved from the outset”.3

As with the SWP and SPEW, SR’s first comments on LU, including the above remark, appeared in a longer, more general article: comrade Thornett’s ‘New opportunities for left realignment’. He demonstrates just how much of a fan SR is of the idea of a ‘broad left’ party, when he writes: “Syriza has demonstrated that a coalition of forces organised democratically within a single party can win mass support and break the hold of the main establishment parties, including social democracy.”

In fact, according to comrade Thornett, “There seems to be a general consensus that a new organisation should be a broad, pluralist, left-of-Labour, anti-austerity party ...” It is strange that he was able to assess the “general consensus” in an article written a week before the LU meeting was held, let alone before the organisation had even discussed what sort of party is needed.

Previously, comrade Thornett had been pessimistic: “Just a few months ago the prospects for such a party, in England, looked extremely bleak …” (Of course, we know that SR supports the idea of Scottish socialists organising separately from those in England, but it seems comrade Thornett wants to exclude from LU those in Wales too.) For example, he laments the failure of Respect, which “was … eventually destroyed when [George] Galloway imposed his own top-down control and turned it into a support group for himself”. Comrade Thornett dates this to 2012, even though SR actually walked out of Respect back in 2010 - precisely over Respect’s decision to start organising in Scotland.

Comrade Thornett is effusive in his praise for Ken Loach’s film The spirit of ’45, which is “a big defence of socialist and collectivist ideas, and in particular public ownership and public services”. That just about sums up SR’s attitude and what kind of party it hopes will emerge - one that forlornly attempts to relive old Labour-style Keynesian welfarism.

Writing on LU’s own website, another SR comrade, Dave Kellaway, described as “a member of the Fourth International”, attempts to give this approach a theoretical gloss.

Comrade Kellaway polemicises against both comrades Callinicos and Taaffe, and in response to Callinicos in particular he is totally ineffective. Allegedly the SWP leader “does not see any distinction between Owen Jones and his ‘reclaiming Labour’ idea and the Loach/LU organised party project, which is implicitly positioned as a clear rejection of Labour … it is clear that there is difference between the Owen Jones position and Left Unity - there are not two sides of the same Labourist reformism.”4

The difference between the two, comrade Kellaway, is merely in the way in which the two sets of reformists envisage an old-Labour party coming into being - which is exactly the point comrade Callinicos was making.

But our Fourth International comrade is not on much firmer ground in his response to Peter Taaffe either. He finds comrade Taaffe’s “political grasshoppers” comment “rather offensive” - not only to the likes of comrades Loach, Kate Hudson, Andrew Burgin and Alan Thornett, but to grasshoppers too! After all, they “fulfil an important role in the ecosystem and provide protein for humans in some cultures”.

Comrade Kellaway points out that “Lenin and the Bolsheviks, so reverentially referenced by Peter, also made lots of moves. The question is always how to relate to the concrete political situation.” I wonder if the “lots of moves” made by the Bolsheviks included flitting as individuals from one ‘broad’, specifically non-revolutionary grouping to another?

He clearly associates himself with those “grasshoppers” when he writes: “At the moment there are thousands of individual activists who are looking for an alternative to Miliband’s Labour. They are excited about a new party … some have gone through Respect or the Socialist Alliance. Hopefully we will learn from our mistakes.” Hopefully you will, comrade, but I’m not holding my breath.

Reformist ‘stage’

Let us be clear over two things. First, the “political grasshoppers” criticism is surely levelled primarily at individuals like comrades Hudson and Burgin, who have had numerous political homes. For example, comrade Hudson was a longstanding member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. She left in 2011 and joined Respect the next year, but she resigned a few months later over Galloway’s remarks defending Julian Assange.

The term “light-mindedly” does indeed spring to mind. Surely it cannot be right to walk out of a political organisation over the clumsy, off-the-cuff remarks of a leading figure. Surely your duty should be to fight within that organisation against what you regard as a mistaken political position. And why did comrade Hudson leave the CPB? Where is her political critique of its failings?

Secondly, there should be no criticism of comrades for joining the SA, Respect, LU, etc per se. After all, we in the CPGB have been in all three organisations (not to mention the Socialist Labour Party before that). In general we have welcomed the formation of such groups (the exception being Respect, which represented a marked shift to the right on the part of the main groups involved, the SWP and SR’s forerunner, the International Socialist Group). The criticism is directed at comrades’ reasons for doing so. Whereas we have seen all such formations as a site to struggle for what is necessary - a single, united, Marxist party - by contrast, almost the entire left (including the unattached “grasshoppers”) view them as a necessary stage.

Comrade Kellaway attempts to tackle this question in his polemic, when he writes: “Left Unity represents an understanding that radicalising forces do not pass immediately from reformism to revolutionary positions in one go. It is obvious that the whole process is uneven. Clearly we do not accept closed off stages in the revolutionary process or transition which can lead to the revolution being strangled by cautious, reformist forces who say ‘This far and no further’ … However an awareness of the stages in the development of revolutionary consciousness is a different matter.”

The problem is that formations like LU do not set out to lead comrades “from reformism to revolutionary positions” at all. They appeal to disillusioned old Labour supporters as they are and as a corollary restrict any “radicalising forces” that join to the reformist milieu. They are designed from the beginning as forums that say, “This far and no further”.

But the battle for Left Unity has not really begun. It is far from predetermined that there will be a ‘Left Party’ regarded by its Svengalis as a halfway house between reform and revolution, but one that in reality can never progress to the revolutionary ‘stage’. We in the CPGB will seek cooperation with all those within it who want to fight for a Marxist party in the here and now.



1. The Socialist April 3.

2. Socialist Worker April 5.

3. www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2959.

4. http://leftunity.org/what-some-of-the-left-groups-are-saying-about-left-unity.