As promised, my attempt to look at the big, longer term picture from the point of view of a member of Green Left in England. Unfortunately I cannot attend this weekend's Green Left Summer Camp in Kent, so this is my contribution to the ongoing debate.1. A Snapshot
In order to have a clear picture of the tasks that face us and plan acordingly we must first consider the current deployment of forces and their trajectories.
It is clear to anyone with a relatively unbiased view of political matters that the left in Britain is in a fairly desperate state compared to either many comparable countries, or even the past situation in Britain itself. This is taking the "left" description to include all who would have been fairly termed as such during the social and political battles waged in the 1970s and 1980s - before the madness of totalitarian neo-liberalism established its' current domination. That is , before the "consensus reality" of Western capitalism re-defined left and right within its' own narrow boundaries following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its' satellites and created a situation where any attempt at discussing alternatives to the narrowly defined economic status quo were dismissed by virtually all mass media and ridiculed in public discourse.
These days, Blairites can describe themselves as of the "left" and foaming at the mouth crypto-fascist commentators such as Littlejohn, mad Mel Phillips and Peter Hitchens view even the Tories and Orange Book
Liberal Democrats as "left" from their extreme right position that is not uncommon in the print media. Blairism, even in its' new 'nuanced' Brownite form, is in fact far to the right (in economic terms) of mainstream 1970s British Conservativism, of much of European Christian Democracy, and even major parts of Thatcherism. Cameronian Conservativism is simply a slightly more protectionist and reactionary version of Blairism with social-liberal spin for the disgruntled 'progressive' elements of the middle class.
In the Lib Dem sphere, Orange Bookery's 1970s closest equivalents are probably the swivel-eyed right-wing loons of the Freedom Association.
By any sensible definition "left" is about defending the rights of the working majority, vulnerable minorities and the poorest against the attacks of big business and the oligarchy. It is about radically extending democracy. It is about seeking social justice, environmental sustainability and a peaceful, co-operative foreign policy. It is about building an international counter-power to US imperialism and the monopoly capitalism it serves. All three main parties fail on most of these tests. Those parts of this agenda their more apologist members might say they are in line with turn out on closer examination to be not principled positions, but mere electoral window dressing or worse, cover for the further extension of corporate power.
The hold of corporate interests on mainstream British politics - through lobbyists, direct and indirect funding, and in the final analysis economic blackmail (do as we say or we take our business and jobs overseas)- is evident in all three major parties and even finds expression to a lesser extent in the the civic nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales.
So where are "the left" situated in Britain today and what sort of numerical strength are we looking at? This is not an academic study, but a personal view based on experience, observation and discussion - but I can still hazard an informed guess at the answers. In looking at the question we must also ignore the views of disgruntled ex-leftists like Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and the whole Euston
shower as the "left" that they critique is a terrifying phantom, based on their own, limited middle-class political history and their need to justify their now cravenly reactionary positions to themselves and others of their class. Their positions continue to move rightwards in the fashion of earlier examples like the US Schachtmanites
who became Neo-Cons. To this end the Eustonites and friends pretend that the British "left" is simply the SWP
, a few groupuscules, one or two troublemaking MPS and a handful of middle class mavericks. Even more ridiculously, they identify themselves as the only remaining representatives of the "true
" left and philosphically dress themselves in the ill-fitting gaudy clothes of the court jesters
of the European Enlightenment.
Significant by omission in the Eustonite worldview is any mention of the TU left, the true
composition of the peace movement (far broader than the SWP/CPB
as they pretend) the left of the environmentalist and green movement and those activists currently focussed around issues as wide ranging as debt and poverty in the developing world, housing, disability and race.
To me, the Left in Britain can still be found both inside and outside the Labour Party and Trade Unions, though much reduced in power and influence. It can now also be found in the left wing of the Green Party of England and Wales
and the Scottish Green Party
, the left of the SNP
, Plaid Cymru
and various localised manifestations of attempts to build an electoral alternative such as the SSP
, Forward Wales
, the Socialist Party
and others who do not have a more uniform national presence. The Left in the terms I wish to speak of here includes many who focus on single issue or community campaigning and also the left-libertarian or 'direct action' left who are actually a larger constituency than the membership figures of the tiny British Anarchist groups would suggest. Current poles of attraction for these left forces include the Campaign Against Climate Change, Anti-Trident and Anti-nuclear activity, NHS defence groups and in some areas the Stop The War Coalition. There are groupings around social centres and projects in many British cities.2. The Numbers Game
The Left in Britain, defined as above probably still numbers in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands. Though severely fragmented, the potential
for a more coherent force is still there. So what is the distribution of this left across the parties and movements?
Polls of Labour Party members during the recent abortive McDonnell
leadership campaign showed support for a left candidate (who would perhaps have just about broadly met the tests mentioned earlier, at least on paper) to be around 15% of the sample. Even allowing for not all the Labour left backing the two for various reasons I would say that the broadly defined "left" in the Labour Party
is probably around 20% of members - i.e perhaps 30-40,000 people. Given the structure of the LP this percentage is insufficient to have a major influence, though concentrated among the activist base and, one suspects, the more Metropolitan areas.
The debacle of the McDonnell campaign not even being allowed to get their candidate onto a ballot paper shows how much these leftists are currently prisoners of a party dominated by careerists and corporate puppets who are safe in the knowledge of backing from the majority of an apathetic, if not apolitical and in many cases right-wing, rank and file. This means that if in the short term these prisoners of New Labour are to have an effect on a social and political level it is likely to be outside
the formal structures of their own party (notwithstanding the passing of populist social democratic motions at conference - that the leadership ignores - and even this 'privelege' has now been signalled by Brown to be under threat)
So what of the left outside labour that they might work with?
The largest electoral forces in Britain outside of and to the left of Labour are those of the Green Parties. On the definition of "Left" previously given the GP certainly passes on policy grounds, but with the proviso that again we are talking largely about radical social democracy here rather than full blooded socialism. The other problem is that there is still a right wing (who would probably self-describe as 'centrist' or 'moderate') and centralising faction prominent in most of the National Green Parties in these islands. The Greens also carry the burden of the trajectories and histories of the Greens in the rest of Europe, from the neutered and bureaucratized ex-radical parties of Germany
to the ecological parties of the East
where 'left' is still often a dirty word.
The Green Left
grouping in GPEW draws together disparate left elements in the Greens here - we are probably talking about a circle of influence and co-ordination of a few hundred activists. The left in a broader sense perhaps makes up a third to a half of the party by my estimates - say 3000 people. These are again concentrated amongst activists, but whereas in Labour the undemocratic structures minimise the left influence in the Greens the left influence is felt in a more proportionate way.
3000 is also the probable figure of left activists in and around the SWP/Respect projects and satellites, again, with an active right in Respect. The other "far left" groupings in England and Wales probably total around 3-4000, perhaps 800 to 1000 of these in the Communist Party of Britain and its' satellites. There are perhaps 3000 active left wingers in Scotland across the left outside Labour (a better proportion of the population than in England!)
Taken with their political periphery and students 'passing through' these extra-labour left groupings may muster perhaps 20-30,000 people in the UK. A figure for the TU left from a UK union membership of 7 or 8 million trade unionists could be gained by saying that if 1% are broadly defined as leftist (as TU stewards tend to be)then we are looking at 70-80,000 people, some of whom will of course overlap with the Labour and extra-labour left I have already mentioned. Again, the position of these activists amplifies their influence on their fellow workers, but as with the Labour left their influence within the structure of their unions is limited by bureaucracy and inertia. Nevertheless, the Labour right are still prone to bemoan the "entrenchment" in the unions of people they have sought to marginalise and exclude from the Labour Party.
So, if we are talking about an estimate of 80-100,000 activists, radical unionists and sympathisers with socialist, radical democratic and even revolutionary viewpoints in Britain, how can this constituency be brought closer together and prepared to act in unity in a diverse movement for social, economic and political change?3. One Big Party?
We can look abroad for some examples of what to do and what not
to do. I am sorry to say that the experience of Scotland
and parts of South America indicate that the perspective of aiming for a single, hegemonic party of workers and the left is a very tricky and potentially disastrous project. This is not to say that a 'new workers' party' is not needed or cannot be formed, but that the relative importance given to it by likes of the Socialist Party/CWI's "Campaign For A New Workers' Party"
in Britain is misplaced. The age of the hegemonic mass party is gone, at least in late-capitalist Britain. We are in an age of movements rather than parties, where unity is dependent upon common goals rather than common structures, and where democracy and diversity are closely guarded by those who have achieved some element of them in their current organisations. Though the RMT initiative (National Shop Stewards Network)is more understanding of the fact that a mass party cannot be brought into existence by sheer willpower of handful of activists without a social and economic base, one worries that the perspective of the "leading role" of one big party is similar. To repeat - a new party to regroup labour and left activists is desirable, but it is not a magic bullet, it might (if broad, radical and democratic enough) be one
aspect of the kind of movement
we need. The other point, is that as Peter Tatchell has argued, there is a already
a tried and tested electoral vehicle available to those on the left wishing to make a break with Labour - the Green Party, with Green Left as an organising centre. The position may change, but at the moment
the Green Party in many areas of England and Wales offers the only viable electoral
platform for socialists and radical democrats. In other areas it is at least
as valid a vehicle as Respect or other left of labour formations.
The class, economic and social structure of modern Britain also need looking at and assimilating into any analysis that seeks a way forward. Socialists of all stripes should try and base their analyses and programmes on observation of the real world and the material basis of it, on actually existing socio-economic structure and likely trajectory and development.4. The economic and social setting
Capital is now, more that ever, global. Neo-liberal ideology and practice are both a recognition of this and its' result - an attempt on part of the global ruling class to extend their power and wealth still further. The globalisation of capital has dissolved, as Marx predicted, whole sections of the edifice of national capitalist stability. In Britain, food, energy and financial security are long gone. Autarky
was never really a long term possibility for these islands from the beginning of the industrial age, the British Empire itself was an early example of a paternalist and nationally based globalism - liberally deploying racism and military might to aid in sucking the resources and labour power out of the dominated regions to fuel an armed, mercantile-industrial behemoth.
Since the Second World War British Capital has been cemented to the economically expansionist and belligerent US military industrial complex, tied first by aid and trade and mutual opposition to the restraining force of the opposing Soviet bloc, and then latterly by the intermeshing of US and British capitalist interests. British economic and foreign policy have been shaped to make them entirely dependent on the continuance and deepening of the neo-liberal economic model on a global scale. It goes without saying that Britain's industrial base has been filleted, its' agriculture tied to the interests of European policy and agribusiness rather than domestic supply needs. The remaining state, service, defence and productive industries are dependent upon the casino economy of the City of London, the corporatist diktat of Brussels and repatriated capital from the the tentacles of British business around the world, (particularly from the home economy of the New Rome, the United States).
The effect of this on class structure, allegiance and consciousness in Britain cannot be ignored. The export of extractive and productive industrial functions has fundamentally altered the shape of the British working class. The mass industrial organisations that sprung up from the late 19th to early 20th Centuries and fought their last set-piece battles against the resurgent capitalism of the 1970s and 1980s are largely gone or much reduced - the trend to mergers and 'super unions' are an ironic effect of this - a move away from the craft unionism that handicapped the British working class in the unions' heyday towards a pale imitation of the industrial and general unionism advocated by the syndicalist radicals of an earlier age. The 'super' unions are a drawing together for warmth of the labour bureaucracy in the face of the arctic blasts of neo-liberal industrial destruction and deregulation.
The deregulation and atomisation that accompanied the Thatcherite crushing of industrial organisations have a tangible effect on the working class of today. Whilst the (probably temporary) triumph of unipolar US economic, military and political hegemony has allowed the UK poodle economy to bask in the warmth of their ill-gotten gains, a large proportion of the ex-industrial working class have flowed into the service economy and the public sector. The pumping up of service and public sector employment has attempted to serve the ruling class objective of creating a UK economy based on high skill, creative, technological development and financial sectors - in effect a global niche with minimum self-sufficiency and independence from the global market. A parallel need was to police and direct the unruly parts of the workforce and youth to fit into the sweatshops and burger bars of the new economy. The bluff of this strategy is now being called as China, India and other developing countries use the capital flows generated by their rapid industrial development (itself fuelled, in part, by "off-shoring") to develop just those economic sectors that Britons were told were their optimum options. The idea that new economic zones could not be just as good, or better "knowledge economies" than Britain was a piece of racist imperial hangover nonsense in the first place anyway!
Indeed, corporations based in the leading developing economies are already expanding their ownership to productive industries in less developed countries to avoid their own rising wage costs, while developing more "knowledge based" and service functions in their own economies.
Nevertheless, the flow of workers into either 'professional' or poorly organised service sector employment in Britain has been accompanied by confusion, self delusion and avoidance of the question as far as class identity, interests and capacities are concerned. This is not as pronounced in the expanded public sector where the history of workplace organisation meant that many of the new workforce were integrated into the public sector union culture, some bringing the baggage of their previous failures and successes in an industrial setting along with them. On a personal note I recently met three old friends recently that I had not seen for about twelve years. When I last met them they were all politically involved on the left and one was a miner, another a bricklayer and the third an ex-miner working casually in construction. When I met them recently all three were now teachers! They were no longer politically active but seemed embedded in the public sector culture and as far as I could tell were good union members. Regardless of their current becalmed state, such people carry a political history and awareness with them that can be activated and drawn upon, particularly when economic and social conditions change as they surely will and make 'hiding out in normal life' less of an option.
The private service sector is somewhat different. The lack of a history or tradition of workplace organisation across much of the private service sector has meant a lot of the energy, experience and organising ability/potential of ex-industrial workers flowing into the sector has been at least temporarily submerged. Under such circumstances there can be a rapid loss of class consciousness and combativity. The structure of the service economy is designed to encourage individualism, yellow unionism, dog-eat-dog competition and lack of continuity in relationships and organisation. It is difficult to organise, though credit is due to activists in some unions and left organisations who are seeking to organise, agitate and educate when they find themselves in this sort of employment. The efforts of the IWW
seeking to organise coffee shop workers in both the US and Britain are relevant here.
Beyond these two segments of workers there are those who have been left behind by the development of the capitalist economy. (Or perhaps in some cases play a vital role as a vulnerable reserve force) The casualised sectors, the semi-legal economy, and claimants are more isolated physically and consciousness-wise from the larger more prosperous parts of the working class than in the post-war 'consensus' years, aided and abetted by media vilification and social prejudice. Unemployment is now at the same level it was when it was a major election issue in 1979 ("Labour Isn't Working")yet now it barely registers on the political seismometer and tabloid newspapers feel free to stereotype and encourage hatred of the unemployed, the disabled and those too sick to work. Added to this sector are many migrant workers, another group subject to vilification and scapegoating in the media.5. Conclusions - The Way Ahead
So, in conclusion, what are my tentative suggestions as to the most appropriate way forward?
It seems clear to me that the current socio-economic set up in Britain and the different levels of political development mean that a strategy which seeks a united movement based on a diversity of political and social organising structures and tools is more likely to be able to cope with the segmented nature of the non-employing class and the diversity of points of focus. The political
poles of regroupment should cover the major political differences so that major currents of left thought can retain a voice without compromising on the need for a united movement
, but there is also a need for geographical or community level organising - no area of control by the ecocidal ruling class should be left uncontested - it is at the local level that the largest potential for unity is found. On the other hand, at the point of production (or distribution, exchange or reproduction!) maximum unity is required on an organisational
level - in 'normal' times through industrial unionism and rank and file organising, and in times of heightened struggle possibly through assemblies or other democratic forms. As (eco-)socialists we should recognise that the economy is the main seat of ultimate power in society - as a green with revolutionary syndicalist roots I would say that it is in this sphere that we need "One Big Union", but we do not need "One Big Party" in the political sphere, for the reasons mentioned above.
As regards the larger picture it seems clear to me that the economy and the neo-liberal challenge demand that we need European and global level organising - international solidarity and co-ordination at the workplace level and global political networks above and beyond the current social forums.
Finally, with what we know as eco-socialists about the challenges the world faces and the changes likely to impact very heavily on all of us in the years ahead, we need to build a movement with the capacity for independent action and the ability to defend itself. The need for direct action in the face of the nuclear programme, the incinerator programme and the lack of action on climate change becomes clearer by the day. As the global situation becomes more severe in the shadow of climate change, peak oil, etc etc it is likely that we will need to be able to oppose the far right and defend ourselves against them and the unleashed security apparatus of the ruling class. The movement will need to unite on questions of security and defence and pool resources for these purposes.
It is time for the left in Britain to face up to the changes that are beginning to take place and the massive challenge we face as the neo-liberal order faces its' environmental and economic limits
. It is time to unite in action and work towards a credible alternative
politically, economically and socially.
Labels: British Left, British Politics, Green Left, Green Politics, Polemic, Theory