The current General Election is taking place in conditions where British politics is in a state of more flux and fragmentation than not only in the lifetimes of those generations alive today, but also of previous generations. In some ways it is unprecedented: there are no apposite comparisons in the history of British capitalism. Both major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, are at such historically low levels of popularity that it is hard to imagine that either of them are likely to be able to achieve an overall majority in parliament even though we have an undemocratic first-past-the-post system that is biased to giving the party with a plurality of votes a crushing, undemocratic overall majority in parliament. It could not be absolutely ruled out that either party might just make it as a result of some event stampeding voters in either direction, but it is not something most people would like to take a bet on.
The April 2 televised debate between the leaders of seven political parties underlined the fragmentation and ferment. No visible ‘winner’ emerged in what was the last of the televised debates this time round. The Tory strategy of mocking the Labour leader Ed Miliband as a weakling and a geek failed, as Miliband emerged neck-and-neck with Cameron in terms of visibility as a potential Prime Minister. But the determining feature of the debates was the absence of overtly working class political expression. Miliband has more claim to this than recent leading Labour figures such as Blair and Mandelson; he sometimes does claim to represent working class interests. But it was left to the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois fringe, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Greens, to speak out in terms of something close to principle against Labour’s capitulations to austerity and anti-migrant demagogy from UKIP and the Tories. The one party with parliamentary representation that expresses a clear working-class opposition, Respect and its MP George Galloway, was able to be excluded from the debate by the broadcasters, mainly due to the fragmentation and crisis of the working-class oriented left.
Crisis of bourgeois politics in Britain after Great Recession
For complementary reasons, the historic parties of the ruling class and the working class are both in a state of crisis and sustained loss of support. The Tories – and even more dramatically their coalition parters the Liberal Democrats – are in steep decline because all they have to offer at this time is attacks on the living standards not only of the working class, but much of the middle class, the electoral base of the bourgeois parties, as well. This is basically because capitalism in Britain is suffering from sometime akin to a gangrenous decline, with parts of its anatomy virtually dropping off and being discarded. Despite talk of ‘rebalancing’ the economy from George Osborne and Vince Cable during the last five years of the Cameron/Clegg regime, in fact the British economy has become more denuded of what remains of an industrial base, more dependent on ‘financial services’ as its main means of earning a crust in the world, and British capital has less and less use economically for wide sections of the working class population.
As a device to stave off the possibility of social explosions, particularly under the Blair/Brown Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, poverty level wages were topped up by tax credits, effectively subsidising the profits of low-wage employers with state funds raised through general taxation. Under New Labour, this benefited not only the working class, but significant sections of the middle classes as well. The cycle of housing booms (and busts) that was initially triggered off by Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ council housing, as well as ‘liberalisation’ of the rented housing sector (meaning in reality, removing virtually all protection from tenants), led to a huge inflation of both house prices and rents, and a massive housing crisis particularly in London and South-East England. The subsidy of low wages was thus increased by an ever-growing bill for housing benefits, as both those not working, and many of those in work full time, could not afford to pay rents because of the housing-cost inflation (let alone to buy somewhere decent to live).
Under the Cameron-Clegg regime, a massive squeeze has been instituted on these benefits/ subsidies, through such things as the Bedroom Tax, without any restriction on the market that generates the need for them. On the contrary, the government has deliberately tried to re-inflate the housing-costs bubble just as it was squeezing the income of those unable to pay the costs, thus producing a very fragile social and economic background to the current election. Despite the fact that there has been the emergence of the British economy from recession and a paper growth rate that might seem likely to benefit the government, this has not properly materialised. On the contrary, the squeeze on the living standards of the very poorest, expressed through the bedroom tax, the various benefit ‘caps’ and the vicious, sociopathic vendetta waged by the Coalition against the sick and disabled, has in fact produced a decline of living standards extending into the middle class base of the Tories and Lib Dems. After all, this layer of the population also benefited from tax credits, particularly for children, and child benefits that have now been either taken away or means-tested by the coalition.
The result is that the surge in popular approval the Tories and the Lib Dems expected to gain from promoting themselves as having ‘sorted out’ the economy, has not happened. The Tories are politically in the doldrums, unable to generate enthusiasm from their base, and under threat from UKIP right-wing populism that seeks to direct this discontent against immigrants and the European Union. UKIP already won two parliamentary seats in 2014 when Tory MP’s defected and stood for re-election in by-elections they precipitated.
The Lib-Dems are similarly subject not only to this effect, but also of hatred from part of their former voters, because of the stark contradiction between their posturing to the left of the Labour Party of Gordon Brown in 2010 in order to get the high vote they then obtained. This enabled them to go into coalition with the Tories and thus crap on those who voted for them, as symbolised most dramatically by their promise to abolish student tuition fees if elected. The Cameron-Clegg coalition then proceeded to triple the existing tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000.
Thus both of the government parties are in the mire, facing damaging challenges to their chances of continuing in government. For the Lib Dems, in fact, it is a racing certainty that they will face major electoral losses, a real bad bloodletting, on May 7th.
Labour: bourgeois workers party in its time of decay
Labour, on the other hand, is not doing anywhere near as well as might be expected in this situation. As a bourgeois workers party – a creation of the working class movement, notably the bureaucracy of the trade unions, but in the past at times with fervent working class mass support, Labour has its own acute set of contradictions, which mark it in this period. The very concept of a bourgeois workers party is that it embodies a class contradiction within itself; this has always been true of Labour. The trade union bureaucracy that initiated Labour was pushed to do so from below, by the great wave of politicisation of the working class that followed the Great Depression of the 1880s, and the rise of mass trade unionism first of all among dockers and match-makers, that then embraced huge sections of the working class in the New Unionism of the late 19th Century.
This coincided with the breaking of British capitalism’s virtual monopoly of the world market for industrial goods, and the rise of rival capitalist-imperialist powers such as Germany and the United States, that were either immediate and direct rivals as with Germany, or with the United States, a reserve world imperialist hegemonic power for a later period in history. It was the decline of British power in the world, and the beginning of its economic decline, that brought about the class struggles that created the Labour Party. Prior to that decline, in the earlier Victorian Era after the defeat of Chartism and the decline of Utopian Socialism, the British Trade Unions had become deeply conservative and fully identified the well-being of those ‘aristocratic’ parts of the working class that they represented, with the good fortune and world monopoly of 19th Century British capitalism. It was Engels himself who observed of the working class in Britain that
“As long as England’s industrial monopoly lasted, the English working class has participated to a certain degree in the benefits of that monopoly. These benefits have been divided among it in a very unequal way; the privileged minority appropriated the largest part, but even the great mass received at least temporarily sometimes its part. That is the reason why there has been no socialism in England since the withering away of Owenism. With the collapse of the monopoly, the English working class will lose this privileged position. It will find itself one day reduced – including the privileged and leading minority – to the same level as their working colleagues of foreign countries. That is the reason why there will again be socialism in England.’” (England 1845 and 1885, article published in Commonweal, March 1, 1885, retranslated from a German Edition by Ernest Mandel)
This actually began to happen (and not just in “England” but Scotland and Wales also) when the Labour Party was formed. But it was very incomplete, because in conditions of inter-imperialist rivalry that became the dominant international norm from the 1880s onwards, the labour bureaucracy that was able to maintain itself at the head of the mass of the workers who came, over time to support Labour as their class party. The labour bureaucracy being a pro-capitalist, petty-bourgeois social force that had itself risen above those whom in represented in the mass working class organisations, whom it was able to dominate politically.
Thus from the very beginning Labour was dominated by a force that identified the fortunes of the British working class with the fortunes of British imperialist capitalism vis-a-vis its rivals, and also, even worse, largely identified with British capitalism against the peoples of the colonies which it seized and whom it regularly suppressed and butchered, from Ireland to India to Southern Africa. While there was resistance, often very principled, to British imperialism from within the base of the working class movement in Britain, at the very summit of the new working class political party there was a deeply reactionary, racist and elitist trend whose domination means that Labour cannot be unambiguously regarded as a working class institution. It is a party led by pro-capitalist forces, that nevertheless is in organisational terms a gain for the workers insofar as it represents a partial step towards real class independence. But as a bourgeois workers party, with that contradiction within it, it behaves very differently from a genuine working class political party, and must be treated by genuine partisans of the working class as an alien class entity with considerable dangers for the working class within it.
In order to give political expression to its independent class interests, the working class in Britain, as is the case everywhere else, needs its own independent class party. But the Labour Party is most definitely not that party, or anything close to it. However, its own contradictory class nature means that it is not completely alien to that objective either, and depending on circumstances, it can go through significant evolutions and motions, either towards our objectives to a certain degree, or at times radically away from them. Because of that class contradiction, the Labour Party cannot be transformed, as a whole, into a purely working class party. It needs to be split along class lines, with the working class component breaking from the politics not only of the dominant Labourite bureaucracy, but also from the politics of the trade union bureaucracy that supports them. This is most unlikely to be purely a Labour Party internal matter; rather it is most likely to be part of a political process involving sustained interaction with revolutionary, communist organisations outside the Labour Party. But it is also not the case that a genuine working class party, which needs above all a revolutionary programme, will be formed entirely outside the framework of the Labour Party by pure linear growth. It will involve splits in Labour, in some form.
The history of the Labour Party through the 20th Century bears out this analysis. After its bureaucracy, with one or two pacifistic wobbles, played its role along with other ‘national’ forms of social chauvinism and social imperialism in getting the workers of Europe to slaughter each other in the trenches in WWI, its core became defined by its hostility to the Russian Revolution that was the single world-historic working-class victory that came out of the war. At the same time, much of its working class base was sympathetic to the revolution, and the revolutionary convulsions that rocked Europe both immediately after the war, and later in the 1920s and 1930s, put limits on how far the leaders could go in pursuit of imperialist interests.
In the age of the existence of significant Communist Parties, which were mass parties in some important countries, both in their original trend with their aspirations to revolution, as well as in their later, degenerated form under the domination of the Stalinists, they nevertheless gave expression to a militant mass class-conscious sentiment of workers, that was a threat to the stability of the capitalist system. That sentiment also permeated Labour’s base, even if sometimes in diluted forms. After the Second World War, identified in the popular mind with a war against the fascism that capitalism spawned as a result of the inter-war depression, the fear of the working class drove the capitalists in Western Europe to make a whole raft of concessions to the working class on matters relating to social welfare. The most notable, in the British context, being the creation of the National Health Service (free public health care for all) which was enacted by the Labour government of Clement Atlee in 1945-51, which was the high point of Labourite reformism in Britain.
The heyday of Labourism lasted until the mid-1970s, when the end of the post-WWII expansion of capitalism, a marked fall in profit rates, and a stagnation in the working class movement under the hegemony of reformism drove the bosses internationally to a counter-offensive against the working class. This was done under the banner of monetarism and neo-liberalism, a supposedly ‘new’ economics which counterposed the undiluted market to the reformist economics of Keynes which had been the hegemonic form of bourgeois economics during the post-WWII capitalist economic expansion. As a bourgeois trend, the rise of neo-liberalism had as its standard-bearer the Jewish-American economist Milton Friedman, who thereby became the theoretical mentor and vanguard figure of an entire class-conscious bourgeois counter-offensive against the working class throughout the world. Friedman’s theories were first tried out against a section of the working class in Chile, after the Pinochet coup, and later became the orthodoxy in the entire Thatcher/Reagan-led offensive against the working class in the advanced countries.
A significant strand in the rise of neo-liberalism was the vanguard role of Jewish bourgeois intellectuals such as Friedman, Keith Joseph, Henry Kissinger, and others. The involvement of such personages in the class struggle on the side of the bosses at such a political level was a dramatic change from the situation in earlier periods in capitalism, where Jews were certainly strongly represented in the bourgeoisie, but were regarded by the bulk of the bourgeoisie with ambivalence, as being unreliable interlopers with communal connections to dangerously radical leaders of the working class who were often of Jewish origin. This counterrevolutionary demonology that extended to the Jewish bourgeoisie had contributed to the support of some sections of the non-Jewish bourgeoisie to National Socialism, and the genocide of Jews (including bourgeois Jews). Now, in the early days of neo-liberalism, the outcome of WWII and the formation of Israel having cured the gentile bourgeoisie of this psychosis, important Jewish bourgeois figures took their place in the vanguard of a counter-attack against the proletariat in radically changed political conditions.
This political strand is not some odd quirk of history, nor is analysing it the product of some kind of obsession with the ‘racial’ composition of the bourgeoisie. It is relevant to Marxist analysis because there are times in history when peoples, or parts of peoples, can play a distinctive role in class terms from other peoples. This is part of the class struggle, as can be gleaned from the history of the Jews as a trading ‘people-class’ in the medieval period. The fact is that in the post-WWII period, the ideologues of gentile capitalism were bankrupt and discredited. Their system had generated the ultimate barbarity – fascism and the Nazi industrialisation of mass murder.
Even the most prestigious gentile bourgeois figures, those who had fought against the Nazi regime, the Churchills, Eisenhowers and De Gaulles, had to claim to speak for all classes and accept the post-WWII class settlement. They could not wage a class counter-offensive against the proletariat; if they had tried to do so, their mask would have quickly been ripped off as the representatives of the system of which the Communist poet Bertholt Brecht wrote:
“Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
The gentile bourgeoisie, on its own, could not morally re-arm its system for a renewed offensive against its class enemies. But the bourgeoisie as a class desperately needed to do so. It had, however, a force in reserve that could play that role, that had a deep-going bourgeois tradition that in some ways was older than that of the ‘native’ gentile bourgeois tradition of Europe and America. For an elaboration of this concept, see the Draft Theses on the Jews and Modern Imperialism, published in 2014 by Communist Explorations.
For there was obviously one force within the bourgeoisie that could not easily be associated with the crimes of Nazism, or be cast as responsible for the barbarism that capitalism threw up in the early 20th Century. The Jewish bourgeoisie could not be so portrayed, because they, along with Jews of other classes, had been the victims of the genocide. They could not credibly be attacked as crypto-Nazis by the partisans of the working class, and they were therefore free to elaborate anti-working class strategies for the bourgeoisie as a whole without any real political restraints. The role of Jewish bourgeois ideologues like Friedman and Kissinger in the first, extremely brutal experiment in violently imposed neo-liberalism, the Pinochet regime in Chile, showed how far these new, and sanctified (by previous Jewish suffering) bourgeois ideologues, were prepared to go in crushing the working class – just as far as Hitler and Mussolini, ultimately. But their Jewish heritage gave them a ‘teflon’ quality, to which opprobrium did not easily stick, that made them an invaluable tool of the imperialist bourgeoisie for its moral and political rearmament against the working class. Such a vanguard is very precious to the bourgeoisie as a whole, which is another reason why these figures have become so revered.
This may seem like a digression, but it is not really. It lays out a key part of the terrain of neo-liberalism, and the overarching context in which the prolonged crisis and death agony of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe interlaced with a general bourgeois class offensive under the banner of neo-liberalism, which at the same time went along with the rise of Israel as an imperialist power in its own right, with its own coteries of dedicated partisans among this newly prominent and prestigious Jewish bourgeois vanguard in the imperialist countries, who largely see Israel as ‘their’ state. These are all important political strands by which the overarching reformist settlement of the Cold War, which the generation radicalised in the 1960s lived through, was transcended by a new bourgeois class offensive. This struck staggering blows against post-WWII reformism in the context of the prolonged decline and then collapse of Stalinism, and at the same time the Cold War in international politics was replaced by a new kind of prolonged imperialist ‘war’: the so-called ‘war on terror’. In which the United States and its allies have plundered the Middle East and massacred its peoples in pursuit of an agenda that appears particularly devoted to the interests of Israel, which were it not for the vanguard role of its supporters in modern capitalism, would seem a remarkably small state to receive the kind of largesse that it does.
The ‘war on terror’ and independent class politics
This is the domestic and international context within which this election takes place. It also provides clear criteria for evaluating those who are standing in this election as candidates supposedly on the left.
The most important being the Labour Party itself. As a result of the domestic and international defeats of the working class that took place in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of the trade union and Labour Party bureaucracy were so traumatised by the bosses’ offensive against them, and so politically helpless and hopeless in the fact of first Thatcher’s anti-union attacks, and then the backwash of the collapse of Stalinism, exacerbated by successive electoral defeats, that they elected in 1994 a leader in Blair whose entire programme was to distance the Labour Party decisively from its claim to represent trade unions, in favour of becoming a ‘national’ party, dubbed ‘New Labour’, which would as much a party of big business as of workers.
In power, it was showed that this was not the half of it. Not only did the New Labour government mix its residual social-reformist rhetoric with neo-liberalism to produce the politics of PPP – public-private partnerships, a ‘social’ variant of semi-privatisation that it spread throughout the economy, from the London Tube to numerous new NHS hospitals built with private funds and therefore in hock to investors for several decades, in some cases, but New Labour in power was identified above all with the Iraq war, as part of the neo-conservative/Zionist ‘war on terror’.
This was the overarching international crime of Blair’s government, and both defines its reactionary character, and marks those attempts by forces, including mainstream Labour forces, to rebuild some kind of independent working class representation after it burned. New Labour burned not under Tony Blair, but under Gordon Brown, on whose watch the US centred financial centres of neo-liberal capitalism went into meltdown, or at least something akin to a near-death experience. One key facet of this was the use of massive housing bubbles to produce an illusion of ‘prosperity’ among the inhabitants of major capitalist-imperialist countries whose economies were suffering from acute underlying crises of profitability. This was common to the United States under George W Bush and the UK under Blair/Brown; it is palpably obvious that there is a link between this variant of capitalist economics being practised at home in terms of economic policy and the concurrent military adventures that were being undertaken by the various ‘coalitions of the willing’. So in a sense, the financial crisis and the crisis of imperialism in the Middle East can be said to be linked: they can even be said to be part of a continuum.
So we have the Labour Party today, after the debacle of 2010, when it all came crashing down. Blamed in a particularly mendacious manner by the Tories, for the financial crisis, as supposedly the doing of ‘socialism’ and excessive spending on social welfare, in reality the specific form of the financial crisis, aside from the normal workings of the capitalist trade cycle, was rooted in highly specific economic expedients that the Tories supported, and still support. Such as privatisation and deregulation, and the inflation of housing bubbles to substitute through financial chicanery for a rate of profit that is chronically low, too low for sustained capitalist investment in a country like Britain (investors in such conditions tend to prefer China, or Bangladesh).
Critical support for Miliband’s Labour
Labour today, under Miliband, has tip-toed away from advocating these Blairite policies. Ed Miliband was largely elected by the members of trade unions affliated to the Labour Party in 2011 on the basis of his promising to address the ‘crisis of working class representation’. Miliband has renounced Blair’s ‘mistake’ of the Iraq War, and even played some role in preventing Cameron involving the UK in a planned US war against Syria, aimed at exploiting the sometime revolutionary upheavals there to impose a pro-Western regime (as they also disastrously attempted in Libya). Another highpoint of Miliband’s leadership was his break with Blair’s utter subservience to Rupert Murdoch over the phone hacking scandal, which has led to him being hated with a vengeance by the Murdoch Press.
The other side of this is that Labour is still deeply marked by Blairism and neo-liberalism. Blair-Brown cronies such as Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint, Rachel Reeves, Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy in Scotland, abound in Labour. These people give a very right-wing, neo-liberal flavour to Labour’s politics still, from Reeves baldly stating that Labour does not represent the unemployed, to Balls promising to not break from Osborne’s spending plans in office, to Cooper frequently attacking Tory Home Secretary May from the right over civil liberties issues. Miliband’s leadership is frequently undermined by the intervention of Blairites such as Mandelson who find points of covert support from the insiders for bilious briefings against Miliband for being ‘anti-business’ and similar Tory-lite style hectoring.
Miliband’s (apparently retrospective) opposition to the Iraq War notwithstanding, he is also a ‘Friend of Israel’, and he underlined the point with reference to his own Jewish heritage in a particularly miserable speech to the Labour Friends of Israel last year, when he made it clear, whatever his criticisms of particular aspects of Israeli policy, he is strategically in favour of maintaining the racist Jewish state by force against its expelled Palestinian Arab population. His proclaimed antipathy to the Iraq War, which it has to be said is not backed up by any solid evidence of antiwar activity while his elder brother David was a key figure in Blair’s government, is what gained him election as leader. Probably at some level he is sincerely muddleheaded about at least some of these things. But he is likely to be treacherous, and not to be trusted.
However, Miliband’s election as leader was an expression of a backlash within the mass organisations of the working class, albeit at a low level, against Blairism, neo-liberalism and its most overtly anti-working class aspects, including the Iraq War. Even though Miliband is chronically weak in many ways, he has more or less kept a political course as leader consistent with what you would expect from such a pale-pink candidate put into power by unions against the right.
His recent profile in the lead up to the election, and in the election campaign itself, denouncing the policies of the Tories as simply designed to defend the interests of small groups of wealthy people and unconcerned for ‘working families’, is notwithstanding its very stunted character, very different from the political stance of Blairism, a pale reassertion that working class people do have interests distinct from that of the ‘filthy rich’, whose wealth Blair’s crony Mandelson was always so relaxed about. Thus Labour under Ed Miliband does deserve very critical electoral support.
This call for a vote to Labour, however, is only where there is nothing better on offer. It is not a blanket call for a vote to Labour in all constituencies. Nor is it an expression of what is sometimes called ‘auto-Labourism’ – the strategic position that says that the left must always support the Labour Party in elections because it is the party of the working class, or other simplistic nonsense. Sometimes, when the Labour Party runs on a record, or a stated intention, of attacking the working class just as much as the bourgeois parties, advocating support to Labour amounts to a confession of political weakness in the face of social democracy. Thus when Tony Blair stood on his programme of 1997, having abolished the Labour Party’s formal commitment to some kind of opposition to capitalism in favour of ‘the rigour of the market’, and still more when he and Brown stood on their record of responsibility for imperialist crimes such as Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no way that the left should have called for votes to them, even critical ones.
Labour is not the ‘party of the working class’, it is a bourgeois workers party, whose tops are fundamentally alien to and in contradiction with, its working class social base. Any electoral tactic formulated towards Labour must aim at exacerbating this class contradiction and splitting the base away from the pro-capitalist bureaucracy that sits on top of it. Our tactics must have the strategic aim of supplanting this bourgeois workers party with a genuine workers party, a mass organisation of workers and the oppressed, that can lead an all-out struggle against capitalism.
Left Alternatives to Labour: RESPECT, LU, TUSC
Apart from insignificant splinter groups, there are three important left-wing formations standing candidates in this General Election against the Labour Party: RESPECT, Left Unity and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC being supported by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), the Socialist Party (SP), Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and a range of individual trade unionists. The number of candidates of both RESPECT and Left Unity are quite limited; Left Unity are running ten candidates. In a few places, Left Unity and TUSC are standing joint candidates. In many others, TUSC are standing their own candidates.
RESPECT is also standing quite a limited number of candidates, mainly in the North and the Midlands, as for the moment, their support in London and the South of England is very limited. However, RESPECT also has the greatest chance of actually winning a parliamentary seat: George Galloway won Bradford West in 2012 with a huge, 80% majority, in this heavily working class, Muslim immigrant inner-city seat, and that is unlikely to be overturned by Labour, who previously held the seat, no matter what the national trend of Labour vis-a-vis the Tories and Lib Dems.
The political character of these organisations is the most important question in deciding on what level of support communists should be giving them. RESPECT is the product of one of the greatest anti-war, anti-imperialist protest movements in British history, the movement against the Iraq War. George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green & Bow in the 2005 General Election was one of the most remarkable blows struck by leftists and anti-imperialists against a live imperialist war project for a very long time. He defeated Oona King, the Blairite pro-war candidate, in this important inner city seat, with its large, mainly Bengali Muslim population, after a very hard fought campaign that drew in support from much wider layers of the anti-war movement and the left.
RESPECT at that early stage was known as “RESPECT – the Unity Coalition” and was extensively supported by the Socialist Workers Party, which was then the largest organisation of the British far left. Indeed, its local activists played a key role in building RESPECT on the ground. However, one of the most important flaws of the SWP’s mode of operation in RESPECT is that it systematically blocked RESPECT’s development into a fully-fledged political party. The SWP treated RESPECT as an electoral front that it could switch on an off according to whether or not an election was in the offing, and it used its highly bureaucratically whipped membership to ensure that things stayed that way.
This was a repeat of their conduct in the earlier ‘far left’ electoral front, the Socialist Alliance (SA), where again the aspirations of some of its militants to a more permanent political party were frustrated by the behaviour of both the SWP and the Socialist Party. Both of these organisations sought to prevent the SA being anything more than electoral fronts; both saw them simply as arenas to recruit to their own ‘revolutionary party’ out of. The Socialist Alliance came to a bad end with the advent of the Iraq War and George Galloway’s expulsion from the Labour Party: several of the components were implacably hostile to Galloway for his outspoken support for Arab causes, either overtly pro-Zionist or soft on the same, and successfully endeavoured through joining in witch-hunting attacks on Galloway by the reactionary media, to block any direct coalescence between Galloway and the Socialist Alliance.
They succeeded, and the new RESPECT coalition was formed to replace the SA, with the latter being sidelined. Galloway is a highly contradictory figure: in theory solidly within the tradition of left-reformist ‘Old Labour’ with an element of sympathy for Communist Party style politics. But Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party for calling for armed Arab resistance to the conquest of Iraq, a break from Labour’s social-imperialism that was, indeed too much for some on the so-called far left. This break, which Galloway still stands on quite clearly, makes RESPECT, even today, politically superior to its rival left electoral projects, such as Left Unity and TUSC, and is why it is number one on the electoral graphic at the top of this article.
Complex history of RESPECT
The history of RESPECT was complex and fraught. In 2007, George Galloway himself got fed up of the conduct of the SWP in blocking RESPECT from becoming a fully fledged political party, and issued an Open Letter criticising their stewardship of the RESPECT apparatus. The SWP reacted irrationally to the expression of criticisms of themselves shared by many left-wing activists in numerous campaigns over the years; this time the criticism of their dead-hand bureaucratism and political cynicism came from a much more illustrious source. Their response was symbolised by the remarks of then SWP National Secretary Martin Smith, that the SWP intended to ‘go nuclear’ over these criticisms, and in effect, destroy RESPECT in what amounted to a fit of pique.
Instead the SWP’s antics drove quite a number of militants to split from the SWP and re-launch RESPECT as a fully fledged political party in its own right. For a period of around two years, the new RESPECT (without the SWP) was a dynamic body that encompassed a variety of left-wing views and smaller organisations of the British left, such as Socialist Resistance, along with many militants whose allegiance was simply to RESPECT.
Unfortunately, as the SWP left, RESPECT was also ‘entered’ by Socialist Action, one of the more cynical bodies on the British Left, who saw George Galloway as a potential patron along the lines of their already existing relationship with Ken Livingstone, and imported their classically dead-hand, bureaucratic methods into RESPECT. This made the development in RESPECT of the necessary culture of debate and unity in action much more difficult as a result. It should be noted that Socialist Action, in a slightly later period, also played a major and invidious role in purging the Palestine Solidarity Campaign of people sympathetic to the ideas of Gilad Atzmon. In frustration at this development, many of those who were the most dedicated RESPECT activists, became demoralised about the future of RESPECT. This at times included the central figures in the project, as reflected in the formation after RESPECT’s electoral defeats in 2010 of something called the RESPECT Foundation, which appeared to imply the party had been consigned to a kind of museum. Some, including the author of this article, drifted away from RESPECT into other projects, something I now consider was a mistake.
TUSC – A Sterile Formation
The main project that was put forward as an alternative to RESPECT was TUSC, which grew out of the political initiative of the RMT leadership under Bob Crow in 2009 to stand a left-wing ticket against Labour on an anti-EU platform, under the banner ‘No to the European Union, yes to Democracy’ (No2EU). Quite a few leftists, including myself, who strongly disagreed with the nationalist thrust of this project, nevertheless saw the apparent break of an important union from supporting Labour and taking electoral-political initiatives of its own, was something to be engaged with and critically supported.
It is now clear that the RMT leadership had no intention of initiating a new party of the left; they were only interested in a pressure group to scare Labour into taking notice of some trade union concerns. This dovetailed quite well with the ambitions of the SWP and the Socialist Party, to resurrect their respective versions of the ‘United Front of a Special Type’: an electoral front that is switched on at election time, hopefully generating a pool of activists for them to recruit from, and then switched off between times in favour of direct recruitment to the SP and SWP. Thus TUSC, for all its hundred or so candidates, is a sterile formation that will never grow into a party, and though its activists are attempting to draw a class line in an elementary way against austerity and attacks on the working class, and hence merit critical support where such candidates are not simply on paper, it nevertheless offers nothing in terms of building a genuine workers party as an alternative to Labour as a bourgeois workers party.
Left Unity: born in capitulation
The other significant left-wing party-type formation standing in the General Election is Left Unity. This is number 2 in the ballot graphic at the top of this article, because unlike TUSC, it does act as a political party, it has a unitary membership, develops its own policies collectively, and therefore has (on paper) significantly more to offer to the working class than TUSC.
However, it has key political weaknesses that make it likely unviable as a left-wing political party. Left Unity was kicked off as a formation by an appeal put foward by Ken Loach, the left-wing film director, noting the lack of a genuine working class, socialist party in British politics, and the effect this has in dragging politics in general to the right. Loach had previously played an important, though semi-detached, role in RESPECT.
But the party only really got off the ground when two prominent members of RESPECT, Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, defected in late 2012 in the context of the Assange witchhunt. They have become the effective leadership core of Left Unity, with Ken Loach as a mere figurehead. These prominent individuals had joined RESPECT in the aftermath of Galloway’s second electoral victory in Bradford West in early 2012. George Galloway, as is his tendency, was outspoken in defence of Julian Assange against the transparently phoney rape allegations that were made against him by a dubious accuser in Sweden, and made a particular speech in which he doubted whether the allegations made against Assange, even if they were hypothetically stated to be true, would be regarded as rape by a working-class jury in the UK.
The most that could be said about Galloway’s remarks is that they could be seen as ill-judged and perhaps involved an excess of zeal in the legitimate defence of Assange. But the response of Hudson and Burgin, along with Salma Yaqoob, the former leader of RESPECT, City Councillor and several times parliamentary candidate in Birmingham, was to capitulate to the ensuing witchhunt and abandon RESPECT. They soon became the most prominent figures in the leadership of Left Unity, though Salma Yaqoob was not involved. Thus it was that the real, effective birth of Left Unity was in capitulation to a reactionary witchhunt by supporters of imperialism, mediated by the feminist politics that are shared by AA, Assange’s chief accuser, whom strong circumstantial evidence suggests may be actually a CIA asset, and many of Assange’s (and Galloway’s) critics in Left Unity.
Left Unity has become a refuge and fiefdom for some of the left individuals and organisations that left RESPECT for a variety of, often completely unprincipled, reasons over the last several years. Such as Socialist Resistance, who walked out of RESPECT because RESPECT decided to stand candidates in Scotland, which SR regarded as the exclusive preserve of the left nationalist Scottish Socialist Party. In fact, Galloway’s work in the Scottish referendum, campaigning for a No vote, opposing the nationalists on the basis of arguments for working class unity across national lines, was among his best and most principled political stands. Also prominent in Left Unity are former members of the SWP, many of whom were involved in two splits from that organisation over its bureaucratic internal regime.
They were hardly left-wing splits, however. They were occasioned by what may have been a bureaucratic atrocity, or may equally well have been a setup. An allegation of sexual harassment, later upgraded to ‘rape’ was made against Delta, well known by now to have been former SWP National Secretary Martin Smith, in 2012. The SWP tried to handle it internally, which was beyond their competence, and the details of the procedure involved were predictably leaked, resulting in a major ‘scandal’ on the left, in an environment of hysteria over allegations of sexual abuse in society in general (occasioned by the Jimmy Saville case, among others), and the SWP reaped the whirlwind. It is not clear, and cannot be clear, to outsiders whether or not the accused was actually guilty of anything.
He had, along with others, a somewhat bad reputation on the left for strong-arming critics of the SWP. But on the other hand, there was an obvious motive for a possible frame-up, as Smith had been the person within the SWP most responsible for the SWP’s political relations with the Israeli Jazz Musician and political thinker Gilad Atzmon, who is a hate-figure for both Zionists and some purveyors of identity politics on the Jewish left as well. An earlier witchhunt against the SWP for its relations with Atzmon, by both Zionists and the supposedly anti-Zionist Jewish left, led to the SWP capitulating and distancing itself from Atzmon. This kind of capitulation to reactionary social pressure became more and more a method in the SWP, as over the Assange case, the SWP howled with the liberal bourgeois press that Assange was a ‘rapist’, and denounced those who cited the historical evidence that suggested his accuser could be a CIA asset as ‘rape apologists’; an allegation that was then thrown back at the SWP by feminist critics over the Smith case.
Whatever the truth of the Smith case, the fact that the SWP split (twice) over such a question, and the products of the split drifted into Left Unity, all served to strengthen the domination of Left Unity by the politics of stridently anti-working class petty-bourgeois feminism, and so-called intersectionality, a kind of ‘radicalism’ that trades on conflicts between different types of identity politics, in which the worth of a set of ideas is judged not by its own merit and usefulness for the working class, but according to the gender or ethnicity of the bearer of such ideas. “Watch your privilege” is the retort of practitioners of this kind of politics to any set of ideas that they do not like. Such a form of politics is light-years from the experience of most working class people; it is a symptom of a form of radicalism that has completely lost sight of the historical mission of the working class to unify struggles against oppression and act as the tribune of the people that itself is capable of overcoming all forms of oppression.
The Left Unity leadership has attempted to give this politics an organisational expression with the so-called ‘safe spaces’ policy, which however they have failed to get passed by a policy conference as yet. If passed, it would authorise disciplinary processes based on the subjective politics of intersectionality, and a fairly nightmarish internal life in which imagined slights against particular brands of identity politics – i.e. political disagreement with this kind of politics, and political criticism that upsets people with this self-conception – would become matters for party sanctions such as suspensions and expulsions. The fact that the Left Unity leadership has repeatedly failed to get this policy passed by the membership at a conference speaks for the common sense, unease and sense of self-preservation of the membership. However, that the leadership keeps trying to get this policy implemented speaks volumes about dreadful shortcomings in their politics, which really mean that Left Unity is far from a viable project. This despite the fact that on one key question, opposition to all immigration controls, Left Unity has a policy that is more advanced than RESPECT, TUSC or the Socialist Alliance before them. Here, one swallow definitely does not make a summer.
Although there are various oppositional trends in Left Unity, such as the former Socialist Platform and the Communist Platform, neither of them cut the mustard as a left-wing opposition. The former Socialist Platform are firmly attached to TUSC; their influence has been largely instrumental in initiating a few credible joint TUSC/Left Unity campaigns in this election. But the key problem here is that TUSC is not and never will be a party project; it is a plaything of the SP, SWP and RMT bureaucracy, and though its number of candidates dwarfs that of LU, this fatal flaw means the activity of its best militants is doomed to be wasted.
The Communist Platform started as a bloc of trends within the early Socialist Platform, centred around the CPGB, that came together on the healthy political basis of opposing the presence of the overtly pro-Zionist and pro-imperialist Alliance for Workers Liberty in the Socialist Platform. Unfortunately, in the context of the 2014 Gaza War, the CPGB capitulated to a reactionary outcry against militant supporters of the Palestinians as so-called ‘anti-semites’. It is a highly significant, and very unsavoury fact that the CPGB has to this day refused to publicly condemn the criminal assault and beating that a Jewish extremist, parroting this characteristic smear, inflicted on the RESPECT MP, George Galloway, last August at the end of that massacre. At the same time, the author of this essay was driven out of the Communist Platform based on smears of anti-semitism because he made a serious attempt to formulate a Marxist attitude to the Jewish question today, in that very same context. Today, on questions related to the Middle East, which is of strategic international importance for socialists, the Communist Platform attacks the leadership of Left Unity from the right, for not explicitly defending the so-called ‘right to self-determination’ of Israeli Jews, whose ‘Jewish state’ depends on the exclusion of the majority of Palestinian Arabs from their own homeland.
The fact that the mainstream of Left Unity is dominated by the kind of ‘intersectionality’ non-working class, non-socialist politics analysed earlier, makes it no surprise that its core cannot even stabilise itself around a basic class independence on the electoral field. Thus, without a policy conference, and even implicitly against the wishes of ones that had taken place earlier, as the General Election approached, the LU initiated the call for an ‘anti-austerity alliance’ – effectively a bloc with the Green Party. Though they seem to have been forced to back-pedal from this demand, it really does show the weakness of the commitment to specifically working class politics in the core of LU.
Such things have been heard before in such projects, indeed they were heard at times in RESPECT particularly when the SWP wielded influence. But in LU, this seems much more deeply-rooted, given the completely uncritical endorsement that LU’s leadership has given to SYRIZA in Greece, whose ‘anti-austerity’ tactics have included forming a governmental coalition with the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks. Together with the Socialist Resistance component’s endorsement of Scottish nationalism, this really does make Left Unity a chronically weak formation that is most unlikely to be the vehicle for the emergence of a genuine working class party in Britain.
The creation of new working class parties is not going to happen the way some on the left, with illusions in the omnipotence of some interpretation of Trotskyism believe, through the linear growth of some tiny group. No revolutionary party in history has ever been built in this way. Rather, it will happen through splits and regroupments involving elements of mass working class organisations, and the injection of Marxist programmatic views, in a dynamic relationship with the further organic development of Marxism within such movements. In terms of the history of attempts on the left to initiate this process, only RESPECT has provided some lasting political gains and the break of an oppressed section of Labour’s working class base from domination by the pro-imperialist labour bureaucracy. Even that has been fragile and sometimes contradictory. But what was always necessary was the formation of a Marxist trend, without the kind of short-sighted manipulative-sectarian agendas of the existing far left, which could generalise from this breach with the social imperialist Labour Party and create the basis for a revolutionary anti-imperialism with deep roots in the oppressed.
Of all the attempts that have been made to solve this problem at a mass level, RESPECT still appears the most viable, and the likely vehicle in the UK for a new left, which also needs to break from the open and hidden pro-Zionism and (vicarious and otherwise) Jewish chauvinism that is widespread on the left. It is most likely that only RESPECT will elect a working class left opponent of Labour’s many capitulations to imperialism and neo-liberalism. If there is to be a new attempt to form a mass-based political break from Labour imperialism, it needs to be centred around RESPECT and not the various flaky and/or bureaucratic dead-ends that currently litter the left.