Whatever the results of the election, it was clear that in the aftermath Left Unity would need to sit down and work out where it wanted to go for the next few years and what kind of organisation it needs to become.
In his letter to the Guardian that led to the creation of Left Unity, Ken Loach concluded “The working class cannot remain without political representation, without defence, when all its victories and advances are being destroyed.” Many of the 8,000 who responded to the letter, and the 2,000 odd who ended up joining, saw this “political representation” as being something that would challenge the Labour Party at elections. Comparisons were made with Syriza, and there was talk of the “Pasokification” of Labour. An enormous amount of the work of Left Unity in recent months has been taken up with the election – finding candidates, debating where to stand, trying to work out a relationship with Tusc, dealing with the paperwork of standing candidates, and trying to find the resources to run a decent election campaign.
Personally, I was always skeptical about putting so many resources into standing Left Unity in elections, and hoped that we may be able to do politics differently at election time by canvassing for left MPs who might win like Caroline Lucas and Leanne Wood. I even found myself arguing to have joint candidates with Tusc. I also feared that Left Unity,having stabilised its membership at a not dissimilar level to that of the Socialist Party and the SWP, would ape their worse features after the election, bigging up its own election results in a way that made itself look ludicrous .Definitely not doing politics differently.
I’m pleased to say I was wrong on this count. Compare this from Peter Taaffe on tusc’s reults ““Let the sceptics and the fainthearts dismiss our election results, ! TUSC managed to assemble a serious national challenge with a splendid election broadcast, which attracted the attention and support of broad layers of workers…” with this far more honest self-assessment in Left Unity’s “after the election” statement.”..the votes for our candidates are small consolation – they are numerically insignificant. The socialist argument made little or no impact in the election“.
More importantly, as well as a sober analysis of the result, Left Unity’s statement looks at what we need to focus on now we’re free from election mania for another five years. (OK, we all hope its a lot less!)
As we woke up on 8th May, secretly wishing (at least 900) more people had voted Labour,we knew we had to get stuck in to proper politics again. Many of us, myself included, we inspired by the spontaneous anger and organisation of those organising protetsts, and we urged everyone to copy Bristol. Our own branch meetings got bigger – we had 16 at ours, more than during the election campaign. We got stuck in to local action – eight of us at an 80 strong People Assembly organising meeting, very much part of the activity and discussion. (Whereas the SP were totally absent so Tusc seems to have disappeared already!) We will be involved in organising and supporting local and national protests around the many attacks Cameron has announced.
My question here is how we make Left Unity as an organisation be seen to be part of this activism, as without a newspaper to stick to our chests, we may seem to be a collection of respected individuals who coincidentally are in the “Left Unity” group. Why should our good, and ant-sectarian activism make anyone want to join us?
….Building in the Community…..?
The only reason I could see for standing in the elections was to build on any existing base in local areas. It was never going to be about votes, and we are clearly in this for the long haul. There are no short cuts to the painstaking work of building a presence, as the contrasting practice and results for our local Green Party and Socilaist Alliance/Tusc demonstrates.
Once again, despite my skepticism, I’m pleased that our branch is trying to build on it’s modest success in one area. We had stood a local parent on an estate once known for its Militant Tendency councilors, who had led a successful campaign against the Green council’s plans to shut nurseries.The vote was “modest” (less than 4% of those eligible to register and vote). But more local contacts have been made, and Left Unity is now organising a meeting on the estate. We don’t think there’ll be any competition from the local Tusc candidate who stood against/alongside (delete according to sect alignment) our candidate. Of course, trying to build in one small area is new to many of us. It remains to be seen if we can organise around the kind of mainly local issues that can win a group respect and support, but with £75Million of council cuts in the pipeline, there’s certainly going to be no shortage of issues.
My question here is, as with the activism referred to above, how does getting stuck into a campaign make people think that Left Unity is something they should join rather than just respect the activists and vote for every four years.
…..Being the “Best Fighters For Reforms”…..?
Since it’s launch, Left Unity has made much of its claim to be a British version of Syriza. Comparisons with Greece are fraught with problems for many reasons. Being part of a group with tens of thousands of people who have illusions in the reformability of the Greek state may be the obvious thing for Greek revolutionaries.But of course there is no British Syriza. I would guess that most of the few hundred Left Unity activists are anti-capitalist and don’t think for a minute that some kind of enabling act can bring in socialism. This being the case, perhaps we should question the Syriza model and our neo-Keynsian election “Minimum Programme”. Afterall, anyone wanting that would surely just join the Green Party. Their election manifesto was little different from Left Unity’s (or Tusc’s). If you had any belief that councilors and MPs make the key difference, with over a milliion votes, one MP, 3 MEPs, 160 councilors and two London Assembly members, who the hell would join a “left-reformist” group with nothing instead.
However, reformism is a lot more than expected representatives elected within the capitalist system, or trade union, achieving gains on their voters’ or members’ behalf. The “International Socialists” used to talk about “DIY Reformism”, and “reformism from below”. Reversing any particular cut or winning a pay rise are not the end of capitalism. But such a victory involves people taking a struggle into their own hands. History tells us that the more people involved in any campaign for “reform” and the more militant it is, the more chance it has of winning.
This is why revolutionaries, whether in Left Unity or any other “Party”.will often be the most committed activists in a campaign.
My question here is how revolutionary socialists in Left Unity make the link between being the good fighters that we can be and showing those around us that they need to become revolutionary anti-capitalists spreading the idea of self-activity of the majority being the key to change.
….A Force For Unity on the Left…..?
One feature of Left Unity that marks it out from other left Partys is it’s claim to want to unite the left rather than claiming to be The Party or The Key element of an embryonic party. Of course, it contains within it half a dozen groups claiming to be just that. Despite it’s structure, it is no monolith. It hasn’t even got it’s own paper. In many areas it has a collaberative apporach to others on the left.
For example, my branch organised a joint meeting with Solfed to share their ideas and experience of organising the unorganised in the “hospitality sector” (with ten people meeting on a weekday lunchtime). We also organised, with members of our city’s key union branch, leafeltting of private sector workplaces in the run up to the \July 10th public sector strikes. We were able to include non-members and members of the Socialist Party in this. This kind of unity is important given the size of the left and its tendency to duplicate effort. Left Unity can organise such joint initiative because of its anti-sectarian approach whereas other parties proposing joint action and unity are generally met with suspicion.
My question here is while I think such examples of bringing the left together are important, both for the struggle and as an example of how to work, how does it lead to Left Unity being a party that people would want to join, rather than work with?
……or a Party for Workers?
Ever since the collapse of Lehman Brothers made it obvious that we faced a tsunami of cuts, it has also been obvious that the most important task for all socialists was how to strengthen the working class movement in the workplace itself. I say obvious not because I want to fetishise trade union structures – quite the opposite. But whether you believe that socialism must come via revolution carried out by the working class consciously acting as a “class for itself“, or whether you just want to defend public services, the need to throw our energies into strengthening workplace organisation is, to me,our obvoious priority.
If we want to make revolution, we look to where our strength is greatest. The power to destroy capitalism surely lies where capitalism’s wealth is created. Where the chains of alienation are forged is surely where they can best be broken. (See http://www.rent-a-Marx-quote for more). This is also true though in a defensive battle to save a library or nursery. Those who work in the public sector are the ones that understand its importance, who know the service’s clients , and are in by far the best position to unite workers and public services users.
For five years under the “condems”, it sometimes felt like the union leaderships were playing a game of bluff with the government. “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” they would declare to Cameron. But to themselves, they’d say “lets not have a go because we don’t think the members are hard enough”, and yet another strike would be called off without explanation. Five years later, we can see that hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs have vanished – 625 per day for the whole five years of hell.
The left has not been able to resist this in any meaningful way, despite four or five “campaigns” that “unite the resistance” of left groups and left union leaders. Furthermore, Left Unity has not made an impact on the appallingly divided left within the trade unions.Left groups like the SP and SWP have their own broad left type groupings which seem incapable of working together,preferring instead in seems to cite each others historical errors. If there is anywhere that Left Unity needs to get people working together, its here. I’ve no idea how to knock the heads together of the various union lefts. I suspect it will only really happen when there’s a real movement from below of union members acting independently of union officials. But in the meantime, I think this is a crucial area for Left Unity to get right.
My questions here are:
- How does Left Unity see its role with the majority of workers not in unions. I suspect this includes most Left Unity members in work themselves.
- What kind of strategy does Left Unity have for unorganised workers beyond saying “join a union”?
- How often does each Left Unity branch discuss working around the main workplaces in its locality, including the non-union ones?
- Do all members have a knowledge of the state of organisation in the biggest local workplaces? Do the main union militants locally know us?
- What space is there in Left Unity branch meetings is given over to every member discussing their own workplace issues?
- Is the first question we ask when meeting someone new and interested in Left Unity “Where do you work?”, followed by ” How can we help you organise at work?”
This is not to say that Left Unity has nothing to say to pensioners, stay-at-home parents, students or the unemployed and anyone unable to work (though the majority of those will be in work sometimes). All I am saying is that rebuilding workplace organisation should be the key priority for the left over the next few years and that Left Unity meetings should reflect that priority.
Neither am I saying that all the other areas of importance for Left Unity mentioned above – activism, community work, unity initiatives – don’t matter. Wherever we are active, we will be meeting workers. In any case, we are not solely interested in trade union struggles. We are not syndicalists. We want to develop a political struggle against capitalism. We don’t want to replace the top down reformism of old Labour with the DiY reformism of boom-time shop stewards movements. We want to help develop the strength of organised workers to oppose capitalism on all fronts, from climate change to housing, from internationalism to sexuality.
Don’t Mourn! Organise!
I would like to urge all Left Unity members, myself included, to think about how to make Left Unity a place where all workers facing any issue will be able to come for support, ideas, and help. Once this groundwork has been done, not only will we find it easier to get a hearing at election time. We might be able to start calling for a General Strike and for it to actually mean something.