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Building the left: The lessons of the last 10 years

Luke Cooper looks back on past efforts to build new left organisations and points to what we can learn from their mistakes

RARELY HAVE the tasks of the epoch weighed so heavily on the radical left. With social breakdown sweeping Europe, the world order fracturing, and the social democratic parties, from Pasok in Greece, the PSOE in Spain, and Labour in Britain, almost universally falling behind the austerity consensus, there is an urgent need for strong, radical parties of the anticapitalist left.

This is not a new development but is given added urgency by the global crisis. In many European countries over the last decade a space opened for new, parties of the radical left.

In Britain, Labour under Tony Blair underwent a dramatic shift rightwards, taking many of Thatcher’s anti-working class policies much further than she had dared and giving unwavering support to George Bush’s war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many activists and organisations recognised the opportunity this presented for new political formations to the left of Labour.

But the last decade saw these initiatives fail. The circumstances in which they emerged certainly shaped these failures. With the anti-war movement receding and a credit fuelled boom in the British economy underway, there was not the intense class bitterness that characterises today’s situation.

Nonetheless, these projects also suffered from a series of political failings that we must learn from.

Two experiences are particularly important. In 2004, the Respect Coalition was formed by the Socialist Workers Party and George Galloway. After the huge mobilisations against the war this came at the high point of political opportunity to make a real breakthrough for the radical left.

But rather than look to win a new generation to a fighting, class struggle perspective, and a socialist alternative to capitalism, the leaders of Respect were explicit that these should be dropped to win votes. The idea was to focus on Muslim areas in order to pick up votes on an anti-war basis.

Lindsey German, who has since founded the Counterfire group, infamously said at Respect’s founding conference, “people were looking for something less explicitly socialist”. The tragic irony was that this attitude reinforced a key claim of dominant ideology. What the writer, Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, the prevalent idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. This consensus will only be challenged if mass political organisation makes an alternative appear credible again.

At the SWP’s annual Marxism conference the previous year, German had even argued that the left should not make a “shibboleth” of gay and lesbian rights, if it obstructed the formation of a new political alliance with sections of the Muslim community mobilised in the anti-war movement. This was and remains a quite shameful thing for a Marxist to argue.

It was right to focus on winning Muslims to a new project – they marched in their hundreds of thousands against the war and suffered terrible racism – but we needed to win them as anticapitalists and class fighters against the system, not just as liberal progressives.

Quite predictably political tensions emerged in trying to unite socialists with liberals in a relatively small coalition and so it split in 2007 with Galloway and the SWP going their separate ways.

The key lesson is that a new political project has to promote a political alternative to the system and has be a fighting organisation which is actively trying to transform the labour movement from below.

Scottish Socialist Party
Another experience was the Scottish Socialist Party that won six seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2003. It was run much more democratically than Respect, was explicitly socialist, and saw the need for a political party, not just a coalition. Many activists rightly see this experience as more positive.

But it suffered from political failures too. Leaders of the SSP correctly identified the need to form a transitional organisation which grouped together sections of the Trotskyist left with a new layer of activists. But their notion of what a ‘transitional organisation’ should be was a mini-reformist party.

This led to an excessive focus on elections. The downfall of the party in the course of the Tommy Sheridan sex scandal reflected this. Both wings of the bitter argument were sensitive to the distortions of mass ‘public opinion’ as it is reflected through the media, and so they refused to say simply ‘it was a private matter’, and then get on with the task of building resistance to the system.

But more problematic still was the attitude that the SSP took to the leadership of the labour movement. SSP leaders hoped to win the affiliation of the unions, and so made no attempt to organise cross-union rank and file movements which could fight with the union leaders where possible, and also without them where necessary. A critical moment in the party’s evolution was its failure to attack the sell out of the FBU strike in 2003 in the naive hope that the union leadership would return the favour and support the affiliation of the union to the party.

A new anticapitalist organisation is needed in Britain. We need to learn from all these political mistakes and build a party that fights to fundamentally transform the working class movement, is democratic in its organisation, and shows in practice how we can get rid of the capitalist system.

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