Why the dynamic of Britain’s political situation will pose the need for left unity

Palestine solidarity demonstration 24 November 2012

By Jane West

Across Europe, governments of right and left are implementing ‘austerity’ policies. The claim that excessive government debt and ‘unaffordable’ welfare and services require extraordinary cuts in public spending is being used to legitimise the biggest post-1945 assault on the living standards and hard-won rights of the working class in Europe.

Resistance to this assault – through mass actions and by presenting a political and economic alternative – is the most mass task of the class struggle in the continent today.

How has this struggle developed since the outbreak of the capitalist economic crisis in 2007 and how are the political forces of right and left shaping up to the challenge?

The attacks have provoked waves of significant mass struggle, most continuously in Greece, but also elsewhere across Europe. The one-day general strikes called on 14 November in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus, were the widest co-ordinated actions to date.

But despite these waves of struggle, the majority of countries have not yet seen the emergence of mass political resistance to the line of austerity. What is meant by this, when there is clearly very big opposition to the governments carrying out austerity? Despite this opposition, so far, when given the opportunity to elect an alternative, the forces that are (or would be) voted in to replace existing governments are those that pursue essentially the same policy.

Hence Hollande replaced Sarkozy. In Spain Zapatero’s PSOE was replaced with Rajoy’s right-wing People’s Party. In Holland the governing parties actually increased their share of the vote. In Portugal in 2011 the centre-right replaced the social democrat government. In Germany, should there be an election now the likely result would be Merkel being replaced by the SPD, which is also committed to the austerity pact. In Britain, Miliband’s Labour has said it will not reverse the Tory cuts, but is still running 10% ahead in the opinion polls.

Even in Greece, where the austerity has hit hardest and deepest, the traditional parties supporting the austerity programme won the election earlier this year.

While this is the dominant trend, in some countries, parties or political currents that would genuinely overturn the austerity policies have won some significant support in the masses. But in every case so far they have either been defeated, or are not yet posed with the likelihood of coming to power.

The most successful has been Syriza in Greece, which for a time looked as though it would be the largest party at the June 2012 general election. Running a correct campaign against austerity, while opposing leaving the Euro (or indeed the EU), it rose rapidly in the polls. It was driven back down again in the final stages by a concerted scare campaign, in Greece itself and at a European level, claiming that a Syriza victory would inevitably mean Greece being forced into a disorganised default.

Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche in France similarly advanced in the polls, but never to the point where it looked like overtaking the French Socialist Party. It fell back from its peak support as the electorate polarised in the contest between Sarkozy and Hollande, but in April 2012 it still gathered a significant anti-austerity vote of 11% in the first round of the Presidential election.

In the specific context of the unresolved national question in Ireland, Sinn Féin has successfully offered an anti-austerity alternative, advancing from 7% in 2007 to just shy of 10% in 2011 in elections to the Dáil, and hitting 20% in some polls since then.

In Britain, one of the biggest electoral tests for an anti-austerity current was Ken Livingstone’s campaign for Mayor of London earlier this year. While he was the candidate of pro-austerity Labour, he and his campaign was pledged to an anti-austerity programme in London of fares cuts, restoring the EMA, reversing some London-wide cuts, and extending state (or in this case, city government) intervention in areas like rents, and where possible publicly-led investment in housing and infrastructure. He was narrowly defeated.

Left currents with significant support (5% or over) exist in a number of other European countries, but have either not shown sharp advance in the polls, or have not faced a recent nation-wide electoral test. Such currents include Die Linke in Germany for example.

But, apart from in Greece, nowhere has a party or current opposed to austerity come close to winning at a national level.

This limit to the breakthrough by anti-austerity forces to date reflects a salient fact: the European bourgeoisie may have very substantial problems and its global position may be in decline, but it nevertheless remains strong with great reserves of economic, ideological and military power. The European Union taken as a whole remains the largest economy in the world – just larger than the US. European capital derives its political and social strength from these resources.

The European bourgeoisie has weakened from the peak of its strength after the triumphant absorption of the former ‘socialist’ states of Eastern Europe, the destruction of the USSR and the shattering of Yugoslavia. European capital’s support for US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been costly and less than successful. Its economic growth has not kept pace with that in the dynamic economies of the developing world. The strains in its world economic order dramatically buckled in the world economic crisis and it has not yet recovered from this contraction.

But this should not disguise its continuing relative strength and resources.

In no country of Europe is the overthrow of the capitalist order today posed in the way that it is in an immediate sense in Venezuela.

Even in Greece, where the crisis in Europe is at its deepest, the bourgeoisie is still determined on a course of driving through the whole of its programme and is backed by formidable resources from the rest of Europe. The level of struggle even in Greece has not yet forced any significant concessions, in a context where the bourgeoisie still has scope for concessions if it thought its fundamental position was seriously under threat.

For example, in Greece European capital if necessary could cancel or organise an ordered default or ‘haircut’ on a share of the Greek debt, as even the IMF in a limited way is beginning to call for, in addition to the recent Eurozone agreement to reduce Greece’s debt repayments. Evidently it prefers not to – and Merkel strongly prefers not to before an election in Germany – as such a default would come off the balance sheets somewhere, deepening political strains elsewhere in the EU, albeit with less dramatic effects than in Greece.

Despite the costs, this would be preferable to a real threat to overthrow its whole system in Greece. The fact that no such concessions are on the table reflects that the bourgeoisies of Europe and Greece do not think they face such a threat.

This leads to a conclusion with important consequences for tactics on the left. In Europe the struggle in the next period will not pose the imminent overthrow of capitalism. The choice in the class struggle remains that between capitalist reaction and left reforms, between austerity and concessions that shift the share of the costs of the crisis from labour onto the extraction of concessions, both domestically and internationally, from capital itself.

The advance of the struggle in Europe today, given the fact that the overthrow of capitalism is not immediately posed, lies in the struggle for a range of demands that are correctly described as ‘left reforms’, but of a radical and extensive character like those carried out by the 1945 government to establish the NHS and the welfare state. Today this starts from economic and political demands like cancellation of the Greek debt, for state-led investment programmes to create jobs and expand the public sector, for redistributive tax policies and real nationalisation of the banks.

Such a proposal to struggle for a range of ‘left reforms’ is not ‘left reformism’. Left reformism is a political approach and theory which suggests that capitalism can be destroyed bit by bit through a programme of leftist measures that gradually erode capital’s power – rather than requiring a mighty class struggle to seize control of the state. Such a reformist theory of the class struggle is entirely wrong and misunderstands the brutal and bloody determination of capitalism and imperialism to hold on to its power, and would become utterly disastrous if the struggle for power were actually posed. But this does not mean that the fight for immediate, individual reforms is not progressive and does not contribute centrally to the forward advance of the struggle.

At the present stage of the class struggle in Europe the fight for such left reforms is not only progressive but is what is required from the most politically advanced forces. It is around these issues that the maximum forces must be gathered.

Moreover, given that the relationship of forces in Europe does not pose the imminent struggle for state power, the contemporary class line of divide necessarily includes on the progressive side many of those who precisely subscribe to such a wrong theory of the class struggle or who have wrong positions on other more advanced class struggles in the world. That is, the progressive left includes many who would correctly be described as ‘left reformist’, but who genuinely oppose austerity, genuinely support real left reforms, and are prepared to campaign, vote, strike or demonstrate for them.

Understanding that this is the fundamental line of divide in the class struggle in Europe has been reflected in whether left currents have advanced or have faltered or stagnated.

So for example, it explains why the Front de Gauche alliance has advanced in France, while the alternative Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-capitalist Party) declined to less than 1% in this year’s elections. The NPA both wrongly poses the struggle as for or against capitalism itself in the present stage of the class struggle, and added to this error refuses to have any electoral agreement or have a united front orientation to the Socialist Party against the right.

Similarly in Greece, Syriza has advanced through uniting the left against austerity, but also insisting this does not necessarily mean demanding leaving the Euro or the EU. Its economic programme is under-developed, but it does not make wild and exaggerated claims for the character of the struggle in Greece. Other forces have declined – the KKE and other ultra-leftist currents – because they rejected unity within the framework of Syriza on the grounds of the ‘insufficiently anti-capitalist’ programme it stands on.

Or, at least until its recent self-inflicted wounds, similar issues explain why Respect advanced in Britain, while the more explicitly anti-capitalist Trade Union and Socialist Coalition did not.

In Europe therefore the left has to combine two tasks.

First, as the struggle in Europe is only one, subordinate part of the global class struggle against imperialism, the primary responsibility of the left is to relentlessly carry out solidarity activity to limit European imperialism’s assault on those who are at the frontline of the struggle against imperialism internationally. To defend the most advanced struggles to establish a socialist state, as in Venezuela, or those who are under direct military attacks by imperialism such as the Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian people. However, although this is the primary task, this will usually only be understood by a minority of the population, as they are not directly affected.

Second, without making support for the most advanced struggles against imperialism any precondition, it has to build unity around the fight to resist the offensive of the ruling class within Europe to throw the costs of its economic crisis on the masses of Europe today. This issue will move the majority of people, for in all countries at all times, the masses are moved by those issues which affect their own direct interests. In Europe today that means by the economic crisis and the impact of austerity policies. Furthermore, success in this economic struggle will weaken the European imperialist powers and thus objectively aid those more advanced struggles elsewhere in the world.

What do these fundamental lines of division and advance tell us about the situation in Britain?

In Britain the overall response to austerity has so far been far more muted than in many other countries of Europe.

Rather than mass strikes there have been some large demonstrations. The most militant response to date was that from students in response to the tripling of the ceiling on university fees and the abolition of EMA in late 2010.

At the same time, and linked to this, there has been no development as yet of a significant sustained left current outside or inside the Labour Party.

Inside the Labour Party the left remains weak and disorganised. While a left continues to exist in mainly atomised and frustrated form, no fight from the left has broken out on any substantial issue of policy in the Labour Party.

Outside the Labour Party, the election victory of Respect in Bradford was clearly partially propelled by growing concern at the impact of cuts and unemployment, but the ability to achieve a majority was mainly the result of specific local conditions – Labour’s colonialist, paternalist, objectively racist approach to its ‘safe’ vote in the Pakistani community coupled with a long history of Labour failure in the local council.

This political underdevelopment on the left so far reflects the relatively low level of mobilisation against the austerity policies of the Coalition government. Partly this is because the government is pushing through its policies sector by sector, starting with the weakest sectors and least socially explosive issues to avoid provoking a co-ordinated outbreak of struggle.

But it also reflects a growing consensus in the organised labour movement, reflected in large sections of the working class, that the best policy is to hold tight and wait for a Labour government. With Labour running 10% ahead in the polls for nearly a year, the Tories flat-lining and the LibDem vote remaining in severe decline, a Labour win at the general election due in 2015 looks a relatively safe bet.

An approach of ‘don’t rock the boat’ and ‘wait for a Labour victory’ is creating a glacial immobility in developments to the left of and within Labour, which may well continue, on the basis of domestic developments, to and through the general election in 2015.

This is not to say that major struggles on specific attacks may not take place, and the possibility of major international clashes such as an imperialist assault on Iran remains permanently possible given the present high level of class tensions in various parts of the world. But expectations of mass developments to the left of the Labour leadership are extremely unlikely in the present conditions.

Of course a new imperialist war or a new crisis in the world economy – neither of which are ruled out – could accelerate developments. But without such external shifts, a decisive change is unlikely.

However, this will all change extremely rapidly once the 2015 general election has taken place and the real character of the Labour government that is elected becomes clear.

Illusions in the character of the Labour government that would be elected under Miliband’s leadership extend far into the broad left of the labour movement. These misconceptions are primarily based on the true fact that Ed Miliband’s victory in the Labour leadership contest was a defeat for the right-wing Blairite current in the party, which had dominated it for nearly 20 years.

The defeat of the Blairites – who had taken Britain into an illegal war with Iraq, abolished clause IV of the Labour constitution, advocated a political ‘third way’ of rapprochement with the LibDems and hounded the left and anyone who disagreed with them – was a victory for the left. The reality of this was reflected in the relentless media campaign (co-ordinated with a series of Blairite plots) to discredit Miliband’s leadership.

Less importantly, but also feeding the optimistic view of the Miliband leadership, was the appointment of Balls as Shadow Chancellor in 2011, who had run in the Labour leadership campaign as an advocate of ‘Keynesian’ demand side measures to kick start growth in the economy, taking the 1945 Labour government as his model.

These two facts taken together have disguised the truth about the policy direction that both Miliband and Balls have indicated – refusing to promise to reverse any specific Tory cut, affirming that further cuts will be necessary after 2015. At the same time its alternative ‘5 point plan for jobs and growth’ of three different VAT cuts, a windfall tax on bank bonuses to build a paltry 25,000 homes and ‘bringing forward’ already agreed government investment programmes is too meagre to make a difference.

Rather than a reforming, progressive Labour government as many sadly mistakenly anticipate, the Labour government elected in 2015 – except in the case of a wholly unlikely change in course – will be, on economic policy, the most right-wing since 1929. The gap between the expectations and the reality could hardly be greater.

While political developments on the left may currently seem glacially slow, under the impact of the reality of such a government a relatively rapid radicalisation by forces going to the left is likely. On the basis of previous experience this radicalisation is likely to be initially most rapid outside the Labour Party, including through many individual resignations from the Party as the character of the government becomes clear. But it will also more slowly lead to a strengthening of left currents within the Labour Party and the affiliated trade unions.

And alongside that a new rise of fascist and far right activity and support, which historically has always accompanied right-wing social democratic governments attacking working class living standards.

So given this immobility as the political situation becomes increasingly dominated by the coming general election, what should the left and progressive forces be doing now?

Firstly, it should not be doing what it does traditionally in periods of lower levels of struggle – that is to fragment into smaller and smaller individual currents. Preparing for the radicalisation that is very likely to come means uniting the left on the issues of broadest agreement, not dividing it unnecessarily.

The issue after 2015 will be how quickly can the left get its act together to give leadership to the radicalisation that begins to develop against Labour’s policies. That means seeking the maximum unity of the left now on the key issues confronting it in the class struggle, especially the actual struggle against the attacks of this government. This does not mean putting aside differences where these are over key issues in the class struggle. For example solidarity with the struggle to directly create a socialist state in Venezuela, and to oppose the imperialist assault on Syria, have to be carried on with the maximum possible strength. But it means where there are possibilities to unite the left these must be seized with both hands. And the main fulcrum of that will be the fight against the economic attacks on the working class that are being carried out today by the Tory led coalition and which will be continued in 2015 by a Labour led government.

Inside and outside the Labour Party itself that means arguing against the ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude to the struggle against austerity, supporting and aiding every possible fight-back against the attacks of the Coalition government. And it means waging a political fight against the economic policy of the Labour leadership, both to break the illusions about what it will actually do and argue for an alternative.

The economic fight against the austerity policies will be the most central question, but there are other issues that also lie at the heart of durable and effective left unity, because these are defining issues now or will be in the future. The left has to try to work out a basic set of demands around which it can unite to oppose both the present government and the policies of an incoming Labour one.

In addition to economic policy, second is opposition to all imperialist military intervention. Left unity could survive differences of assessment on the class character of the opposition in Syria, for example – as long as one side does not seek to impose their view on the other. But it would soon explode if any part of the left failed to oppose direct military engagement by the Western imperialist powers.

As the West declines in economic clout, it is more and more liable to seek to maintain its control through military means. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, drone attacks on Pakistan, Côte d’Ivoire, and soon Mali are all examples. Opposing this imperialist aggression, ‘regime change’ and interference has to be a line of divide for the left.

Third, is opposition to all forms of racism, Islamophobia, (including the right of Muslim women to dress as they choose) and the extreme right. The British left has been free of the extreme ‘laïcité’ of the French left, which has rendered it confused and disarmed in the face of attacks on the rights of French Muslims, particularly Muslim women. There may be debates in the future, but for the moment the left in Britain is rather unified in its approach to racism and defence of ethnic and religious minorities. This is a strength that should be at the heart of its unity.

Fourth, is action to protect the environment. No one serious on the left can argue for unity without taking into account the daily evidence for climate change, its already deadly consequences for parts of the world population, and campaigning for measures to reduce carbon emissions, develop sustainable energy, and impose restrictions and targets for measures to increase sustainability in the economy.

Fifth, is support for women’s rights and equality, for LGBT equalities and rights and against homophobia, for disability rights, and equalities for all.

Finally, two other issues of a slightly different character are also crucial.

One is the attitude to the election of a Labour government rather than the Tories. Getting this wrong would be disastrous. This is particularly the case in 2015 when all the most progressive forces in the masses will be hoping for a Tory defeat and a Labour government – although of a different character than the one they will actually get.

As outlined above, sectarianism or ultra-leftism on this issue has doomed left currents in Europe to failure and decline. It is not deadly if it is in the vein of Socialist Worker’s traditional ‘Vote Labour without illusions’, but failure to call for a general vote for Labour – except in a tiny handful of places where something further to the left has a genuine chance of winning – would not only be incorrect but destroy the credibility of any left (as well as dividing the left artificially and prematurely between the left forces that undoubtedly exist inside the Labour Party and among Labour supporters in the unions on the one hand, and those outside the Labour Party on the other).

The other is a framework of democracy in debate, discussion and involvement in developing the strategy of the left. Attempts to impose the views of one current or point of view on secondary issues or matters that can be left to on-going debate would just tear apart the left. As would attempts by one point of view or current to usurp a role or say in excess of its real weight in the masses – which is frequently not the same as which current of opinion can get most people into a room! And as would attempts to exclude particular points of view from decision-making or discussion forums, whether because they are inconvenient or, worse, precisely because they make a strong alternative case on a particular tactic or issue.

The left can and must unite on core issues, but it will debate and disagree on many details.

The overwhelming majority of the left would agree, for example, that the Chávez government in Venezuela should be defended from US interference and against the right. But not all might agree with Socialist Action that there is a revolutionary process towards socialism in Venezuela that it whole-heartedly supports and which is an inspiration to radicalising forces in Europe. Nor would we consider that agreement on this was a necessary condition for unity. On this, and many other issues, different currents on the left have their own views, which can be discussed and debated appropriately but which are not a matter for decision by the wider left.

Judging where there is real agreement, where a principled line of divide exists which must be expressed even if there is no agreement, and where lack of agreement should just mean the debate continues are at the core of the art of unity on the left.

There is not going to be rapid progress towards unity on the left as long as the overwhelming perspective of the majority of not only the working class but the organised labour movement remains for the return of a Labour government in 2015 and no clear understanding exists among the population or organised Labour movement of how right wing such a government will be in the current economic situation in Europe. But precisely because of the seriousness of that economic situation an incoming Labour government will launch attacks on the working class extremely rapidly and radicalisation against it and to its left can also start rapidly. Then the urgent necessity to unite all those opposed to such a right wing course, with all its consequences, will rapidly become clear.

The more the left seeks to unite even in such difficult circumstances as the present the more rapidly it will be able to respond both to current events and, in the next big turning point, to the right wing policies that will be followed by an incoming Labour left government.

If the left wants to be in a position to take advantage of a movement to the left in the masses when it begins to take place, it should take every opportunity to work together now. How urgent and important left unity is will become clear when Labour is in office. But socialists are supposed to be ahead of events not caught by surprise. Maintaining the maximum struggle against the Tory led government today, and preparing to resist the assault of the Labour led one in 2015, does not mean putting aside differences. But it does mean taking every possibility which does exist for the left to work together.