The dynamic of Britain’s political situation will pose the need for a left party

By Jane West

In recent months the true character of the Miliband leadership of the Labour Party has been more clearly revealed.

The combination of its commitment to maintain austerity and implement the Tory cuts, attacks on the union role in the Party and nasty and vituperative campaigns against the employment of East European migrant labour marks out the contours of the coming Labour or Labour-led government after 2015.

As we explained in a recent article, what is being created is ‘New Labour Mark II’, which will be even worse than the original. Miliband will engage in similar backward attacks on the vulnerable – claimants, migrant workers and so on – capitulate to the US on foreign policy, continue privatisations and deepen austerity, but without the major expansion in spending on health and welfare that Blair and Brown carried through.

This reality creates the objective need for a party to the left of Labour that can challenge this strategy and set out policy alternatives on the economy, social cohesion, equalities and foreign policy.

However, as yet, the significant section of the population that hopes for a government that implements such a left alternative remains wedded to the aspiration that Labour in office after 2015 will present an approximation of that vision.

Moreover this applies equally to the vanguard – that section of this current in the masses that will actually join or help organise a political party or movement. There has been no wave of resignations from the Labour Party in response to either the new commitments on economic policy or the attack on the union link.

However, the fact that so far only tiny forces are drawing this conclusion does not change the objective need for such a left alternative. This objective need is first having an impact on those organised currents and individuals that have already broken with Labour to the left. This is driving a discussion on the need for left unity – the coming together of the various existing currents to the left of Labour to create a framework for discussion that can engage not just these currents themselves but the considerable number of individuals who share this aspiration but have found the divisions and sectarianism that plagues the left unappealing as a framework to organise.

After George Galloway’s surprise victory in Bradford, it appeared that Respect was strongly placed to provide such a framework. It had some considerable assets to bring to such a process – established bases with resonance in sections of the masses not just in Bradford, but also Tower Hamlets and Birmingham, a high profile national leadership in George and Salma Yaqoob, strong political credentials on opposing war and racism in particular, and a non-sectarian orientation to Labour. However, this possibility expired in the wreckage of last summer’s dispute over George Galloway’s profoundly wrong views on the definition of rape and the failure of the Respect party to find a route to clarify a distinction between his views and those of the party – or a substantial body of opinion within it.

This crisis appeared to put off any serious steps to creating a framework for regrouping the left until politics – for example, mass struggles against austerity, new unpopular military interventions or Labour in government – propelled new developments to the left.

But politics abhors a vacuum. And even though no processes in the class struggle are yet leading to significant new breaks with Labour, any serious attempt to regroup the left in preparation for such developments has some resonance. Hence the appeal for ‘Left Unity’, launched by Ken Loach, Kate Hudson and others at the beginning of this year has succeeded in re-launching such a process of discussion.

Approaching 10,000 individuals signed up to the appeal for Left Unity, some of these have begun to organise in local groups, a number of existing far left currents have joined in and a process of discussion has been initiated towards the launch of a new party at a conference at the end of November.

The discussion towards the conference has immediately led to an internal debate about the political basis for this new party and the formation of a number of ‘platforms’ reflecting the different approaches.

While differences on a range of important issues lie between these platforms, the fundamental debate boils down to what is the character of the new party that it is proposed to build. Should it be an explicitly ‘socialist’ party, or should it be a ‘left’ party on the model of Die Linke, the Parti de Gauche and Syriza?

The ‘Left Platform’, led by Kate Hudson and others, argues strongly for the latter. This is entirely correct as it corresponds to what is posed and required by the class struggle in Europe and Britain today.

The overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with the building of socialism is not on the agenda in Europe today. There is neither the level of mass struggle to shake the capacity of the bourgeoisie to rule, nor the degree of crisis of capitalism itself that means it is being torn apart by its own contradictions.

The European bourgeoisie may have very substantial problems and its global position may be in decline, but it nevertheless remains hugely powerful with great reserves of economic, ideological and military strength. 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.

European capital’s 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.

Even in Greece, where the crisis in Europe is at its deepest, the bourgeoisie has not yet been forced to concede any significant ground in its austerity programme. And it still has scope for concessions, on debt cancellation for example, if it thought its fundamental position was seriously under threat.

The fact that nowhere in Europe are substantial concessions on the table reflects the fact that capital in Europe does not believe it faces any serious threat. In Britain the overall response to austerity has so far been far more muted than in many other countries of Europe.

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 in Britain this starts from economic and political demands like real nationalisation of the banks and the use of their resources for state-led investment programmes to create jobs, expand the public sector and solve the housing crisis; redistributive tax and welfare policies; an end to foreign military adventures and major reductions in arms spending, including cancelling Trident; and an end to racist and other scape-goating.

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 in Greece, Syriza has advanced. It has united the left against austerity, while 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. At the same time, other forces have declined – the KKE and other ultra-leftist currents – staying outside Syriza in the attempt to draw a line in the class struggle that is further to the left, posing the struggle as for socialism, or even communism.

In other words, what is posed by the objective mood for ‘left unity’ in Britain is to prepare for the emergence of wider political forces that want to fight for serious and substantial left reforms.

What do these fundamental lines of division and advance tell us about what should be done in Britain?

Illusions in the character of the Labour or Labour-led government that will be elected in 2015 under Miliband’s leadership still extend far into the broad left of the labour movement. Even most of those who would support such a programme of radical reforms remain glued to their aspiration that Labour will deliver something like this.

However, while today political developments on the left may seem glacially and frustratingly slow, especially given the increasing clarification of Miliband’s fundamental direction of travel, it remains important to set the correct terrain for when events speed up

Firstly, preparing for the radicalisation that is very likely to come means uniting the left on the issues of broadest agreement, not dividing it unnecessarily.

Ensuring the left can give leadership to a greater radicalisation to the left of Labour when it does begin to emerge means seeking the maximum unity of the left now on the basis of re-grouping the widest possible forces in favour of such a left programme of radical reforms.

Within such a formation today it might be possible for the explicitly ‘socialist’ forces to win a majority and insist that their programme and name reflects this majority. But this would be a mistake. Such forces are only a potential majority because the radicalisation to the left of Labour is as yet so underdeveloped.

Understanding what are the fundamental lines of divide in the actual class struggle, not in the minds of the tiny forces of the socialist left, is the key to advance. As Lenin put it, ‘the whole art of politics’ lies in identifying and taking a grip of the next link in the chain of the class struggle. (What is to be done)

What this means is that the next tactical step of socialists has to be based on a concrete understanding of the real circumstances of the class struggle, not a purely abstract counter-position of socialism to capitalism in every situation.

In the current debate in ‘Left Unity’, the ‘Left Platform’ poses the next steps correctly on the most fundamental issue. What will be increasingly posed in the British class struggle is the creation of a political current with a base in that section of the masses that is to the left of Labour. To be successful in giving political leadership to this current means fighting for the maximum actually posed in the real relationship of class forces. Gripping this next link in the chain today means standing for very substantial left reforms that would improve the living conditions and relation of forces in favour of the working class.

Attempting to present the immediate choice in the class struggle as the overthrow of capitalism and replacing it with socialism misjudges the overall relationship of class forces, as well as radically underestimating the level of struggle that would be required to destroy capitalism. A new ‘Socialist Party’ would be a rerun of what already exists and would fail to regroup any emerging radical left abandoning Labour.

That is why in the debate within Left Unity it is the ‘Left Platform’ that is  fundamentally correct and that should be supported.