Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bob's timely election coverage 3: the left

This is the third in a series of four posts I wrote in May after the European and local elections then, which I'm posting now as they seem to be still relevant after our spate of by-elections. The first looked at UKIP, the second at the rest of London's electoral landscape from the Lib Dems to the Greens. This post focuses on the left. I probably should have included the Greens in this post rather than the last one, as they are to the left of Labour on most issues even if not part of the historical tradition of the left; this was just the order in which I wrote the sections. Paragraphs in italics at the end of each section were written today, in November 2014. 

The results of the more explicitly left of Labour alternatives have been frankly embarrassing. Despite a couple of impressive exceptions (Southampton, Coventry), the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and the Eurosceptic dinosaurs of No2EU barely left the starting blocks, beaten even by a dead-on-its-feet BNP. The endlessly triumphalist reality-blind idiots of the Leninist sects behind these electoral parties might claim otherwise, but the sad fact is that explicitly socialist politics has almost zero electoral appeal.

The slight exceptions are instructive. In Lewisham, for example, People Before Profit performed respectably in Telegraph Hill and New Cross and the TUSC candidate (Chris Flood) who had previously served as a councillor performed respectably in Telegraph Hill. As I noted in comments, these were candidates with a local track record standing in local elections on very bread-and-butter local issues. Similarly, Keith Morrell in Southampton and Dave Nellist in Coventry had track records as councillors.

My inference from this is that, in the short to medium term at least, the left-of-Labour left is far better off investing its energy in campaigns on very specific bread-and-butter issues – especially around cuts to public services, such as hospital closures – than in electoral activity. This might mean sacrificing ideological purity for coalitions and alliances, in particular with Labour Party supporters. (This might mean that the People’s Assembly approach to re-building left politics (joining up existing struggles against austerity) is a far better bet than the Left Unity approach (the creation of a new party).

Since I wrote the above, People Before Profit got 69 votes in the Rochester and Strood by election - behind the Monster Raving Loony Party but thankfully ahead of any of the fascist parties. My patience with them had diminished in the summer when one of their figureheads tweeted stuff about a Jewish lobby controlling the media and more recently when they had a friendly social media exchange with a Hitler fan on the Bilderberg conspiracy. The fact that the group had no local roots in the constituency was presumably a bigger factor in their low vote than their dabbling with antisemitic memes. 

As for Left Unity, they have made uneven progress. They had their conference a week or so back. I like the strong commitment to transparency and democracy that characterises Left Unity, but it also opens them up to the various Trotskyite and Stalinist sects using it as a playroom, which is pretty off-putting for anyone else who might potentially be engaged by the left. Among endless motions using the arcane jargon of the Third International, one stood out: praising the murderous scum of ISIS as "having progressive potential" from an allegedly "anti-imperialist" perspective. Mercifully, only four people seem to have voted for the motion (and it's not clear that all of them realised which motion they were voting for), but the fact it could even be discussed shows how badly the left needs saving from itself

The one exception to the English far left’s electoral failure in the last decade or so has been Respect. But Respect is an exception in too many ways to make a difference to the argument I’ve just made. For a start, Respect’s apparent political radicalism is barely skin-deep and its electoral advances have been built partly on the now-dwindling personal celebrity of the Nigel Farage of the left George Galloway.

But the much more important factor has been mobilising (often mosque-based) machine politics in relatively ethnically homogeneous South Asian communities. As there are very few local authorities or constituencies in the UK were this kind of vote can make a difference numerically, the Respect strategy is not one that can be scaled up.

It is also a fragile strategy, because it promotes a Boardwalk Empire style political culture that is so cannibalistic that it consumes its activist base faster than it can regenerate, and this cycle has already played itself out in Bradford, where Respect’s councillors had all deserted by election time and a swing back to Labour has seen its remaining candidates' fortunes collapse.

However, it is depressing to see that the Respect model has clung on in Tower Hamlets, the UK’s equivalent of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, where the Muslim Brotherhood/Jamaat-e-Islam network around the East London Mosque and Islamic Forum Europe (not afraid to use polling station intimidation and other corrupt practices) was able to out-mobilise rival secular Awami League-linked  Bangladeshi networks loyal to Labour and keep Lutfur Rahman in power.

Since I wrote this, the mounting allegations against the ruling junta in Tower Hamlets led to the central government imposing commissioners to oversee the running of the council while a full investigation into various apparent malpractices unfold. The story is too complex for me to describe here,  and is best followed on Ted Jeory's excellent blog, starting here.

Depressingly, with the usual honourable exceptions, a lot of the left have been offering misplaced "solidarity" with Lutfur Rahman's rotten administration, claiming he is a victim of right-wing and possibly Islamophobic witch-hunting. Most notably, George Galloway, Ken Livingstone and Left Unity have been vocal in Lutfur's defence. When this sort of thing is the norm, I begin to think it's too late to save the left from itself. 

Or maybe it's time for a different approach....


Waterloo Sunset said...

This is obviously from a Northern perspective.

This might mean sacrificing ideological purity for coalitions and alliances, in particular with Labour Party supporters.

I'm not sure anyone has ever really called for the exclusion of Labour party supporters (or more crucially members) from single issue campaigns. Well, maybe Class War/Red Action at their grumpiest.

But there are issues that arise.

Labour Party members cannot, under any circumstances, call for a vote against a Labour party candidate. Not even the likes of Frank Field. Or they'll get expelled So, when it comes down to crunch, the specific issue will always play second fiddle tactically to their loyalty to the Labour Party.

They have a serious tendency to try and suborn any campaign to trying to get the Labour vote out (see Owen Jones). The Labour Left are no less prone to party building then the SWP and I don't see why we should give them an easy ride on this.

We also have the serious problem of what happens if Labour get in after the next election and (as they will) carry on with the austerity agenda. Those whose loyalty lies primarily with Labour are, at best, going to be sitting the fence.

So yeah, I wouldn't exclude them. But I wouldn't pretend they're particularly trustworthy either.

mong endless motions using the arcane jargon of the Third International, one stood out: praising the murderous scum of ISIS as "having progressive potential" from an allegedly "anti-imperialist" perspective. Mercifully, only four people seem to have voted for the motion (and it's not clear that all of them realised which motion they were voting for), but the fact it could even be discussed shows how badly the left needs saving from itself.

I'm a member of Left Unity, so take that into account. I do think that the early potential I saw seems to be fading fast.

But your line of attack here strikes me as odd.

The (shit) motion in question was debated and roundly rejected. What would you have had them do instead? Have a small number of the leadership (perhaps we could call them a "central committee"?) decide among themselves that the motion was beyond the pale and wasn't allowed to be discussed? Generally, I think that a commitment to internal democracy is important enough that it's worth occasionally having to tell the proposers of this kind of motion to fuck off. Because I can't think of a better alternative approach. If you can, I'm all ears.

What I think is likely to leave Left Unity dead in the water is something else. After the initial push, it seems to have ended up as the 'usual suspects'. The hope for an influx of 'ordinary' people (that I've always said was crucial if LU was going to have legs) doesn't seem to have happened. A new social movement cannot be built solely from refugees from other left parties. And too many people in LU seem to be more comfortable in that kind of setting for it to be seriously addressed. The fact that I still feel 'young' in a LU context (I'm fucking well forty years old) is a signifier of a wider malaise. The only 'new' approach that seems to be being fought for is the kind of identity politics beloved by the Twitterati. Which, really, I don't see as a good thing.

So I'm pretty pessimistic, as you can tell. Which is a pity. I think Loach generally had good motives and there was some initial possibility, even if that door is rapidly closing. The only possible hope I can see is that online voting could revitalise things. But while that's being pushed for by some younger ISN types, there's a lot of footdragging on the issue by the cobwebs.

Waterloo Sunset said...

The one exception to the English far left’s electoral failure in the last decade or so has been Respect.

Slightly outside the decade, but I think the IWCA experiment still showed serious progress. While O'Shea isn't self-critical enough (because, well, it's O'Shea), I think he's right to argue that the community based approach does have the potential to make an impact and seriously challenge the mainstream. But it seems to be a very different approach then the left parties are currently trying.

But the much more important factor has been mobilising (often mosque-based) machine politics in relatively ethnically homogeneous South Asian communities.

That's been a factor, but I'd be careful not to overstate. An oft missed point (by Southern commentators largely) about the Bradford result was that it was in many ways an anti Labour vote, not a pro Respect vote. More specifically, it was a vote against how poor the record of the local council was. And even the communalism charge is oversimplified; a significant part of Galloway's support came from young Muslims breaking from their Labour supporting community elders. (He also got support in white working class areas). In many ways, that result was the breakdown of Labour's communalism. And I'd suggest that, if it had delivered the kind of results for Labour it has in the past, we'd have heard nary a peep about communalism from most of the usual suspects.

Or maybe it's time for a different approach....

While I'm partial to Ian and his shouty populism, I'm not convinced that's "different" so much as some kind of retro anarcho-80's disco thang.

Waterloo Sunset said...

Entirely Offtopic!

I'm doing most of my muso stuff over at 8tracks these days. You should join me; I think you'd like it.

(I'm "ShockSlogans" over there if you want to hit me up).

bob said...

As always, WS, excellent comments, with which I mostly agree.

1. Sacrificing purity and working with Labour

I broadly agree. I'm not saying anyone has tried to exclude Labour from grassroots campaigns. I'm saying an approach which is party-building (Left Unity) automatically excludes Labour (and Green) supporters, and that given the lack of mass and momentum on our side we are better investing energy into the grassroots campaigns than in the party-building. And, yes, within the campaigns we need to not give Labour an easy ride.

2. Left Unity

I mostly agree with you. I don't think the leadership should have refused the amendment. Altho if they'd composited better they could have made the process less messy (the Weekly Worker on the problems of "plebiscitary democracy" made some good points on the eve of the conference). As I said, I like the commitment to transparent democracy that enabled the amendment to be heard.

What's concerning is that the guys who moved and seconded the amendment are not un-prominent in LU. The proposer has several articles on the LU website. How can someone with such appalling views get prominence in a socialist party? (Even more depressing, he's ex-Big Flame. As a weird aside, the seconder, Mark Anthony France, who got kicked out of the Greens, was actually going to stand for Class War 2015 in Bromsgrove in May while an LU member, but stepped down.)

The LU usual suspects, and its maleness, oldness, whiteness, beardness, pony-tail-ness, etc, as well as the prominence of tankies and Stoppers, its adulation for Lutfur Rahman... lots of reasons LU has been bitterly disappointing.

bob said...


I think a community approach is viable, but it needs to build on something that already exists on the ground. Where there is a small pool of committed people embedded in a community (as there was in the places IWCA did well), there's potential to translate that into electoral politics. My problem is with taking the electoral end game as the starting point. Plus it is a strategy that leads to burn-out, because it requires enormous disciplined commitment from individuals (cf AFA ca.1999/2000).

4. Bradford

Yes, you're right, I've neglected the anti-Labour thing involved. My hatred of Galloway has skewed my coverage. Helen Pidd's Guardian coverage has been very good on this, I think.

5. Class War

Yes, "retro anarcho-80's disco thang" is a good description, but they do seem to have pulled in quite a few new faces. On the other hand, there's a lot of Zeitgeist/Bilderberg/Russell Brand shit floating around their scene at the moment, as with Occupy Democracy, with that Chunky Mark geezer and so on. But the East End housing struggles they've been involved in have been one of the few sparks of hope in the dark sky.

Waterloo Sunset said...

1. I think the issue round "grassroots campaigns" is actually the real issue with the People's Assembly, rather then the involvement of Labour people. . It's very much a top-down campaign without much meaningful internal democracy. And it's prone to organising very much round left 'celebrities' as opposed to trying to build serious local roots. It's very Counterfire.

2. Prominence isn't exactly difficult in a group like LU. They're basically prominent because they've formed a faction and because they submit articles to the website. And because MAF posts a lot of Facebook memes. There's a difference between prominence and having a base of support. On the Big Flame thing, it's somewhat eye-rolling that John Penney (a name I suspect you'll know) has been using it to 'prove' that Trotskyist approaches to socialism are the only game in town. That said, while the passed motion on the Kurds isn't bad, I supported JP's defeated amendment. (Theoretically, I wasn't able to make conference). While it didn't win and should have, it's the case that it did have serious support, unlike the JT/MAF motion. Around 1/3 of those voting.

The most telling critique I can think of re Left Unity is this. I'm still in touch with some of the kids from doing my university course. People like V & L, who are both young women from a working class background who are instinctively left and have a visceral hatred of the Tories. And, currently, I'm not trying to get them involved in LU. Because I don't think they'd stick around in LU as it currently is. And they're exactly the kind of people LU needs.

Waterloo Sunset said...

Another example of how the community approach can lead to burnout is arguably how the UK anarchist movement has operated since the 60s. Direct action has similar issues; it takes a level of energy that's unsustainable over a long period of time.

There are many problems with Brand. The fact he's in love with his own celebrity status. The conspiracy theory. The fact you don't have to be an 'intersectionalist' to think that Brand has serious issues with sexism that can't be ignored. The 'spiritual revolution'. (I'm arguably a hypocrite there as I've dabbled with occulty stuff. But I don't try and make it into a political movement or see it as anything other then an odd personal hobby. I also LARP. I don't turn up to demos in viking outfits).

But most of the condemnations of Brand focus less on that and more on outraged incomprehension that someone might see voting as pointless or call for radical social change. A lot of the responses put me in mind of the responses to a medieval peasant who's just called the divine right of kings into question.

It's a symptom rather then the disease; in a situation where the working class is on the backfoot, that's where conspiracy theory starts to grow.

I think we see that even more with Anonymous, who I see as far more important then Brand. We should have something to say to those kids and we don't. Which leads much of the left to fall into either sneering dismissal or uncritical adulation. Neither of which are the way forward.