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Steve Freeman: Towards an Alternative Platform

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Left Unity is planning to launch a new party of the left. A number of platforms have been proposed including the Socialist Platform, the Left Party Platform and the Class Struggle Platform. The following paper is not a platform but a discussion about the possibility or necessity of developing an alternative to those currently on offer.

Since 1996 with the launch of the Socialist Labour Party there have been a variety of socialist unity and party initiatives, including the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect, and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). None of these initiatives has succeeded in uniting the socialist movement or building a real alternative to New Labour. Left Unity will be another failure unless we are able to learn from previous failures and satisfactorily resolve some important questions.


1. The Unity Question

The first question is a clear definition of what left unity means. Having a vague or ambiguous definition may be ‘useful’ but stores up problems for later. People join thinking it means one thing only to find out later it means something different. This will create disillusion and damage the whole project. It is much better to be straightforward from the start.

Radical Unity

Many young activists are “radicals” rather than socialists. They have radical views and want radical change. The Pirate Party, the environmental movement, the Occupy movement, and campaigning organisations such as UK Uncut are examples of radical but not socialist politics. Of course socialists and communists have radical views and solutions. But radical unity stands for broader unity between socialists and (non-socialist) radicals, for example Respect as a coalition between socialists and radical Muslims or TUSC as coalition of socialists and left trade unionists.

Socialist Unity

This should be defined as the unity of all socialists into one organisation or party. Here ‘socialist’ is used as a generic term for democratic socialists (or social democrats) and communists, sometimes referred to as ‘reformists’ and ‘revolutionaries’. This is sometimes called broad left unity. It was the basis of the SLP and the Socialist Alliance. Socialist unity is the unity of all who recognise the class struggle and oppose capitalism, whether by reform or revolution, into one united organisation aiming to be more effective in fighting for working class political interests.

Communist (or Marxist) Unity

This should be defined as the unity of all who hold communist or Marxist views and who today are mainly Trotskyists (represented by the SWP, SP, International Socialist Group, AWL, etc) and the remnants of the old CPGB (represented by CPB (Morning Star), CPGB (Weekly Worker) etc. One example of communist unity was the now defunct Campaign for a Marxist Party.

Nobody openly advocates Left Unity as a revolutionary communist unity project. It has been promoted as a ‘Broad Left’ unity project. It is therefore either about Radical Unity (another Respect or TUSC) or Socialist Unity (another SLP or Socialist Alliance). This needs to be clarified as soon as possible.

2. The Party Question

Socialists have been centrally involved in united front campaigns for example the Anti-Nazi League, the Miners Support Committees, the Anti-Poll Tax unions, and the Stop the War Coalition. These were single issue and temporary organisations. They were essentially defensive organisations aimed to stop something happening such as a war, the poll tax, pit closures, or privatisations etc.

Single issue campaigns may register as a political party and stand candidates in elections. A ‘Defend the NHS party’ or an ‘Anti-bedroom tax party’ are not real parties but defensive campaigns using elections. A real party is a medium or long term project with strategic aims and a programme for change, an ideological vision, and definite methods of struggle. It must have a core of active members and support from significant sections of society. Building such a permanent strategic and offensive organisation is a long historical process which may take years or decades.

At the time of the Russian revolution the British Labour movement contained three broad ideological trends – liberalism, democratic socialism and communism. In 1920s the CPGB was formed and most communists were excluded from Labour. The Party became an alliance of liberals and democratic socialists with communists organised separately until Trotskyists began building a base inside the Party in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Labour-CPGB epoch came to an end with the abolition of the USSR, the liquidation of the CPGB and the emergence of New Labour. New Labour represented the victory of liberalism over democratic socialism, symbolised by the abandonment of clause 4. New Labour adopted neo-liberal ideology of market forces, privatisation, competition and flexible labour markets. Democratic socialists were marginalised or excluded. Outside the Labour Party, the CPGB was replaced by a more fragmented Trotskyist movement led by the SWP and the Socialist Party.

The triumph of neo-liberalism over the Tories, Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party marks a new epoch. Defending the social gains of the working class requires a united front of democratic socialists and communists. This provides an opportunity for a long term strategic realignment of democratic socialists and communists into a new party. This new party would be an historic shift or break up of the alliance between liberalism and democratic socialism.

The Socialist Labour Party (SLP) set up in 1996 was the first experiment in building a new party around an alliance of democratic socialism-communism. Over the next seventeen years we have seen the Socialist Alliance (SA), Respect, and Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) before arriving at Left Unity. Each of these should be seen as part of the learning process of building a new party. Left Unity will either be an advance on the previous attempts or a repeat of the previous mistakes and failures.

The SLP and the SA were attempts to build socialist unity parties of democratic socialists and communists. Respect and the TUSC were attempts to build radical parties around coalitions of socialists and non-socialist communities or interests such as Muslims or trade unionists. Experience has given us two alternatives, the Socialist Unity party and the Radical Coalition party. Left Unity will have to choose which strategy to follow.

3. The Disunity Question

We face two major problems. First is how to relate to the Labour left including the Labour Representation Committee. It would be easy to ignore them or write them off. Second, there are different socialist movements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. How these two problems are dealt with may ultimately determine the success or failure of the broad party project.

4. The Ideological Question

The ideological character of a party is part of its foundations. It has immense significance which has hitherto been neglected or underestimated. It provides the glue which holds the party together through thick and thin. It helps unite party members around a common project with a distinct set of ideas about aims and methods of struggle. Ideology conveys the ‘Big Idea’ on which the party is built. Any genuinely new party project depends on developing a new ideology rather than simply reheating an old idea.

Today the British socialist movement, especially in England, is dominated by the ideologies of Trotskyism and Labourism. Trotskyism is an ideology based on the Russian revolution and interpretations of its outcome. Whilst the idea of a Broad Left party is supported and promoted by Trotskyist organisations, none of them are proposing this as the ideology for the new party.

Labourism was originally an idea about trade union representation in parliament. With the adoption of clause 4 in 1918 it then became in effect Socialist Labour as the idea of achieving socialism by political action under the existing British constitution. Labourism was the ‘British Road to Socialism’, an idea developed theoretically by the CPGB and its programme of the same name. The 1945-50 Labour government is taken as the best example of this approach in which a Labour majority in parliament brought in a set of radical economic and social reforms which implemented the Beveridge Report on employment, established the welfare state and NHS and expanded the public sector.

The arrival of New Labour meant that Labourism or Socialist Labour became known as Old Labour. All the various new left party projects - the SLP, SA, Respect and TUSC – have based themselves to a greater or lesser extent on the ideology of Labourism, or Old Labour. This was the easy or ‘natural’ option because of a double coincidence of interests. First those alienated from the Labour Party were naturally looking for a new party with ideas with which they were comfortable. Second the Trotskyist organisations were very familiar with Labourism not least because many had been entryists such as the former Militant Tendency. In seeking allies from the left of the Labour party for a Broad Left project then adopting the ideology of Labourism and promoting its ideas and values was the obvious answer.

Socialist Labourism corresponds to a particular epoch in British working class history from the beginning to the end of the USSR. We are living through the long drawn out period of its death. The ideological problem is that a new party needs a new ideology if it is to be a break with the recent past. Without it we merely have a project to resurrect the dead.

This is one reason why the SLP, SA, Respect and TUSC have failed. The working class needs an historic break from the politically limited ideas of Labourism.

“Neither Labourism nor Trostkyism” expresses the idea that a new party needs a new ideology. The new ideology must in a certain sense be a synthesis of some parts of the old ideas. In this sense it will be familiar to supporters from both. If there is a new ideology which can unite democratic socialists and communists then it can be adopted by the left of the Labour Party and by socialists in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It will be the end of the British Road to Socialism.

5. The Reform versus Revolution Question

Traditionally the core distinction between democratic socialists and communists has been ‘reform’ versus ‘revolution’. This can sometimes be seen as concentrating on ‘bread and butter’ reforms versus revolutionary ‘jam tomorrow’. If democratic socialists and communists can coexist in one party then this will express itself in ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ tendencies. This is neither unique nor impossible as examples from the Chartists, German Social Democratic Party in the 1890s and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party show.

A party which does not define itself as ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’ but contains both tendencies must have objectives which enable their coexistence. Anti-Constitutionalism provides an answer to the problem. The RSDLP, the ANC and Sinn Fein were different kinds of parties but they had in common a commitment to fundamentally changing the constitutions of the countries in which they organised.

6. The Constitutional Question

The British (UK) constitution is the political ‘law of the land’. All the main constitutional parties, Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour, are loyal to the constitution and agree to abide by it even if they occasionally propose constitutional reforms. Currently the traditional constitution is under pressure from EU law and from Scotland with its forthcoming referendum on independence. UKIP is a relatively new party which has made defending the constitution from the imposition of EU laws its basic rationale. It has shown that it is possible to make the constitution into a popular issue by invoking arguments about democracy and self government.

A new Broad Left party must be the Anti-UK constitution Internationalist Party (or Anti-UKIP). The central issue is the relationship between Crown, Parliament and People - the sovereignty question. Under this general heading come particular issues such as the power of the Executive, the role of the Commons and Lords, relations with the EU and between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales etc. The implication is a party thinking strategically about the future of democracy and internationalism and not simply responding to events as they unfold.

Trade unions operate within a legal framework of anti-union laws which greatly restricts and hampers their effectiveness. Ignoring the legal-political side means accepting these laws as a given and adapting to the position of powerlessness designed and allotted to them. Trade unionism which limits itself to ‘bread and butter’ reformism and does not challenge the legal framework within which it is imprisoned is ineffective trade unionism. The UK constitution is for the people what the anti-union laws are for the trade union movement.

It is not sufficient to be against the UK constitution, a party must have an alternative not least because people will ask what the new party is for. Hence we must identify the New Constitution Party of the Left. The constitution question boils down to what kind of constitution is the new party for and what priority should this be given to this.

7. The Timing Question

Experiments in launching a new party began in 1996 in recognition of changed circumstances for the working class. The Iraq war was another milestone as was the economic crisis of 2008. At one level the need for a new party is overripe and reflects a felt and growing need amongst socialists. We are in a new political epoch and haven’t yet caught up with it.

At the same time in the process of trying to catch up with new realities we can go too quickly and fail to win the arguments in the wider movement. Building a real party is a process over a few years and not an event driven by election timetables. The example of Respect is a warning. Whole sections of the left were unconvinced about the project and a longer process before launching might have had a different outcome. There was a perceived arrogance from Galloway and the SWP which they could simply ride over objections from the rest of the left. In the race for a new party, the tortoise might be faster than the hare!

8. The Name of the Party Question

The name of the party is important because it carries a political message. The Left Unity Party does little except tell the electorate that the Left is uniting. It could sound like a party of the left for the left. Do people really care if the Left unites with itself or will they think it deserves to be left to itself? The apparent name of the party indicates that it is not ready to become a real political force and simply reflects the internal dynamics of the left.

The Anti-Constitutional Left Party or the New Constitution Left Party are hardly snappy names but they do imply a party that intends to change the politics of the country rather than being self obsessed with itself. These are not proposals for a name but rather an appeal for thinking seriously about the politics of the party name.

Conclusion - Neither Labourism nor Trotskyism but….

Since the 1980s there have been significant changes in the world economy and UK politics. The rise of neo-liberalism, the weakening of the trade union movement, end of the USSR, the liquidation of the CPGB and the arrival of New Labour have created new conditions for working people. In addition the ‘Peace Process’ in Northern Ireland and devolution in Scotland and Wales have changed the pace and direction of politics across the UK.

During this period the socialist movement has been severely weakened inside and outside the Labour Party becoming marginalised within it and fragmented outside. There have been a number of projects to launch new left parties in England. None of these has succeeded. The most successful was the Scottish Socialist Party before it too broke up and its influence shrank.

The dismantling of the post war ‘Social Monarchy’, and the triumph of liberal or free market capitalist ideology and policies, has been matched by the failure of the old socialist movement to create a real alternative either inside or outside the Labour Party. This situation reflected in the growing disparity of income and wealth, both demands and requires a new direction.

There must be an historic break with the old model in which democratic socialists and communists organised in separate and rival parties dedicated to ‘reform’ or ‘revolution’. The new party cannot be built by repeating or resurrecting the ideas or ideology of Old Labour and the British Road to socialism. Such a strategy would simply reinforce the divisions between socialists inside and outside the Labour Party and between socialists in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

British socialism has accepted and worked within the legal framework of the British constitution, most obviously in the case of the Labour Party and its socialist left wing. Neither has British Trotskyism challenged this, tending to suggest it will be all resolved by the revolution at some time in the distant future. The new party must mark out an historic break with Labourism and Trotskyism and the politics of constitutional conservatism.

The argument here points to an Anti-Constitutional Socialist Party or a New Constitution Socialist Party. Such a party will defend the rights and social welfare of the working class and its allies. However, it would attack and expose the present political system as undemocratic which cannot therefore serve the interests of the majority or secure social justice. Thus the struggle for a new democracy is not a distant goal which can be left for the future to resolve but an urgent priority for the present involving everyone who wants to change the political and economic direction of the country.