The trend to right populism was emphasised on June 4, writes Mike Macnair. But how will the left respond?
The basic results of the June 4 county council and European parliament elections will by now be familiar to readers. The swing to the right and to populist-nationalists that occurred across most of Europe was somewhat sharper in Britain than elsewhere.
The results were terrible for Labour, but also for those who attempted to create an electoral alternative along old Labour lines. In the Labour Party, the results were so bad as to give Gordon Brown at least temporary relief from leadership speculation, as the Parliamentary Labour Party responded to an appeal for unity. In the left outside Labour, there is renewed talk of unity too. But there is little sign that anyone is prepared to do what is needed to achieve real unity: to break with top-down bureaucratic control and imitation Labourism.
The county council elections saw a substantial reduction of the Labour share of the vote, with the Tories taking advantage. The Euro poll saw a real Labour collapse, down to 15.7%. The Conservatives gained seats, but the main beneficiaries were the UK Independence Party and, on a smaller scale, the British National Party, which slipped through a couple of MEPs in the North West and Yorkshire and Humber constituencies without significantly increasing its total vote, thanks to Labour’s collapse and the functioning of the D’Hondt electoral system. The Lib Dems more or less held their ground and the Green vote grew, but not enough to provide additional seats. Welsh politics became more ‘English’, as the Tories took first place. Scottish politics, on the other hand, became more dominated by the national question, with the SNP taking first place. Six Counties politics remains separate and dominated by the national question, despite the renewed link-up of the Official Unionists with the Tories under the name ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force’.
The English county councils mainly represent the countryside and small towns. Here Labour’s loss of votes was predictable at this stage of the electoral cycle – the fag-end of a largely discredited government – though the Labour share of the vote was exceptionally poor at a projected 23%. The collapse to 16% in the Euro elections has been flagged as Labour’s worst result in a UK-wide election since 1918.
On the one hand, the Euro elections are not seen by broad masses of voters as particularly serious politics. The budget for the EU’s 28 member-states and 499 million population is 17.8% of the UK budget for 61 million people. Put another way, the EU spends £239 per head of population, compared to the UK government’s £11,000. Moreover, the EU parliament has very limited powers. An enormous amount of policy is incorporated in the treaties so that only the Court of Justice or a new (unanimously agreed) treaty can change it. Much else is dependent on the bureaucratic commission and the council of ministers answerable to the member-states. And the proportional representation system does not force the same hard choices that first-past-the-post produces in a general election. The Labour share of the vote in the county council elections is thus probably a better guide to voting intentions in a general election. It may even understate considerably the likely Labour result.
On the other hand, The Independent commented that the Euro elections provided evidence of an ‘anyone but Labour’ mood among voters which had begun to be seen in earlier local elections.1
In particular, in the Euro elections the Tories came first in Wales – also for the first time since 1918, and that was a National Government in a khaki election. And the SNP came first in Scotland, with Labour’s share of the vote falling to just under 21%. These results have real implications for Labour, which has been historically dominant in south Wales and lowlands Scotland. If voters desert the party in these areas at the next general election, it may well lose the status of official opposition and stop looking like an alternative government.
A bit less than a year ago, analysing Labour’s loss of Glasgow East to the SNP, I argued that a Labour defeat on the scale of 1931 was probable. But I went on to say that the continuing need of the British capitalist state for a structured relationship with the trade union bureaucracy meant that a worse defeat leading to Labour losing the status of official opposition was unlikely.2
Last week, however, I argued that at least a section of the capitalist media was now seeking, through the expenses scandal, the abolition of the Labour Party as even an idea, in favour of non-political politics. In the context of a massive swing to the right and in the absence of a political alternative to Labourism on the left, I called for a Labour vote in order “to defend the idea of a workers’ party, which is right now under attack from ‘non-partyist’ populism”.3
At our CPGB aggregate meeting last Saturday several comrades were critical of this argument as – in effect – catastrophist: they argued that New Labour had shown its reliability for the capitalist class and state, and as such was not likely to be turned into a third party even if it was heading for defeat. This was not quite the same as my argument in July 2008. Comrades were arguing variants on the standard far-left line that New Labour represents a deeper change towards the party becoming simply a capitalist party than either the usual Labour shift to the right in government or the worldwide drift of social democracy and the former ‘official’ communists (like the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to free-marketeering and open service to capital).
In my view the structural character of the Labour Party as the representative of the relation between the trade union bureaucracy and the state has not changed. In spite of the Blairites’ fundraising from capitalists and vote-seeking in the suburbs, the party is financially dependent on the trade unions, and relies on its ability to actually win parliamentary elections and form a government or official opposition through a core working class, mass vote and on organised activists in the working class districts. The trade union leaders could have forced the Blairites out at any time. They chose not to: hence, their episodic grumbling about Blairism was merely for show, to protect their left flank from the complaints of the union activists at the base.
What has changed between last July and now is, of course, the MPs’ expenses scandal, which has hit an already tottering Labour government much harder than it has hit the Tories, who nobody really expects to be financially clean. The subservience of Blair-Brown to Thatcherism and the bankers has meant that large numbers of ordinary working class people feel that New Labour has not delivered for them.
The expenses scandal offers an explanation of this failure which is apolitical and anti-political – the idea that politicians, including Labour politicians, are all just out for themselves. This has the result that there is now a real risk that the idea of an independent workers’ political party will be marginalised in British politics by a wave of rightwing populism.
At a deeper level, however, there is not a change. The Labour Party expresses by its name and its relation to the trade unions the idea of an independent party of the working class. But precisely because of its domination by the trade union and labour bureaucracy, it is not an independent party of the working class, but one tied to the capitalist class, through the capitalist state, by constitutional loyalism and nationalism. This loyalism and nationalism expresses the interests of the labour bureaucracy as such.
The working class needs a political party which is fully independent of the capitalist class. That means a party which expresses its interests as an international class faced with international capital (and hence a party for migrants as well as for those born here). It means a party which expresses the interest of the working class in actually taking over the task of ruling society from capital – hence one fully independent of the capitalist state, which proposes root and branch change for workers’ political power. And it means a party in which the bureaucracy is subordinated to the rank and file by republican democracy.
The organisations and independents to the left of Labour have ideas in their heads (and part of the time in the far-left press), some of which point in this direction. But when they come to stand for election, what they offer is Labourism – bureaucratic control, constitutional loyalism (at best silence on constitutional issues) and nationalism. That politics is, at the end of the day, in spite of any subjective intentions, no better than that of the existing Labour Party.
It can even be worse than Labour, as in the case of No2EU. This was characterised by bureaucratic dominance even more complete than in New Labour, without even any forms of democracy. And it promoted clear constitutional loyalism and nationalism without the shadow of independent working class politics expressed in the Labour Party’s name. Hence, even leaving aside the rise of rightist populism and risk of a Labour wipe-out, the idea of an independent working class political party was in these elections better expressed by a Labour vote than by a No2EU vote.
That character was expressed in the result. No2EU was outpolled by Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party – also the mere shadow of a party – both nationwide and in the urban working class areas. It was only in rural areas – ie, with a weak working class and weaker class consciousness – that it managed, marginally, to outpoll the SLP.
The press, and the left appeals for unity, have placed a great deal of emphasis on the BNP’s success in obtaining two MEPs. This is undoubtedly a bad thing, given the increased funding that will result from access to MEPs’ salaries and allowances. The BNP MEPs will join a growing far-right bloc in the European parliament. Even so, it is less likely to result in significant increases in favourable media exposure for the BNP. After all, other MEPs and European parliamentary blocs have not had much success along these lines.
The far-left response characteristically overstates the threat posed by the BNP and the level of its success. Yes, the BNP saw an increase in its overall share of the vote – from 4.9% to 6.2%. Neither figure suggests a party which is even remotely close to power. Nor is the BNP making major strides in winning mass support due to the economic crisis.
The workers’ movement and ethnic minority and migrant groups are not presently threatened either with a neo-Nazi seizure of power or with serious BNP-organised street gangs like 1920s Italy or Germany, or with terrorism of the sort operated by the Italian far right or the Turkish Grey Wolves in the 1970s. The workers’ movement and ethnic minority and migrant groups are, however, threatened by a rise in state repressive action, as the general tide of politics moves towards right-populist nationalism.
Under these conditions, however regrettable it is that Griffin and Brons are MEPs, fetishising the very small successes of the BNP serves precisely to evade the political fight that is necessary against the illusions of nationalism and right-populism.
The SLP and No2EU each obtained around 1% nationally. The SSP obtained around 1% in Scotland. These are and have generally been recognised to be lousy results. They are not mitigated, as Respect’s 1.5% in 2004 was, by concentrated votes in some areas.
The response of the left has been widespread calls for unity. Yet No2EU pro-partyists (mainly the Socialist Party) imply that unity should be built around its project (though No2EU began by excluding the SWP, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and CPGB).4 Salma Yaqoob’s call on the Respect site criticises No2EU for standing in the North West and Yorkshire and Humber constituencies and thereby (allegedly) letting the BNP in.5 The AWL’s call for a new Socialist Alliance was addressed to other participants in the old SA, but not to the CPGB.
The SWP’s call is at least more open – inviting “all those committed to presenting candidates representing working class interests at the next election” (this would presumably include at least part of the Labour Party …).6 But it is studiously silent about a recent past which cannot be avoided: the SWP acted in bad faith in defence of the particular interests of its own bureaucratic apparatus in both the Socialist Alliance and Respect, and in the result smashed up both formations. SWP comrades can hardly seriously expect the rest of the left to ignore this history.
Any real initiative towards unity is welcome. It is perfectly clear that left unity projects elsewhere in Europe have been more successful than the disunited left in Britain. But it is essential to learn the political lessons of the catastrophic ‘unity’ electoral projects of the last decade.
First: bureaucratic stitch-ups between groups, and full-timers of particular groups hanging onto control through dubious means, are counterproductive. A high level of openness and debate both nationally and locally is essential if we are actually to achieve unity. Big names can deliver large meetings, like Galloway, or money, like Crow. But a real electoral challenge to Labour demands activists and branches, and that means democratic control.
Second. For the last 10 years or more the majority of the far left has been attempting to present itself as old Labour in its electoral policies. For some comrades this may be an accurate reflection of their own politics, but not for the majority. The argument has been that presenting ourselves as old Labour has the potential to attract mass support. But the evidence of this 10 years is that the project miserably fails.
The electorate see through it: they give the left candidates the same sort of level of vote they would get if they stood openly as socialists or communists. It is a waste of time, effort and money. In the case of No2EU, which has followed the logic to its limits by appearing as ‘left Ukip’ rather than old Labour, it has been worse: leftists promoting rightwing politics.
Time for change, comrades. A real left unity project could go somewhere. More bureaucratic and fake-Labourite fakery will go nowhere, even if some sort of agreement were to be temporarily stitched up.