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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

THE OLD ORDER FRACTURES...

For me, the campaign for Scottish independence was the most significant, and certainly the most entertaining, political event of 2014. As Montaigne said, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories” and this was perhaps one. The spectacle of the whole British ruling class hysterically panicking as it realised it had completely miscalculated the situation was wonderful to behold. Suddenly, it seemed, trainloads of Labour bigwigs were heading north, sweeteners at the ready! Even the royals were starting to get narky.

Although the campaign was ostensibly about independence, it had quickly morphed into a revolt against free-market capitalism and against privatisation, racism, austerity and war. Although the ‘impossible’ did not happen, and the union did not fracture, the referendum gave birth and momentum to a popular movement which was not narrowly nationalistic but, on its left flank, represented a youthful, working class revolt against ‘politics as usual’ and towards a more socialistic model.

However, the main beneficiaries of the independence campaign have been the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the main losers the Scottish Labour party. SNP membership has grown to nearly 100,000, while Labour has shrunk to 13,000. Its reward for getting the Tories and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)  off the hook over independence has been a collapse in support for Labour across Scotland. The growth of the SNP has created problems for the far left too, to which I shall return.

But, to be honest, Labour has been creating the conditions for its own undoing for years, maybe decades. The arrogant assumption that core Labour voters, not just in Scotland, but in England and Wales, have nowhere else to go and can therefore be used during elections but abused as far as protecting their interests is concerned, could not inform Labour policy indefinitely without consequences.

The decay of the mainstream parties nationally has been a long-term process. In 1951 Labour and the Tories won more than 96% of the vote between them, now they struggle to get 70% at very best. The impact of the 2008 economic crisis has accelerated this decline, and it has been traditional social democratic parties that are most vulnerable, notwithstanding the ability of right populist parties like UKIP to also bite into the Tory vote. The pernicious effects of ‘triangulation’, the decline in influence of unions and other working-class voices, pressure from the IMF, and Labour’s embrace of the market, have rendered it largely indistinguishable from other parties that are ostensibly the ‘organising committees of the ruling class’. For years Britain has grown an increasingly homogenous politics – in Tariq Ali’s phrase, ‘the extreme centre’, or, to use George Galloway’s more ribald term, ‘three cheeks of the same arse’. We have got used to having reformism without reforms for many years, but now so-called ‘reformist’ parties have completely inverted the meaning of the word. It no longer means improving the lot of workers, but making their lives and living conditions harder and more distressing.

It was clear that this situation could not continue indefinitely. Despite the grip of Labour on many unions and the completely unwarranted loyalty of many voters to the party, not to mention the obstacle for small parties of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, it was clear that the embracing of neoliberalism by left reformism was eventually going to force workers to seek to protect themselves by other means and through other institutions, and this is what is happening in Scotland. Labour trails the SNP by 20 points according to a series of polls for the 2015 election, and 20 Labour seats are at risk, with even Labour strongholds like Glasgow vulnerable. It is a downwards trajectory which will be accelerated by the election of the Trident and Iraq-war supporting Blairite Jim Murphy as leader of the Scottish Labour party.

The result of the 2015 election is hugely unpredictable – the most unpredictable in living memory. The decline in support for the traditional three parties is accompanied by the entrance of what Toby Helm of the Observer rather melodramatically calls ‘insurgent forces’. On the right is UKIP, in Scotland the SNP, and nationally also the Greens, up to 6% in many polls and in at least one ahead of the Lib Dems. Even with ‘first-past-the-post’ some of the smaller parties could well end up in coalition as power-brokers. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the mainstream parties will never again rule as they once did. But where in all this is the socialist left?

In the absence of a left alternative to Labour, it is UKIP which I heard on the radio absurdly claiming to be the inheritors of the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes. I nearly choked on my muesli. The 2015 general election presents the left with a dual challenge –first to mobilise against UKIP’s poisonous policies and secondly to begin the process of building an united left. That is why Sheridan is wrong to say there should be no electoral challenge to the SNP in 2015. The Greens and the nationalists are not anti-capitalist parties: although we can unite with them against Tory policies, against austerity and inequality, the nationalists believe in building up capitalism, not taking power away from the capitalists altogether. The closer they get to power the more they suck up to big business to show they are market friendly. Already we have seen Alex Salmond’s willingness to do business with right-wing business tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch, Brian Souter and Donald Trump. We saw how Brighton’s Green councillors cut bin workers’ wages and played along with spending limits imposed by Whitehall, despite being elected on an anti-austerity ticket.

We cannot postpone any longer creating a united left pole of attraction, which is why the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) project is an important one. Even in Wales, where we are unlikely to get any significant votes, being squeezed by the Communist party, the Socialist Labour party and Plaid Cymru, it is the process of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party working together with others in an united fashion which is important. We need in the medium term to combine with wider forces, linking up where possible with Left Unity, ideally with a major trade union or two breaking from Labour and putting its resources into building a political alternative. Right now this sounds like pie in the sky, but if Labour does badly in 2015 who knows what could happen? These are unpredictable times, and politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

This erosion of support for the traditional parties is an European-wide  phenomenon. Not just Britain, but Ireland, Greece and Spain all have general elections due not later than the next 18 months, In Greece the coalition government has already fallen, triggering an election which could well see the radical left party Syriza - now 5 to 10 percent ahead of the ruling conservative New Democracy party - come to power. Some polls in the Irish Republic put Sinn Fein narrowly ahead of both the ruling Fine Gael party and the once dominant party of Irish capitalism, Fianna Fail. And in Spain two recent polls put the newly-formed left-wing Podemos on 27.7 and 28.3 percent, beating both the main opposition PSOE Socialist Party and the ruling conservative Popular Party.


The fracturing of the old order is leading to political polarisation and fragmentation across Europe. If the left cannot seize the opportunities open to it, then other forces will be ready to benefit. The stakes are high as we enter the new year,

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

CHERRY ON A TURD

I won’t put a cherry on a turd - it’s been an appalling year in many ways. On the international front we’ve seen the bombing of Gaza, war in the Ukraine, the degeneration of what had started as a popular uprising in Syria into a sectarian proxy war, the emergence of ISIS and  counterrevolution in Egypt. While in Britain the Con-Dem coalition has continued to unleash more outrageousness on public sector workers, the disabled, those on benefits. And resistance here has been disjointed, disconnected, incoherent.

There have been bright spots, which I’ll return to later, but on the industrial front, despite the rhetoric, union leaderships have by and large been useless, with no real coordination or generalisation of struggle. ‘So what else is new?’ I hear you cry. Individual groups of workers can put up determined resistance, like the Unite members at the Defence Support Group, Unison care workers, bus workers and firefighters, but there is no attempt by the leadership to pull these fights together into a serious struggle.

Rank and file workers so far have lacked the confidence to act independently, although there have been some unofficial walkouts, and the recall conference forced out of local government Unison in protest at the pay sellout is welcome. The refusal by union leaders to link up the strikes is to avoid embarrassing Labour as we enter an election period (mind you, one has to ask what their excuse was in preceding years), or, in the case of local government Unison, to avoid putting local Labour councils on the spot. The danger for us of endless token one-day strikes and protests that the bosses can easily ride out is the risk of demoralisation and disillusionment among union members, or in the case of Unison, members arguing to leave the union altogether. This can result in a passivity that can easily be manipulated by the leadership and that fits the electoral politics of Labour like a glove.  

But people are resisting and will resist, one way or another. The attacks are coming so thick and fast that resistance is forced on us. Obviously industrial action is our most powerful weapon, but campaigns based in the community also have potential. Over in Ireland the attempt to introduce water charges has been met by a huge protest movement, with marches in Dublin of 100,000 (the equivalent of 1.5 million marching in London) in October and 200,000 in total in various towns in November, and a campaign of non-payment planned. And in London campaigns like that around the New Era Estate, which forced US investor Westbrook Partners to withdraw from evicting families, instead selling its development to an affordable housing organisation, show that we CAN win, even when going up against multinational corporations, especially over such an issue as housing, and the ‘class cleansing’ of parts of London.

But the most momentous event in Britain of 2014 was the Scottish independence referendum, or, as it became known on Twitter, #indyref. I will go into that in my next post, but before that I want to come out in defence of Russell Brand. I had a discussion with a comrade who was eager to rubbish him as a trendy millionaire trying to extract some radical chic out of politics. This sort of criticism is easy, because his politics don’t necessarily fit together neatly or consistently. Although he talks of revolution, on The Trews he says it’s a ‘peaceful revolution’ he has in mind, for example. But his role in the New Era battle was brilliant. The sort of attacks on him launched by a whole range of people from Polly Toynbee in the Guardian to Nick Cohen in The Observer to a hatchet job by the Sun accusing him of hypocrisy show that he is saying things they perceive as dangerous, and as outside the bounds of acceptable neoliberal discourse.

Millions of young people listen to him. To dismiss him as just a trendy lefty is just silly. We should welcome his interventions, engage with what he says, and, until he says something like, “all Trotskyists are the spawn of Satan” we should regard him as a powerful source for good on the left, and welcome the fact that he is making an alternative politics visible  to infinitely larger numbers than we could.

On the Saturday after the Question Time in which Brand called Farage a ‘Poundland Enoch Powell’, although comrades were away at conference and our numbers on the paper sale depleted, we sold 13 papers on ‘No to Racism, No to UKIP’, and had some good conversations with people who were beginning to see through Farage’s fa├žade. After the sale, a couple of us had a serious discussion about whether at least some of this was a reflection of the ‘Brand effect’.








Monday, 8 December 2014

Problems of Everyday Life

My last blog post was, I think, back in April. Much blood, both literal and metaphorical, has flowed under the bridge since then. Although I usually blog on politics, history, etc, with a little dash of poetry, at the moment it’s necessary to get some personal stuff off my chest before I can continue with my usual themes. The observation that misfortunes don’t come singly has been quite correct in my case. After my wife and I split up earlier this year I suffered some health problems which involved an operation and a spell in hospital. The health problems are ongoing although I am much better now than I was 6 months ago. However, I’ve had to accept that I need to make lifestyle changes if I don’t want these illnesses to worsen. The health problems, while they may have been triggered by the relationship crisis, were in all likelihood the result of years of bodily neglect which I won’t go into here but which have been long term. Making these changes may help things and they may not – but if I continued as if nothing had happened I would be asking for trouble.

I took some comfort from Trotsky’s words in ‘Problems of Everyday Life’.
“The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.” I am fully aware, of course, that my misfortunes are absolutely piffling when compared with the misfortunes of increasing numbers of men, women and children as the crises of capitalism globally and the imposition of brutal austerity measures in Britain make life immeasurably worse for millions of people. When I see the bombed hospitals of Gaza I am humbled by the extraordinary ability of ordinary people not only to survive but to fight back in the teeth of the most vicious and ruthless attacks by vile and brutal enemies.

As usual, Trotsky again gets it absolutely right: “Life is not an easy matter…you cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness”. For most of my adult life, that ‘great idea’ has been revolutionary socialism. I am glad to get back into blogging, and I hope that before the year’s end I can write something of the politics of the year gone by and the prospects for what looks set to be a very interesting 2015!