Since the electoral success of the left social-democratic Syriza coalition in Greece, and the immediate challenge to austerity and the rule of finance capital in Europe that it represents, many people are understandably keen to consider how this could be repeated in the UK. While it is clear to everyone that Syriza is not presently a revolutionary outfit and not seeking to become one in the short term, it is equally clear that for a sustained left challenge to the politics of the last few decades to emerge from this countermovement requires a deepening of political organization of the left across Europe. The northern European left has an important role to play here because of the very real possibility of isolating a left confined to Greece alone, or even just Greece, Portugal, and Spain. If we are to break the back of the intellectual coalition between the neoliberal social imagination and the economic policies of austerity and debt enforcement, it is of the greatest importance that the left in the creditor countries makes a priority of making the enforcement of such regimes by their own governments impossible – not just domestically, but internationally. In the current European context, internationalism is not just a desirable principle but an absolute precondition for success.
Given this problem, it is worth looking at some of the analysis of Syriza’s success and the possibilities of replication elsewhere that has been making the rounds. One starting point is the discussion by comrade Pierce Penniless of what it would mean to renew the left in Britain, taking inspiration from Syriza. This discussion is based on a series of discussion points raised by a certain ‘Alexander Trocchi’, attached to the post. The main points for Trocchi of why Syriza succeeded was the combination of its ability to become the electoral weapon of the social movements, and its integration of both ‘horizontalist’ and ‘bolshevik’ elements on the basis of uniting behind a (fairly moderate) programme for the short term. However, Trocchi also points to a few other points of significance: the funding of political parties in Greece, allowing membership to more effectively lead to large-scale mobilization, the collapse of the extant social-democratic party, and its charismatic leadership in the person of Alexis Tsipras (and perhaps we should now add Yanis Varoufakis too).
However, as Pierce also points out, quite a few of its claims as to what it would take to replicate such dynamics in Britain are contestable, to say the least. I agree certainly that some of the strengths of Syriza derive from its ability to become the electoral front for a variety of social (and political!) movements, and this is something for which potential on the British left scene exists and is not currently realised. Other points are also surely right but not easy to replicate – one cannot for example engineer the collapse of the Labour Party just like so; on the other hand all European social democracy has for a long time been suffering a slower version of the death that is now described as ‘Pasokification’.
More dubious are the claims ‘Trocchi’ makes about ‘identity politics’ as a major inhibiting factor for the British left, or for that matter the presence of ‘Islamic leftism’; I do not know enough about Greece to say for sure, but I rather doubt that identity issues are irrelevant there, and I do not in any case know of any evidence that either of these political phenomena have been a problem to forming a more fundamental left political organization. Rather the opposite: so-called identity politics often acts as a mobilizing factor, stemming from the confrontations people face on an everyday basis with the structures of social and economic life, and are in that sense as good as any union in the classical Marxist analysis: namely in generating the awareness of conflict between the fulfilment of human needs and the organisation of society. Equally, I don’t think that George Galloway’s opportunistic coalitions are particularly significant for the left as a whole. His modest successes have had little to do with some kind of fundamental religious defect in the British left, but rather with his campaigning on a consistent antiwar platform, combined with his Labour Party skills at mobilising local ‘community leaders’ and ward bosses to his advantage. Generally, one of the problems of the author’s analysis is the use of rather straw figures for contrasting the Greek situation to ours – ‘horizontalism’, ‘Bolsheviks’, ‘Islamic left’ etc. are not really defined, nor is it evident that their counterparts do not exist in Greece as well.
In a sense this expresses one of the actual problems of the British left, namely its rather stubborn refusal to first analyse the political and economic situation empirically before deducing what mechanisms and ideologies have most salience within it: something more than a little ironic given the long British tradition of excessive empiricism. Having said that, I want to add a few critical notes both to ‘Trocchi”s claims and to Pierce’s discussion in somewhat the same style as the original, since the question itself is really worth asking, and I think it is right to discuss the various answers that have been given to it in a straightforward way. So here are some provocations intended to sharpen this discussion a bit, written on purpose in a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion that hopefully stimulates discussion more than it suggests definitive answers.
1) There is I believe no prospect whatever of the Labour Party splitting into a left and right wing any time soon, nor are British unions at all interested in generating such a situation. People have been talking for years about how ‘when the Blairites take over’ the party would split and the opportunity for alliance with the Labour Left would come. But this is illusory. The party is already firmly in the hands of the right and in fact almost always has been in the history of its existence, and more often than not the unions have firmly preferred it that way. British unions are too weak to challenge even the rule of its ‘business wing’ even within their own party, let alone at a national level; and they are timid beyond even what is justified by their weakness. The lesson they have learned more than any other from the confrontation with Thatcher is that when an open war breaks out between their side and that of capital backed by the state, they will lose. If this was true in the 1980s, it will be true a fortiori now, and they know it. Simultaneously, they are too conservative and nostalgic in their social base and political outlook respectively to attempt any kind of regeneration based on new kinds of unionism, direct action, and so forth. The only split that can occur in the Labour Party is the split of the right from the left, not vice versa, as exemplified by the SDP and by the expulsion of the RMT. And unless the right massively overplays its hand in this, the result is simply the isolation of the left. The Blairites have proven to be competent enough not to overdo this, as shown by their willingness to indulge Ken Livingstone even after his direct challenge to Labour’s official policies and candidates in London. This being the case, there is no immediate collapse of Labour on the horizon, and talk of ‘general strikes’ is especially illusory. If Labour fails to win the upcoming election, this will probably strengthen the right over the centre (David Miliband over Ed Miliband), but these kind of factional shifts in a fundamentally centrist party are not where we should seek our own opportunities.
2) It does no good to accuse Syriza or its supporters of ‘electoralism’. Generally, the accusations of electoralism and the subsequent back and forth about parliamentary power give more heat than light. Of course the power to control the capitalist state ultimately resides in the combination of the property relations that are the legal foundation of capital and the social relations of production that are its material foundation, plus the use of violence to enforce and reproduce these relations. Parliamentary power can affect the property relations to some extent, but the amount of leeway that exists there is very variable and ultimately depends on extra-parliamentary struggle and confrontation. But this is obvious: everyone knows this. When Lenin suggested that Communists take part in “even the most reactionary Duma”, this was not a sign of his belief that the limited franchise talking shop created by the Czar’s advisors was the instrument of revolution. Equally, neither Syriza nor its (radical) supporters think this is the case: indeed Syriza functionaries have several times said the contrary. The only relevant question about electoral participation, in Britain or Greece or wherever, is whether the ability of socialists to advance social revolution, which itself depends on the class struggle in general, is increased or decreased by it, all things considered. That being said, I think there are relatively few situations in which parliamentary participation is worse than abstentionism, and I certainly do not think that this is true in Greece. Even for morale reasons alone the victory of Syriza is significant in stemming the tide of austerity, and I do not see any a priori reason to believe that it would weaken the larger social struggle in Greece.
3) In any case one observes that generally the social struggle reaches a peak very soon after the imposition of the worst reactionary measures, and then dies down within a few years at the visible level – but retains or even increases its radical potential even when seemingly slumbering in the lap of civil society. This pattern is visible in the UK and in Greece as well, where great solidarity and cooperation at the everyday level, as well as some cases of heroic strikes and occupations, have gone together with a very weak level of larger organised movement of opposition in the recent period. The Greek unions have, as far as I can tell, as little capacity to affect things in Greece as they do in the UK.
4) One factor that is relevant in electoralism that is not mentioned in the analysis often is the impact of the voting system. There’s no reason at all to think that the Green ‘surge’, if it were to materialize, would affect anything as long as the net outcome is at best a gain of 1 MP. The room for any party to be an electoral weapon of left parties and movements is much narrowed in countries that have highly restrictive voting systems like the UK does, and for this reason this is a matter of significance beyond policy wonks and LibDem naifs. It is worth pointing out that Syriza obtained its result under conditions of a more proportional representation, and that in fact its actual seat tally is an overrepresentation of Syriza MPs compared to its share of the vote – a ‘bonus principle’ introduced by previous governments of the Greek establishment precisely to keep a radical challenge out and to diminish the necessity of working with such a party! This has now backfired because of PASOK’s complete collapse.
Nevertheless it underlines that the restrictions on the possibility of electoral action in the UK greatly limit relatively the potential for a Syriza-type formation to translate a broad membership base into an equally significant electoral and institutional front. This goes also for the funding of parties based on members, something which is favorable to radical parties with a greater activist base – a fact used to its advantage by Syriza, but also for example by the Socialist Party in the Netherlands. Since the UK allows neither of these possibilities to be used, the electoral strategy must be correspondingly different: trying to maximize the number of candidates standing, for example, or using electoral participation as a means of gaining short-term political traction is probably hopeless.
5) It is worth pointing out that Greece has not suffered the worst austerity regime ever – this dubious honor surely goes to Russia in the 1990s. It is to Syriza’s credit, and indeed more so to the credit of the Greek people, that the political results of this have been considerably better there. That said, one aspect of Syriza’s reformist tactics that is underappreciated is the fear of fascism: Yanis Varoufakis has said multiple times that his desire to save the European Union and even the Eurozone within it is motivated not by love for these institutions, but because for him saving the EU as such against the New Right in Europe is an essential precondition for the survival of the left. Whether this is true and whether their tactics are helpful or counterproductive in this regard is debatable, and a discussion that should be had intensively in the coming months. But it should be understood as part and parcel of the peculiar combination of radical intellectuals and reform-oriented short term policies of Syriza, and if it has merit, it should be kept in mind elsewhere also.
An important dimension here is the dimension of time: Syriza’s reformist tactics are aimed at the very short term, whereas the question of ‘Grexit’ and its potential consequences, or the possibility of an alliance with left parties elsewhere (if they should win), arises in the short to medium term. Equally, the KKE’s critique of Syriza, namely that over time their reformism can only disappoint the hopes and radical potential of the situation, must be kept in mind: what is good in the short run can become actually an aid to the radical right (as the ‘real alternative’) in the longer run.
6) Coming to the point of mass organisation: the first observation is that Syriza is, in fact, a ‘lash-up’ of a number of divergent Communist parties (sects) from Maoists to Eurocommunists, plus elements of the left of social-democracy. This coalition came together a considerable time ago to form an electoral front of the left outside the more classically Marxist-Leninist KKE, in particular to make the connection between party organisation and the electoral and organisational possibilities this offers and on the other hand the significance of the ‘social movements’. The original formation of 1989 actually consisted of an ad hoc coalition between the KKE and the various Communist factions that had left the KKE or were outside it. The KKE left the coalition after the fall of the USSR when it made a turn towards ‘fundamentals’, following party congresses in 1991 and 1996 which focused on rebuilding the party (very damaged by the collapse of the USSR) according to traditional Third International lines, quite contrary to the general rightward trend of other ‘official’ Communists. This meant the loss of the largest and most organised faction of this coalition, but the alliance of the other groups endured.
What is significant here is to point out that throughout the 1990s this coalition remained in existence while achieving virtually nothing at the level of electoral results, membership growth, or other kinds of impact based on size. After the departure of the KKE, the coalition (Synaspismos) never achieved over 5% of the vote, usually hovering around 3% or so in national elections. In 2004, this extant ad hoc coalition then merged with more independent left-wing groups, including the DEA – formerly the UK SWP’s sister party in Greece. The charisma of its new young leader, Alexis Tsipras, certainly helped, but even so the new Syriza coalition did not get beyond the usual numbers for far left groups in continental parliaments. It is only with the current crisis and the great economic, social, and political changes it entailed that Syriza suddenly rocketed upwards into its current position.
The reason I discuss this is because this is exactly the type of narrative that many on the British left do not consider possible: that various sects can coalesce in an ad hoc way, achieve very little in the short run, and yet by the sheer fact of sticking together and forming the alternative over the long run can come to play a historic role in national politics (even if just as a political instrument). The sheer fact of party organisation does undeniably play a role here, despite the understandable skepticism of the ‘horizontalists’. While formations like Left Unity and similar groups are easy to sneer at (and there is perhaps reason to do so), it is worth observing the fact that Synaspismos and even Syriza started out in no way organisationally or politically differently to these. What seems to have made the difference is to a small extent the willingness to keep a more or less broad and nonsectarian party form going that could be identified as a ‘pole of attraction’ and the basis for communication and organisation with social movements, and to a greater extent simply the seismic shift in economic and social conditions.
Here I am afraid that the primacy of historical materialism must be recognised: the success of Syriza, such as it is, is much more the product of historical and economic factors outside the control of any of the parties or activists than it is the result of any merits or demerits of Syriza itself. Even the collapse of PASOK is the symptom of a major shift in the allegiance of the Greek working class that resulted from the falling away of old patronage networks under the pressure of austerity: a sequence of causal relations not in any way brought about by Syriza, but instrumental for its current significance. Something similar applies to the experience of the KKE, whose economically superior and more radical programme has nonetheless totally failed to bring about any reinforcement of its political or social ability to intervene: even of the unemployed vote in Greece no more than 5.4% went to the KKE.
Therefore if we want to take Syriza as a model – and there should certainly be debate about whether one should – then it may actually make more sense to have a Left Unity type organisation than it may seem, despite the evident inability of such a party to affect events in the short term. (It is generally, I suspect, the case that the British left has a rather short-termist perspective and is liable to swing wildly from one panacea to another; something perhaps the result of the lack of a large ‘official’ Communist party historically, so that the strategies and possibilities for the radical left have never been properly ‘tested’ on a mass basis.) One must then allow that such a party can only justify its existence by operating in the long run, rather than expecting any results in the here and now, so that the emphasis should be rather on playing Syriza’s role as ‘weapon of the social movements’. That this is likely to produce a rather left-reformist outlook must then be accepted as the necessary consequence of present European conditions, as Syriza has (but the KKE has not). Equally, these conditions themselves must be understood as constraining the possibilities in addition to the political-institutional limitations peculiar to the UK that I described above. By this I mean that the only meaningful ‘base’ for such a party is not the working class as such, but rather at the electoral level all those whom one can draw away from Labourism into a more principled oppositional social-democracy, and at the organisational level only those sections of the population for whom something more radical than Labour is a real economic interest (plus, perhaps, leftwing intellectuals like Syriza has in great numbers). The worst delusion of the British left in this regard is always to expect that a rich imperialist nation like the UK will somehow produce within 10 years a class conscious working class that is interested in a revolutionary programme. If the KKE’s programme cannot do this in Greece, a considerably poorer country with a long legacy of leftwing resistance to imperialism and dictatorship, then it is certainly for a long time outside the reach of the British radical left.
7) The real question is then the choice between the KKE’s approach and that of Syriza. For the KKE, the strategy is to build on the basis of its own unions and sections of the organised working class, and to maintain an explicitly revolutionary programme; but one combined with an appeal to an ‘Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Monopolies Democratic Front’. Effectively, this combines 1) party unionism, 2) a principled programme and 3) an old fashioned Marxist appeal to working class unity. Its effectiveness in Greece is very limited, and in the UK I suspect would be zero. Galloway’s experiences show that the significance of anti-imperialism and a strong antiwar programme should not be underestimated, but it is insufficient on its own. Chatter about ‘monopolies’ is jargon that belongs in the 1950s, and I doubt anyone will be much enthused by such calls for working class unity without an actual basis for such unity to exist – something less and less the case in the increasingly segmented labor markets of the West. Moreover, in the UK no real party unionism can exist as long as Labour maintains its current structure: this is shown by the total inability of the Socialist Party of England and Wales to translate the RMT union’s membership into votes for its electoral front (TUSC). The same thing applies, for that matter, to Scargill’s futile attempt at building a party based on the NUM left. Whether it may perhaps be possible to undertake such an approach in the longer run, especially given the cowardice and weakness of the existing UK unions, is worth discussing; but the anti-union legislation in the UK does not make the prospect encouraging.
Syriza’s strategy, on the other hand, is as described above: a coalition of left forces with a relatively weak immediate social base, but united on the basis of an explicitly reformist rather than revolutionary programme. The rise of Syriza really has come – as senior members themselves acknowledge – because of its principled rejection of austerity and its image as standing outside the existing power structures, which in the current Western political climate is extremely helpful. Precisely because its function as an electoral and organisational vehicle could accommodate a great deal of different groups and movements, combined with its reformist outlook corresponding to the reality of most Greeks since the crisis, it had the necessary flexibility and organisational knowledge to seize its moment. That the leadership and constituent parts consist mostly of much more radical members than its party programme is in this sense a help, because it gives (hopefully) the necessary theoretical and strategic overview over the complex relations of political economy that such a party needs in order to avoid serious mistakes. However, this does come at a considerable cost: as the KKE never fails to point out, such a strategy also makes the party itself in the longer run rather more a hindrance than a help to achieving actual social revolution, if it does not go beyond its ‘principled social-democracy’, for all the reasons the traditional critique of reformism provides. This is therefore a strategy justified under particular historical circumstances and with a certain temporality, and this must not be forgotten.
8) The bottom line therefore for me is that Syriza shows that a viable coalition of left forces is indeed possible, despite the pessimism of the British left on this point, and that the party form can indeed function as a weapon of existing sects and movements of social struggle. However, the question of time and circumstance is the most important. Syriza’s ‘Marxist social-democracy’ is justified in the short term by the circumstances of Greece and the possibility it offers, but it is not to be mistaken for a long-run strategy, either politically or organisationally. Equally, the potential of such a coalition of left groups is not to be measured in the short term, and its greatest enemy is the expectation of short term successes under conditions totally unfavorable to revolutionary militancy. Such expectations have historically in the British left immediately led to demoralization, splintering, and wild shifts of ‘line’. Rather, one must combine a longer organisational view with a willingness to adjust strategy to shifting economic and social circumstances – in particular a realistic assessment of the conditions of British unionism, changes in working class composition and outlook, the significance of British imperialism, and so forth.
This sounds obvious, but so often in the radical left the ‘wish is the father of the thought’, as the expression goes: whereas the expectation in the short and medium term must be that the room for maneouvre and the social base of such a formation is limited. To do the most within those limitations is more valuable than illusions of being a ‘mass party in miniature’. Since in the UK no immediate economic or political need exists to form another left-reformist outfit next to the Labour Party – at least as long as the Labour left remains within that party – there is no need at all to copy Syriza’s programmatic approach. Rather, the so to speak ‘propagandistic’ emphasis on principled opposition to war and austerity can be the most relevant strategy in the short term as long as this crisis endures, not least by emphasizing the contrast with Labour’s own approach in this regard. One does not for that reason have to undertake Syriza’s extreme short term rescue and repair operations, so that there is no reason why a more principled, perhaps even more direct action oriented programme could not be combined with wider appeals of the kind that have brought the SNP and the Greens into the spotlight in recent years. Ultimately, the potential of any formation of this kind will depend on the vagaries of longer term economic and social factors which are totally outside the control of any small left party, and therefore neither puffed up expectations nor sectarian ‘mass party’ ambitions are helpful. Being honest; not expecting too much; and combining wide appeals against the neoliberal order with strategic concentration on those segments where potential exists is probably the best recipe against demoralization, and the best way to keep a coalition together in the long run. “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories“.
For a very different analysis, from the Greek group TPTG, see http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/international-news/on-syrizas-victory-statement-by-tptg.html:
“The … catalogue of the changes in the program of SYRIZA illustrates convincingly the gradual watering down of its positions to a more timid social-democratic direction, as well as their contradictions. The gradual adjustment of SYRIZA to realpolitik shows that, after pruning out most of its positions which are considered unacceptable from the standpoint of the dominant neoliberal capitalist strategy in the Eurozone, and by keeping and maybe enriching the most harmless ones such as those concerning the so-called social economy, it can transform itself into a ‘fresh’ and rather competent manager of the capitalist state.”
“The party mechanism of SYRIZA and other organizations of the left took part incognito in key organizational groups in [Syntagma Square] and thereby succeeded largely in dominating the content and the forms of struggle …. this mechanism did its best to limit the struggle to a purely symbolic level, undermining any practical suggestions that were made for the expansion of the struggle to the workplaces and the unemployment offices, while it promoted provocateurology [engaged in provocation] against those that clashed with the forces of order in mass demonstrations at that time.
“The members of SYRIZA and other leftists, who participated in the ‘popular assemblies’ promoted a shift of the focus of the mobilizations from proletarian antagonistic activities –e.g. the reconnection of electricity in working class houses or the blockade / sabotage of the ticket cancelling machines in the metro stations– to legal actions which often involved the apparatuses of the municipalities administered by left/social-democrat mayors.”
This is a very thorough and detailed analysis, thank you for your contribution it’s extremely interesting. Some things I’d like to add to the discussion if I may – I apologise in advance for the length.
Discussing the options of a ad-hoc coalition of leftist groups in the model of Syriza emerging as a challenger the Labour is a bit of a moot point. Looking through British political history I see very little evidence of a project of this type having any success. The social conditions that led to Syriza forming are simply not present here, and the party political system in Britain is so different that trying to follow the same tactics as Greece would be foolish. There is no history of this working here, and there’s a political system specifically designed to prevent smaller parties from emerging.
The only two left groups that ever managed to achieve some degree of constructive power in the UK were the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1945-56 and the Militant Tendency in the mid 1980’s. Both of these groups owed much of their success to the tactic of entryism within the Labour party. Outside of these examples left-wing parties have really fared very poorly when it comes to taking actual political power. They’ve been much better at taking power in unions, and the CPGB for all its faults had managed to work very constructively in both the T&G (precursor to Unite) and the Miners Union and could therefore “punch above its weight” (a phrase later recycled by the Respect-era SWP) whereas the Militant actually did carry out an attempt at municipal socialism in the midst of Thatcherism, which was backed up immense popular support both inside and outside the Labour party. Whilst both those examples had their moments, something that like is very unlikely today, the people in charge of the Labour party now are scarred by the events of the 1980’s and purging of Militant, the “blood on the carpet” years, and sadly the Communist Party has stopped churning out neo-Stalinist trade union bureaucrats.
As for non-entryist left of Labour movements, unfortunately the historical record is very thin, the only example that springs to mind is the “Common Wealth” party – a left of Labour movement that emerged in the second world war to campaign for the full implementation of the Beveridge plan and won a series of impressive by-election victories. Although it was based on a parochial and nationalistic tendency of British left, it is fair to say that many of the most important achievements of the ’45 Labour government were commitments Labour was forced into making to undermine Common Wealth as a potential rival and maintain their status as the left-wing of the establishment. It’s worth remembering that when you hear people eulogise the post ’45 Labour government that the only reason Labour made any sort of socialist reforms in this period was because of an immense build up of pressure from below that took place during the war years, that threatened Labour electorally via Common Wealth. In short, Labour needed to be dragged kicking and screaming into creating the NHS, were it not for direct political competition they’d have marginalised the left-wingers around Bevan and watered down their commitment to socialism even further.
Of course there was the Independent Labour Party, which was a more explicitly socialist Labour party that wanted to remain independent of the more Workerist trade unions, but I’m sorry as much as I like the ILP we’re at a very low ebb when it’s being dug out of its grave to provide inspiration for the future. The future is in the opposite direction to the where you find the ILP.
The hegemony of Labour over the British left is I suspect historically unique. I can’t think of another European country whose left is so concentrated in one monolithic party. What gets called by Labour members “the unique social and political character of Labour” is in truth a consequence of the British electoral system – this is the only form that a working-class party could take within the confines of the profoundly undemocratic British parliamentary system. So we should really begin by looking at Labour, and perhaps more importantly the unions, and seeing what potential exists to either force it to the left, or force it to split.
Expecting Labour to implode in the manner of other social democratic parties in Europe might be a mistake: It could happen if Miliband enforces austerity in the same manner as Hollande post-2015, but similarly the Labour vote has been surprisingly resilient considering the nature of their defeat in 2010. Despite an incredibly aggressive press campaign against Ed Miliband and constant Blairite attacks on his position, Labour has polled consistently above the Tories and prior to the debacle in Scotland last year was clearly on course for an overall majority. By comparison it took the Tory party nearly 10 years and 2 crushing general election defeats to get to where Labour is currently standing in the polls – astonishing for a leader with absolutely no charisma or charm whatsoever leading a widely discredited party coming off the back of a crippling political defeat. A more pessimistic view, that puts Labour in context with other European social democratic parties, was made by Ross McKibbin in the London Review of Books ( http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n22/ross-mckibbin/labour-vanishes ) but although I agree with the general point he makes, that 20th the party-political sytem is in terminal decline, I expect that decline to take place very gradually and not suddenly as with PASOK.
As for the balance of forces within the Labour party, the only union that genuinely matters is Unite, the last of the “big battalions” and almost certainly the only union large enough to form a pole around which other progressive forces could organise. Unlike Unison and GMB it’s a mainly private sector union, which has at the rank and file level a willingness to take action, and has leadership which is at least aware of the more fundamental problems facing the union movement (in comparison to other unions leadership who are either in denial or happy to preside over a managed decline into American-style irrelevance.) Unite actually has a political strategy, which essentially involves hoping to be able to select enough Unite-backed and loyal candidates so that they can hold the balance of power in a future Miliband government, and then pressure Miliband into repealing the anti TU laws (which at this point are by far the biggest impediment to effective trade unionism in Britain, something often overlooked by radical commentators eager to attack union bureaucrats and careerists)
However as a result of being able to semi-neutralise the Collins Review into Party-Union relations, and because they feel their financial clout gives them more leverage over the Labour leader than they’ve had in 20 years, the prospects of any unions breaking away like the RMT are slight. For something like that to happen Unite would need somewhere else to go politically, or else be stuck in the position that the RMT was stuck in when it ended up bankrolling TUSC indefinitely with only a string of derisory election results to show for it. The union leadership, although visibly angered by the events in Scotland during the referendum (Len McCluskey privately briefing journalists he was in favour of a Yes vote…) is so deeply wedded to the party that I simply can’t see it happening.
Now I’m going to digress briefly because I think we need to step back for a moment and look at context. We have essentially got a core-periphery style relationship emerging both within the EU as a whole and within European countries as well. This is fairly obvious and widely commented upon for some time (I recommend this lecture by Peter Bratsis, a Syriza member based in New York, for more on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dm-o4w1jjX8 )
Germany, France and so on have become the core area, where capital is concentrated, and Spain, Italy and so on are on the periphery. The vast flows of capital from the core to the periphery in the pre-crisis years followed by the austerity (and the vulgar and humiliating suspension of democratic norms in order to impose austerity) have left the notion of European unity in tatters to such an extent that might be more accurate to call the EU the German Empire and have done with it.
One of the most interesting features of this is that in the periphery it’s generally been populist leftist parties that have made the greater headway whereas in the core countries the populist far-right are the ones taking the lead. In Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece the radical left are ascendant. This is of course an oversimplification (for instance in Italy there are all sorts of internal core-periphery relationships between north and south, rural and urban etc) but as a working theory it’s a good place to start. Understanding this, and Britain’s role within this broader dynamic, is crucial if we want to be able to re-organise the British left around the ruptures and contradictions that the core-periphery tension will expose.
You can see a microcosm of this core-periphery dynamic developing within the United Kingdom as well: UKIP are doing well in traditional Tory areas (according to Ashcroft’s detailed polling they take 2 votes from the Tories for every 1 from Labour) whereas in Scotland for example the SNP has emerged to outflank Labour on its left. If a left-of-Labour political movement existed in the North of England along the lines of the SNP I have little doubt something similar could happen there also. The fact that UKIP has to campaign on the basis of “renationalise the railways, defend British workers” etc in these areas (I’ve seen this first hand) should be a simultaneously encouraging and worrying sign. No doubt Farage, a Thatcherite down to his bones, hates the fact his own membership is to the left of UKIP’s leadership, but you can’t win seats in the North of England on hating Muslims alone, they need something more to offer and this insincere Old Labour shtick is the best they can manage. Farage will have to bite his lip.
Another interesting example is Ireland, which although a member of the Eurozone and victim of much the same sort of domination by the ECB as Greece, Ireland is deeply economically integrated with the United Kingdom, and can therefore be described as being both on the periphery of Europe in general and the UK in particular. I would pay close attention to political developments in Ireland and Sinn Fein because that could (along with a good showing for the SNP in the 2015 GE) re-ignite the semi-dormant constitutional crisis that Britain is inevitably going to end up having at some point – a crisis that is rooted in the collapse of the 2-party system and the development of a 6-party system, which the first past the post electoral system is totally incapable of dealing with. In Ireland the scale of public opposition to the water charges has been quite staggering, eliciting mortal terror from the Irish political class, and the quite real prospect of Sinn Fein winning the next elections in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, not to mention potentially holding the balance of power in the Westminster parliament in 2015 (Sinn Fein have suggested they may buck tradition and take up their seats in Westminster post 2015) adds immense pressure to the situation. It’s quite impossible for the Tory party to accept a Sinn Fein ruled Ireland and a Labour government dependent upon Sinn Fein to pass legislation. It would be total chaos. It would also feed into the paranoid nationalism which is driving support for the far-right, which like other “core” countries (which Britain surely is despite being not being in the Eurozone) is growing rapidly, fuelled by events in the middle-east and a broader hatred of Muslims which is rapidly being normalised. The danger the insurgent poses can’t be understated, however it’s too much to try getting that here in an already long-winded post. I would also caution against viewing Sinn Fein as a progressive political party, their socialism is extremely opportunistic and there’s a deeply conservative streak in their nationalism which is hard to conceal (for instance they are utterly silent on feminist issues and their position on abortion is reprehensible.)
My gut feeling is that any sort of Syriza-style realignment of the British left is only possible after a major constitutional change in the way the country is governed. We very nearly had an opportunity to break out of the 1688 straightjacket with the Scottish referendum but more and more opportunities of that type are going to present themselves and organising a cross-party left wing constitutional reform movement to take advantage of these opportunities as they arise might be a good way forward. These major constitutional crises that the British state is going to have to manage (I’ll add to this the EU referendum which I don’t have time to go into) in the next few years will be a very difficult for them to navigate, and might open the path for some kind of “neo-chartist agitation” to use Tony Benn’s phrase. To put it bluntly we need to finish off feudalism and complete our bourgeois revolution, and have a representative democracy in line with other modern European states, before we can talk about taking advantage of that parliamentary setup for more radical purposes. Until there’s a major change in the British constitution and electoral system a Syriza style left-of-labour party is very unlikely to get anywhere. And even then assuming there was a serious constitutional shift in Britain that made parliamentary politics viable, this is not in itself some sort of recipe for socialism or a social revolution, for the reasons you made yourself in point 2).
People who ask for a “UKIP of the Left” make a series of big mistakes. Firstly UKIP is a well organised party that’s been around quite a long time, one that’s well funded and already has a social basis in British Toryism that it could campaign on. Secondly it’s leadership have links to the City and it’s a party that has received a large amount of money from the City and the indulgence of far-right newspaper barons such as Richard Desmond (pornographer and owner of the Daily Express) and Rupert Murdoch. It is unlikely that any Left party is going to be able to take advantage of similar conditions. And finally it’s also worth pointing out that despite being on course to poll in the double-digits at the next general election, UKIP will still probably only end up with a handful of seats (3 for certain, and about half a dozen close ones at the very most. If they get more than 10 I would be shocked.)
The “Green Surge” also exemplifies this dilemma. They have recently been polling above the Liberal Democrats and may be on course to receive their highest share of the vote ever, yet polling also shows they’re on course to lose their only MP (to Labour) and despite tripling their share of the vote are going to end up in a worse position electorally as a result! It’s also worth pointing out too that the Green Party is well run party with a long history, experienced activists that on an organisational level at least is far more impressive than anything that exists on the British far-left.
So rather than trying to replicate what happened in Greece, I think our best interests might be served by trying to take advantage of the numerous opportunities for the breakup of the rotten centuries old constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom. At the very least, the important role Britain (more specifically the City of London) plays in the architecture of global capitalism is dependent upon the outdated and anachronistic constitutional settlement, it’s mystery and it’s vagueness are not just curious historical relics but functionally essential to the smooth running of finance capital in London. Witness the panic when it dawned on people that this cosy arrangement which gives international vested interests such a powerful position here in Britain was under threat in the week leading up to the Scottish referendum. By smashing this arrangement the British left could play an important role in not just opening up space for a future left to emerge but could also strike a genuinely hurtful blow to the class enemy in the process of doing so.
“There is I believe no prospect whatever of the Labour Party splitting into a left and right wing any time soon,”
Just over a year later, this is quite amusing.
Well, it hasn’t split yet, has it? 🙂