Tuesday, January 04, 2011

From the archives: Dreaming of a new left

This is another piece from April 2004 on building socialist unity and I've posted this for my own historical interest really. I was not a member of the Greens at the time as you might guess from the content, the 'we' refers either the left or sometimes specifically those who wanted Respect to do well. I've edited the article down a bit for length, removing some references to election stats that no one cares about anymore - even if they did back then. I've added new pics.

For a new left culture

One of the grand old traditions the left would do well to leave behind is the sectarian and, frankly, bad mannered approach to other sections of the left. It’s hard enough to conduct a decent political debate without additional unpleasantness and deeply entrenched sectionalism.

I doubt any of us has a totally ‘clean slate’ but it’s hardly surprising that some SWP members have been less than enthusiastic about the Socialist Alliance because, for them, it was the place they’d go to be personally abused and be expected to swallow with a smile.

In fact, the way in which we conduct a debate can dictate whether meaningful discussion is even possible. Due to the level of Galloway baiting it became completely impossible to have a real discussion about the workers wage and what it signifies. This issue became so bound up with the attacks upon this anti-imperialist, reformist socialist member of parliament that many who would have supported the workers wage found themselves completely unable to do so. If the movement had been giving Galloway support, despite both the real and imagined political differences, it would have made proper dialogue possible.

If only we were as vigorous in our attacks upon our enemies as we are upon our potential allies.

We can all of us find reasons not to unite with any given person – but the over arching principle of the post-Seattle left has been that of unity. Whether in the anti-capitalist movement, the left in the unions or political re-groupments, the entire trend has been a coming together. It may well be that this period is ending and certainly the establishment of RESPECT has been difficult to regard as an example of consensus building and democracy, but that period is not yet dead and it is still possible for us to make gains.

The recent National Union of Students elections show a worrying backward step where Socialist Worker chose to stand a candidate against the only left winger capable of over turning Labour’s strangle hold on the presidency. Thankfully Kat Fletcher was able to win despite the divide in the left, though what their few dozen votes achieved for SWSS God only knows. The given reasons for standing against Kat Fletcher was that they held a different position on Israel / Palestine, this would be the most abstract bit of sectarianism if it were not a pretext.

Socialist Worker members will have no difficulty voting for RESPECT members who have a different view on this question, nor a left wing candidate in a trade union election that holds a different view. The real reason is unfortunately the attempt to retain a hermeneutically sealed organisation at the expense of the wider movement. Let’s hope the lessons have been learned from this little episode of grubby sectarianism.


We need to develop a more cooperative blend of politics on the left against the prevailing mood. I think that every socialist, no matter what their affiliation, or lack of it, can play a part in building a positive and collaborative culture. Refusing to involve ourselves in progressive movements, no matter how much room for improvement there is, would be a real mistake.

Where we are involved in any real campaigning in our area we should seek out potential allies no matter where they might be. Having a positive relationship with RESPECT is clearly part of this, and any serious campaigner cuts themselves off at their peril.

Socialists should involve themselves in everything they can that has any progressive content, and preferably do so as someone who genuinely wants that group / organisation to succeed. This not only includes RESPECT, but also Christian Aid, Greenpeace, Bus Campaigns and what ever may be happening in your local area.

I believe that unity is the name of the game, not any one particular organisational form that this may take, and this is the question we have been attempting to address. How do we achieve greater left unity? Not just of those who marched against the war, nor simply of the left organisations but across the board unity.


There are three golden rules to building a successful socialist movement in this country. Unfortunately no one knows what they are. But we can see that the closed circles and cliques of the old left are not up to the job of realising the fantastic potential that exists in this current period. These natural tendencies can be habit forming but let’s break with the mistakes of the past and take a revolutionary leap into a fresher, more open collaborative politics.

The diversity that exists in the movement is a source of strength, not concern. The left needs to become a more pleasant and interesting place to be. It is not enough to want to be in the same organisation as other left wingers whilst conducting a war against them – we should be allies in the fullest and deepest meaning of the term.

To do this we should, I think, try to develop a culture where we can explore ideas and be ourselves without fear of bilious condemnation. This is not incompatible with being an organised and effective socialist. Axe grinding is not politics – harping on about the issues that divide us cannot bring about greater unity, it can only poison the waters.

At the same time part of a democratic debate is the recognition that we have something to debate about – we are not of one common mind and often these differences take organisational forms – that need not bring about disunity in action, and can prevent a group becoming locked in paralysis by its internal disputes.


Personally I think RESPECT made a mistake on the workers wage, republicanism and, Lord help me, even its name – but should I allow these issues to distract me from what are the most urgent tasks? Money, members and momentum. A defeat for RESPECT [note from 2010: this is referring to the 2004 Euro elections and the 2005 general election where Galloway was to be elected] would be a backward step for us all, and a success will pick up the pace for everyone on the left – this means all serious socialists should hope for a good result, no matter how painful we have found the process.

How could any of us hope to gain a hearing in a movement where we play a less than positive, or even disruptive, role? If we are genuinely in favour of a successful progressive coalition we should do our best practically as well as politically to making that coalition work. Whilst we cannot allow political disagreements to obstruct making a valuable contribution I hope people will not take that to mean I believe our political differences should remain unobtrusive – it is simply a question of how, when and why we raise these issues.

Due to the frantic pace of its development RESPECT has, by necessity, left dirty great holes where we would wish to see flesh on the bones. Be these questions of democracy, policy or organisation the best way that we can influence its future direction is through unconditional involvement today.

The fact that the French left were able to achieve more than a million votes at the last elections is an impressive feat we are unlikely to match, but we should be realistic about what a good vote is lest we only bring people on board until June 11th when they see a respectable vote as a total, crushing defeat.


My assessment of this is that if we have anyone at all elected that will be an achievement that was not on the cards five years ago. For the first time in my life I regret not living in London because to work for a candidate like Lindsey German, who both can and should get a seat, would be a real incentive to hard graft and that dreaded word enthusiasm.

If we got 3% (Nader’s share of the vote at the US presidential elections) this would be a good result. 3% of an entire country, not simply our strong holds, would be impressive.

A swath of under 2% votes and being seen to lose a sitting Green MEP their seat would be a bad defeat and, in all honesty, RESPECT will have to work hard to avoid that, but avoid it we can.

But however large the job in the run up to the June elections it is an ongoing progressive organisation that we need, that can fill the gap that used to be occupied by Labour which can fight on the ground in the estates all over the country. A mass national organisation can only be made up of hundreds of local groups who have gained respect in their town over the victories and principled stands that they have made – it cannot be built with a very efficient press organisation and national demonstrations.

The former has the added advantage of requiring any progressive bloc to remember why we are standing in the election in the first place, and quite a number of people are becoming worried that this is exactly what we are beginning to forget.


We do need to bring about a balance between vigorous political debate and unified action. There are stubborn tendencies in all of us that swing all of one way or the other. Either “the task is action so shut up now” or becoming completely paralysed and bogged down in our disagreements due to a purely polemical style of political activity.

Reminder, this article was written in 2004


Dave Riley said...

You've used an photograph of Rachel Evans holding a Socialist Alliance placard-- but that's Rachel in the Australian Socialist Alliance.

Unlike the English namesake the Oz variety still exists.

Norm Dixon who runs LINKS has put together a lot of articles on left unity attempts and consequences in various countries that may interest your readers:left unity.

I also point out that the most interesting unity project at the moment is in ireland.

Jim Jepps said...

Ah - the English version stole your logo which is where the confusion comes in.

That's true, in England we've been through a variety of experiments and you've stuck to yours, which is really admirable in my view. (Obv. this is a historical piece in some ways as an archives feature)

Ireland does have an interesting unity project and they'll have a chance to flex their new muscles early in the year with what could be an extra-ordinary general election.

I do think France and the rest of Europe though have interesting stuff going on too. Less so US and Canada (unless I'm missing something)

Dave Riley said...

The Irish project may not be sexy but it involves partners who are elsewhere hostile to regroupment.

In the North Americas , you're right, at the moment -- zilch.

While your piece is historical you have tended to separate off the greens from the reds --as the English far left tends to do anyway -- and treat them as separate entities --despite the fact that you yourself later chose the green side as a home.

That's a false perspective I think .

In the UK at the moment there seems that there is a conscious attempt to close down even any talk of unity as the recent history has been so bad. But the complication is that it's like Marx's old mole -- or an attack of gout -- it won't go away just because you will it to.

The sort of alliances and coalitions that may be necessary and possible cannot be limited to what were the players these last 10 years or to a few feral trade unions.

Jim Jepps said...

Well the situation was different then than now.

I think when you say people dismis talk of unity I think it's important to be clear about this.

There is a strong concensus that we need united campaigns against the cuts. What seems far less likely is a successful united left electoral project.