Crisis, new parties and the grassroots

We need a new, grassroots movement
We need a new, grassroots movement

A society in crisis

The world economy is struggling through a period of intense crisis writes Phil Kane in a piece that he wrote for his site The New Life.  Since the dramatic failure of the banks that began with the US subprime crisis in 2007, the entire capitalist system has lurched from one problem to another.

Despite the continued reach of its military power, the United States remains mired in phenomenally deep levels of debt.  As of 8th February 2013, the United States’ combined total of public debt reportedly amounted to a staggering $16.489 trillion, with an economy that is barely ahead of stagnation.  The situation in Greece, most shockingly, continues to demonstrate what happens when an economy goes into meltdown; and one of the great dangers of the political polarisation that results, as the openly neo-Nazi Golden Dawn gathers support under the banners of hate.  Spain suffers massive levels of unemployment – including 25% youth unemployment.

Here in Britain, austerity is already biting cruelly for masses of working class people, and it is liable to bite deeper still in the coming years.  According to a recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, widely regarded as the country’s leading financial think-tank, the poor state of the British economy means that in order to service an increasing debt the government will need to slash spending by huge amounts within the next few years.  According to the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that is generally supportive of the Conservative Party:

 “The dire fiscal position may force the Chancellor to raid pensioner benefits, the NHS, schools or overseas aid, hitherto protected from cuts, according to the IFS report…The think-tank said Chancellor George Osborne’s failure to hit deficit reduction targets means tax rises or ‘substantial’ additional cuts in welfare benefits are likely after the 2015 general election to avoid ‘hard to contemplate’ cuts in Whitehall budgets…Whitehall departments have so far relied heavily on job losses to meet the Chancellor’s austerity demands, and if they continued to do so at the same rate, 1.2 million public sector jobs could go by 2017/18, compared with the 900,000 forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, said the IFS”.

That is a direct threat to the jobs, wages, conditions and welfare benefits of millions of people who are already struggling to make ends meet.

And this crisis is not one that the capitalist system can easily grow its way out from.  It has become quite commonplace for even conservative, pro-capitalist business journals and academics to describe this as, rather than just being another periodic slump in a cycle of boom-and-bust, a major systemic crisis in the global economy.  In other words, even in their eyes capitalism as a system is now broken, perhaps irreparably.

In this context, it is clear that austerity politics are not about quickly repairing a temporary problem.  It isn’t simply that capitalism has blown a tyre – the entire chassis is written off.  In reality, austerity measures are all about making the great mass of ordinary working-class people pay for the crisis, while preserving and even increasing the wealth and privilege of a few.

The Labour Party – not fit for purpose

The early development of the Labour Party was driven by two key factors.

The first was a wave of workers’ struggles towards the end of the 19th Century, particularly the Great London Dock Strike of 1889.  More specifically, it was born from the defeat of those strikes.

The second was the emergence of a locally based organisation, the Manchester Independent Labour Party, which was launched in 1892.  Its example reinforced the arguments of Keir Hardie and others for a national party of the working class.

In 1893 the Independent Labour Party was founded as a national organisation, with the express aim of securing representation for working people in the House of Commons.  At the turn of the century the ILP merged with several other groups like the Fabian Society, and with trade union leaders, to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC).  This coalition eventually became the kernel of the modern Labour Party.

The launching of the Labour Party in Gillingham, Kent, may be quite illustrative of attitudes all over the country to its emergence.  Tom Mann, who had come to prominence in the 1889 strikes, addressed a small meeting at The Five Bells pub, just across the road from Gillingham Green, at which the new branch was announced.  The local vicar had the church bells rung throughout the meeting in an attempt to drown out the speakers.

The establishment hated the idea that working class people might gain a genuine voice in Parliament.  They feared the very idea of socialism, however diluted that might be in practice.

And in the form of the Labour Party, it was very dilute indeed.  Early meetings and rallies that Labour staged had, by all accounts, more of the flavour of Christian revivalism than of socialism.  The famed Clause 4 in the Labour Party’s constitution, the mark of the party’s avowed socialism that was finally ditched under the leadership of Tony Blair, was only adopted in 1918.

Now the post-Blair Labour Party has lost even that commitment, has accepted the neo-liberal argument that there is no alternative to capitalism, and sees itself as simply a better manager of the capitalist economy and the British state.

This leaves a profound vacuum within political life in Britain.  It has been described as a crisis of representation.  That is, working class people have effectively been left without a party that stands for their interests.

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Syriza is a possible model

A similar situation in other countries has led to the formation of new broad parties of the Left.  Syriza (Greece), Die Linke (Germany), the Red-Green Alliance (Denmark), the Left Bloc (Portugal), and the Nouveau Partie Anticapitaliste (France) all show that there is potential for such parties to develop and even become a significant force in parliament.

It might be asked why such a party has not yet emerged in Britain.  There have, in fact, been a number of attempts.  The most successful so far has been the Respect Party, which first arose from the mass movement against the Iraq War in 2003.  In spite of some very obvious flaws in Respect, it has successfully fought several times in elections and has an MP.  Yet its base of support and its political influence remain very limited.  Meanwhile there is also the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which although it has support from the RMT union frankly serves as an electoral flag of convenience for some small socialist organisations, and suffers a significant democratic deficit that makes it deeply unattractive to most people.

What are the other alternatives?

Yet the need for a genuine broad party of the Left – one that is truly democratic, inclusive, socialist, feminist and against discrimination of all kinds – the need for a solution to the ongoing crisis of representation, looms large.

The fact is that capitalism may well find some kind of solution to its own crisis.  But such a solution would be at the cost of the vast mass of people.

As Professor David Harvey put it, speaking at the World Social Forum in 2010:

“Can capitalism survive the present trauma?  Yes.  But at what cost?  This question masks another.  Can the capitalist class reproduce its power in the face of the raft of economic, social, political and geopolitical and environmental difficulties?  Again, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.  But the mass of the people will have to surrender the fruits of their labour to those in power, to surrender many of their rights and their hard-won asset values (in everything from housing to pension rights), and to suffer environmental degradations galore to say nothing of serial reductions in their living standards, which means starvation for many of those already struggling to survive at rock bottom.  Class inequalities will increase (as we already see happening).  All of that may require more than a little political repression, police violence and militarised state control to stifle unrest”.

In other words, what lies ahead of us, what has in fact already begun, is a sustained assault on working people, on the poor, on women, on minority groups however defined, and on the very environment upon which we all depend for our survival.

To see what that may mean in the fairly close future, one has only to look at the example of Greece, where working class people are being crushed by the weight of austerity policies and the Golden Dawn movement is rapidly gaining ground.

And how far can things go?  In February 2004, The Observer carried an article that revealed the thinking of US defence chiefs on the ramifications of climate change:

“A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.

“The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents.

“’Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,’ concludes the Pentagon analysis. ‘Once again, warfare would define human life’”.

The Pentagon is hardly a radical environmental pressure group.  Yet even they predict catastrophic global consequences for capitalist society in its present form.

The response of the world’s elites, however, is to accelerate the plundering of resources in search of greater profits, impose their will through military force, drive down the living and working conditions of millions of working-class people, and crank up the powers of repression in order to stifle protest.

The global economy, and the familiar structures of national politics, can no longer continue as before.  The threat of a catastrophic environmental crisis rears up ahead of our society.

We are being faced with a stark choice.  Ninety years ago, Rosa Luxemburg, the great German socialist leader, wrote that humanity’s choice was one of socialism or barbarism.  Today, even more than then, her words ring true.

Building a new party

Looking at the experiences so far of trying to build a broad party of the Left, on a national scale, the difficulties are undeniable.

The issues that need to be overcome – such as sectarianism and other bad habits acquired over decades of small-group politics and relative isolation – are deep rooted among whole layers of socialists and other activist groups.

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But it isn’t all bad news.  At present there is a definite process of realignment and rethinking on the Left in Britain.  A number of unity initiatives have emerged recently, most significant being the Anti Capitalist Initiative and the 14th November Movement.  These have made useful, if limited, progress; but it seems very much a sign of the times, and of a new mood that makes greater unity more possible.

There is also the wider mood within our society.  It’s very clear that many thousands, if not some millions, of people are deeply worried, even angry, about the impact of crisis and austerity, and are looking for some kind of alternative.  Because at present the political landscape, in Britain at least, remains dominated by parties that are all singing from the same pro-corporate, managerial song sheet, that mood is still unfocused and increasingly desperate.

In 2001, following the so-called Battle of Seattle when thousands of anti-globalisation activists protested outside the meeting of the World Trade Organisation, a new slogan emerged:  “Think globally, act locally”.

While not consciously setting out to apply that slogan, around Britain a number of small, local groups have sprung up over the past few years, trying to fill the space on the left of a rightward-moving Labour Party.  Usually registered as political parties in order to challenge at local and general elections, these groups are establishing themselves on the basis of local campaigns or simply because enough local people decide that it is time to fight back against the government policies damaging their communities.

Wigan Borough Green Socialists, Birmingham Communities Against Cuts, Southwark Socialists, Lambeth People Before Profit, and others, have emerged from the realities of local opposition to attacks on their communities and public services.  They have taken on board Labour’s unwillingness to take a stand against those attacks.  They seem to be built on the basis of a democratic internal life, and with local roots that mean they can have a genuine connection with people’s needs and aspirations.

Just as with the birth of the Labour Party, the process of building a new party of and for working-class people begins with localised campaigns and parties that can develop organically into a national structure.

The potential exists, as well as the profound need, for such localised groupings to be built in towns and cities all over Britain.

What would such a local “party” actually do?  It could create a focus for popular opposition to austerity and discrimination.  It could develop into an organiser of local resistance to cutbacks and the wanton destruction being imposed on our communities.  It could sponsor and support events that educate, inspire, and unite local people.  And at elections, it could stand candidates who present a genuine alternative to the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour pro-corporate, pro-austerity mainstream; and to the far-Right seeking to exploit a growing pool of misery and despair.

Local parties could also form the basis for a national party in due course, through the logical development of horizontal structures linking them together.

The next step

The first steps in launching such a grouping can’t be taken by setting up a banner in splendid isolation and hoping people will rally round it, by decreeing it into existence, or by merely brushing the dust off older parties and pretending that they are something new.

It has to begin through developing networks in which people can discuss the foundations and principles on which it should be built, the aims and objectives it should look towards, and the immediate way forward.

It needs, as a project, to try and reach out to people who have never been engaged in political activity before; people who may well come with some reactionary ideas alongside progressive ones.  Consciousness can be highly contradictory, so there will need to be some emphasis on education as well as on activism.

There are risks in this; battles that will need to be fought, arguments that must be won, lessons that can only be learned the hard way.  But simply relying on a few familiar faces on the Left to build with familiar – and frankly tired and inadequate – methods simply no longer meets the demands of the times in which we are living.

A genuinely democratic and non-sectarian organisation can only be built democratically.  That means it has to begin with a consciousness that any movement aspiring to stand up for feminism, anti-racism and so on must necessarily enshrine those things in its basic day-to-day functions; they should be part of its lifeblood, not optional extras.  And it needs to take heed of minority opinions during internal discussions.

That we need such a new, grassroots movement is beyond doubt.  It’s up to us to make it a reality.

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