From Pension Struggles to Political Representation

Liam Mac Uaid

Writing about the London riots Tariq Ali argued : “were there a serious political opposition party in this country it would be arguing for dismantling the shaky scaffolding of the neo-liberal system before it crumbles and hurts even more people.” He’s right and we say there should be just such a party, one that is clearly in support of the rights of working people, youth, the elderly and which is willing to stand for something different to the neo-liberal, pro-war consensus of the three main parties. The actual situation is that every project for a broad party initiated by the left has failed and that the absence of such a party is actively harmful to the ability of the working class to resist what the Coalition is throwing at it. Just the time when the need for such a party is unarguable it barely exists even as an idea for most socialists and trade unionists.

In the eyes of millions of people Lib-Dems, Tories and Labour have all been tainted with expense scandals, collusion with the Murdoch empire, transfer of taxpayers’ money to the bankers, war and deep cuts to public services. Most ordinary people would find it impossible to name one prominent parliamentary figure who has any moral authority, never mind one who they feel speaks for them as they see their wages, pension and benefits being eroded.

There is self-evidently a vacuum of working class political representation in Britain at the very moment when a government of millionaires has a publicly stated policy of making working people pay for the capitalist crisis. The two-year pay freeze for public sector workers earning full-time-equivalent annual salaries of more than £21,000 will save £3.3bn by 2014-15. Boris Johnson and George Osborne are floating the idea of reducing the 50% tax rate for the mere 300 000 or so people who earn £150 000 a year. In effect their “strategy” for resolving the economic situation is to leave the working class feeling poorer and more insecure while they make the rich richer.

Labour may not be a serious opposition to the Con Dem millionaire government but it is supposed to be the major one. It is certainly seen that way by huge numbers of working class voters. Yet there has been no significant rebellion among its councillors against the cuts they are voting for, despite bleating about how they don’t want to make them quite so deep or so quick. Their battle cry for public services is “slightly slower, slightly shallower cuts”. This is not a convincing defence of their communities but their voters will either see Labour as a less bad option than the Tories or not turn out to vote.

Self evidently the Labour Party is neither intellectually willing nor politically able to put up the sort of fight necessary to roll back the attacks on the working class. It’s equally obvious that the far left and its abundance of phony front organisations can’t do the job either. This absence of a serious political pole of attraction for working class activists and trade unionists gives the perfect excuse for the bureaucrats leading the big unions to do virtually nothing to defend job, wages and pensions. They can roll out their stock excuses that members shouldn’t do anything that will damage the Labour Party before, during or after an election. After all who else can is there to vote for?

“Not anyone really” is the answer. Respect is finished as a national electoral vehicle. Bureaucratically controlled and wilfully anti-democratic electoral fronts like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition are taken out of storage by their proprietors just sufficiently far in advance of each election to signal to serious militants that they are an opportunity for a bit of propaganda and little else. Just occasionally very localised groups of activists come together but they rarely have sufficient momentum or national perspective to offer a viable nucleus for a party.

The widespread realisation of the tawdriness and unrepresentative nature of mainstream politicians is a negative argument for the need for a party that is willing to represent and organise working class voters. There are several positive ones.

The first is that the student protests, the youth riots, the public sector strikes and the March 26th TUC demonstration show that there is a willingness among big numbers of youth and workers to take action to defend themselves. For those who are coming into political activity for the first time there is no memory of the long sequence of demoralising setbacks. They just know they want to do something and do it quickly and many have been inspired by the risings in the Arab world and the large scale actions in Europe.

Respect was only made possible by part of the anti-war movement coming together with significant sections of the left. A project to launch a party has to be connected with real events that are happening in the class struggle. Any new attempt to create party has to base itself on existing socialist organisations and the wave of industrial militancy which has begun. This puts a serious responsibility on the left to change its own way of working.

The obsessive focus on achieving hegemony for a single group at the expense of building the ability of the class to fight; having no higher aim than recruiting handfuls of members; refusing to work constructively with others on the left who can’t be controlled. These failings can all be traced back to an unwillingness to apply the tactic of the united front. The success of one’s own group becomes the major criterion of success and achieving the unity in action of the left is not even a consideration, never mind a priority. The resulting assortment of manoeuvres, opportunist alliances, bureaucratic techniques has led to nothing but a series of dismal fronts.

An utterly different approach is required. The beginning of wisdom is a realisation that no single political organisation on the left in Britain has all the answers. Each political tradition has its strengths and weaknesses. The fact that even the largest, despite all the dedication and hard work of their members, number little more than a couple thousand suggest that no one has found the philosopher’s stone. However a party which pulls together a significant number of already active socialists who show the outside world that they can work together around a shared programme and demands immediately looks more attractive than many of the individual components.
A party with the express purpose of attracting the most conscious and combative working class militants and youth cannot be vague on the question of its own democratic functioning. To some degree or another every previous attempt to establish a left party in England has been marked by a disregard for democracy internally. Members who were not aligned to a left group would generally find that the groups expected their people to vote as a bloc on every issue. This meant that the real decisions were being taken elsewhere. What was, one imagines, being done in the name of “Leninism” was both a misunderstanding of the concept and a constant display of the irrelevance of the broader party’s decision making processes. Unless there is an issue of principle at stake there is no good reason for a left group to oblige its members to vote the same way all the time.

From this point follows the need for leaders to be held accountable. Arthur Scargill in the Socialist Labour Party felt able to run it as a fiefdom. George Galloway trashed Respect’s reputation by appearing on Big Brother. A party which is not able to hold its leaders to account is one which can rapidly become their property.

Socialist Resistance has argued since the late 1990s that the political space exists in Britain for a class struggle party of 10-15000 people. The Socialist Alliance won credible votes when it started contesting elections. Salma Yaqoob, the Respect councillors and George Galloway showed that in the right circumstances with serious work and a party structure that it is possible for left of Labour electoral challenges to be successful. In a period where no one seriously disputes that the Con Dems are intent on rolling back the post 1945 Welfare State it is time for the organised left to start coming together to start working out how we can use the intensifying class struggle to start giving our class the political representation it needs in elections, in the union and on the streets.

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