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Left at the altar

Responding to Hilary's article last month ([When Labour is the alternative to New Labour->61]), socialists lay out their proposals for a blessed union of the Independent and Labour left.

July 1, 2003
9 min read

Mark Seddon

If we are honest, many of us have been slow to put together an alternative to the post-cold war, new global order. Almost uniquely, it is a world order with a single superpower. That superpower faces a growing insurgency – not from armies or guerrillas, but from an indiscriminate and deeply rooted terrorism. But there is another growing insurgency – a rainbow coalition of activist and peace groups inspired by the new sweep against civil liberties and democracy.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity to the left. The left, too long influenced by apologists for Stalinism and by narrow sects that claimed they spoke for an increasingly atomised working class, has failed to live up to the promise shown by the movement’s pioneers. They understood that broad alliances were always needed to persuade enough people to think for themselves to bring about change. Hilary’s article addresses this need; a lot more collective work and debate is required – especially on the question of alternative visions for giving such alliances the ability to reach beyond the left.

Protest has been loud and grows. Veterans of the 1960s’ anti-Vietnam War demonstrations will tell you that they never marched directly against the evils of capitalism as today’s generation has. But they will also tell you that the modern movement, loud and diverse as it is, is also defined by ideological confusion. Today’s anti-capitalists know that they want to scrap the IMF, and much more besides, but there is little agreement as to what should replace it.

The immediate future will be increasingly dominated by the fightback against militarism, fundamentalism and authoritarianism. The left is in a powerful position to advance the case for democracy and a new internationalism based on peaceful co-existence, secularism and the rule of international law.

To campaign for these ideas effectively, we’ve got to get beyond the rituals of trying to make the ever-diminishing democracy of the Labour Party work for us. There’s a danger we’ll end up talking to the same people in smaller and smaller numbers. At present the Labour Party is not where the dynamic initiatives are taking place. We on the Labour left need to reach out. The labour movement needs to appeal to the growing numbers of radical activists to work together on the basis of resisting militarism and authoritarianism. The movement has the power to regenerate itself, but only if it reaches outwards. Hopefully, the Campaign Group conference on 5 July (see Bulletin board) will be an opportunity to drive this process forward.

Mark Seddon is the editor of Tribune and a member of the Labour Party national executive.

John Marek

My experience of winning the Wrexham seat in the Welsh Assembly as an independent socialist contains lessons for the debate opened up by Hilary in the last issue of Red Pepper.

A sizeable part of my vote came from disillusioned Labour voters and trade unionists who were unhappy with Labour moving to the right or who felt unable to vote for a party that started the Iraq war.

They and many young, first-time voters want to see a credible, left-of-centre party. Wrexham was the only Welsh constituency with an increased turnout in May. I believe this happened because there was a credible radical alternative to the mainstream parties.

Some of us are looking north of the border to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) for a lead as to how to make progress in Wales. On a recent visit, we were impressed with the unity and tolerance of different views shown by delegates at the SSP’s national council. We believe there is a case for forming an equivalent party in Wales – a nascent Welsh socialist party providing a credible alternative to Labour, which has turned its back on working people.

That party would have a mix of principled and practical left policies. It would defend public services, be against the private finance initiative, work for a publicly owned railway, repeal anti-trade-union laws and be anti-racist and anti-militarist. We would also look at what makes us different from Scotland, such as the significance of the Welsh language or the fact that the Welsh Assembly doesn’t have primary powers – something that we would work to change.

We have been delighted with the support from local trade unionists – especially the firefighters. We have worked closely with anti-incinerator, environmental campaigners and community activists, and I’ve been actively supporting the anti-war movement. A conference on 9 August will bring many of these people together.

Wales has not seen the same cohesion on the left that there has been in Scotland. Any initiative to form a Welsh socialist party would have to involve other socialist groups – still small and disorganised – so as to develop a common platform and agree priorities for Wales and for Europe.

We will also talk to the Greens and Plaid Cymru about campaigns and issues that unite us; there will be mutual respect.

Without unification of left views the possibility for socialists to be represented and have influence will continue to be diminished. It is still early days, but we hope to come to a definite conclusion by the autumn and have a party before the New Year. Our aim is that in eight years’ time we will have a truly left government.

John Marek was elected as the independent Welsh Assembly Member for Wrexham in May. He had previously held the seat for Labour, but was deselected by the party in February.

Will McMahon

As Hilary said, now is the time for widespread discussion about what is to be done. Why? Because there is clearly a crisis of electoral representation. There are millions of people in England and Wales who lack any party that they can vote for at local elections. This theme dominated the Socialist Alliance (SA) annual conference on 10 May.

The consistent grassroots campaigning of SA members has born fruit with the election of Michael Lavalette in Preston and a series of good results in Wigan, Walsall and elsewhere. Last year the SA emerged as a serious political player in east London when we outpolled the Greens by some distance and beat the Liberal Democrats in Hackney’s mayoral elections. In Lambeth, Southwark and other London boroughs we receive respectable votes, too.

This may be, as Hilary put it, a “limited electoral success”, but success it is – especially in a system that is not proportional. The current limitation is more due to the newness of the SA as a viable national electoral alternative (we first stood nationally in 2001) than Hilary’s misperception of a failure to engage in sustained local campaigning. It is self-evident, however, that the socialist electoral challenge needs to put on weight.

It is for this reason that the SA’s conference voted overwhelmingly for a resolution to campaign for a broader alliance in preparation for the 2004 European and Greater London Assembly elections. We aim to have a socialist candidate in every constituency for the next general election. How this can be organised is very much up for debate and discussion; how it might change the SA is also in the mix.

The SA has an open mind about the organisational form that could emerge from such discussions. It could be the SA as it is, a relaunched SA or a new organisation entirely. We would insist only that it is open, inclusive, democratic and, of course, socialist.

Will McMahon is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive

John McAllion

Ever since the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the emergence of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the Scottish left has faced a choice: realign into a single new party, or create individual cross-party coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis.

Developments in Scotland have a wider relevance. In 2000 Tommy Sheridan succeeded in creating an impressive cross-party coalition to abolish poindings and warrant sales. For the Scottish left this could have been the prototype for future cooperation, but the Labour machine soon re-imposed discipline on the left of the party.

Today the Scottish left faces the same choice: a single new party or coalition across party lines? Scotland now has a rainbow parliament in which all the parties are minorities and where there is huge potential for creating shifting coalitions around individual issues.

The problem is that the big parties are acutely aware of this. Holyrood’s Labour/Lib-Dem coalition requires backbench loyalty. And the SNP, spooked by the emergence of rival nationalist parties on its left, is not going to do these parties any favours. Cross-party cooperation will be even more difficult in this parliament than it was in the last one.

This does not mean that such cooperation is impossible. But, if it is to succeed the Labour left in particular will have to reach out to the left in other parties. As Hilary argued, we have to abandon the claim that the only legitimate left is the one inside the Labour Party. The trade-union link is the great strength of the Labour Party. But when an Amicus poll reveals that 90 per cent of the union’s members are not interested in party politics, it’s time for the party to show a little humility about its trade-union roots.

Scotland’s biggest political success over the past four years has been the Scottish Coalition for Justice not War. The left could show the same cross-party leadership on campaigns against privatisation, racism, poverty and a range of other issues. A left that cannot work across the party divide will never form a single cohesive party. Let us learn to walk together before we even consider running together. We still have a long way to go, but we are together and we are on the same road.

John McAllion is convenor of the Campaign for Socialism and former Labour MSP for Dundee East

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