From Socialist Review, No.280, December 2003, p.16-17.
Copyright © 2003 Socialist Review.
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Paul Foot puts the case for a unity coalition of the left.
The vast demonstration against Bush on 20 November once again opened wide the increasingly intolerable contradiction on the British left. These demonstrations in 2003 were far greater than anything in the 1960s or indeed at any other time before or since, yet when the crowds have dispersed, there is so little sign of any political result. The huge Labour majority cannot even prevent parliament from moving yet another step closer to the privatisation of the health service. The Tory opposition moves further to the right, flirting with a return to capital punishment, and the Liberal Democrats, though they pretend to be suspicious of the warmongers, are, as always, extremely nervous of any forthright opposition to the capitalist and imperialist establishment. It is futile to stand back and jeer at the fact that there is no representation of the biggest political movement in modern times. The question is: what can be done about it?
There are plenty of signs that the mass mobilisation against the war reflects a deep hostility to the government on many other issues. Wherever it is possible to raise socialist alternatives – public ownership and comprehensive education – people respond enthusiastically. How can we combine these attitudes effectively enough to make a real impact on the Blairite Labour/Tory/Liberal consensus? And how can we do that without stumbling once again on the obstacle that has held up the socialist left for so long – sectarianism?
When a collection of socialist organisations formed the Socialist Alliance in 1999, the main object was to present a united front of organisations whose members were no longer prepared to devote their time and energy to attacking one another. The alliance has had a lot of success in quite a short time. But it has failed to make the breakthrough many of us hoped for. Indeed, some of the founding organisations have left the alliance and struck out once again into glorious, and useless, isolation. The alliance’s outstanding success in England and Wales – Michael Lavalette’s election in Preston – was achieved by a genuine attempt to seek out and represent large numbers of people in Preston who were against the war and against racism. Elsewhere, the alliance has been less successful, even in Brent East where, against a background of profound disillusionment with the government and an excellent alliance candidate, we only just managed to get clear of the ruck of independent candidates who cluttered up and divided the left opposition. If we are to make any headway in the vital business of transforming the mass opposition into a fighting socialist force we need to look again at the organisation and structure of the British left.
The building blocks for a new structure are plain for everyone to see. The expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party for his opposition to the war in Iraq; the hostility to Blair and co among large numbers of trade unionists, including trade union leaders like Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka and Dave Ward, and the growing disgust with capitalism that emerges from organisations like Globalise Resistance, the European Social Forum and large elements of the green movement. In all these areas, there is a common cry for new organisations, broadly-based in the community, that go deeper into the popular consciousness than the alliance has done so far.
Such an argument can easily be taken too far. A coalition calling itself something like ‘Peace and Justice’ for instance, seems to me undesirable – not only because it means all things to all people but chiefly because it seems to reject the socialist alternative at a time when the argument for socialist solutions is stronger and more popular than ever. On the other hand, both the name and the intentions of any new coalition need to engage as many people as possible, even if they do not regard themselves primarily as socialists. The principles should be as simple as possible – for public ownership and comprehensive education, and against privatisation, imperialism, the war in Iraq, the New Labour government and its Tory/Liberal allies. The simple aim of the new coalition should be to recapture some of the loyalty to socialist ideas and principles that used to inspire people to campaign for and vote for Labour. Candidates who run in elections for the new coalition should explain how they will speak and vote on all the relevant issues. In London, for instance, as Blair, Prescott and Clarke proceed to tear up the comprehensive system of education, coalition candidates, locally and nationally, should set out precisely how they intend – as elected councillors, assembly members and MPs – to fight for, restore and improve comprehensive schools.
The coalition’s approach to organisations that join it should be both tolerant and impatient: tolerant of the right of individual parties to proceed with their own agenda, impatient of any attempt to make sectarian capital out of the coalition. I would hope that my own party, the Socialist Workers Party, would enter such a new coalition with all the enthusiasm with which we joined the Socialist Alliance, and would work as powerfully as we can for the new coalition in the hope, but not the condition, that its success would be our success.
The huge British Politics at the Crossroads meeting in London on 29 October laid the basis for such a new coalition. I hope it proceeds quickly. We have no time to lose.
Last updated on 18.1.2005