The left after Grangemouth

Issue: 141

Alex Callinicos

The last few weeks of 2013 saw three important events in the life of the radical left in Britain-the defeat suffered by workers at the Grangemouth oil refining and chemicals complex in Scotland, the founding conference of Left Unity, and the third conference held that year of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Plainly these events are of a different order of significance.

In all probability, Grangemouth will prove to be the most important. What was at stake there was more than just an unsuccessful struggle by workers in the petrochemical plant to defend their existing jobs and conditions. It pitted against one another Jim Ratcliffe, billionaire boss of Ineos, one of a new generation of more “entrepreneurial” capitalists who have taken over oil refineries abandoned by the supermajors, against Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, which so signally failed to defend its members at Grangemouth.

Ratcliffe and McCluskey are symbolic figures-respectively, of the aggressive capitalism bred by Thatcherism and of the growing political kickback against it. McCluskey, as Julie Sherry showed in our last issue, has set himself up as the champion of a broader left, not just in the unions but right across British society, that is in revolt against the devastation caused by neoliberalism, now of course being amplified by the effects of the crisis and austerity.1

And it is McCluskey who was humbled at Grangemouth. Having balloted the petrochemical workers there first to defend their convenor and then to reject management’s package of worse wages and conditions, at the end of October 2013 he backed down after Ratcliffe shut the plant down and threatened to close it for good. The workers who rejected the original offer ended up with worse terms than those who have accepted it. And, just to round off the humiliation, a few weeks later Ineos reneged on its promise to protect jobs and announced over 200 redundancies at Grangemouth, mainly in the petrochemical operation.2

In the aftermath of this debacle, much of the radical left have rushed to give it the cast of inevitability. Chief among these is Richard Seymour, who, since breaking with the SWP last spring, has been working overtime to widen the gap separating him from revolutionary politics:

It’s important to recognise that, quite possibly, there was nothing that the left could have done that would have changed the outcome of this particular struggle.

This is the intellectual leap that we have to make: not every puzzle has an answer; not every immediate struggle can be won. There isn’t a short-term solution to every problem.

The fact that things could have been done differently, and better, is no guarantee that with the balance of class forces as they presently are the workers at Grangemouth could have achieved victory. We have to break from the habit of thinking that struggle itself is sufficient, that an outburst of class or social warfare can by itself shift the overall balance of forces in our favour.3

Seymour’s last sentence is puzzling. What else could shift the balance of forces except “an outburst of class or social warfare”? The class struggle is precisely a war, in which the two sides can only establish their own and their opponents’ strength and resolve through actual combat. Thatcher installed neoliberalism through inflicting a series of major defeats on the workers’ movement. Of course, every struggle has a host of conditions-economic, political, ideological and the rest-that shape the antagonists’ determination and capacity to win, but their relative importance and joint effect can themselves only be tested in struggle. Conditions seemed quite unfavourable to the workers’ movement when prime minister Alain Juppé launched an offensive against French public sector workers in the autumn of 1995, but his plan provoked mass strikes that defeated the government and contributed to the climate in which the movement for another globalisation emerged.4

Had the Grangemouth workers decided to fight, there is no certainty they would have won. But there is equally no certainty that they would have lost. They are well organised and had seen off an attack on their pensions in 2008. They had also supported the struggles of other workers in the complex (electricians and tanker drivers) so they would have been in a strong position to call for solidarity had they chosen to defy Ratcliffe and occupy. The Grangemouth refinery supplies 70 percent of Scotland’s petrol stations. Such a confrontation-coming at a sensitive time in Scottish politics in the lead-up to this year’s independence referendum-would have put severe pressure on politicians both sides of the border.5

Seymour’s apologia for McCluskey implies a fatalistic approach to history. For all his extravagances and ambiguities, Slavoj Zizek is much closer to a genuine revolutionary Marxist approach when he says that “authentic politics” is “the art of the impossible-it changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation”.6 More precisely, intervening in a specific configuration of forces tests the boundaries of the possible in that situation.

The tragedy is that we will never know what might have happened had the Grangemouth workers fought. The responsibility for this lies not with them, but with their leader, Len McCluskey. To say this is not to engage in knee-jerk denunciation of the “labour lieutenants of capital”. Unite has inherited the traditions of the Transport and General Workers Union, which centralised power in the hands of the general secretary. Moreover, McCluskey has presented himself as the champion of resistance. He’s wearing big shoes-those, in recent history, of Arthur Scargill who led the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 (its thirtieth anniversary falls this year). Whatever you may say about Scargill, when the moment of truth came, he fought. McCluskey, however, blinked.

The entire discourse that defeat was inevitable, hard-wired into the consciousness of workers under neoliberalism, is essentially an attempt to cover for McCluskey’s failure. This doesn’t mean that he has therefore been “exposed”, or that his brand of left reformist politics has been discredited. On the contrary. The severe and symbolic character of the defeat-trumpeted
as such across the media-may well have a demoralising effect on other groups of workers: if as powerful a group as the Grangemouth workers can be humbled like this, then no one can win a purely economic struggle. This may lead many activists to hang on even more tightly to the illusion that the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy offers the only force capable of standing up to the power of capital.

In this context, what Tony Cliff wrote in the aftermath of May 1968 retains its relevance:

The vacillation of the trade union bureaucracy between the state, employers and the workers, with splits in the far-from-homogeneous bureaucracy will continue and become more accentuated during the coming period. The union bureaucracy is both reformist and cowardly. Hence its ridiculously impotent and wretched position. It dreams of reforms but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted) and it also fears the rank and file struggle which alone can deliver reforms. The union bureaucrats are afraid of losing what popular support they still maintain but are more afraid of losing their own privileges vis-a-vis the rank and file. Their fear of the mass struggle is much greater than their abhorrence of state control of the unions. At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates.7

These vacillations are particularly acute at present on the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. They are caught between pressure from their members to act (after George Osborne’s autumn statement in early December, the Institute of Fiscal Studies confirmed Labour’s estimate that real household income fell by about 6 percent between 2009-10 and 2011-12)8 and their fear of confrontation with the bosses and the government, particularly in the lead-up to a general election that is now only 18 months away.

What made Grangemouth possible is the dependence of even the best organised groups of workers on the trade union bureaucracy. But, as Jerry Hicks’s impressive performance in last year’s election for the Unite general secretaryship showed, a significant minority of activists are open to taking a more militant stance. Unite the Resistance has an important role to play in gathering these activists together and enabling them to fight more effectively, sometimes in alliance with left wing officials, sometimes independently of them.

Meanwhile Grangemouth, coming at a time when many of the conflicts in the public sector are not producing anything resembling sustained strike action, can encourage the belief that the only way to defeat the Conservative-Liberal coalition is on the electoral terrain. This makes the founding conference of Left Unity on 30 November 2013 particularly significant. It formally launched a new left party that seeks to offer an electoral alternative to Labour on the model provided particularly by Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece. The main statement adopted begins:

Left Unity stands for equality and justice. It is socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination. We stand against capitalism, imperialism, war, racism, Islamophobia and fascism. Our goal is to transform society: to achieve the full democratisation of state and political institutions, society and the economy, by and for the people.9

A somewhat more elaborated statement takes stances such as the following (on the economic crisis):

  • We are against austerity programmes which make the mass of working people, the old, the young and the sick, pay for a systemic crisis of capitalism.
  • We are for policies to restore full employment through measures such as reduced working hours for all; spending on public housing, infrastructure and services; and the public ownership of, and democratic collective control over, basic utilities, transport systems and the financial sector.

Broadly speaking, the programme sketched out in these statements is a left reformist one-though this doesn’t mean that everyone in Left Unity is a left reformist. On the contrary, the discussions leading up to the conference involved a plethora of platforms in which a variety of far-left groups made their presence felt. The involvement of revolutionary socialists in a broader political project that finesses the issue of reform and revolution has, of course, been characteristic of various relatively successful radical left projects in continental Europe, as well as of Respect in Britain in the mid-2000s.

The broad orientation taken by Left Unity raises two questions. One is whether or not it is sufficient as a strategy for challenging capitalism. Paul Blackledge pursues this question elsewhere in this journal, responding to Ed Rooksby’s intervention in our last issue.10 The second is how viable an attempt to pursue this strategy Left Unity represents.

Such projects depend on both their ability to regroup the existing radical and revolutionary left, and the effective challenge that they are able to mount to mainstream social democracy-or, as it is more accurate to describe it these days thanks to its capitulation to neoliberalism, social liberalism. How well does Left Unity meet these conditions? In truth, not very well.

Let’s consider regroupment first. Left Unity claims over a thousand paid-up members, of whom around 500 attended the conference and conducted sometimes confusing debates in relatively good order. This is a respectable though not overwhelming beginning. The presence in these debates of assorted far-left fragments isn’t necessarily a hindrance. Some of the most significant radical left formations in Europe-for example, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark and the Left Bloc in Portugal-started off as regroupments of the existing far-left.

But Left Unity is precisely not such a regroupment. A tacit presupposition of the project is the exclusion of both the SWP and the Socialist Party. This is justified by appeal to the negative experiences of previous efforts to develop a radical left coalition, notably the Socialist Alliance and Respect. One can, of course, discuss whether or not this exclusion is a correct conclusion to draw from these experiences. Irrespective of one’s views about this, the net effect of this stance is that Left Unity (which, inexplicably, was preferred to the project’s initiators’ proposed name of Left Party) is a misnomer. Not only are the biggest far-left organisations not part of Left Unity, but it doesn’t embrace the still very substantial sections of the radical left still within the Labour Party.

Mention of Labour brings us to the second condition of success. The progress of a radical left party in Britain depends crucially on its ability to win votes and activists from Labour. It was the failure of the movement against the Iraq war to produce a split in Labour that, more than anything else, doomed Respect. The power axis on which it depended, between George Galloway (the only significant figure to break with Labour over Iraq) and the SWP, was simply too fragile a basis for a stable coalition.

Nevertheless, Galloway alone has discovered a formula for winning substantial numbers of votes away from Labour-by appealing to working class Muslim voters with a combination of old style Labourism and anti-imperialism. But this formula is hard to generalise beyond a limited number of constituencies, and in any case there is no sign that the architects of Left Unity have either the inclination to adopt it or the panache required to make it succeed.

The larger problem for Left Unity is that the electoral terrain doesn’t look especially favourable to it, at least in the short term. Ed Miliband has succeeded in positioning Labour quite astutely. In particular, his promise to freeze energy prices for 20 months has given a focus to popular anger over the squeeze on living standards. David Cameron has, in effect, paid tribute to Miliband’s success in seizing the initiative with a series of mini U-turns, for example over energy prices, payday loans and plain cigarette packaging, that are intended, according to one Tory strategist, to follow “what Tony Blair did very effectively… You have to neutralise your opponents’ attacks”.11

This doesn’t mean that there is no place for smaller parties in what is now a pre-election period, but the most plausible challenger from the margins is UKIP, with its toxic mix of Europhobia and anti-migrant propaganda. Labour and Tories are likely to continue to tack rightwards on immigration to limit the haemorrhage of votes to UKIP but at the same time to fight over the centre ground, with Miliband currently setting the agenda.

Given the shape the electoral field is taking, Left Unity will struggle to gain a hearing. This may explain the caution with which its leaders address the possibility of electoral interventions. All the same, it can’t avoid this indefinitely. The successes of the radical left elsewhere in Europe have all been electoral. Electoral politics demands a very sustained organisational effort. And, if Left Unity is to be more than a conventional left reformist party, as many of its defenders argue, it will have to address the ancient problem, drowned out hitherto in the programmatic debates, of the relationship between electoral and social struggles.

To the extent that Left Unity does get involved in the latter, its activists will find themselves having to work with their counterparts in the far-left organisations that have been included out of the project as it stands. The SWP will continue to participate in the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, as part of a modest and targeted attempt to engage in electoral politics, and at the same time to seek to cooperate with Left Unity. There are, in any case, other political initiatives-notably on the front of racism and fascism-where activists from a wide range of political backgrounds can work together beyond the electoral terrain.

One reason why it has been relatively easy for the founders of Left Unity to keep the SWP at arm’s length is the acute internal crisis it has been suffering. The causes of this crisis have been vigorously debated in this journal.12 Anyone who has read these exchanges will be aware of the bitterness of the divisions involved. It is, nevertheless, to be hoped that the decisions of the national conference in mid-December (the third in 2013) will go far enough to address the criticisms made by the opposition faction to mark the beginning of reunification and reconciliation within the SWP.

But even if this hope is at least partially fulfilled, this will not be the end of the debates unleashed by the SWP crisis. At the heart of the differences have been the theory and practice of women’s liberation. What has helped to give the controversy over allegations of rape and sexual harassment such intensity has been the broader context-a revival of feminism that has gripped a new generation of women rebelling against not just sexism but many of the other manifestations of an exploitative and oppressive system and that has found echoes in the academy in discussions of intersectionality and renewed interest in socialist feminist theories first formulated in the 1970s and the 1980s.

These are developments that International Socialism has welcomed and has sought to respond to constructively from the start.13 One of the positive effects of the crisis of the past year is the stimulus it has provided to wide-ranging discussion of issues relating to class, exploitation and oppression, especially in this journal and on its website. This discussion will continue. Laura Miles’s path-breaking article on transgender oppression in the present issue is a token of this, but there is much more to come.

It is in any case important that the SWP will survive this crisis. The Gadarene rush by much of the radical left to find excuses for McCluskey underlines the necessity of sustaining an organisation that simultaneously works in a non-sectarian way with other forces on the left and bases itself on clear revolutionary Marxist principles. Indeed there is a strong sense in which Grangemouth settles the debate between Rooksby and Blackledge over whether there is a practical difference between left reformism and revolutionary socialism. This journal has always started from the self-activity of the working class-not as a distant goal but as the criterion for daily political practice. Leaders, organisations and tactics have all to be judged by how they contribute to advancing workers’ self-activity. After Grangemouth rebuilding the strong traditions of rank and file self-confidence and organisation that used to typify the British workers’ movement is a more urgent task than ever. The SWP has an essential part to play in this process.


1: Sherry, 2013.

2: Farrell, 2013.

3: Seymour, 2013, p15.

4: Harman, 1996.

5: See the detailed analysis of the dispute in Sewell, Kimber and Bradley, 2013.

6: Zizek, 1999, p199. Zizek’s views on Lenin are most fully developed in his Afterword to Zizek, ed, 2002. For some reservations about Zizek’s version of Leninism, see Callinicos, 2001.

7: Cliff, 1969.

8: Elliott and Inman, 2013.


10: Rooksby, 2013.

11: Parker, 2013.

12: See Kimber and Callinicos, 2013a and b, and Wolfreys and others, 2013.

13: For example, Orr, 2010.


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