Where is the British left going?

Issue: 139

Alex Callinicos

Mainstream British politics seems stuck in a weird time loop in which it is doomed to repeat the 1990s. The Conservative-Liberal coalition government is headed towards a car crash. This could come in May 2015, when the scheduled general election will witness, according to the opinion polls, a Labour victory. Or it could come earlier, if the Tory party succumbs to the increasingly toxic divisions within it over the European Union.

These divisions are particularly bizarre since they revolve largely around symbolic issues. The rows inside the Tory party over Europe that destroyed John Major’s government centred on big events—the putsch that removed Margaret Thatcher from the premiership in November 1990, the Maastricht Treaty of December 1991 that created the single currency and the struggle to get it through the House of Commons, and Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992, when the pound was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System.1

This time, however, David Cameron is running scared in the face of Tory backbenchers demanding that he commit the government now to holding an in-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership after the next election. Since he couldn’t persuade his Liberal Democrat partners to agree to this, he had to acquiesce in a massive rebellion by 114 of his own MPs over the Queen’s Speech and to back a private member’s bill providing for such a referendum (even though Labour and the Lib Dems will presumably vote it down).

Cameron’s promise of a referendum in January was supposed to calm down his own backbenchers and dispose of the challenge from the UK Independence Party. The opposite has happened. After UKIP won nearly one in four votes in the county council elections at the beginning of May, the Tory right went into overdrive. They are now demanding that Cameron publish the terms on which he will try to renegotiate British membership of the EU—presumably with the aim of forcing him to harden them up so agreement is impossible.

Cameron’s inability to discipline either his backbenchers or his own cabinet (Michael Gove and Philip Hammond have both said they would vote to leave the EU in a referendum) makes Major seem positively strong by comparison. According to Andrew Rawnsley, “however badly the Tories were convulsed in the past, they just about held together. I think it is no longer impossible to imagine that ultimately the Conservative Party will formally split over Europe—an outcome a referendum could actually make more likely”.2

So why has the Tory debate on Europe turned so toxic? It’s true that the euro crisis has threatened Britain’s comfortable perch at the edge of the eurozone, attracting foreign direct investment aimed at the Single Market and with the City of London operating as the EU’s financial capital. If the eurozone hangs together (still quite a big if), it will become much more tightly integrated and is unlikely to tolerate the City’s dominance of euro trading (the latest threatening move from Brussels is a proposal that the Paris-based European Securities and Market Authority take over supervision of the scandal-ridden Libor—the London interbank overnight lending rate). But arguments for Britain to leave the EU—for example by Thatcher’s former chancellor Nigel Lawson—tend to stress the distinctively global orientation of British capitalism, without noting how much this ties it to the US economically and geopolitically. And the message from Washington—delivered by Barack Obama most recently during a visit in May by Cameron, who was duly humiliated by his rebels back in London—is firmly that Britain should stay in the EU.

Two factors seem more important in explaining the Tory malaise, one long-term, the other more immediate. The first is the general weakening of the main parties.3 Their share of the vote continues to decline, along with their membership and their reach into a society that in any case, as Neil Davidson points out elsewhere in this issue, has become much more atomised since Thatcher’s advent in 1979. Weakened social moorings at the base are matched at the top by leadership staffs slavishly loyal to the neoliberal elite consensus and obsessively geared to staying ahead of the news cycle. This can work fine so long as the economy and opinion polls are going the leadership’s way: remember Tony Blair’s ascendancy before he opened the map of Iraq.

But when things go wrong, with an activist base too thin to hold the line, votes can haemorrhage easily to smaller parties outside the consensus. This is an especially dangerous situation for a leader of the Conservative Party, where lack of even lip service to democracy is tempered by a tradition of ruthlessly removing failed prime ministers, and MPs and activists have been socialised into Europhobia by the factional wars of the 1990s.

This brings us to the second factor. Tim Bale:

acknowledges the capacity of leaders to influence the party’s activists. But that influence—unless the leader is an icon—is evanescent and, just as importantly, dependent on being seen as a winner. That is Mr Cameron’s problem: the activists selected him in 2005 over a rival who was, in many ways, much closer to their own instincts because they thought he would end their electoral losing streak. But he no longer looks like a winner so they are regretting their choice. They even claim he has betrayed them.4

The reason why Cameron doesn’t look like a winner is, of course, that the coalition’s economic policy is a complete failure. Far from reinvigorating the British economy, George Osborne’s imposition of austerity three years ago has left it crawling along the bottom. And the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has pointed out that government spending plans provide for £33 billion more cuts in the first three years of the next parliament, conjuring up the cheerful prospect of austerity lasting till 2020.5

The intellectual case for austerity has been more broadly discredited, notably by the exposure of serious errors in Carmen Reinhart’s and Kenneth Rogoff’s attempt to prove that high debt causes low growth. In April the ultra-neoliberal president of the European Commission (EC), José Manuel Barroso, conceded that austerity has “reached its limits in many aspects”.6 More recently even the International Monetary Fund has admitted that the “rescue” of Greece by it in alliance with the EC and the European Central Bank was mishandled.

Meanwhile a study commissioned by the IFS highlights the brutal effect of the crisis on living standards in Britain: “In April 2011, average real hourly wages were 4 percent lower than they were at the start of the recession in April 2008.” By comparison, average real hourly wages were 5 percent higher three years after the start of the recession of the early 1980s and 10 percent higher after that in the early 1990s recession. In 2010-11 70 percent of workers who stayed in the same job suffered a cut in real wages, while a third saw their nominal earnings frozen or cut (12 percent suffered pay freezes, 21 percent actual wage cuts). “The last time that such a high proportion of workers faced real wage cuts was between 1976 and 1977, when inflation exceeded 15 percent, while the proportions of nominal wage freezes and cuts are the highest since the series began in the mid-1970s”.7

IFS director Paul Johnson declares: “This time really is different. We are in uncharted territory,” compared to earlier recessions.8 In fact the study’s explanation for the wage squeeze is that a working population rising from 35.4 million in 1981 to 40.5 million in 2011 (mainly thanks to net migration), benefit and pension changes that are pushing more lone parents and older people onto the labour market, and the weakening of trade unions have combined to increase the pressure on workers to accept lower wages to keep their jobs. This helped to make it rational for bosses to hang onto workers at the price of falling productivity. None of this would have come as much of a surprise to Marx, who argued that “the general movement of wages is exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army” of labour.9 Such a harsh squeeze on living standards may be good news for profits, but it doesn’t help the coalition’s re-election chances.

So it’s not surprising that Labour is consistently ahead in the opinion polls. But, as commentators and politicians endlessly point out, this lead is too narrow to guarantee victory in May 2015. Moreover, Ed Miliband and his shadow chancellor of the exchequer, Ed Balls, are on the defensive on the key issue of the economy. Black Wednesday destroyed the Tories’ claim to economic competence for 15 years. But Labour was in office at the time of the financial crash in 2008 and continues to suffer from its association with Gordon Brown’s economic stewardship between 1997 and 2010, first as chancellor and then as prime minister; Balls in particular was Brown’s close adviser for nearly 20 years.

A reasonable response to this plight might be critically to re-examine Brown’s commitment to neoliberalism, which led him to strike a devil’s pact with the City in the hope that the financial markets would deliver enough economic growth to fund limited redistribution via tax credits and targeted benefits. Instead Miliband and Balls are trying to mimic Brown’s strategy in opposition, which led him in January 1997 to pledge to continue the limits on public spending imposed by the Tory chancellor of the day, Kenneth Clarke. Accordingly Miliband promised in early June that, if elected in 2015, a Labour government would impose a cap on welfare spending that isn’t affected by the fluctuations of the business cycle, and has even toyed with including pensions in this cap.10

So voters will face in May 2015 a choice between three parties, all led by Oxbridge fortysomething men in suits, and all committed to continuing austerity policies that are widely seen to have failed. Since Labour has experienced a similar process of decline to that suffered by the Tories, shouldn’t Miliband too be in danger of losing votes to smaller parties? George Galloway’s astonishing victory in the Bradford West by-election in March 2012 showed that Labour is indeed vulnerable to its left.

Galloway subsequently threw away the opportunity he had won to reinvigorate the British radical left. But the yearning for a left alternative has been shown by the widespread response to Ken Loach’s appeal in March for “a new political party of the left to bring together those who wish to defend the welfare state and present an economic alternative to austerity”.11 A large number of Left Unity groups have been formed on the basis of this appeal and as a step towards a new party.

As one supporter of this initiative, Ed Rooksby, argues, a crucial element in the conjuncture favouring it is:

an external one—the international influence and prestige of Syriza [the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece]. The Syriza phenomenon has demonstrated that it is possible for a coalition of fairly disparate left forces to win mass support with a clear anti-austerity agenda and win such support very rapidly. More than this, Syriza has shown that it is possible for the radical left to challenge seriously for power. The morale-raising psychological impact of this on socialists across Europe should not be underestimated. This Syriza effect interacts with the loosening of Labour’s political hegemony—further contributing to the sense that it is possible to build an effective political force to the left of Labour. It has also created a renewed sense of possibility among more radical left groupings.12

The explosive advance of Syriza in the two Greek general elections of May and June 2012 was indeed a major political event. There has been quite a lot of discussion about whether Syriza and the more or less simultaneous advance of the Front de Gauche under Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French presidential elections represented more than a revival of left reformism, as I argued.13 Paul Blackledge continues this debate elsewhere in the present issue. But there is a separate question whether the conditions favour the emergence of a similar party in Britain. Rooksby is right that a widespread desire for a British Syriza is putting wind in Left Unity’s sails. But this doesn’t abolish the inherent gap between desires and reality.

If one looks at the European radical left more broadly one can say three things. First, it has not experienced a general electoral advance since the outbreak of the global economic and financial crisis. A good example is provided by Die Linke in Germany, which finds itself under significant pressure in the lead up to the federal parliamentary elections in September from both the Greens and the new right wing anti-euro party Alternative für Deutschland. Even Mélenchon’s performance last year was overshadowed by the impact of the far-right Front National under Marine Le Pen.

Secondly, and at least partially in explanation of this weakness, the radical left’s response to the crisis has been timid. Once again Die Linke is a case in point. When the party’s ex-chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, declared at the end of April that the euro had been a disaster and called for a coordinated return to national currencies, he was roundly denounced by the Die Linke leadership. At a time when the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has used saving the euro to justify the imposition of austerity, Die Linke’s championship of the euro gravely weakens its ability to offer an alternative. But its stance is not exceptional. Francisco Louçã, one of the leaders of the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal, has argued that, “in the present context, leaving the euro is the worst of all possible solutions”.14

Thirdly, there have been two poles to the European radical left, the stronger represented by the unapologetically reformist orientation of Die Linke, the other, smaller but far from negligible, constituted by the historic representatives of the revolutionary left, most notably the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in France, but also the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain. But in the past year the NPA has suffered a damaging split, with a section of its historic leadership leaving with Gauche Anticapitaliste to join the Front de Gauche, while the SWP has experienced a serious internal crisis. These developments have undoubtedly encouraged activists to see broad parties of the radical left as the way forward. Referring to “the recent bust-up in the SWP”, Rooksby argues that “this has clearly shaken up the political landscape on the left and opened up a new space for realignment. In interaction with the Syriza effect, this has created a very promising situation for building a new, broad coalition”.15

But, against the background sketched out here, it seems more plausible to see Syriza’s breakthrough as exceptional. More specifically, it was a product of two conditions. First, the Pasok government of Andreas Papandreou transformed an already severe economic crisis into a 1930s-scale slump by implementing the austerity programme imposed by the troika of the EC, ECB and IMF. This led in May-June 2012 to a meltdown in the electoral base of Pasok, the main reformist party in Greece, which only two and a half years earlier had won a parliamentary majority. Its share of the vote fell from 43.9 percent in October 2009 to 12.3 percent in June 2012, while, as Yiannis Mavris puts it, “it is Syriza that has emerged as the dominant political formation among the middle and working class strata who have been impoverished by the economic crisis”.16

But the fact that the radical left was the main beneficiary of Pasok’s collapse rather than the fascists of Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) or the Democratic Left, the right wing breakaway from Syriza’s main component, Synaspismos, must be put down to the second condition, namely the intensity of the social struggles that Greece has experienced, starting with the youth revolt of December 2009 and extending into the 30 general strikes with which workers in both the private and the public sector have greeted the imposition of austerity. These struggles have not succeeded in defeating the immense assault on working people that has been mounted in the past three years, but it has sustained a sense of self-confidence and collective power that has been politically expressed in the rise of Syriza.

How well do these conditions translate into the British situation? Regrettably, not at all. For all the limitations of Labour’s performance in opposition, Miliband has presided over a significant revival in the party’s electoral fortunes after the low point reached in June 2010, when Labour did only marginally better than it did in the historic disaster of June 1983. Thatcher’s landslide then was, of course, made possible by the right wing breakaway from Labour by the Social Democratic Party, which, in alliance with the Liberals, split the left of centre vote.

This time, however, it is the right that is split, with the Tories polling up to 15 points below their 20th century general election mean and UKIP under Nigel Farage presenting itself, in Patrick Dunleavy’s words, as “an authentic-looking heir to Thatcherism, appropriating especially its uninhibited nationalism, extreme market liberalism and unreasoned social conservatism in ways that take the party well beyond its old single-issue format”.17 Labour’s support may be soft, and the party has suffered the same broad process of decline as the Tories. So it is potentially vulnerable to challenges from its left, as Bradford West shows. But, far from being on the verge of collapse, it looks set to win the next general election, if only by default.

Secondly, how stands the class struggle? Britain in 2011 experienced a whiff of Greece with the two public sector mass strikes of 30 June and 30 November. But the leaders of the largest unions swiftly settled their dispute with the government over pensions, and the determined efforts of activists particularly in the main left public sector unions (NUT, PCS, and UCU) to sustain the strike campaign have been met with only very limited success.

With the strikes stalled, the focus of resistance has shifted to the coalition’s assault on the welfare state—most notably the bedroom tax cutting housing benefit to those with “spare” bedrooms, hospital closures and changes to the Disability Living Allowance. These issues have mobilised impressive local demonstrations and led to the formation in May of the Anti-Bedroom Tax and Benefit Justice Federation. In such a climate, the call for the People’s Assembly against Austerity, which attracted around 4,000 participants in Westminster on 22 June to launch “a single united national movement…to challenge more effectively a nationally led government austerity programme” couldn’t have been better timed.18

Some of the founders of Left Unity have also been actively involved in the launch of the People’s Assembly (PA). But theirs is not the dominant politics involved. The PA’s most prominent public advocate is the columnist Owen Jones; its most powerful backer is Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite. Both are strongly committed to the project of “reclaiming Labour” from the Blairite politics that continues to reign in the party. McCluskey has indeed been willing to clash directly with Miliband, warning that if he listens to the Blairites in the shadow cabinet and adopts an “an austerity-lite programme…then the truth is that he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history”.19 As leader of Unite, McCluskey has pursued an ambitious political strategy, forming community branches to organise the unemployed and earning accusations from the Labour right that he is trying to change the composition of the parliamentary party through the union’s sponsorship of candidates.

Thus Labour is ahead in the polls and experiencing the first real upsurge in its left wing for 30 years. The chronic weakness of the Labour left was a striking feature of the Blair-Brown era. Despite the prominence of its leading figures in the Stop the War Coalition, the biggest mass movement Britain had witnessed in many years did not stimulate a revival of the Labour left; on the contrary, the main political fruit of Stop the War was the attempt by some of its leaders to form an alternative to Labour in the shape of Respect. It is perhaps the failure of this attempt (along with others of its kind such as the Scottish Socialist Party) that, in the context of a shallow but real revival of Labourism, has helped make the project of reclaiming Labour seem more plausible.

So not only have there been nothing like the intense class struggles that Greece has witnessed, but Left Unity faces a rival in the shape of a resurgent Labour left. Of course, the two currents can cohabit within the framework of the PA. The latter is modelled on Stop the War, which was designed to allow activists from the reformist and revolutionary left to work together alongside many other forces against the “war on terror”. But there is a deeper political convergence this time. To a significant degree, Left Unity, like McCluskey and Jones, is committed to reviving left reformism. Thus the reference point for Loach’s initial appeal is his film The Spirit of 45, which casts the achievements of the post-war Labour government in a rather more glowing light than much of his earlier work did.

Now, at one level, all this is fine. Defending existing reforms against a right wing neoliberal coalition determined to dismantle them is essential. And an upsurge in left reformism would be a step forward, just as Syriza’s electoral advance last year in Greece was. The last, much more deeply based upsurge of the Labour left, under Tony Benn’s leadership in the late 1970s and early 1980s, took place against the background of, and to some degree temporarily compensated for, the severe economic defeats workers were suffering at the hands of the Thatcher government.20 The case of Syriza shows by contrast how the reformist left can grow politically thanks to rising workers’ struggles.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of the story. The public sector general strike on 30 November 2011 was not followed up with more and tougher action because the trade union leaders decided to cut a deal with the government. Because the bulk of Unite’s membership is in the private sector, McCluskey was able to avoid much of the blame for this betrayal. But, despite his high-profile and welcome espousal of militant action, his practice hasn’t been notably different from that of other union leaders. Thus Unite has contributed to the wages squeeze by accepting, for example, a long-term pay freeze and cuts to Christmas and holiday pay at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant.21 This is a reminder that the social character of the trade union bureaucracy as a conservative layer within the workers’ movement is more important than the political differences that may divide it. It also helps to explain why the left wing challenger, Jerry Hicks, won
36 percent of the vote when McCluskey ran for re-election earlier this year.

Given, then, the prominence of McCluskey and other trade union leaders in the PA, one can’t simply rely on its calls. This is partly a matter of building the local People’s Assemblies as real networks of activists that can strengthen the resistance to austerity. But it is necessary also to continue to build the Unite the Resistance, founded in 2011 as a coalition of left wing union officials and activists to press for strikes, but needed now also as a forum for militants unwilling simply to trust even the most left wing union leaders to deliver action and a network of solidarity with those groups of workers who do fight.

Moreover, there are other fronts of struggle. The coalition’s difficulties and the successes of UKIP have encouraged the main parties, egged on by a tabloid press in xenophobic overdrive, to compete to establish their “toughness” on immigrants. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that in such a climate the aftermath of the killing of an off-duty soldier by two would-be jihadists in Woolwich on 22 May should have seen a wave of attacks on Muslims, as well as attempts by the English Defence League and the British National Party to regain some of the ground they have lost in the past couple of years. Of course, successful resistance to austerity can rebuild confidence in collective solutions and therefore undercut the appeal of racism, particularly if it involves immigrant workers and communities. The PA had a workshop “Immigration Not to Blame”. But there need to be more targeted efforts as well—the mass mobilisations against the Nazis mounted by Unite against Fascism and broader campaigns against racism and Islamophobia and in defence of migrants.

So the broad front against austerity than the PA aspires to become may well be an important factor in the coming period, even if it is not on its own sufficient to address all the problems faced by workers. But there is, finally, the question of politics and of the limits of left reformism. Syriza’s electoral advance may be a political expression of mass struggles, but it also can also react back onto and restrain these struggles. One reason why the tempo of struggle in Greece has lessened is because workers are waiting for a Syriza government. Meanwhile, the Syriza leadership, grooming itself for office, is seeking to project an image of moderation. It’s not a huge surprise, then, that Syriza union leaders played a decisive role in mid-May in calling off a teachers’ strike that the government was threatening to break through conscription.

As Blackledge shows, this kind of behaviour isn’t a result of personal malice, but is a consequence of how the logic of using the existing state to secure reforms leads reformist parties to take responsibility for managing capitalism. This is one of the main reasons why revolutionary socialists, who seek the transformation of society through the self-emancipation of workers and the oppressed, need to organise independently.22 This doesn’t settle the venue for such organising, however. The formation of Left Unity, despite the difficulties noted above, is a potentially important initiative. It isn’t clear what role, if any, its leaders envisage the existing organisations of the far left playing within their new party. But the SWP would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the development of a serious political alternative to Labourism.

In any case, organised revolutionary politics is necessary—not simply to help sustain the different fronts of struggle and to promote the development of rank and file movements that can begin to fight independently of the trade union bureaucracy—but also, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, for its role in highlighting “the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”, setting every individual struggle against the horizon of capitalism and the movement to overthrow it.23


1: The political economy of the 1990s debates is analysed in Callinicos, 1997. For a recent account of the ERM crisis, see James, 2012, chapter 9.

2: Rawnsley, 2013.

3: See the broader analysis of the British party system in Callinicos, 2010.

4: Bale, 2013.

5: Pickard and Neville, 2013.

6: Spiegel, 2013.

7: Blundell, Crawford, and Jin, 2013, pp4, 25-26.

8: Johnson, 2013.

9: Marx, 1976, p790. See Roberts, 2013.

10: Watt, 2013. For an excessively uncritical but interesting account of Brown’s and Balls’s economic strategy, see Peston, 2005.

11: http://leftunity.org/appeal/

12: Rooksby, 2013.

13: Callinicos, 2012. See, on Mélenchon, Wolfreys, 2012.

14: Louçã, 2012.

15: Rooksby, 2013.

16: Mavris, 2012, pp97, 99, 106.

17: Dunleavy, 2013.

18: 19: Eaton, 2013.

20: See Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, chapters 12 and 16, where Bennism is compared unfavourably in terms of its base to the Bevanite movement of the mid-1950s.

21: Basketter, 2012.

22: The case is put more fully in my widely denounced response to the SWP’s critics, Callinicos, 2013.

23: Marx and Engels, 1998, p51.


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