The widest possible movements?
Having been a writer at Liberal Conspiracy for a while now, the concept of co-operation between political parties should be one of interest to me. LibCon has writers from amidst Labour, the Lib Dems, the socialist Left, Greens and oodles of independents. Party political co-operation is the theme of veteran commentators Neal Lawson and John Harris, addressed also by Paul over at Bickerstaffe Record. As the nature of political movements is something I’m forever debating with Tom, I figure I should toss him a link also.
A particularly relevant passage in the Lawson and Harris NS article describes Charter 88 and the Countryside Alliance, or the Scottish Constitutional Convention, as the sort of groups the Left need to emulate. Oh really? We should be aiming to bring together ‘parties, churches and other civic groups’ should we? The aim of such a coalition is obvious from the article; to ‘regulate’ the market and reverse the ‘failure of democracy’ which led to our sacrifice upon the altar of free market fundamentalism, and other such nifty alliterative phrases.
Accepting the need to establish a minimum programme on which basis to consider political coalitions is an obvious step for the socialist Left. A unity on the basis of a minimum programme, however, isn’t what Lawson and Harris advocate – nor is it the only issue. The methods of coalition are just as important. If ‘form follows function’, then the unity of a bunch of NGOs, churches, political parties and so forth can only result in a rather stale political environment, sheltered from the will of the people they’re trying to serve.
From the point of view of the socialist Left, moreover, the programme that Lawson and Harris advocate is so far from being tall enough to tie the bootlaces of a minimum programme. They laud the market as a creator of wealth. They claim that it is a fault of democratic vigilance that the economy has reached the crisis it is currently in. Though they recognize the ‘nature’ of capitalism to tend towards monopoly and disaster, we shouldn’t hold that against our system, because if properly regulated, it’ll do its job fine.
In saying these things, Lawson and Harris still place themselves on the political Right of the Labour Party as it has existed for most of the last one hundred years. They are correct in that the ability of organised capitalism to run rampant is ultimately contingent upon our ability to stop it, but they neglect to mention that every time we’re in a position to stop it, people much like themselves try to put on the brakes. Indeed they lay the embryo for such a stance by their very support for this mystical invention, ‘the regulated market’.
If we examine the other rhetoric from these commentators, their professions of faith in coalition may carry even less weight. Both Harris and Lawson were fine with Blairite policies during the 1990s; in retrospect it’s easy to pick out free market fundamentalism as a bad call, but for Lawson in particular, it seems tendentious to forget that the door to such fundamentalism was opened by his Trot-hunting buddies in the Labour Co-ordinating Committee. Is a coalition to return us merely to the era of untarnished ‘modernisation’?
So the shared ‘aims’ of socialists (within Labour) and people like Lawson and Harris are suspect, throwing ‘coalition’ into doubt.
That’s not to say I don’t know who the ‘enemy’ is right now, within Labour. Should Compass, in a bid to win the leadership of the Labour Party, promise organisational and policy changes which the LRC supports, we should throw our weight to them. But there’s a difference between qualified support and a simplistic advocacy for coalition between Left groups. This advocacy for coalition also covers important differences between those Left groups and ignores just how limited the common ground is.
Even while we work on common ground though – for example, civil liberties or wealth redistribution – we should acknowledge that the space for this collaboration is effectively sustained only by our separation from the levers of power. Should Compass accede to government at some point in the future, the conflicting pressures of a popular movement and the constrictions of the capitalist State will tell upon the Compass programme and it is my view that Compass would fail at the test, as have all Labour governments before it.
At that point of course, the space would open for a neo-Compass and the cycle would repeat perhaps. All of this hinges upon the notion, which seems fairly current, that Compass will be the future of the Labour Party, post-election, when most of the Blairite/Brownite PLP will be wiped out. Whether it is the case that the slick policy wankery of Compass will attract a following sufficient to swing CLPs and some Unions remains to be seen – but bearing in mind the contradictions which Compass enshrines, this isn’t unlikely.
And so we come to the key issue of coalition, from the point of view of an LRC member. We can’t afford to big up Compass in the eyes of what supporters we have, since they only seem radical in contrast to the most frightfully right-wing leadership that Labour has ever had. If we need to support them to improve our own ability to agitate amongst workers, then we should – but we need to be able to criticize their weaknesses clearly, delineating our own position as ultimately antagonistic to Compass.
During a time of intensified class struggle, the importance of these divisions will heighten measurably as elements of the Labour Party are propelled towards the interests of Capital, and elements are propelled towards the interests of labour. Radical talk about redistribution can become bitter opposition to the most basic activist-led demands of the working class, as in the case of Kinnock with the Miners or of Gordon Brown with the strikers at Lindsey Oil Refinery and subsequently all across the country.
When considering this future, we need to remember the phrases of the United Front: we march separately and we strike together. No illusions in Compass, or its prophets, but an open handed policy towards united efforts by those groups who command the support of socialist activists.