Left Unity and the People’s Assembly

Charlie Hore writes:

In recent weeks I’ve had a number of odd discussions, both in person and online, in which comrades have conflated the People’s Assembly and Left Unity as essentially being the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing.

On the face of it this is odd. The stated aims of the two projects are entirely dissimilar. The People’s Assembly aims to pull together unions, campaigns and activists to mount a broad-based opposition to the government’s austerity project; Left Unity aims to pull together political activists to the left of Labour to create a new political vehicle.

When you look at the political motivations of those who are pushing the projects forward, there is again a huge difference. For Len McCluskey, Owen Jones and the other left Labour supporters of the PA, it will help to pull activists into the Labour Party, or at least into its orbit (and the current spat between McCluskey and Miliband will beef up the reclaim Labour project as well as repelling people from Labour).

For Ken Loach and the other Left Unity supporters, LU will provide a pole of attraction for people who have broken with Labour. At that level, the two are pulling in opposite directions, as this rather disobliging review of the PA shows.

And of course in print the SWP has been clear about our very different attitudes to the two projects: welcoming the PA, while being fraternally critical of Left Unity (in response to Ed Rooksby’s article on this issue).

But they’re both reformist. Well, in the sense that neither call for the overthrow of capitalism, yes. And the Big Issue and the Salvation Army are alike because both ask you for money on the streets.

Any campaign that seeks to fight a particular symptom of capitalism without addressing the root of the problem is similarly reformist: the campaign against the bedroom tax, Defend Council Housing, Unite Against Fascism… There is a political home for those who think that all partial campaigns are reformist – it’s the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a tradition the SWP has never had much in common with.

Both show the resurgence of left reformism. That’s a bit nearer the mark. But this is hardly surprising – we are two years away from the general election, the government is widely distrusted, and other left electoral projects arent attractive to anyone but their own partisans. More importantly, in the past we have welcomed the resurgence of left reformism.

We were critical of Bennism in the early 1980s, while welcoming the fact that people were moving to the left. And that was a genuine welcome – from what was written in our press, through what we said to the Benn supporters we met in our unions and in our campaigns. Now the response is essentially a sectarian one.

I suspect the real reason people are disgruntled are that both look to be big, vibrant projects that we are not central to. Ed Rooksby was on the money when he cited one reason for Left Unity’s rise as being “the recent bust-up in the SWP… [which] has clearly shaken up the political landscape on the left and opened up a new space for realignment.

Alex Callinicos underscores this in the latest issue of the ISJThe 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.” The ball is in their court. Compare and contrast with Respect, where it was not possible to keep us out, much as some of the founders might have wished.

The reality is that we haven’t had a clear view of either, and as a result haven’t had much to say to people who are enthused about them. Tony Cliff used to say that we had to be the party of people who smiled: even if we were having a sharp argument, we could do it within the context of a friendly working relationship.

And that smile came from a confidence in our political analysis and tradition, based on a realistic appraisal of the possibilities in what was a very difficult political period. We’re not smiling now.


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