Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

Shortly before the news that the LSA would not 'on principle confront the BNP at the ballot box for fear it might split the Labour vote' broke, controversies surrounding Red Actions affiliation to the LSA were already surfacing.

With many RA members at best ambivalent, concerns were also voiced in letters and posts to the internet discussion site from interested parties who might loosely be described as Red Action periphery.
Below we publish a selection of questions from one, Gill Emerson an ANL member once fire-bombed by C18, who was also involved in discussions around the formation of the Independent Working Class Association in the mid-90's. Joe Reilly replies.

Q] While agreeing with your assessment of the Socialist Alliances and the reason the various sects have battened on to them, why do you view the "Left's new willingness to confront Labour electorally" as "a real step forward"?

A] There are, I think, two sections to the situation, which though separate, are both undeniably progressive. The first is that the formation of the Socialist Alliances signals that the 'era of the sect is over' - even if the sects were always going to be the last ones to recognise this. Trotskyism, the rock the the Left clung to for half a century has crumbled in the face of harsh reality. This is surely undeniable. Over a period of fifty years Trotskyism is shown not to have the answers to contemporary working class problems. In reality it never had. That collectively we can now safely put such cant aside is a step forward, for all of us, adherents and detractors alike. Without the perennial tussle to be proved Trotsky's true heirs, a more rational debate amongst those who instinctively identify with each other on everything else must emerge. This is not to say that the Socialist Alliance is the way forward in itself, but at least it opens up the possibility of shared objectives, something which hitherto was unrealisable. And only when the idea of common enemies and shared objectives can be discussed rationally can there be any real discussion on what those objectives might be. So in that alone, Left unity is objectively progressive. Equally, 'standing against Labour' is not so bad when you consider the alternative!

Again, this formal break with Labour, though significantly not theorised, is another step in the right direction. It would be impossible to regard them otherwise, particularly as these were two very basic measures RA has been arguing for since 1995.

Q] Why, at exactly the time when a significant number of working class people are for the first time dissillusioned with parliamentary politics, is it a positive step for revolutionary socialists to decide now of all times, to join the race for votes?

A] In the first place there must be a huge question mark placed against the accuracy of the description 'revolutionary socialists', for two reasons. One, there is little or nothing in the custom and practice of the component parts of the Socialist Alliance to mark it down as radical, much less revolutionary. Secondly, as a number of RA publications have addressed, there is also in an even larger question mark over the existence of socialism itself. The very notion of an all encompassing 'Labour Movement', or terms like 'the point of production', 'municipal socialism', 'workers control', 'nationalisation; all previously hallmarks, have about them now a tangible air of antiquity. Socialism is moreover a programme of action no longer widely understood, or indeed accepted. If you doubt this, ask any socialist to define it in a single sentence, and watch them stumble over the basic construction. As for public disillusion with 'parliamentary politics', I think the voting trajectory shows that it is very specifically the working class who increasingly since 1997, see the pointlessness of voting either in parliamentary - or - councils elections. The alienation is not just from parliament but from the mainstream parties who seek their votes at a local level. It is arguably at this local level that it is most marked.

Q] What exactly is the point of exposing socialist candidates to public humiliation, lost deposits, and almost certainly getting less votes than fascist candidates?

A] I think that the Left generally would need to first take on board the concept of individual shame before ever dealing with the more complex and subjective concept of 'public humiliation'. As regards the vista of 'lost deposits', it is RA's conviction that the whole General Election initiative is both ill-judged and wrong headed. It seems to be defined by the need of the SWP to be seen to be confronting Labour rather than any particular ambition to serve the needs of the working class. Contrary to received wisdom within the SA, grandstanding in parliamentary by-elections and representing working class interests are not the same thing. This subtlety, the components parts of the SA are still to come to terms with.

Yet another contentious area for the SA revolves around the question of confronting the Far-Right at the ballot box. Clearly the Beckton decision involved far more than a concern to avoid 'letting the BNP in'. Afterall this is the same BNP whose 80,000 votes the SWP described as 'tiny' following the GLA elections last June. Following a poor showing in a by-election in Preston toward the end of the year, this is also the same BNP whose challenge another highly vocal member of the 'alliance', felt ought to be dismissed from any tactical consideration 'for once and for all'. So while in the short term, the ducking of the BNP at Beckton might have avoided the forced eating of a lot of crow, in the longer term the currrent SA posturing on a range of race related issues will have to be squarely faced up to. If in the short term, 'getting less votes than fascist candidates' forces a re-think - then the sooner the better.

Q] Wouldn't it be more productive to engage in the general election by campaigning, leafleting etc on a platform of stating clearly what we actually believe in; ie voting is a sham, big business/money rule things not voters, get active in your community to change things yourselves, don't rely on politicians..?

A] Again the whole 'voting is a sham' strategm is not unrelated to the Beckton scenario. What it tends to indicate is that behind all the pseudo revolutionary bombast there lurks a critical lack of belief in the resonance of the politics being espoused, not to mention the willingness and ability of the working class to identify with them. Stripped down, the problem certainly at a local level is not simply that 'money rules', or that 'voting is a sham'. In truth when really put to a vote the cherished programmes of the sects, anarchist and socialist alike, do not pass muster. Generally, elections do not lie; afterwards everyone knows where they credibly stand. Which is exactly what all sects and ideologies find abhorrent.

Of all the tendencies who claim to believe in the notion of 'getting active in your community' it is only, and I include the BNP in this, the IWCA which in its various pilot schemes has fully grasped what the concept of being 'politically active in the community means'. At a more advanced level, Sinn Fein are turning this strategy into a political art. What it involves is fighting for immediate working class interests, and through this being seen to be the most comitted and effective fighters for the class. Such a strategy means taking consultation and accountability seriously. Not just on issues with which the Left is comfortable like anti-privatisation, but also on others like drugs, anti-social crime, the impact of immigration and so on.

It means targeting wards and putting your record to the test against the mainstream parties at elections. It means regardless of the result, getting back out after the elections to build on the foundation. It means hard work, that ultimately registers in the public mind a commitment to 'the long haul'. Ultimately, as both the IWCA and Irish republicans in their separate ways both found, there is no getting around claiming to represent the interests of the community and not standing for public office. Either you enjoy popular support and have a mandate or you don't. With eternal lobbyism, which is one alternative, one or two things can happen. Either your real achievements are filched and represented by someone else as theirs, (which was the political relationship between republicans and the SDLP prior to 1983 when SF first stood) or alternatively the vacuum is filled by someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum, as AFA has long warned would inevitably happen, even in areas where anti-fascists were previously dominant.

The IWCA slogan 'working class rule in working class areas' is about empowering working class communities through the persistent foregrounding of immediate working class interests. Not only is such 'out-radicalisng' the best bulwark against the Far-Right establishing electoral footholds it is also the only building block for 'total social change'. This is the message RA delegates will be confronting the LSA with in July, (when the London steering committee is reconstituted). Afterall, confronting the conservative Left is essentially what RA is in the LSA to do.

Reproduced from RA Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 11, May/June '01