Capitalism is in crisis, but its opponents are writhing around in an even bigger mess. The largest far-left organisation in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, is currently imploding in the aftermath of a shocking internal scandal. After a leading figure was accused of raping a member, the party set up a “court” staffed with senior party members, which exonerated him. “Creeping feminism” has been flung around as a political insult. Prominent members, such as authors China Miéville and Richard Seymour, have publicly assailed their party’s leadership. Activists are reported to be in open rebellion at their autocratic leadership, or are simply deserting en masse.
This might all sound parochial, the obscure goings-on out on the fringes of Britain’s marginal revolutionary left. But the SWP has long punched above its weight. It formed the basis of the organisation behind the Stop The War Coalition, for example, which – almost exactly a decade go – mobilised up to two million people to take to the streets against the impending Iraqi bloodbath. Even as they repelled other activists with sectarianism and aggressive recruitment drives, they helped drive crucial movements such as Unite Against Fascism, which recently organised a huge demonstration in Walthamstow that humiliated the racist English Defence League. Thousands hungry for an alternative to the disaster of neo-liberalism have entered the SWP’s ranks over the years – many, sadly, to end up burnt out and demoralised.
But the truth is that Britain urgently needs a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity, inflicted on this country without any proper mandate. That doesn’t mean yet another Leninist sect, lacking any semblance of internal democracy, obsessed with replicating a revolution that took place in a semi-feudal country nearly a century ago.
The history – and failures – of the radical left are imprinted on my own family, spanning four generations: my relatives had wages docked in the 1926 General Strike and joined failed projects ranging from the Independent Labour Party to the Communists. My parents met in the Trotskyist Militant Tendency in the late 1960s; my father became their South Yorkshire organiser, and striking miners babysat my brothers while he fought (unsuccessfully) for revolution. The era of Leninist party-building surely ended a long time ago.
Neither would I argue for yet another party of the left to be built, Leninist or not. Britons are becoming poorer with every passing year; the wealthy elite continues to boom – the increase in the fortunes of the richest 1,000 since 2008 eclipses our annual deficit; and Labour’s leaders are still to offer a genuine alternative to austerity. But parties challenging Labour for the mantle of the left languish, as they have almost always done, in political oblivion. In the by-election in Manchester Central back in November, for example, the catchily titled Trade Union and Socialist Coalition won an embarrassing 220 votes and was even beaten by the Pirate Party. If not now, comrades, then when?
My own view is that, so long as trade unions ensure Labour is linked to millions of supermarket checkout assistants, call centre workers and factory workers, there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people. It is a strategy passionately rejected by others taking on austerity, and I respect that. But it is absurd that – as we live through a Great Reverse of living standards and hard-won rights – the opponents of austerity are scattered and fragmented. Even as their poison drives up debt, poverty and long-term unemployment alike, the High Priests of Austerity remain perversely united.
Ugly forces are more than happy to benefit from a widespread mood of revulsion at the political establishment. Nigel Farage has benefited from a ubiquitous presence on our TV screens – so much for a left-wing conspiracy at Aunty Beeb – but Ukip is thriving too as a collective middle finger stuck up at our rulers. If the left cannot pull itself together half a decade after global capitalism started to totter, the populist right knows a vacuum when it sees one.
What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated. In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger. Until now, I have struggled with an answer.
But if we could agree on some key principles, and avoid creating a new battleground for ultra-left sects, we could give the angry and the frustrated a home. We could link together workers facing falling wages while their tax credits are cut; unemployed people demonised by a cynical media and political establishment; crusaders against the mass tax avoidance of the wealthy; sick and disabled people having basic support stripped away; campaigners against crippling cuts to our public services; young people facing a future of debt, joblessness and falling living standards; and trade unions standing their ground in the onslaught against workers’ rights.
Such a network would push real alternatives to the failure of austerity that would have to be listened to; and create political space for policies that otherwise does not exist. Faced with a more courageous, coherent challenge to the Tory project, the Labour leadership would face pressure that would not – for a change – come from the right.
It is easier to discuss such an idea in a newspaper than put it into practice, but it is a mystery that such a network does not already exist. Though fraught with difficulties – never underestimate the ability of the left to miss an opportunity – the appetite is certainly there. Our country’s greatest movement consists of those screaming with exasperation at their TV sets. Time to break the isolation of those who want an alternative to the bleak future currently on offer. The era of the SWP and its kind is over; a new movement is waiting to be born.