“Left unity and Class Politics” by Ian Donovan

This is a contribution to the debate about the results of the European and local elections by Ian Donovan.

The analysis of the Euro Elections by Salma Yaqoob (Statement on the euro-election results, 8th June), makes a number of pertinent observations about the reasons for the disaster of the BNP’s winning two seats in the European Parliament.

One point she gets right is that “Labour is wholly to blame for its own crisis and has to take a large share of the responsibility for creating the conditions in which the far right is growing.” Many of the other things she says about the impact of the recession on working class people, about the attacks of the Labour government, the demoralisation which these are inflicting, and the danger that this can drive people into the arms of the far right, are correct.

Yet the political perspective she puts forward as a solution to this situation is badly flawed. Salma is advocating an alliance of ‘progressive’ forces to block the advance of the far right, centred on the Green Party and soft-left elements in Compass. This block assembles forces that are incapable of putting forward, or hostile to, the kind of working class politics that is needed to roll back the encroachment of the fascists in traditionally strong centres of the labour movement such as Yorkshire and the North West. The alliance of liberal, middle class forces she advocates will not stop the BNP; their aims and ideologies will not be attractive in the main to working class people alienated by New Labour whose alientation is fundamentally driven by economic hardship and class anger, which the BNP aims to exploit and misdirect against scapegoats such as immigrants and refugees.

Salma writes: “The broad left must work together, irrespective of party affiliation, to maximise the impact of the progressive vote at the next General Election.” This is wrong, and will not undermine the BNP because the question of a new party, separate from New Labour that will stand up for workers against the Labour government and all its neo-liberal attacks, is central to politically cutting the ground from under the BNP. We do not need a ‘broad left … irrespective of party affiliation’, we need a new broad party of the working-class left that puts class politics at the centre of its perspective. The alliance she is proposing is a cross-class alliance of Respect with the Green Party, and Compass and other soft-lefts.

The Green Party does not, in its ideology, appeal to workers as a class. It does have paper policies on a number of questions that are progressive and would benefit workers, such as opposition to privatisation and anti-union laws, but its central appeal is to people of all classes who want to stop climate change and save the planet for future generations. It has people in it who are sympathetic to workers struggles, but there is also a significant element who see the growth of the human population, and hence mainly of the working class and the poor, as one of the central causes of environmental degradation.

A recent YouGov survey taken between 29th May and 4th June – just before the European Elections took place – is very revealing about the class character of the Green Party’s support. The survey showed that in terms of social grade or occupation, the Green Party’s intended voters had the highest percentage – 64% – of those with a high income (grade ABC1) of all the major parties. That is, of professional people and the like. It also had the lowest percentage of those surveyed in social grade C2DE (36%) – which is predominantly composed of unskilled manual workers.

Conversely, the BNP has the lowest percentage of those in social grade ABC1 – 39%, and the highest percentage in social grade C2DE – 61% of all the major parties.

This is fairly indicative of the reason why it is an illusory idea that the Green Party can be the vehicle for undermining the potential appeal of the BNP to disillusioned working class voters. The Green Party, ‘progressive’ policies notwithstanding, appeals in the main to a middle class, not a working class, constituency, and because of that there is a real social gulf between its base of support and the kinds of alienated working class people, impoverished by the recession, that are in some cases being driven towards the BNP. It will take a completely different kind of politics, which centres its appeal on defending working class interests, to undercut the demagogy of the BNP and undermine this potential base of support.

Compass also is a middle class force. It is the loyal opposition within New Labour, and its left-wing criticisms of Blair and Gordon Brown do not go very far at all. As an example of this, on one key question of importance to working class people above all it showed its true colours. On the question of the housing crisis at its conference on 13 June, it failed to invite a speaker from Defend Council Housing – a campaign that does exactly what it says on the tin – in favour of a speaker from Shelter, the homelessness charity, which is fairly close to the government and places much store in promoting home ownership and first time buyers, and working with Housing Associations and other ‘social landlords’ who are in fact thinly-disguised private-sector organisations. Council Housing is not high on its ‘realistic’ agenda.

At the conference those attending were regaled by the likes of Harriet Harman and Liberal Democrat MPs, as well as the more hesitant, softer left trade union leaders like Billy Hayes. Also speaking was Caroline Lucas, the Green MEP who herself previously made clear her own middle class politics by saying that she equally opposes politics being at the behest of big business or the trade unions. Salma thus gives her credibility as an anti-war activist and Respect councillor to this gathering whose whole thrust is all-inclusive, classless politics hostile to independent working class political activity. This is seriously mistaken.

Compass itself has proved spineless in the face of pressure from the Labour leadership, including on issues that are close to Salma’s heart such as the Iraq War and the ‘war on terror’. Its main figures, most notably Jon Cruddas, supported the Iraq war and only belatedly decided they had been mistaken on this when the allies got bogged down and Bush/Blair’s political justifications were completely discredited. And then there is Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith’s ill-fated proposals for 42 days detention without charge. Jon Cruddas and co showed their true colours by voting for that in parliament. Most recently, Cruddas was seen denouncing those supporters of Unite Against Fascism who chucked eggs at BNP leader and fascist MEP Nick Griffin outside Parliament and disrupted his press conference.

Salma writes that “The challenge for the left is to renew itself and reassert some basic socialist critiques and solutions into mainstream political debate.” It is certainly positive to see a call for socialist politics as a road forward. But the vehicle for socialist politics is the working class; the perspective of Compass, Ken Livingstone’s Progressive London, the Greens etc is not to found a new party to fight for the independent interests of our class but rather to construct multi-class alliances, either for elections or for pressure politics between elections.

The prime example of this kind of politics in practice was Ken Livingstone’s London Mayorality from 2000 to 2008, which came to include Liberals and Greens as part of a ‘progressive’ administration. Which as everyone knows, notwithstanding the Mayor’s refusal to buckle to Islamophobia, involved systematic concessions to the City, and such disgraceful actions as the Mayor calling on workers to scab on tube strikes. These incompatible and often treacherous political forces will never be a vehicle for socialism or anything like it – the best they will ever produce is something like Ken Livingstone’s administration.

This is totally ineffective as a perspective to combat BNP influence on working class people … the concessions Livingstone made to business, and even more the left cover he gave to New Labour, also helped undermine the left and in fact played an important role in paving the way for the BNP’s previous election gain of a representative on the GLA. It was correct to support Livingstone when he broke from Labour in 2000 to campaign against tube privatisation, and correct to defend his idiosyncratic left-talking administration against the Tory challenge of Boris Johnson in 2008 – though the difference between Livingstone and Johnson has not so far been as marked as predicted – but to put forward Livingstone’s London as a model of ‘socialist’ solutions, as this perspective implies, undermines and demobilises the radical potential to advance working class politics that Respect originally had in it.

Finally, Salma’s criticism of No2EU and the SLP cannot go unanswered. She implies that simply by standing and refusing to unite behind the Green candidate in North West England, they allowed the BNP to win a seat for Nick Griffin. It is a conceit of the Greens’ that in this area at least, they were the barrier to the BNP gaining a seat. Yet the figures don’t add up. Salma points at the fact that the Greens fell behind Griffin by around 5000 votes, and laments that if only a small fraction of the combined No2EU and SLP vote of around 50,000 had gone to the Greens, Peter Cranie and not Griffin would have been in the European Parliament. Yet hundreds of thousands of votes were lost to the main parties in the same region – particularly to Labour.

The Green challenge was well known and long prepared. Why focus on the relatively few votes of the two working class campaigns, which were in a weak position in this election for well-known reasons, and yet fail to explain why the Greens did not have the ability to win over the necessary votes from among these many more thousands of disillusioned Labour supporters particularly? This, I think, says something about the class nature of the Greens as explored above. The allegation that simply by standing, the weak working class groupings were responsible for the BNP advance sounds like making an excuse for the inability of the long-established Greens to attract those many more from Labour they might have been expected to.

Salma’s statement, while aiming to promote what she sees as left unity, is in fact promoting something that is non-working-class in its content, and really involves middle class forces lording it over the workers. The shrill tone of various ‘left’ Greens in ‘condemning’ a workers organisation, the RMT, for initiating a left-wing ticket for the Euro elections, reflected sheer middle class arrogance and hardly a democratic spirit either. No wonder the Greens failed to win over disillusioned working class support from Labour – many of whom detest the BNP but failed to vote at all. To mobilise these people politically, a working class party and clearly working class politics are necessary. That is the only kind of ‘progressive’ politics that can be effective on this political terrain. We need unity of the working class left, and that is what leading Respect figures like Salma should be putting their energy into building, not promoting a form of cross-class politics that for all its pretensions, can never be truly socially progressive.



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32 responses to ““Left unity and Class Politics” by Ian Donovan

  1. An excelleent article by Ian that all in Respect should read and take note of. I agree with the article and the need to create a new Left of Labour, Socialist alternative coalition/alliance of the Left as soon as possible. If it can be done across Europe it can be done in the UK.

  2. Ian’s made a lot of fair comments about the coalition partners that Salma alludes to – but he fails to say why we should not attempt to “redden” the Greens or compass by working with them on campaigns?

    So the Greens have failed to win the support of lower-income groups – but in the North West, perhaps if the SLP and No2EU comrades had helped out…?

    • ID

      Those are two different issues. Working with Greens where there is agreement is one thing – nothing wrong with that. ‘Reddening’ the Green Party is quite another.

      I think the way to help genuine socialists in the Green Party is to build a working class party that can strengthen their hand and force the Greens to adapt to us. This means drawing Greens around the left, not us being drawn into the slipstream of the Greens.

      Adapting to the Greens, deferring to them, doesn’t ‘redden’ the Greens, it strengthens those within them that are antagonistic to the left. Since the Greens are in terms of class composition and political outlook a middle-class party, for the working class left to adapt to them is a step away from class independence. The working-class left needs to get its act together and produce something credible and coherent, to begin to take things in the other direction.

      • I don’t think there should be deference, although given that they’re the biggest thing going electorally, I am wary of blanket dismissals of them. For example, I don’t find the distinction between working class and middle class particularly clear or helpful – it’s not as if green voters you refer to are actually part of an intermediate strata of small capitalists, they are affluent workers and not essentially antagonistic to workers on lower incomes surely?

        In the current situation affluent workers are also under pressure like never before, so some of the reddening of the Greens is going to happen anyway, surely?

        As to those in the Greens who are “antagonistic to the left” – it’s more misunderstanding than actual policy disagreement, isn’t it?

  3. ID

    Blanket dismissal is hardly the point. But it is disingenuous to pretend that the Green Party’s relatively well-heeled electoral base is not a class-based phenomenon. Some of the ‘new middle class’ are proletarian in essence, they work for employers and have some level of consciousness of being part of the working class. Many others do not, and provide a social base for non-working class parties – including the Greens. It looks likely that behind the crude statistics the Greens’ base includes both types.

    Its not impossible for small shopkeepers in working class areas to regard themselves as part of the working class. Its also very common for better off professional types with a ‘social conscience’ to see themselves as a cut above. This is what middle-class liberalism is all about. This is not about mere nuance, but something fundamental, material and ideological. We need a party that maintains its independence from the latter layer very carefully, otherwise the left is on a slope to liberalism.

    • I take your point about liberalism. i think it’s important however that we not pre-judge people. I mean, I would have thought it more likely that snob-professionals would vote… for the Liberals?

  4. ID

    But the Liberals are not radical enough for some people who are still in terms of consciousness middle class radicals. The Greens are certainly more radical on quite a few questions. But that doesn’t make them any less middle class in their radicalism.

    We lose sight of this at our peril. That’s not pre-judging anyone based on their social position, its looking at their politics and how that relates to class.

    • I don’t believe that there is a class difference between affluent workers and the rest of us, ID, but I take your point. Incidentally, the green voters I know best – such as family members who’ve said they voted green in recent years seem to have been motivated by the (rather vague) anti-capitalism of the greens. I admit, I was quite surprised by this.

      • ID

        It is a bit surprising. What’s even more suprising is when you meet people who express such ‘anti-capitalist’ sentiments, yet complain bitterly when the tube drivers go on strike, for instance. Not all of them are like that, of course, but a significant number are in my experience. Its possible to be critical of big capital and still be hostile to the organised working class. That is the outlook of the ‘radical’ petit-bourgeoisie.

  5. But I’m talking here about working people – not petit-bourgeois radicals – who have voted for the greens on anti-capitalist grounds. In the case of the Greens and recent tube strikes, in the London Assembly they abstained from condemning the strike…

  6. ID

    They also abstained from supporting it, and Jenny Jones said that she would have voted for the motion condemning the strike if it had been worded differently.

    When you are talking about affluent salaried employees who consider themselves middle class but who are not petty-commodity producers, class consciousness is part of what they are objectively, I would say. This is a question the left has not to my knowledge theorised very well, but I think the subjective factor is part of class identity. Such people often do not really identify with the working class at all.

    As someone who works in IT, I have met many people like this. Are they working class? I think the way they behave and think has to be part of the equation in answering that. It may be that their behaviour will change at some point and they will become proletarianised. But right now, they are not proletarianised and have a ‘new middle class’ identity which has objective significance. They do not even have a craft union consciousness – they have an ‘I’m better than that rabble’ consciousness.

    Until they develop some sense of common class identity with the bulk of the working class, I think it is correct in Marxist terms to regard them as part of the petty-bourgeoisie.

  7. PhilW

    I think this article is much better than the one on the Greens, and the discussion is interesting. But Ian’s last point I think illustrates the pitfalls of using sociological rather than marxist class categories. He is then forced to defend his categorisation by resorting to the idea that consciousness is part of a person’s class position, rather than their relation to the means of production. This is a big adjustment to marxism to make, in order to explain why one’s co-workers might vote Green! Surely something about the political defeats over the past 30 years (and the craven capitulation of the TU leaders) would provide a more useful explanation for what is after all a general decline in class-consciousness over that period?

  8. I agree with Phil. The term petty bourgeoisie would refer to small businesspeople – not affluent workers. The crucial difference is that although affluent workers might own their home and have savings they do not own the enterprise in which they work.

  9. ID

    No, the petit-bourgeoisie is not simply those who own their own means of production, or petty traders, etc. If that was all the petit bourgeoisie was, then the social base of non-working-class parties in every advanced capitalist country you can name would be rather small.

    There is a rather large section of the petit bourgeoisie that plays supervisory, managerial or technical roles in a wide variety of situations and has a qualitavely higher standard of life than any worker – and does not identify with the working class. This layer has for a very long time provided a social base for non-working class parties – including in this country most notably the Tories.

    It is a mechanistic, reductionist caricature of Marxism that identifies the petty-bourgeoisie only with shopkeepers and the like, and ignores the rather large layer of salaried petty bourgeoisie. Technical and economic changes can mean that some whole layers are sometimes reduced to the ranks of the working class, but insofar as this has not happened, they are part of the petit-bourgeoisie – which is a Marxist term – or more colloquially the middle class.

  10. PhilW

    OK, a lab technician, with a degree an earning 14 grand is part of the “technical petit bourgeoisie”. A skilled industrial worker on 40 grand has a standard of life “qualitatively” higher than most workers, in that such an income would put them in the top ten percent of the population. I would consider both are part of the working class, irrespective of their consciousness, as both are exploited in the marxist sense of the term. By your criteria, Ian the working class must be getting smaller and smaller in the “developed” countries, as more and more take on technical, or even supervisory, roles.

  11. ID

    A lab technician on 14 grand is a low-paid worker. A worker earning 40 grand a year can not generally afford to buy an ‘average’ house in this country – even despite the slump in prices. Certainly not in London. This is obviously not what I am talking about.

    There is a large, affluent petit-bourgeoisie in this country, that has provided an electoral base for the Tories among others for many years. They aren’t all, or even mainly, small shopkeepers. They are mainly well off salaried employees who staff all kinds of private (and some public) bureacracies in a large range of companies and enterprises right across the economy, or have other sources of income derived from that.

  12. But given the ruthless cost-cutting that’s going on in private bureaucracies, is it not the case that these affluent employees are experiencing worsening terms and conditions – and that therefore as a social strata they are unlikely to form the basis of an anti-working class electoral constituency?

  13. ID

    Some are, some aren’t. Some will fall into the working class, others will not. I wouldn’t exaggerate this process though, this isn’t the first recession this class has been through and it has not disappeared in the past. Capitalists themselves can also suffer from economic difficulties – bankruptcies etc – yet remain capitalists.

  14. ID

    Its pretty bad, but is it severe enough to drag the bulk of the ‘new middle class’ into the proletariat? I don’t think so – we would be looking at rather different politics if it was. I doubt the Greens would be the political expression of such a process even if this were to happen.

  15. PhilW

    How come this “affluent petit bourgeoisie” is so large (and, by implication from your argument, has increased in size since the advent of neoliberalism)? The 90th percentile of total income for all adults starts at £35,345 (see http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn76.pdf – table on page 10). I don’t think it is useful to try to deduce class position from income (consciousness is another matter – see below): rather it is whether a person is employer, self-employed, employee, unemployed etc.

    On the question of house price and income. One way of dealing with unaffordability has been for two earners to live together or married or have a civil partnership etc. The figures above are for individual earners. Secondly, it should not be forgotten that for many people, the impact of the recession has been mitigate by the drop in mortgage interest rates: on a £200,000 mortgage, the change (from, say, 6% to 3%) means a drop in payments of £300 per month. This could have an effect on the class consciousness of people who already have a simple repayment mortgage and whose jobs are not yet under threat.

  16. ID: I think the recession will be that bad. Consider this – the neoliberal era has seen a doubling of the number of wage workers available to capital and the abolition of restrictions on foreign direct investment. The result of this being that in this recession the “new middle class” of affluent workers are in a precarious position; hence all the talk about Jobcentres not being equipped to deal with professionals and the worries about graduating students.

    Now, the upshot of this is not a rush to the Greens – but it’s worth noting that the Tories aren’t doing as well as would be expected in this situation.

    For those affluent workers who vote for or are members of the Green party, there’s no longer an unquestioning acceptance of neoliberal dogmas against workers’ rights and public ownership – both are now revealed as necessary to tackling the climate crisis.

  17. ID

    Actually, my argument is not necessarily that the middle class has been increased in size by neo-liberalism (though it may have been to some extent). This phenomenon goes back a lot further than that. The social base of the Tories has long consisted of a minority of organised workers, but a majority of affluent managerial and professional middle class types who do not identify with the working class but with the interests of business, to a greater or lesser extent.

    If you wish to argue that this layer, so long as it votes Green, is some kind of new mass vanguard and a substitute for the working class, and therefore that you don’t need an independent working class party and class politics, then why not simply openly say so? Why all this sophistry to deny what is a well known and obvious social fact – that bourgeois politics in advanced capitalist countries has a social base in an affluent, managerial-professional petit-bourgeoisie?

    No, I don’t think the depth of the economic crisis has rendered or is rendering this class proletarian, that therefore that pink-green politics is something we should all hail and forget about building an independent working-class party. This is liquidationism. If you wish to follow this road, then go ahead.

  18. “If you wish to argue that this layer, so long as it votes Green, is some kind of new mass vanguard and a substitute for the working class, and therefore that you don’t need an independent working class party and class politics, then why not simply openly say so?”

    Because I don’t argue this – nor do I believe it.

  19. ID

    So why then is it so outrageous to say that the Green’s are a middle-class radical party? I doubt if even many Greens would deny that if you put it to them. It seems to me it is only the Marxist (or perhaps Marxoid would be a better description) fringe who want to hitch a ride on the Greens’ sometime popularity who get hot under the collar about this idea.

    I’ve got no problem, by the way, with working with (even in the electoral arena) pro-working class Greens. I do have a problem with the kind of deference to the Greens as a whole that is being advocated here. It amounts to the left subordinating itself to middle class politics. That is political suicide.

  20. “So why then is it so outrageous to say that the Green’s are a middle-class radical party?”

    Not outrageous, just ill-advised. The term “middle class” is used by the capitalist press to try and divide affluent from less affluent workers, and I don’t think it’s wise for us to use it because of this – added to which, there’s a danger that people respond to the criticism with defensiveness, which doesn’t help build unity against the exploiters.

    “I do have a problem with the kind of deference to the Greens as a whole that is being advocated here. It amounts to the left subordinating itself to middle class politics.”

    I’ve not argued for deference but for a measured use of language.

  21. ID

    That is very weak. It is not unheard of for sections of the middle class (of various types) to ally with the working-class movement if it adopts the correct tactics to win them over. Indeed, that has been a Marxist tactic for rather a long time and played a not-inconsiderable role in the Russian revolution among other examples.

    Winning over the middle class, however, does not involve adapting to middle-class radicalism to the point of worrying that an accurate class analysis will be ‘divisive’. That sort of mealy-mouthed attitude won’t win over anyone.

  22. But as I’ve made clear, I don’t think it is an accurate class analysis.

    It’s fair to say that the membership and electorate of the green party is largely comprised of affluent workers – it’s also fair to say that describing this socio-economic group as “middle class” helps reinforce the capitalists’ preferred class struggle – “middle class” vs working class.

  23. ID

    Well, I disagree. Defining the professional and managerial middle class as part of the proletariat may be a useful means of inflating the size of the working class statistically, but it is politically useless. Since this layer as a whole does not define itself as working class, its political activity does not in general have a working class character (individual exceptions aside).

    Again, therefore, for socialists to refrain from arguing against this on a class basis means pulling punches and in reality, playing a subservient role to forms of politics that do not seek to advance the interests of workers as a class (and in fact, do not claim to do so).

    That’s not why I and many others came into left politics.

    And the argument that we must refrain from criticising petit-bourgeois left trends because such criticism will be exploited by the media is incredibly weak. Presumably we should refrain from all criticism of wrong politics on the left because that could be exploited by the media. Maybe we should refrain from any criticism of Stalinist tendencies when they show their face, because that could be exploited by the media. I could go on, but the point is obvious.

  24. Not for the sake of the media – for the sake of not alienating such individuals.

  25. ID

    I doubt they are as sensitive about this as you are;-)

  26. I always feel a bit intimidated by ‘middle class’ people, I will admit!

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