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.