Socialist Worker

Open letter responses: Out of the wilderness

We can’t allow petty divisions to come between us, argues Jenny Sutton, in response to the Socialist Workers Party’s open letter calling for left unity

Issue No. 2161

Like many people of my age I got involved in politics during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 and its bitter aftermath.

Labour’s betrayal of the miners and capitulation to the Tory anti-trade union laws heralded an era of retreat in Britain in terms of organised workers’ struggles – and an era of division on the left.

In those wilderness years, and in the absence of widespread organised working class struggle, left identity was defined by ideological differences.

A plethora of left groups fought over attitudes to the Soviet Union, Cuba, the nature of the working class and every issue under the sun.

There were struggles of course – against racism, immigration controls, South African apartheid, cuts in jobs and services, and a multitude of other issues. But these struggles were disparate, and often dominated by one political tendency that would jealously guard its “ownership” of the cause.

Attempts at left unity were half-hearted and would all too often split along ideological faultlines.

I was part of that process. I can ruefully recall the time and energy devoted to finding inconsistencies in the ideological positions of other left groups.

In that context, it was hard not to develop a mindset that your biggest enemies were your rivals on the left.

It’s no surprise that the generation of anti-capitalist and environmental activists that emerged after the Seattle protests of 1999 often had little respect for left wing organisations and the differences that divided us. They all too often rejected socialist political ideology altogether.

I’ve got enormous respect for the lefties who trudged on through these lean years.

Reasons

However, many of us – for a mixture of political and personal reasons – went into partial retreat, doing a little local work where we could make a difference, but essentially waiting for the tide to turn.

The tide is turning now, and at breakneck speed. The “omnipotence” of the market has been shattered and the political class exposed as corrupt and self-serving.

The ruling class and the government, whether Labour or Tory, are conniving to restabilise British capitalism at the expense of the working class. Our jobs, liberties and services are under full-scale assault.

In response, the working class in Britain is starting to fight back in a way not seen since the Miners’ Strike.

A new resistance is taking shape, but as the debate over the slogan “British jobs for British workers” so clearly illustrates, the form that this resistance takes is crucial.

Socialists need to be at the heart of emerging struggles, arguing for unity on anti-racist, internationalist principles.

To be consistent, we have to unite too. The emergence of the British National Party (BNP) as an electoral force demands a viable alternative, and it is around this that we can build left unity.

We need an electoral alliance around some basic demands, such as those of the People’s Charter.

Such a coalition should have room for a range of ideological positions, but these would be secondary to the points of common purpose. Local conditions could determine subsidiary demands.

As branch secretary of the UCU lecturers’ union at the College of North East London, I’m fighting to challenge cuts in jobs, pay and conditions, and provision for our students.

I couldn’t do this without my UCU comrades in the Socialist Workers Party and other left wing groups. We have to translate local unity into something larger and more comprehensive – in the current climate we can’t afford not to.


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Tue 21 Jul 2009, 18:32 BST
Issue No. 2161
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