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Lindsey German: Politics for a vibrant new left

This article is over 20 years, 11 months old
LINDSEY GERMAN is the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition and the editor of Socialist Review, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Lindsey spoke to Socialist Worker as part of our series on the future of the left.
Issue 1859

LINDSEY GERMAN is the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition and the editor of Socialist Review, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Lindsey spoke to Socialist Worker as part of our series on the future of the left.

The war on Iraq has deepened the disillusionment with Tony Blair and raised debate about building an alternative to New Labour. What do you think that alternative should be?

‘The anti-war movement marks a new politics in Britain and has created an atmosphere in which socialists can build. We were able to involve the trade unions from the beginning. We brought together the left, the peace movement and the Muslim community in a united grassroots campaign. The public meetings have been the campaign’s backbone.

‘There are now many people who don’t just go on demonstrations but who have a sophisticated understanding of the arguments about Iraq, weapons of mass destruction and the wider issues of imperialism.

‘Many of these people are saying, ‘We’ve built this fantastic coalition. We’d like something like the Stop the War Coalition to represent us politically.’ People understand that the coalition can’t be a new political party because it’s made up of a whole host of different parties-people in the Labour Party, the Greens, Communist Party, Socialist Alliance, Liberal Democrats and so on. But they would like to see the various forces involved in a new political challenge to Labour.

‘Can we hold the government to account for what it has done and can we create an alternative to Labour? This is the biggest question of the hour. A number of trade union leaders (Tony Woodley of the TGWU, Billy Hayes of the CWU, Mick Rix of Aslef) are arguing strongly that we can reclaim the Labour Party.

‘I can understand this but I don’t think it’s going anywhere. It’s very hard now to change the Labour Party from within. Changes to the conference and the constituency parties have made them less democratic. And membership is less than 200,000 as so many people have left. The union leaders are saying Blair will be gone in 18 months time. That’s very likely.

‘But let’s be honest about who’s going to replace him. I don’t think Gordon Brown’s any improvement on Blair. He’s committed to the neo-liberal agenda and was committed to the war.

‘None of the other potential candidates such as Robin Cook have broken with the neo-liberal agenda. Yet it is the pursuit of this that has created the disillusionment with reformism which we are seeing, not just in Britain but in countries such as Germany or France. Also the Labour left is incredibly weak. It doesn’t have much organisational force.

‘Many Labour lefts have become so disgusted with the party that they have decided they’re going to do something else. The biggest question facing the left, and a real challenge, will be creating something that is going to give those people a home.’

How do you see this developing?

‘Any left alternative mustn’t turn its back on the many people who still vote Labour, who are Labour activists and who believe you have to stay in Labour. We can work with them in anti-war and other campaigns. The unity of these campaigns has been important in creating a new left. But it’s also a question of how do we present an alternative that can pull in a number of those traditionally Labour activists.

‘The Socialist Alliance is an attempt to do that. So far it has had some success. We should be encouraged by Michael Lavalette’s election victory in Preston. Two parish councillors got elected in Telford. Candidates in places such as Swindon and Middlesbrough got credible votes and Paul Foot won 13 percent in Hackney.

‘We should try to incorporate serious forces who want to break from Labour in the alliance. We are prepared to discuss with the different components of the anti-war movement an electoral alliance that puts forward an anti-imperialist, anti-cuts, anti-neoliberal agenda.

‘This agenda is a project for a new century, in contrast to the Project for a New American Century. This would guarantee that everybody has enough to eat, enough water, a house, pensions.

‘This is what the Socialist Alliance conference committed itself to. The left has been scarred from many years of defeat. But some of the left don’t seem capable of overcoming their sectarianism and abstract politics. People are looking for a united left that can speak with one voice-whatever our differences on general issues.

‘We have a responsibility not to snipe about political differences of the last 20 years. We’re concerned with building a credible electoral alternative.

Other people in our series have talked about the need for a broad party like the Scottish Socialist Party or Rifondazione in Italy. What do you think about this?

‘It’s an option, but there are a number of problems with it. Rifondazione only does well in some elections and less well in others. You can have a breakthrough standing openly as a Trotskyist, without any alliances, as proved by Olivier Besancenot and Arlette Laguiller in France last year.

‘You can have the SSP model or you can have an alliance like we had in Preston. Had we been elected on the same basis as the Scottish Parliament we would have won more councillors. That’s a possibility for the Greater London Authority and European elections next year.

‘There isn’t one model. We’re at the stage where people want to work together but they have real political differences. We shouldn’t pretend these differences don’t exist.

‘We can come together as a party, but this party could divide very quickly. We have to look at broadening the Socialist Alliance. There’s another model-the original Independent Labour Party (ILP) which Marxists were central to founding in 1893 with Keir Hardie.

‘It had Marxists, trade union activists, Christian socialists and was an attempt to bring together the components of what had been a mass movement. It failed partly because it was formed after the high tide of New Unionism in a period of defeats and partly because Hardie held to a form of Christian socialism which lacked political clarity.

‘The failure of the ILP and the defeat of the strikes of the 1890s meant that the least overtly political trade unions and the most empirical socialists founded the Labour Party in what was a conscious rejection of Marxism.

What is the SWP’s role in building an alternative?

‘We’re by far the biggest party outside Labour on the left in Britain. We’ve proved in recent years that we’re capable of not just having a good general analysis but that we can lead in the unions, in the anti-war movement, and in other campaigns.

‘We’ve seen a growth in our influence and our roots with, for example, an increasing number of comrades elected to union executive positions. If you hadn’t had the SWP (and the people who worked very closely with us) putting a strong anti-imperialist current within the anti-war movement as well as a clear united line as to what we should be doing, you would have had a very different and weaker movement. This happened in a number of countries.

‘Lots of people say we need an Old Labour party- they want something that speaks about Old Labour values. In a way, the programme of the Socialist Alliance is a left Labour programme. I’m quite happy to be part of a broader alliance that includes these kind of people and ideas.

‘But that isn’t the end of the story. The history of Old Labour is not a rosy one-even the Attlee government supported imperialist adventures abroad and broke strikes at home.

‘Every Labour government has accepted the dictates of capital and therefore failed to deliver for those who supported it. So an alternative is necessary. A revolutionary party is important in developing a set of theoretical and historical ideas that enable people to understand the world.

‘Events like Marxism have had a tremendous impact on people in the SWP and people from a different tradition on the left. We also have a coherent body of activists who are committed to changing the world. That means in every town, where we have members, there is an impetus to the left.

‘If the SWP didn’t exist there’d be no organised left in some places. And as the mood shifts to the left, the question ‘How do we achieve another world?’ is posed sharply.

‘It is about people seizing political and economic power. People fought for hundreds of years for the vote, for political power, and found that when they’d got the vote they still didn’t have economic power. All the big questions in society are not decided by parliament. That’s why parties centred on parliament disappoint their supporters.

‘Most of the big changes that have taken place in history have been as a result of struggle outside parliament-winning the vote, establishing the unions, the right to free speech and to demonstrate.

‘You can’t just judge the success of the left through elections. We also have to ask whether we have built a strong anti-war movement, whether we are organising against the British National Party and whether we have built in the rank and file of the unions. There’s a high level of political generalisation. There’s a lot of anger and militancy among the working class.

‘There will be many more battles where the left will have to prove itself. The SWP is committed to building a broad socialist alternative to New Labour because the success of any such project will lift the confidence of the whole left. But we also believe that a socialist society cannot be constructed in this country without a complete transformation of its economic and political institutions.

‘The political conditions under which such a transformation could take place will arise faster if there is a mass organisation that acts as an alternative to New Labour. But, in such a crisis, there will also be the need for an independent revolutionary party if workers are to be able to build a socialist society.

Where do you think the movement goes from here? Let us know at [email protected]


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