Discussion: The paucity and sadness of left wing debate – Len Arthur
Whilst our ability to unite against the Nazis – as in the recent Swansea counter-demo against the NF – brings out the best of the left, the descent of some (in Cardiff, in particular) into name-calling over the local government cuts, shows that such issues can bring out the worse. It is possible to do better and work for unity, but it means engaging in a political and not a personal discourse. This is not a trivial issue: we, as socialists, need to develop our unity through comradely discussion – and indeed civility – and not push people away by being ‘leftier than thou’ sectarians.
It has been argued in these bulletins that the financial crisis has deep roots in the contradictory and exploitative processes of capitalism. Clearly, there is a debate about where to place the explanatory emphasis but, for the first time in decades, it is now possible to engage seriously in debates about the problems of capitalism as a system.
Within the Labour party, organisations such as Progress still carry the New Labour commitment to neo-conservatism or a form of austerity policies and are, at this stage, not prepared to consider a more radical critique. Many of those councillors who embrace the idea of the ‘dented shield’ may not be fully signed up to New Labour, but they certainly do not currently see any alternative to austerity politics, either politically or practically. On the other hand, within the Labour party and as serving councillors are many socialists who seriously engage with the need to develop a radical critique and in practice accept that councillors should not help to implement policies that deliver austerity locally, so that workers end up paying for the crisis.
Most councillors who are members of WLG would probably put themselves close to the second position outlined above but this time around have not voted against their group and cuts packages. The councillors can and have spoken ably for themselves but it also important to understand the context of their political position and the pressures upon them. Coming to terms with the new crisis of capitalism is a dynamic and people arrive at an understanding for varying reasons and at different times. Comrades who stood last year for election as local councillors were doing so to present a political challenge to the Tories and Liberals. At the time, the last thing on their minds was probably the idea that they might soon be being faced with the choice of voting for cuts or breaking the whip to vote against fellow Labour.
But it happened, and any opposition to the majority group positions has come under extreme pressure from the others. This situation requires a rapid political re-think. If the whip is broken, what are the political alternatives? If you are alone, it would mean being an independent until the next election and leaving Labour. If you have others standing with you, then perhaps a new socialist grouping could be formed, but who would you align with beyond the council, and what would be the basis for standing at the next election? And, in the end, what would have been achieved by voting against the whip if the Labour group had simply gone on to implement further cuts, with even less discussion? Of course, the ‘wriggle room’ to sustain a ‘dented shield’ policy will grow less every year, so the dilemma will not go away.
Now, given those scenarios, the real danger is that with no supportive socialist alternative, the only answer is to gradually succumb to the pressure to accept austerity. Once caught by the little finger of voting for cuts, it can be more difficult to say ‘no’ next time around. And the real danger of ‘holier than thou’ sectarianism is that councillors in this position will not have a supportive socialist alternative available – only an extremely hostile one, almost ensuring that councillors are pushed away from a socialist position. That is why left activists need to understand politically the dynamic that socialists councillors are operating within, and to address how we discuss the problems through in a comradely way, with the intention of developing the political support in terms of ideas and organisation, providing a way for as many socialists councillors as possible to vote against cuts and deal effectively with the longer-term political campaigning and organisational issues.
It is not a case of avoiding the crunch but trying to make sure that, as socialists, we ensure the challenge is met sooner rather than later, and with as much socialist unity as possible. Practically, for us in the Labour party, that possibly means WLG encouraging councillors to work with the LRC-supported Councillors Against the Cuts campaign – and certainly through the WLG councillors’ discussion group that has been established by Nick Davies.