Will the left go on the offensive?

Dave Craig considers the prospects for the Republican Socialist Convention

On Saturday February 13 the Scottish Socialist Party (international committee), Socialist Alliance, Green Left and the Labour Representation Committee are sponsoring the Republican Socialist Convention in London. What are its aims and its significance in the context of the class struggle today?

The convention will discuss the crisis of democracy, the national question and the general election. Publicity material identifies a range of speakers from across the socialist movement, including Peter Tatchell (Green Party), Colin Fox (SSP), Robert Griffiths (Communist Party of Britain), John McDonnell MP, Peter Taaffe (Socialist Party) and Bob Crow. It will be an opportunity to see how the left is gearing itself up for the general election.

What is the political significance of this event? Unless we put it in a political context, it is just another meeting. But context is all and that implies some questions. What direction is the UK and in particular England going? What direction is the socialist movement going? Are socialists leading or following the country? Will the left go on the offensive in the general election? These are big, unanswered questions even for a small meeting.

In 2009 four major issues grabbed people’s attention and shed light on where we might be going. First was the economic crisis and rising government debt. Second came the crisis of democracy around the MPs’ expenses scandal and the ‘arrival’ of the British National Party. Third was the mounting toll of dead and wounded in the Afghan war. With soldiers marching through the streets, we saw the danger of a rising tide of militarism and British patriotism seeping deeper into national psychology. Last but not least was the failure of international capitalism to deal with climate change, highlighted by the UN conference in Copenhagen in December.

Crisis of democracy

The convention is not attempting to answer all this. But it does connect to one issue – the crisis of parliamentary democracy brought to the fore by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the BNP. The scandal had a major impact on public opinion. The capitalist parties have to try to restore public confidence in an institution whose credibility was shot to pieces. Each will have some democratic proposals. The Liberal Democrats, for example, will be calling for proportional representation, recallable MPs and an elected House of Lords.

Patching up a busted system will not deal with the real problem – the overweening power of the executive. The failings of the Westminster parliament are nothing new. The Iraq inquiry is a timely reminder. In early 2002 the crown, fronted by its first minister, Tony Blair, made a secret deal with Bush to go to war. War plans were put into operation in August or September. Neither the cabinet nor parliament nor the people were told about this. Blair continued to play his public game of great peace-broker and war-avoider.

In early 2003 over one million people demonstrated against the Iraq war. Finally, when British troops were on the Iraqi border ready to invade, parliament was allowed to vote. It was already ready too late to stop the tanks and planes. Westminster would never bite the hand of the crown that feeds it and pays its expenses. Parliament proved, at least before the millions who opposed the war, to be rotten, corrupted and unrepresentative. Since this date parliament has never plucked up the courage to seize all the documents and files, call ministers to account and arrest anybody who tried to hide the truth. All these whitewash enquires set up by the crown will never find the truth.

The best that parliament could do was provide some ‘legitimacy’ for Blair’s lies and deceptions. It was a willing accomplish to the war crimes and imperialist ambitions of the crown. This is typical of the way an undemocratic and unrepresentative institution works. It fails the people on countless small, everyday issues, not just on big events. At the last general election 40% of the electorate did not vote. The BNP is not the cause of parliamentary decrepitude, but the party most likely to gain from it.

The ‘old corruption’ is not confined to MPs’ expenses or the corridors and bars at Westminster. It lives through the laws, taxes and spending decisions that affect the living and working conditions of the working class. If you want to see the failure of the Westminster brand of democracy, don’t queue up outside the House of Commons for a seat in the visitors’ gallery. Of course, you can watch the whole ridiculous pantomime in action. Better to see the results by walking around the streets and housing estates in any of our inner cities.

The crown-state governs the country on behalf of capitalism. At the centre of this state is the treasury, linked with the Bank of England and the City. For many the crown is the symbol of monarchy. But in reality it stands for the rule of the banks. The UK with its bloated and crown-protected financial sector was hit hard by the credit crunch. People were incredulous when the banks’ debts were nationalised. But nationalisation under the crown is not socialism.

The crown-state is nearly bankrupt. Not quite. As long as the City and international bankers are prepared to keep lending, the evil day is staved off. But they are demanding their pound of flesh. Whichever government takes the reins of power, it will share out the crown’s debt amongst the people. No guessing which class will have to pay the most. This is real ‘socialisation’ – making the people pay for the banks’ failings through higher taxes and massive cuts in the public sector. The policy of the crown and the capitalist parties coincide with the demands of the City and international banks.

This is fraud on a huge scale by greedy ‘banksters’, as these speculators, swindlers and confidence tricksters have been called. But they are protected by the crown and defended by ministers and MPs. They line up to criticise and ‘threaten’ bank bonuses. Better to channel popular anger into a dead end, the safe zone known as the Westminster parliament. It’s a great safety valve.

Parliament is supposed to be the means by which people control government and bring it to account. Reality is the other way round. Parliament serves the crown. It provides ‘democratic’ cover for the rule of City finance. Here is the real corruption. Money talks and parliament sanctifies. The MPs’ expenses scandal is really a side-show detracting from the corruption of the institution as a whole. This is not to dismiss the scandal. It has damaged credibility and threatens to shatter illusions. It draws the attention of millions to the fact that something is seriously wrong. If people carry on looking, they will conclude that more radical reform is necessary.

We can sum up our system of government by taking up where Walter Bagehot, who wrote on the constitution on the 19th century, left off. Real power is in the hands of the crown and the City, in Whitehall and Canary Wharf. The monarchy and parliament are “decorative” institutions for pomp and pantomime. They are part of the camouflage of power. Wherever power resides, it is neither in Westminster nor Buckingham Palace. Yet parliament and monarchy are absolutely essential because they give people something to believe in. Nothing will change whilst we keep on believing.

If the masses are being fooled, surely not the left? Unfortunately this is not true. Labourism is the political expression of this false consciousness. It says, on one side, the only political task is to win a Commons majority and, on the other, that there is no reason to abolish the monarchy. Historically constitutional change has little place in Labour politics. Labourism was non-republican socialism. New Labour made it not republican and not socialist.

The Marxist left is not fooled by the Commons. But the queen still casts a magic spell over many of them. She is the living proof that there is no need for republicanism. Reasoning that Buckingham Palace has no power (although more than most people think), they conclude there is no point. In any case the idea belongs in the 17th century transition stage from feudalism. The queen thus unites the royalists, Tories, Labourites and Lib Dems with the stages logic of a section of the socialist movement.

Socialist movement

The Republican Socialist Convention may be the first time in the last 10 years that the socialist movement in England met to discuss democracy, parliamentary reform and republicanism. But how does this relate to the historical evolution of the socialist movement. What has taken place in the last 10 years between the Socialist Alliance and the Republican Socialist Convention?

In 2001 the Socialist Alliance stood 98 candidates on a non-republican but socialist election platform. It was the politics of old Labour. At the SA’s constitutional conference at the end of 2000 there was a resolution calling for the adoption of an amended version of the Scottish Socialist Party’s constitution but with the name, ‘Republican Socialist Party’.

This resolution was heavily defeated by the votes of the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP was the main opponent of republicanism and equally opposed to forming a new workers’ party. Since then we had 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the mass anti-war movement into 2004. The SA was more or less destroyed when the SWP set up the Respect coalition with George Galloway. From this high point it went into a ‘downturn’.

The SWP took non-republican socialism into Respect. At its founding conference the SWP openly opposed secular and republican democracy. Respect politics repeated the core values of old Labour with its illusion in the Commons and monarchy, but it was born out of a real connection with the Muslim community alienated by urban poverty and Labour’s wars. Subsequently and predictably Galloway and the SWP fell out. In Scotland the SSP was torn apart over issues around the Tommy Sheridan trial.

In 2009 the new kids on the political block in England were the Rail, Maritime and Transport union under Bob Crow’s leadership, taking up cudgels against Labour. He openly calls for a new workers’ party. The first tentative steps were taken in the Euro elections under the slogans ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’. I will not waste time reciting the problems of policy and organisation which this campaign faced. It was attacked from all sides. Nevertheless around No2EU gathered ‘the few’ – those militants, trade unionists and socialists with a proven record of fighting the bosses and the capitalist Labour government.

The second slogan, ‘Yes2Democracy’ was given less prominence by the campaign. But its goes to the heart of the matter. What attitude and policies should the left adopt in the UK? When the Socialist Party, the RMT, the Communist Party of Britain, the Alliance for Green Socialism and the Socialist Alliance stand for election on these slogans, it cannot and should not be ignored.

What did ‘Yes2Democracy’ actually mean? Was it yes to old, traditional, British democracy with its Commons and crown, or did it mean yes to a new democracy? No doubt its very ambiguity meant different things to different people. Yet the slogan has a powerful connection with movements like the Chartists and with working class people today who feel the need to have a say in all aspects of their lives – at work, in their unions, in their communities and over the actions of government. No2EU posed the Yes2Democracy question and the Republican Socialist Convention is an opportunity to provide some answers.

General election

All these matters will be fought out in a general election as part and parcel of the class struggle. The fight will show up the real state of the movement. Socialists will hardly be united. In England we are divided across the Labour left (LRC), the Green left, Respect and the son of No2EU now called the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. These organisations and one or two more are not expected by and large to be in direct competition. We should try to fight together.

The Republican Socialist Convention is seeking to bring representatives of these organisations together in the spirit of joint struggle against a common enemy. However, the fault lines are not simply between different organisations. They are more about how to respond to the crisis. Should the left concentrate on building up our defences or should we go on the attack? Given the parlous state of the left, surely we should dig in and prepare for the clunking fist or the big axe to smash our dented shields?

I think not. American football is a form of ritualised warfare. Each team has a defensive and an offensive unit. When the enemy has the ball you bring your defensive team on the pitch to try to stop them scoring, generally beat them up and drive them back. When you get possession of the ball you bring on your offensive team, which takes over and can throw or run the ball over or through the enemy into the end zone for a score.

Our defence is our trade unions, which if well organised can mount a serious defence of our jobs, pay and conditions, etc. But in the general election we need to put our offensive unit on the pitch. The name we should give this team is ‘republican socialist’. If the left is going to go on the offensive against the capitalist parties it has to make the case for republican democracy and public or social ownership. There could no better time to make such a case and gain a hearing for this in the working class movement.

It goes without saying that the working class movement needs both defence and offence. If you cannot defend, you cannot attack. If you cannot attack, then eventually the defenders will be exhausted, demoralised and overrun by the enemy. The combination of the two is necessary, as is being able to go from one to the other. In the general election the left may be weak and divided, but we have to go on the offensive. The stronger the offensive, the better will be the trade union defence facing the new government. The Republican Socialist Convention is an opportunity for the left to consider its offensive weapons.

Finally we must not end up with a London or England-centred view. It looks different for people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Here parliaments and assemblies raise different democratic issues about power or sovereignty. After 1997 demands for self-government produced a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. The republican movement in Northern Ireland came to a deal with the crown in the Good Friday agreement. The future of these institutional arrangements is far from settled. The present Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh, for example, is planning an independence referendum. The national question is not resolved. This issue will also be open for discussion.

The Republican Socialist Convention is not a sectarian initiative setting itself up against the rest of the left by offering the ‘correct’ view. My views here are only one amongst many. Of course, the convention stands for republicanism and socialism. But the aim is to promote dialogue across different strands, ‘warts and all’, that make up the working class movement. If there is criticism, it is because it does not have all strands of opinion on the platform. However, it is an invitation for all to contribute and hopefully gain a greater understanding of the importance of democracy in the struggle for socialism.