The case for a global, political party By William Bowles

4 November 2003

Are you fed up with the existing political status quo? Can’t tell the difference between one party and another? Do you want to find one that more closely reflects your philosophy or are you even thinking about starting up your own political party? Perhaps it’ll be the ‘local’ section of a global one?

I’ve been involved with the left for pretty well my entire life and, like many others of my ilk, I’ve been cut adrift from my socialist roots over the past decade or so. Okay, I can and have, gotten involved in specific ‘causes’, like liberation movements and my work with information technology and social change over the past twenty years. But since returning to the UK after such a long absence and looking at the complete lack of organised political activism outside the traditional left parties (or what remains of them), I’ve long been considering the possibility of a new progressive formation and the form it would take.

The question is however, are we doomed to duplicate the mistakes of the past? Does the new political and economic reality demand a new kind of political party of the left, and if so, what form will it or should it, take?

In a review I wrote some while back of George Monbiot’s book The Age of Consent, I expressed more than a little sympathy for his thesis, whilst expressing some concerns about the practicalities of his proposals. The one thing missing from the book is any investigation of the future of political parties. If anything, he tends to dismiss them as ‘hangovers’ from a previous era, relying on ‘networks’ and associations rather a distinct political formation to bring about change. His argument being that the struggle is now being conducted on a global basis. He even disses the idea of internationalism, seeing this as another hangover from the age of nation-states. Yet nation states still exist and will do for the foreseeable future. (Not that I care. I’ve long been a citizen of the planet.)

Prior to the latter half of the 19th century, political parties were pretty much the exclusive domain of the ruling classes. In fact, before the rise of the organised working classes and trade unions, it was only (male) property owners who had the vote. So there’s clearly a direct link between suffrage and class and even then, it was some time before political parties of the organised working classes were able to gain representation in government.

And after a century and a half of political activism since Karl Marx and a handful of other revos formed the International Working Mens’ Association, we’ve seen the rise and subsequent fall of political parties that represent working people. And although many of the European political parties still have the name socialist or profess to be socialist, there’s light years between the name and the reality.

And since the fall of the Soviet Union and the ‘triumph’ of capital, the pundits of capitalism claim that socialism is a dead duck and well past its sell-by date. To add to the woes of progressives, the rise of ‘single issue’ parties such as the Greens have further fragmented opposition to the status quo. ‘Local politics’, grassroots community activism, broad-based ‘movements’ such as anti-globalisation, fair trade and the like have only muddied the waters even more.

Yet the capitalist ‘democracies’ gain the major part of their legitimacy through the vote, regardless of the degree of participation. The mantra oft-repeated that if you don’t like the party that represents you, vote them out depends entirely on two issues: is there an alternative and what chance do they have of gaining power which in turn relies on the level of support for your alternative?

Thinking back to my days as an activist, one of the most common objections voiced to me by people when canvassing was that we’d never get elected, or, ‘we’ve got to keep the Tories out’. Both of which have more than a degree of truth but both are based on a pragmatic approach to politics rather than principle. And indeed, the dominant political parties in part, rely on both these attitudes to maintain hegemony.

But as mainstream political parties in most of the developed world have come more closely to resemble each other, there have been two reactions that have undermined the 150 years of struggle that preceded us. One is the decreasing number of people who simply don’t bother to vote at all and the other, switching to ‘single issue’ parties or even and perhaps more important, protest votes such as ballot spoiling (eg, writing in your own candidate or some other expression). And of course, not voting is as much a political expression as voting is.

And in any case, is having the right to vote truly an expression of democracy? What about the four or five years between elections? What about political parties that get voted into power on one programme but carry out another one? And what about the power of money to determine the outcome of an election such as in the US? Is it worth voting and if not, what are the alternatives? Aside from overthrowing the existing political order through ‘extra-parliamentary means’ whether through a coup, mass protests, strikes and ultimately a revolution, suffrage for most of us, is the only route open to us.

So how come we don’t use something that took so much struggle to achieve, the right to vote? What has happened over the past thirty or so years to change the political landscape so fundamentally and what are the chances of rehabilitating the vote as a means of political change?

Clearly a major element has been the fact that the electorate have ‘lost faith’ in the electoral system either because they see very little difference between the major political parties or they don’t think that their vote counts for anything.

The 1997 landslide victory of the Labour Party was predicated on two simple facts: 19 years of Tory rule had brought basic social services to the brink of collapse, so in spite of all the propaganda about the primacy of the ‘market’, the Tories ignored the fact that most Brits rely on the National Health Service, public schools and other basic social services and it was Labour’s promise to upgrade these services that got them elected.

What’s interesting here is the fact that for most, the idea of publicly owned resources, whether badly run or not, was important to them. In other words, it was not only the reality of affordable social services, it was also the idea that there are some things that don’t depend on profit but on principle and it was the principle that people voted for.

That Labour has reneged on their programme has had two effects. It’s increased people’s cynicism and it has forced specific segments of society into the arms of ‘extreme’ political parties as a reaction such as the neo-nazis. And the Labour Party has seen a mass exodus from its ranks of paid-up members. Some have moved their support to the Liberal Democrats whom on the surface at least; more resemble ‘old’ Labour. The Tories have just lost votes, period.

As always, the traditional parties far to the left of the Labour Party, remain marginalised and totally ineffectual, at both the local and national level. One has to ask the question why, given that the Labour Party was voted in twice on what appeared to be a progressive programme? How come those to the left of it haven’t picked up votes from those disillusioned with New Labour?

In part, it’s because they’ve been demonised by the mass media and the state eg, the ‘loony left’ or the ‘awkward squad’ and in part because those who may be sympathetic to their programmes don’t think they’ll get elected and feel that they’re throwing away their vote.

What about the single issue parties such as the Greens? Germany is the only country to actually elect a Green party into power (albeit in coalition with the social democrats, the so-called Red-Green coalition), but they fell out almost immediately and predictably, it was the Greens who made most of the compromises. Frankly, I have no faith in single-issue parties; they are incapable of addressing the complex issues that face us without opening themselves up to serious internal splits over principles. And unfortunately, the same seems to hold true for left-wing socialist/marxist parties, even where they are in a position to have some impact on national elections such as in France. Clearly, on the left, there’s no room for sectarian approaches.

Yet how does one achieve a balance between pragmatism and principle? First and foremost, a realistic programme that reflects an understanding of the reality of the situation. This depends on a sophisticated understanding of the difference between strategy and tactics. This may mean making compromises that in the short term signal a ‘defeat’ but in the long term achieving a significant strategic advantage that is difficult to reverse.

But more to the point, with the disappearance of the traditional industrial working class and the networks of solidarity that gave cohesion and direction to the struggle for social transformation, what will replace it? The major trade unions today are either public sector employees or in the service sector and unless there is a major reorientation of the Labour Party (unlikely), they are now bereft of political representation, even if only of the economic variety, let alone one concerned with political/social change.

My experiences in South Africa working for the ANC and COSATU taught me a lot, especially about the limits of alliances between trade unions and political parties. For in spite of the historical connection through the liberation struggle between the ANC, the SACP and COSATU, which of necessity was a broad alliance of forces to bring about the removal of Apartheid, once the ANC became the government, the different objectives of the ANC and COSATU become readily apparent.

And historically, the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade union movement has exhibited similar tendencies once the Labour Party became the government, only now, the schism is all the more obvious because New Labour has dumped its trade union roots completely (or tried to) as surplus to requirement. Indeed the similarities between the New Labour and ANC governments are no coincidence. Both have pursued a ‘neo-liberal’ economic agenda aka Thatcherism. And both have ditched the idea of the government as a vehicle of job creation. And prior to the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa, both New Labour and the US Democratic Party were the principle advisors to the ANC on its election strategy.

But I digress somewhat. The central issue is does class still constitute the central role in the struggle for transformation and if so, what constitutes class in the new situation? For most, the central issue is no longer economics in the sense that, poverty, although affecting millions, constitute a minority. A minority moreover that has no representation. Unions still try to protect the interests of their members but by and large are no longer interested in social change unless it concerns the interests of their members.

What does unite broad swathes of the population is the quality of life on a ‘non-material’ and material level and here, the connection between the power of the large corporates and government and the degradation of the quality of life becomes clearer with each passing day. And moreover, it’s now visible on a global scale via the impact of climate change and the poor of the world. In addition, there is the very material issue of the competition for jobs between the ‘mature’ economies and the emerging ones. In the UK it’s estimated that 2 million jobs will be transferred to places like India and South Africa by the end of the decade. In the US it’s estimated that 10 million jobs will vanish over the same period. The corporate mavens justify this by saying that the ‘knowledge’ economy will create new jobs to replace those that are exported, but the plain fact is, that since the 1970s, the new jobs have never equaled those that have been lost to relocation. And moreover, most of the ‘new’ jobs have been low paid, casual and non-unionised. A global ‘leveling’ downward, is taking place.

Everything points toward a global political ‘party’, perhaps a reformulation of Marx’s original conception as the Global Working Peoples’ Association? Food for thought as it raises some interesting issues concerning organisation and how does one link activities and actions on a global scale? After all, Capital does it why can’t we? Indeed, these are the same questions that Monbiot asked in his book. Solutions anyone?

From: the GWPA, English Branch

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