12 months ago when I sat down to do my traditional end of year round-up, I ended with the pious hope that things would be much better for the left by the time 2008 came to a close. Well, now we're here, has socialism advanced any during the course of the last year?
If you can use one word to sum up 2008, that would probably be 'crash'. There's no need to go into the specifics of the crisis - it's been talked about plenty of times. But from the standpoint of leftist politics, we are moving into a period that offers greater opportunities than any time since Labour came to power. The government and the bosses are clear they expect our class to pay the price for their crisis. Business is calling on the government to freeze the minimum wage in 2009 (a call likely to fall on sympathetic ears). Firms are shedding jobs right, left and centre with more high street names facing difficulties, if not collapse. Then there are the drastic cuts in public spending Brown and Darling have promised to help pay for the borrowed cash that bailed out the banking sector. All these plus other manifestations of crisis not mentioned will spark resistance and grow a potentially receptive audience for socialist ideas. But this process is not automatic. There are challenges thrown up by 2008 that need to be overcome.
Chief among these remains the Labour party itself. You could be mistaken for thinking history has a sense of irony. While the crisis was bubbling beneath the surface of mainstream political consciousness, the government was lurching from one crisis to another. The 10p tax fiasco, the dithering over Northern Rock, the very public mislaying of sensitive government data, the open jostling for Labour leadership; more and more it was exposing itself as out of touch and bereft of ideas. The Tories were no better, but at least their liberal-inflected conservatism represented something of a change. And then came September's stock market collapse(s) and the recession. But Labour's dismal fortunes, that saw them lose two by-elections in safe seats, were turned around by Brown's affectation of dour seriousness and crisis management. Incredibly the Tories' lead in the opinion polls were slashed from 20 points to single digits (some firms put the Tory lead as low as a single point). There is some evidence suggesting the gap has opened up slightly, but Labour have managed to go from a catastrophic position to being in with a shout for a fourth term. Not that we will see an election in 2009, mind.
What's this got to do with the left? Electorally speaking Labour was, up until the summer, undergoing a slow process of decomposition. Layers of its support were either clinging on for want of something better, had turned their back on mainstream politics, or were willing to give the likes of the BNP a go. Enthusiastic Labour voters were rarer than principles on the government's front bench. But the crisis and Labour's "decisive" action in saving the banks has, if the polls are to be believed, arrested this process. In short, Labour support has firmed up. This argument can be applied to the Glenrothes by-election, where the government's vote increased, even though the SNP closed the gap. The two socialist candidates came nowhere.
There are more consequences for the left than fractions of percentage points at election time. The government's turn from neoliberalism to (rightwing) Keynesianism has opened a new political space for social democrats, old labourists, and other lefts remaining inside the Labour party. Their influence on the party apparat maybe negligible, and the avenues for "reclaiming" the organisation remain closed (the hope the National Policy Forum could be influenced from the left proved unfounded). Nonetheless it will be viewed by some as an opportunity to put forward Keynesian-inspired social democratic policies, which is what the likes of Jon Cruddas and his friends in Compass are doing. Others will hope Brown's rediscovery of Keynes is advance notice of a turn to the left. Whatever the case, the emerging New Labour consensus around state intervention, the actions the government have taken, and the poll recovery will glue the Labour left more solidly to the party.
If this habit of mind is abroad in Labour circles, you can bet your bottom dollar it's making headway in trade union bureaucracies. Among the unions that are affiliated to Labour, it appears as if the government can do anything with no consequences from the organisations the party still depends on for funding. Threaten to part-privatise the post office? The CWU leadership protests, but will cling like a limpet to Labour when the debate on disaffiliation comes up at their annual conference. Or how about below-inflation pay rises and public sector job cuts? Unison's bureaucrats show their displeasure by shoveling millions into Labour's bottomless pockets, derailing opposition and attacking activists who dare stand up for their members. What the union tops lacked until now was a coherent justification for sticking with Labour. Brown's crisis measures provide that. But that's not all. A general election due in the next 18 months, and the polling numbers commanded by the Tories will have concentrated the minds of union leaders. Utterly convinced some crumbs will fall from the Brownite table eventually, this layer of the labour movement will do everything it can not to "embarrass" the government. Do not expect much in the way of leadership, unless a groundswell among the members force them in that direction.
We must be careful not to over-egg the pudding. Labour has major problems, not least its historically low membership; but the confluence of events in the latter half of 2008 has strengthened it in the short term. This means the project of building a new workers' party has become more difficult. If we look at the fortunes of the CNWP, it cannot be said the campaign has made any big steps forward organisationally. Individual membership is now available, but there hasn't been thousands of new signatories. There is no real independent life. Nor is it particularly well-known. But what the CNWP has achieved is to keep working class political representation a live issue among trade unionists. Its supporters have tabled motions on this issue at numerous union conferences, and it has tacit backing from among the labour movement's most militant trade union leaders: Mark Serwotka, Bob Crow, Matt Wrack and Brian Caton. However, and at the risk of being called a pessimist, the RMT-sponsored conference is unlikely to mark a watershed moment in developing a new workers' party. The strengthening of the affiliates' links with Labour could knock on to Labour-supporting layers in the RMT and FBU, potentially limiting Crow's and Wrack's room for manoeuvre.
Matters are not helped by the state of the far left. The split between the SWP and the majority of the rest of Respect rumbled on and on. It poisoned relations between key layers of leftist activists while, generally speaking, reinforcing negative opinions about the SWP among those not involved in the dispute. Probably the most ludicrous moment of the whole dispute were the London Assembly elections and the mayoral contest, when former comrades faced off against each other. The votes gained, including for the Socialist Party in Lewisham, were pretty poor. Disunity played its part (one of the "iron laws" of political science is that the electorate tends to punish division), but again, Labour overwhelmingly retains the support of the layers we need to win over. Poor election results are unlikely to tempt the ever-cautious trade union bureaucrat into supporting a left alternative.
But, on the plus side, the far left has put on members this year. Looking at the SP experience, most of these are young and new to socialist politics, but there are layers of experienced comrades who were previously active in Militant returning to the fold. Going on snippets from the SWP documents on Socialist Unity, it appears those comrades are having a similar recruitment experience too. (Is it the same in Scotland?) But can these numbers make a difference? If applied intelligently and strategically, they can, and as we began by observing, the recession will open new opportunities for doing so.
The situations with the Labour party, the unions, and the limited impact of new workers' party arguments are because, in capitalist terms, it is politics as normal. In 2008 the working class was overwhelmingly passive and has not made its presence consistently felt in the political arena. As long as this situation continues, the chance of a new workers' party coming to fruition appears remote, which is frustrating because if several unions did take the initiative it could have a catalysing effect. On the other hand, as things stand, it is more likely a new party would come about on the back of mass class action. Putting energy into building up trade union organisation in the workplace and a presence in our communities is probably the most profitable use of our small resources, while continuously making the case for the new party. If our class does show movement, the left can grow significantly. If not, will 2009 be another year of standing still?