Building a British Syriza?

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2013 - 9:13

Jim Jepps is the Camden organiser for the Left Unity initiative launched by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson and backed by Ken Loach.

Jim is a former member of the SWP and then of the Green Party, which he left recently. He spoke to Martin Thomas of Solidarity about the initiative.

Syriza shows that radical leftist politics don’t have to be fringe politics. People will vote for left politics, if they’re done in the right way. That means being inclusive, and to some extent being populist.

Obviously, Rifondazione, Die Linke, Front de Gauche, Syriza all involved having had a mass Communist Party in those countries, and drawing on those traditions, the personnel, and sometimes the infrastructure. We’ve never had that here, so our route to a broader, pluralist left party has to be different. But I don’t think British people are particularly different from German or French people.

Q: We would welcome a British equivalent of Syriza, though we don’t see one emerging any time soon. But anyway, without waiting, we in AWL try build a left organisation that can do the job of DEA or Kokkino in Syriza. That’s necessary whatever happens. The leadership of Syriza has been pulled into the centre.

JJ: Any left regroupment has to be as broad and inclusive as possible. We have to find ways of working together, in particular where we have tactical disagreements. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be red lines. If there was a war like Iraq, for example, it’d be very difficult to see how you’d accommodate people who supported that war.

Q: We favour an arrangement where we can unite in action where we agree, and debate where we disagree. We advocate local left forums in which the left debates its differences openly and does enough in unity to be a visible force, socialist, aligned to the working class, and not just “against austerity”.

JJ: The left should be a rich place ideologically. It’s true that we often dumb ourselves down to lowest-common-denominators.

I favour a looser idea of democracy. A “winner-takes-all” approach, where anyone who disagrees with a decision after it’s been taken has to shut up and lump it, isn’t helpful.

Most people who are to the left of Labour in this country are not members of organisations. One of the key issues we face is how to empower those people.

The left organisations, the Trotskyist organisations, don’t have a monopoly and their models are not the only way the left has to be. In order to have a richer political environment, we have to have spaces for other people to breathe.

In previous unity projects, independent people have felt like they’re a stage army for the existing groups.

Q: But there are limits. If a left movement or party which prides itself on being easy-going gets representatives elected to offices in trade unions or in local government, those representatives can say “this is an easy-going organisation, you’re not going to tell me what to do with this office, I’ll do it my way”...

JJ: The Red Green Alliance in Denmark has an interesting model, where they have a very permissive culture at the bottom and a very strict one at the top. All their governmental representatives are expected to vote in line with agreed policy. I’m for slightly greater permissiveness even at the top.

I’d want to see maybe six policies that are absolute bottom lines, where you’d say to an MP “we don’t care what you think personally, this is how you vote on this issue”, and just be looser on everything else.

The RGA commits its MPs to voting a particular way on everything in its manifesto, which I think risks alienating some people who might be uncomfortable with certain aspects of policy.

Q: What are your realistic hopes for the new Left Unity initiative?

JJ: I’m a pessimist at heart, from experience of previous projects in this country. But what I like about Left Unity is that it’s said “let’s start a discussion”. It hasn’t launched a new party, it hasn’t said “here are our big names, come and be their follower”, it’s just said that we need a discussion on building a new left-wing organisation in this country.

We’ve had 8,000 people sign up to be part of this. That shows the potential.

I’m not sure where it’ll go. By the end of the year we’ll have a much clearer idea.

Q: The LU project looks like “unity for splitters”, in that many of those involved are people who’ve split from the Green Party, or Workers’ Power, or Respect, or the SWP, or whatever, and want something big and quick to replace their old group...

JJ: We’re all splitters on the left! It’s true that some people who leave groups are simply people who find it difficult to be in organisations. Some of those people are coming towards Left Unity, and maybe if it’s successful then in three years’ time they won’t be involved any more...

But if that’s a characteristic of the left as a whole, we’re probably doomed. In general I think we can get on with each other if we develop a better culture, and get rid of that “winner-takes-all” attitude.

I don’t think the people who’ve left the SWP are just looking for an SWP mark 2. There’ve been floods of new ideas in and around the International Socialist Network.

Q: Over the last ten years there have been about eight different unity projects which have failed. What’s different with this one?

JJ: Those projects didn’t all fail for the same reason. The Socialist Labour Party was very different from the Socialist Alliance, and Respect was a very different kind of organisation again. The left collectively made very different mistakes with each of them.

There’s a tendency to blame the SWP, which is understandable, but it lets everyone else off the hook. We could all have done better in the Socialist Alliance. I think the fatal blow was struck when the Socialist Party found a reason to leave, and their absence left no counterbalance to the SWP.

It’s too early to say what kind of organisation Left Unity will become. We’re hoping it won’t look like any of those initiatives. But each of them had successes.

The Convention of the Left was commendable in its modesty, in just setting out to get everyone in a room talking to each other, but if you remain amorphous and ambiguous for too long, there’s no reason to continue. You end up being so worried about taking controversial decisions or doing things that not everyone agrees with, you end up doing nothing.

Left Unity has the most to learn from the Convention of the Left in terms of that modesty, but we have to nail things down and move on more quickly.

Our Left Unity group in Camden is planning to campaign against the “bedroom tax”. We’ll do a showing of Spirit of ‘45, set up an email list, hold more meetings, continue to talk to each other and learn from each other.

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