The last issue's interview (Solidarity, 3/52) with London Mayor candidate Lorna Reid showed up both strengths and weaknesses in her group, the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA).
The left in general tends to dismiss the IWCA, writing them off as reactionary. But I think it has several good points.
- It does patient work in communities. Some IWCA groups have been at the heart of important campaigns, and are usually better at involving people and pursuing an effective strategy than the left's standard parachute-in-and-tell-them-how-to-do-it method.
- While the left has failed to build a real base amongst the working class, the IWCA has managed to (albeit in small, compact areas).
- Winning big votes in Council elections, the IWCA has proved that mentioning the working class does not lose you votes, as the SWP and others seem to think. It has some grasp of the idea that the crucial issue in politics in working-class representation.
- The IWCA has tackled the issue of 'anti-social behaviour', rather than ignoring it. While it is not always right on this issue, it has some good ideas, and its critics who say it has simply given in to reaction are wrong.
- The IWCA has also questioned left orthodoxy on anti-fascism and 'multi-culturalism'. Again, it is not always right, but it is on several key points. It recognises that you have to fight on issues which unite the working class rather than just wave a placard saying how anti-racist you are; and while others on the left have dumped secularism, the IWCA remains committed to it.
However, the IWCA has weaknesses.
Its definition of 'working class' is too narrow, apparently meaning only residents of council estates. Millions of working-class people do not live on council estates - not least because it is so hard to get a council home! The IWCA aspires not to represent the whole working class but one section of it.
All its fire is aimed at the 'middle class', not the ruling class. I am not one to deny that middle-class people exist, or that there are issues over middle-class issues and outlooks taking priority over the working class in politics. But the IWCA is prone to describing class in superficial cultural terms - for example, bemoaning the replacement of chippies with delis - and so failing to recognise the diversity amongst working-class people, or to accurately describe what class means.
Its exclusive focus on the 'middle class' takes the heat off the ruling class, and misrepresents how capitalist society is structured. The two important classes are the capitalist class which rules, and the working class which it exploits.
Lorna explains why the IWCA writes off trade unions. She says the unions "have a role in defending terms and conditions". In limiting the scope of trade unionism to this, she is agreeing with the union bureaucrats, and even Blair! I wonder why Lorna does not apply the same argument to community politics - "community organisations have a role in defending housing and services", implying that this is the limit of their usefulness.
Lorna argues that "big industry has been all but demolished and replaced with small production". Even to the extent that this is true, it does not mean that we should not bother with unions. Better to go out and unionise those small firms as No Sweat does.
But the IWCA also ignores the unions in the 'traditional' sectors: for example, it did little visible work in support of the FBU strike last year.
Lorna is wrong to dismiss the anti-war movement as middle-class and to ignore the contribution of trade unionists and other working-class people. (It was also odd that she stated that the demonstration was all middle-class in the same paragraph as admitting that she went on it herself.)
It is true that the anti-war movement should have oriented more to the working-class movement. Two million people on a demo looked impressive, but it did not stop the war - concerted working-class action might have done.
The problem with the politics of the anti-war movement was its softness on the ruling class, i.e., Saddam Hussein's regime.
Now, our urgent task is to build solidarity with the Iraqi working class. The SWP are not doing this, preferring to just demand an end to the occupation and leave Iraq to its fate. But as far as I know, the IWCA is not doing this solidarity work either, perhaps because its view of 'working-class issues' rarely crosses ward boundaries, let alone national ones.
There is one point about Respect that I was surprised that Lorna did not mention. Respect has chosen to contest only the Euro and GLA elections, not the Council elections. Much more so than in Euro elections, it is in Council elections where you can address issues for working-class communities and Council workers, give a voice at the ballot box for working-class struggles, and build a base amongst the working class. This tells you a lot about Respect's middle-class stunt politics.
Lorna and the IWCA argue for more resources for the areas where asylum-seekers are housed. That's OK, as far as it goes. Extra resources would make for better quality of life, and would undermine the basis of hostility - the poison that "they are taking our homes, benefits, etc." An effective campaign to defend asylum-seekers does need to demand resources for all, rather than simply fly-post about how anti-racist we are.
But there is a huge witch-hunt against asylum-seekers and refugees. The press writes about them in terms which would normally be reserved for rats. Blunkett and Howard fall over themselves in a sickening race to persecute them ever more. Hostility towards immigrants has led to violence and murder.
In the eye of this racist storm, you have to take a crystal clear stand in defence of asylum-seekers and immigrants. The IWCA does not.
Working-class political representation is not just about amplifying the views you hear on the doorstep. Sometimes those views are wrong, divisive and anti-working-class. To really serve working-class interests, you have to say so.
Finally, Lorna and the IWCA have renounced the label of 'socialist'. Their reason is partly because they have turned their back on 'ideology', and partly a desire to distance themselves from Stalinists, social democrats and sectarians.
As on other issues, the IWCA has identified the faults of the left, but not necessarily chosen the right solution.
Janine Booth, London