Friday, 25 January 2008

Gregor Gall: Unity is possible - look at Europe...

While this article from Scottish Left Review is aimed at the recent almost tabloid collapse of the Scottish left and the messy split of RESPECT! in England, the lessons it fingers - of the various left-unity projects in Europe, and particularly the successes that have come there - remain especially relevant for the Left in Australia, as it struggles to gain a meaningful foothold in a landscape dominated by the ALP, and, moreso for our purposes, the Greens.

While lessons from half a world away are only part of the syllabus, they need to be studied in detail, and relevant experiences tested on the local scene. That is why the wombats have reproduced the piece below.
Gregor Gall argues that it is time the Scottish left began to think about how it can work together again. To find ways forward he looks at examples from across Europe which he argues provide hope that progress is possible.

The radical left unity projects in Scotland (the SSP) and England (Respect) made small but significant electoral breakthroughs between 2003 and 2005. However, their implosion in the last two years as result of internal disputes and splits has cast doubt on whether the radical left can ever move away from its Life of Brian depiction of incessant hair-splitting on questions of political purity, much less exercise any influence on the political process. However, the objective conditions of hegemonic neo-liberalism, continuing imperialism and the decomposition of social democracy demand that the idea of a radical left unity projects is not jettisoned for reasons of any short-term difficulties. For the radical left, in these aforementioned conditions, to be a credible option for a growing body of disillusioned and progressive opinion, unity and cooperation amongst itself are vital. Uniting the radical left together is not just about making one new alliance or organisation the sum of its constituent parts so that it is not divided, important though that is. Rather, it is about making the new organisation more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, unity can help prefigure growth of members and influence through pooling resources, pushing in the same direction, working to common priorities and being more credible to wider social movements and the like.

Unity can take different forms. The basic form is working together in genuine, full and trusting ways in campaigns, while the higher forms involve electoral alliances and organisational fusions. Joint-working or electoral alliances may be the pre-figurative basis for subsequent organisational fusion. For any of these forms of collective working to be possible, respect and tolerance of differences are vital while differences must also be discussed constructively. Unity must be achieved on the foundation of openly discussing and resolving differences for ‘paper’ unity will dissolve when strong differences emerge. But the basis of collective working together in the same electoral alliances and party organisations must be that overwhelming consensus on the grand political questions of our age amongst the radical left forms the bedrock of a common ideology for radical left unity, from which questions of how to operate are secondary and subject to fraternal discussion and debate. This has often been described as the ‘80:20 equation’, where the 20 per cent of disagreement is not allowed to get in the way of agreement and action on the 80 per cent of issues where there is common ground and consensus. Consequently, to facilitate agreement (the 80 per cent) and fraternal discussion (on the 20 per cent), radical left projects must be characterised by pluralism, openness and relative broadness, with some degree of interim internal autonomy to the pre-merger constituent parts.

Mindful of this, this article presents short, thumb nail sketches of the radical left unity projects in continental Europe before making some preliminary conclusions about what they can teach us in Scotland and Britain. It should not be assumed that all radical and far left groups and parties in each of the countries covered are involved in the radical left unity projects outlined below. Indeed, the communist parties with sizeable numbers of elected representatives still exist in Portugal, France, Italy and Greece outside radical left unity projects and here both radical left unity projects and sizeable communist parties exist alongside a plethora of other assorted leftists groups. Even outside the radical left unity projects - where they exist - other left and progressive groups and forces exist so the unity projects are not ‘finished products’. And in Belgium and Sweden, long-existing left parties predominate so there have been no radical left unity projects. Nonetheless, the following survey gives some idea of what happened, when and why. Readers are urged to use the free encyclopedia, Wikipedia (, to learn more about these projects and their components part by typing in the name of each country, finding the section on politics, then political parties. From here, there are entries and links to the various organisations’ own websites (some of which are in English).


The Red-Green Alliance was formed as an electoral alliance in 1989 by three leftwing parties (left social democrats, communists and Trotskyists) with Maoists joining in 1991. The Alliance then developed into an independent party based on individual membership, with the founding parties having no official influence and a majority of members not having has a past in one of the founding organisations parties. It then gained parliamentary representation in 1994, having six MPs (three per cent vote) in the 2005 elections and four MPs (two per cent) in the 2007 elections.


The Left Alliance is a green socialist party, formed from the merger of the People’s Democratic League, the Women’s Democratic League, and the Communist Party in 1990. Given the different political persuasions, divisions have been common with defections to the social democrats and the forming of a new communist party. Electoral performance has ranged from 17 to 23 MPs (nine per cent-11 per cent) for the parliament to 1,000 to 1,300 councillors (10 per cent-12 per cent vote) and one to two MEPs (nine to 10 per cent vote).


In addition to the Communist Party, there are three Trotskyist parties, of which the larger two (Lutte Ouvrière and Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR)) have jointly worked together on a sporadic basis in the electoral arena (regional, presidential, European). However, their enmity towards each other is also marked although the LCR has recently made a call for a broader, anti-capitalist party to be created. It remains to be seen what the reactions of the other two Trotskyist parties, Communist Party and social movements are to this.


The Coalition of the Left of Movements and Ecology is commonly known as Synaspismos or SYN. Until 2003, it was called the Coalition of the Left and Progress and is a major component of the parliamentary Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). SYN emerged initially as an electoral coalition in the late 1980s, with two communist parties being its largest constituents, and securing over 10 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections and a substantial number of MPs. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the coalition moved to become a party in 1991. Electoral fortunes were mixed in the early to mid-1990s but parliamentary representation was secured (10 MPs in 1996 on five per cent vote, two MEPs in 1999 on five per cent vote). In elections in 2000, SYN was supported by left ecologists, gaining just over three per cent of the vote and six MPs. In parliamentary elections of 2004, SYN together with several smaller left and left ecologists parties formed SYRIZA alliance. The alliance with the smaller parties was formed again at the end of 2005, providing a firm basis the 14 MPs gained on a five per cent vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections, which makes SYN the fourth biggest party. SYN also has many councillors, being the third biggest party in local government, and a sizable, semi-autonomous youth wing. SYN aspires to be an ‘umbrella’, where people of varying left ideological and theoretical backgrounds can find a natural home. Therefore, SYN members are encouraged to form and participate in internal platforms which mount open discussions and publish magazines, but may not work against party policy. These platforms are invited to put forward theses on party policy and strategy at triennial congresses.

SYRIZA’s genesis arose in a forum of the radical left in 2001 called the Space of Left Dialogue and Common Action, which in turn led to an electoral alliance for the 2002 local elections, and provided the basis for its formal establishment in 2004. However after the 2004 election, the smaller parties accused SYN of not honouring an agreement to have one of its MPs resign so a member of one of the smaller parties could take the seat. This crisis led SYN to run independently from the rest of the Coalition for the 2004 European elections but later in that year SYN returned to SYRIZA. By 2007, several new radical left and green organisations joined SYRIZA, helping it secure its breakthrough.


The important development of Die Linke, fusing together the former PDS, a breakaway section from the social democrats (SPD) and various far left groups is an important development. It is amply analysed in Victor Grossman’s article in this edition of the magazine. Suffice it to note The Left has polled eight to 13 per cent, is the only left party in Parliament (unless one still views the SPD and the Greens as left-of-centre) and has become the strongest of the oppositional parties. The German Communist Party (DKP), the traditional party of the left in western Germany, retains some roots among some workers and students. Although often critical of the Left, it supports The Left in elections and has friendly ties to that party’s Communist Platform. The newer Communist Party of Germany (KPF) also has some such ties but rarely supports The Left. There are also smaller Maoist and Trotskyist parties or groups, very visible at demonstrations, as well as ecological and immigrant groups and the anti-globalisation Attac.


In 1991, when the Italian Communist Party became the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), dissidents founded Communist Refoundation (PRC) as a party to unite all communists. It was joined by Proletarian Democracy, a Trotskyist party. PRC was led by Fausto Bertinotti, a long-time CGIL union leader (from 1994-2006), helping it achieve nine per cent in the 1996 election. The party’s MPs supported and then opposed the Olive Tree centre-left coalition leading to its fall and a split in PRC with the setting up of the Party of Italian Communists. In 2004, PRC joined the centre-left opposition, The Union, entering government when it won power in 2006. The decision to participate in the coalition government, particularly in light of the government’s policy on Afghanistan and Lebanon, attracted much criticism. Internally, the PRC has recognised tendencies ‘Being Communists’, Critical Left (which quit in 2007) and the Communist Project (which quit in 2006). PRC has around 70 MPs currently based on gaining seven per cent votes.


The Left was formed in 1999 by activists from existing political parties (communist, New Left, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party) and won three per cent vote and one MP in that year. But a dispute between the communists and the majority of the Left led to both running separately in the 2004 elections, with the Left losing its MP.


Although the Socialist Party (originating from a Maoist communist party in 1972) is currently larger in parliamentary terms, GreenLeft is a larger extra-parliamentary organisation. It began life as an alliance of four parties (communists, socialists, greens and Christians). Initially, it had 16 MPs in 1972 but this fell to six in 1977, precipitating further cooperation albeit of an uneven outcome involving splits from each party and leading to a situation where only two of the four parties had just three MPs between them by 1986. This increased the pressure for full fusion, particularly from unions and environmentalists. In 1989, an interim organisation was formed for the 1989 European elections, leading to the creation of GreenLeft in 1990 as a party and the dissolution of the four former parties. Again this precipitated splits, leading to the formation of splinter groups. Political unity was slowly fashioned out of diverse opinion, although divisions remained over issues of Kosovo, Afghanistan and individual freedom. Between 1990 and 2007, GreenLeft has had between nine and 19 MPs, one and four MEPs, 50-odd members of provincial legislatures and tens of other elected position in local government.


The Socialist Left Party was founded in 1975 although it began life in 1973 as the Socialist Electoral League (SEL), an alliance of the Socialist People’s Party, Communist Party of Norway, Democratic Socialists and independent Socialists following the victory for the ‘No’ campaign in the European Community referendum of 1972. In the 1973 elections, the SEL achieved an 11 per cent vote and 16 MPs. However, as SEL moved to become a party with its constituent parties disbanding, the Communist Party left, and it was not until the late 1980s that its first level of electoral success was repeated. In 2005, with nine per cent vote and 15 MPs it joined the centre-left Red-Green government coalition. Meanwhile, the Red Electoral Alliance (REA) was founded in 1973 as an election front for the Maoist communist party, becoming its own independent party in 1991. From 1993 to 1997, REA had one MP but despite recording its highest ever vote (two per cent), it lost its seat and failed to regain it in 2005 with a lower vote (one per cent) although it maintained around 60 councillors. This retrenchment led in 2007 to a fusion with the Maoist communist party to form Red.


Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, LB) was founded in 1999 from a number of far-left parties from Maoist, Trotskyist and communist backgrounds. All of these parties had stood in elections and became currents within the LB. Initially developed as a coalition, the LB has since become a party while its constituent components have maintained their existence and some levels of autonomy, leading to a loose structure. This structure may also provide an umbrella for other interested socialist organisations. In 1999, the LB polled two per cent in the Portuguese parliamentary election with this rising to three per cent in 2002. These results were generally better than the collective results of its predecessor components. In 2005, the LB achieved a breakthrough with 6.5 per cent and eight MPs. It also has one MEP and many local councillors, making it Portugal’s fifth biggest party. The LB’s presidential candidate in 2006 received 288,224 votes (five per cent). With support from students and unions in particular, the LB is becoming to be seen as a credible left alternative to the older, more established communist party and the more centre-left socialist party because it has become a pole of attraction for many involved in various social movements. The BL proposed Portugal’s first law on domestic violence, which was passed in parliament with the support of the socialist party.

Portugal is unusual in that it has another radical left unity project, the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (UDC), consisting of the Communist Party, the Ecologist Party and Democratic Intervention. The coalition was formed in 1987 to run in the simultaneous national and European parliamentary elections, and in every election since these parties have stood together at the UDC, even though the Communist Party is the major element within it. Tensions are minimalised by the sharing out of lead candidatures. Since 1987 the UDC has had in: the national parliament between 12 and 31 MPs (eight to 12 per cent vote); local government in excess of 200 councillors (11 to 13 per cent vote); and the European Parliament two to four MEPs (nine per cent to 14 per cent vote).


United Left (Izquierda Unida) was formed as a political coalition in 1986 during the mobilisations against NATO by several groups of leftists, greens, left-wing socialists and republicans but was always dominated by the Communist Party. After the electoral decline of the Communist Party in 1982 (from 10 per cent to three per cent), the UL slowly improved its electoral results reaching nine per cent in 1993 (1.8 million votes) and 11 per cent in 1996 (2.6m votes). From 1999, it went into decline, with its support slipping to five per cent in 2000. In that election it signed a pact with the Socialist Party. Following the tradition of the Spanish left, the UL does not have an organisation in Catalonia. Until 1998, UL’s counterpart in Catalonia was Iniciativa per Catalunya (IC-V). But IC-V moved towards the centre, and broke relations with the UL, leading the UL to set up its own organisation in Catalonia, Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (EUiA). In 2004, UL ran with IC-V, achieving five per cent and five MPs. UL has around 70,000 activists and more than 2,500 councillors. Founded in 1995, Alternative Space is a political organisation from a Trotskyist tradition but draws on anti-capitalist, feminist and ecologist perspectives following the different currents that formed it. It operates as a current with UL but is also an autonomous organisation and most of its members do not belong to this coalition.


In Switzerland, the radical left consists of three groups (Alternative List, Solidarites, Swiss Party of Labour) which have a smattering between them of elected representatives at the various levels. However, they worked together in coalitions when standing for elections in 2005 (as Left Alliance) and 2007 (as À gauche toute! Genève).

Lessons for the Scottish and British radical left

This brief cook’s tour around the most significant western European radical left unity projects has a number of lessons:

  • What seem like disparate groups can work and fuse together (although it is interesting to note that in nearly all instances they do not include members of sister organisations of the Socialist Party (ex-Militant) in Britain and where they include members of sister organisations of the British Socialist Workers’ Party, these members have no significant influence on the radical left unity projects). Working together and, ultimately, fusing is often brought about by prior campaigning activities and joint electoral slates. Of course, while such fusion should be welcomed in itself, sometimes the underlying recognition is that individual parties have often ceased to be credible or influential players on their own so fusion is required to regain some kind of radical left critical mass.
  • The degree of success for the radical left unity projects is sufficiently high that acquiring further knowledge about them, if not trying to emulate them, is desirable. This can be gauged by their presence in representative legislatures and membership numbers, particularly amongst members from formerly-aligned, non-aligned and independent backgrounds. However, success in attracting left members from social democratic, Labour-type parties has been less evident.
  • Despite successes, radical left unity projects do suffer from ups and downs reflecting wider changes in society, struggle and consciousness - in other words, left unity does not guarantee inexorable upward momentum.
  • Engaging in the electoral arena is vital but so is campaigning in extra-parliamentary terms outside elections (although this has been more difficult to show in this cook’s tour). Indeed, it would be a strange notion to counter-pose the two - elections and campaigning - as at cross purposes with each other.
  • Splits do take place, either as a result of deeply held policy differences or the reluctance to consent to the dissolution of an organisation upon fusing with others. However, fusion need not led to this outcome depending on the process and nature of fusion. Seldom have splits come about because of entering government coalitions - this will remain the great test of these projects given that any government in the foreseeable future in any of the European countries is likely to be dominated by neo-liberal, bellicose parties.
  • The history of radical left unity far pre-dates the watershed of the rise of the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements in the new millennium.
  • Different ‘models’ exist of radical left unity and activists should look at which they think are most appropriate to their situation.
  • Some Green/ecologist parties and organisations have been involved but this is far from standard practice and given an impending environmental catastrophe, opening up avenues to the left of the Green movement is an important future task for the radical left unity projects.

Clearly, a long way still has to be travelled until an alternative is built to the crumbling edifice of mainstream social democracy but these projects provide food for thought and for action.

Professor Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire and author of ‘The Political Economy of Scotland - Red Scotland? Radical Scotland’ (University of Wales Press, 2005). He lives in Edinburgh.

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