“Popular front” tactics are not compatible with socialist politics

By Peter Broxas

For Labour for a Socialist Europe’s statement “No to a national unity government! For an anti-Brexit Labour government!”, see here.

Paul Mason, one of the most influential journalists and writers in the pro-Corbyn left, has called for “a progressive pact with Greens and Lib Dems” as Labour’s “only option” against Boris Johnson and his rush for Brexit.

In Parliament, against Johnson’s government as against other Tory governments in the past, Labour MPs will of course walk through the same lobbies as Lib Dems and the SNP and rebel Tories.

They will even coordinate parliamentary tactics with them.

What is or should be ruled out for the left is a tactic which buries our politics under the tactic, rather than having the tactic serve politics. Which makes the labour movement unable to advocate policies opposed to all wings of the ruling class. Or unable to advocate them except as something to be pursued at a later and quieter time, outside the crisis that calls for a coalition tactic.

An electoral pact – or “popular front”; Paul Mason acknowledges that his proposal links back to the 1930s “popular fronts” – would blur politics at the very point where voters actively engage with politics, in the polling booth at a forthcoming crisis general election.

Another option now being circulated is that Labour should agree a single-shot coalition government with all the other opposition groups – Lib Dems, SNP, Anna Soubry’s group, rebel Tories, the lot – to take office after a vote of no confidence in Johnson.

The coalition agreement would thwart Johnson’s plan, announced by his adviser Dominic Cummings, to remain prime minister even after losing two votes of confidence and to make the subsequent general election happen after a no-deal Brexit had become an accomplished fact on 31 October. This plan is essentially a variant of Johnson’s previous scheme of “proroguing” (suspending) Parliament.

Supposedly the coalition government would revoke Article 50 and then do nothing at all except call a new general election. Or, in another version, negotiate a further Article 50 extension with the EU, then call a new general election.

These schemes are unlikely even in their own terms. If there were a solid majority in Parliament for revoking or extending Article 50, then that could be voted through now. In fact, it would have been voted through already.

For Labour to start talking about such a coalition would only put all distinctive working-class politics, all calls for distinctive working-class mobilisation, on the back shelf for the duration – and the duration of a political crisis! – to pursue a will-of-the-wisp.

Would this hypothetical coalition government go ahead with Johnson’s announced plans for more social spending? Or stop them, and see Labour outflanked on that issue by the Tories?

Johnson’s “Brexit coup” – whichever variant he goes for – should be combatted in the first place on the streets, by mass demonstrations and strikes to force him to resign. That cannot be done in coalition with the Lib Dems and Soubry.

We have already seen, in the Euro-elections, Labour supporters, and even left-wing Labour members, going off to vote Green or Lib Dem.

Those voters have to be won back by clear and better politics.

An electoral pact would deny voters the opportunity to vote for reversing privatisations, for increasing the minimum wage, for repealing anti-union laws, for stopping and reversing benefit cuts, and for progressive taxation. To revert Labour to being a party of the status quo and consensus would be disastrous.

An electoral pact would feed back on and restrain how Labour could campaign. If Labour is to back the Lib Dems in constituency A, it will have to moderate what it says about them in constituency B.

What about the “popular fronts” that Paul Mason refers to in his article, in France and Spain in the 1930s? In Spain that meant the betrayal and suppression of the Spanish workers’ revolution of 1936-7, in the name of “first defeating fascism” – and then the victory of fascism. In France, it meant a Popular Front parliament that deflected the strike movement of June 1936 with unstable concessions, and four years later voted full powers to right-wing dictator Pétain.

Paul Mason is right when he says that going on about Nick Clegg and tuition fees will cut little ice today. But what about the Lib Dems’ policies now? On nothing except Brexit are they at all left-wing. That is why Labour has to defeat them as well as the Tories.

Paul Mason was the first of the more avowedly pro-Corbyn journalists to demolish the pretence that a left-wing Brexit that could be negotiated. He did that many months before Owen Jones, Ash Sarkar and Matt Zarb-Cousins came to the same position.

He has punctured the myths that Brexit was a reflection of “working-class” consciousness. He has demolished the delusion of “Labour heartlands” of “traditional” supporters – conveniently defined by Lexiters as not including migrant workers, precarious workers, many BAME workers, big-city workers, etc. – which must and can be kept by political evasions or worse on Brexit.

Class-struggle, internationalist socialists, such as organise in Another Europe is Possible and Labour for a Socialist Europe, will have serious and important disagreements with Mason – over Trident and NATO, for instance. Nonetheless, we have a lot to thank him for.

The Lexiter criticism of him on the grounds that he breaks an embargo on the Lib Dems, who were party to the austerity of 2010-2015, is pretty hypocritical.

Not one of those Lexiters spoke against Corbyn going into negotiations with May to help deliver Brexit, and indeed for some weeks talking up the possibilities of success from those negotiations.

Those Lexiters are not the left.

Definitions of what is left and right are never set once and for all, but are always shaped and shaped again by new events and new issues.

Some of those who reckon themselves part of Labour’s left are barely on speaking terms, particularly over Brexit and immigration, with others who also define as “left”.

The idea of a definitive “left” position to which we must conform is a dangerous, undemocratic and Stalinist nonsense. That is especially true on Europe, on which, for decades from the 1960s through to the late 1980s, the self-declared “left” was usually more regressive and nationalistic than much of the Labour right.

But, all that notwithstanding, Paul Mason’s new advocacy of popular frontism will not strengthen our fight against the rise of the new right. It will weaken it practically and ideologically.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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