This is a comradely critique addressed to members of the recently-formed Breakthrough Party, a new organisation which is now registered with the Electoral Commission to stand candidates and which has welcomed eight local councillors to its ranks. This critique is made public because the questions addressed are ones affecting the whole of the left to a greater or lesser extent. This is a time at which the left in Britain is particularly disoriented following the collapse of Corbynism, and comradely debate is of benefit to us all. The material addressed is the constitution of the party, and its four main statements covering “What we believe in” (which I refer to as its platform, for shorthand).
Youth and Class
Breakthrough is, according to its website, “youth-led”. Judging from the age of the party’s internal post-holders this appears to be true, but it is unclear what that means for the organisation as a whole. A section in its Frequently Asked Questions addresses this, pointing out (correctly) that young people are under-represented in British politics, as well as being materially poorer than older generations. It also reassures readers that “we are not exclusionary of the middle-aged or the older generation [..] we currently have members of all ages, and some older members are heavily involved in shaping our party”. There appears to be nothing in Breakthrough’s constitution giving priority to young people in the party’s inner life – it is unclear how this aspect of the party’s identity will be maintained if it has no preferential criteria on membership or standing for internal positions. A substantial layer of the Corbynite left in the Labour Party, which one would have thought Breakthrough will seek to attract, was composed of older activists substantially disconnected from the youth who had little experience of the Blair/Brown years. It remains unclear exactly what “youth-led” will mean for the party in the future.
Breakthrough is “unapologetically on the side of workers”. This is good, although it is better to think about and refer to the working class rather than just workers, as this then includes all those who depend on the wage fund (students, carers, benefit claimants, pensioners etc) and not just those who are currently workers. The formulation in Breakthrough’s constitution (“people who depend, have depended, or will depend on an income derived from their work or from benefits to meet their everyday living expenses”) is better, but successful organising often means involving these sections of the class actively and directly in support of workers’ struggles.
It is also correct – fundamental, even – to identify that workers are the majority. However, with this being the case, why does Breakthrough’s vision of social transformation in Clause 1, “Names and Objects”, go no further than “a significant rebalancing of power, of wealth, and of income, in favour of [the working class]”? The majority in society, if that society is transformed democratically from top to bottom, can surely expect more than a “significant rebalancing”. We have the right to expect (and the duty to organise for) a total break with capitalism and class society, in favour of a new society based on common ownership and production for human need rather than profit. Organised democratically as a class, we can not only rebalance the scales, but we can end the capitalist exploitation that produces inequality in the first place.
Aims and Principles
In Clause 2, “Aims and Principles”, we read that:
“The Breakthrough Party is a democratic socialist party. We believe that by the strength of our collective endeavour working people can achieve their rightful share of the distribution of power, wealth and incomes in Britain and throughout the world, and employ this redistribution to serve the interests of the many, not the few.”
A democratic socialist party is exactly what is needed. However, these terms have to be defined. Is it the democratic socialism of Clement Attlee? Or Tony Blair, who was responsible for the New Labour Clause IV that Breakthrough’s Clause 2 was clearly adapted from? Or of the Democratic Socialists of America? Or even of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka? Or is it something else entirely? While some of these examples are obviously more obscure, it is surely indisputable that “socialism” is both highly contested as a term and yet also widely adopted by many different organisations with wildly differing politics.
So we have to try to discern Breakthrough’s vision of socialism from the rest of its constitution and platform. The next sentence gives us an idea but also presents us with a problem. No socialist would ever argue with working people achieving a greater share of power, wealth and income: but what is a “rightful” share? If, as covered above, the working class are the majority in the society and have both the right and the capacity to lead and transform it for the benefit of all, then surely our rightful share is: everything? If we are not talking about the whole class but only those currently in work, working out a “rightful share” becomes even more troublesome.
If the demand is for all society’s wealth and resources to be owned in common, then this should be stated openly to avoid confusion. If it is not the case, and the “rightful share” of the working class is something less than all of society’s resources, then this presupposes that there will remain some private ownership, wage labour, and exploitation in society – something that is not compatible with socialism.
“Transforming the world of work”
A commitment to supporting workers’ struggles is obviously welcome and this is clearly a central part of Breakthrough’s platform.
The platform notes that “the world of work in today’s Britain is miserable: zero-hours contracts, low pay, poor conditions, and now a COVID unemployment crisis”. This is all correct and all these things must be fought against.
It is worth sounding a note of caution about the focus on precarious workers and others at the sharpest end of the capitalist economy. While it is correct to say that these groups have been “historically overlooked by the labour movement”, it is also true that our strategy must look beyond these groups and have answers for workers in more stable or traditional jobs, who – given the trade union movement’s weakness at this point in history – are, in practice, also overlooked.
The enthusiasm for new unions like UVW and IWGB is also worth tempering with caution and a critical eye. Insofar as we want to see more militancy, then of course the efforts of these unions are to be commended. But they do not have all the answers to their own tasks, let alone the tasks of rebuilding the labour movement as a whole. As an active member of UVW, I can say from experience that it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of its democratic functioning. Many of the precarious and migrant workers it has achieved such celebrated victories with are not properly represented within its structures. Its model is, at least in the current conception of its leadership, not scalable. There is no perspective of UVW growing to become, say, like Unite, only more militant.
The commitment to fight for “the right to organise” is an important one, and implicitly represents a step forward in Breakthrough’s platform compared to the common sense of the Corbynite Labour left. Unless the unions are prepared to fight and bring down the entire apparatus of anti-union legislation, we are committing to keep one hand tied behind our backs. Not only the most recent Trade Union Act 2016 – all the reactionary laws must go.
Political priorities, historical understanding
The second section of the platform, “End the Housing Crisis” identifies clearly some very simple problems. It’s clear that the proposed solution (“a future in which houses are homes, not financial assets”) is correct too. It is wrong to say that successive Labour and Conservative governments have “rigged the economy and [turned] Britain into a country of haves and have-nots”. If true, this would mean that there was a time when the economy was not rigged, and we weren’t a country of haves and have-nots. Capitalism is centuries old; class society is thousands of years older than that. We have always been a country of haves and have-nots. We should not let our contempt for governments of the relatively recent neoliberal consensus stop us from knowing our history.
The third section “Resist the police state” is for the most part an ABC of what all organisations in the labour and socialist movements should be saying in response to the government’s concerted efforts to clamp down on dissent and protest. Freedom to assemble, debate and express ourselves are the light and air that our movement needs to organise itself for victory.
It is however highly questionable to talk about “Britain’s slide toward fascism.” If fascism really were on the horizon, all of us including the Breakthrough Party would surely be preparing ourselves for the extreme tactics required by that situation, expecting our organisations and unions to be banned by the state, conducting an underground struggle, considering sending some comrades into exile, etc. Assuming this is not the case, then rhetorical talk about “fascism” is probably best left out, as it tends to hinder rather than help a solid understanding of the situation.
In a similar vein, the fourth section “Fight for Climate Justice” offers a sensible diagnosis of the problem (a looming crisis of global warming unaddressed by a ruling class wedded to fossil fuels) and the beginnings of a solution (a global response involving decarbonisation). However, talk about “avoiding extinction” is again misplaced – certain parts of the planet may start to become increasingly uninhabitable in the medium term, but the question is not of the survival of the human race, other than in geological timeframes. The question is rather whether we can muster the global working class to take control of society and transform it in its own interests, using all of our resources both to satisfy human need and ensure a sustainable future. A failure to do this will lead to barbaric conflict, unnecessary suffering and excess deaths – but not extinction.
It is worth mentioning that the Breakthrough Party are participants in the new “People’s Alliance of the Left” (PAL) which also includes Left Unity, TUSC (i.e. the Socialist Party and former MP Chris Williamson’s Resist vehicle) and the Northern Independence Party (NIP). While cooperation on the left has at times been sorely lacking and is of course better than hostility, these organisations can do better than a mere electoral pact, and should be seeking unity in a single mass party with its own membership, on a principled socialist basis. PAL also raises important questions about Breakthrough’s stance on fairly crucial matters not mentioned in the PAL memorandum – for instance, whether Breakthrough and others now de facto support NIP’s policy of a nationalist break-up of the United Kingdom. These are not matters which can simply be swept under the rug of broad unity.
Courage and clarity
In summary, the comrades of the Breakthrough Party are to be commended for not giving in to despair, and seeking not only to be active in the fight for a better world (which can take many forms including the simplest activity like joining a trade union or going on a demonstration), but moreover organising themselves into a party – a crucially necessary form of organisation – which seeks to tie together diverse struggles, and infuse them with some politics rather than just defensive action.
However, there is much about Breakthrough’s politics which remains to be clarified or which is not yet adequate to the task facing us. Our enemy is not a particular phase of capitalism, or the governments of a bad few decades in which the system has become “rigged”. Exploitation, want, misery and war are at the very heart of the capitalist system which encompasses the whole planet – and it follows that to end these symptoms of sickness, we must organise within our class for a comprehensive alternative, based on common ownership of the means of production, production for need not profit, and a free stateless society in which humanity can be emancipated from its various forms of oppression. Our class, the majority in society, must take power in a mass democratic act; and so to be equal to that task, we need to equip it with an appropriate organisation. In short, with some clarity on fundamental questions, the future of a “democratic socialist party” is bright.