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Ralph Nader: A weak spirit of Seattle

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The race for the White House has begun in earnest, with the self-styled "compassionate conservative" George W Bush accusing his Democratic rival, Al Gore, of stirring up "class warfare".

This came after Gore’s vaguely populist "fighting for working families" speech to his party’s Los Angeles convention.

Gore’s current pose may seem more than a bit ironic having spent the preceding eight years as the vice-president in Bill Clinton’s administration. Over the course of two terms it intensified the neo-liberal offensive around free trade and cuts in the welfare "safety net".

Bush, Gore’s Republican opponent, despite his rhetoric about compassion, proudly presides over a state that tops the league tables for both executions and levels of child poverty.

So it’s one ivy-league capitalist versus another – with little to choose for the working class.

But a third contender has emerged for the presidency who is making waves in the workers’ movement and among anti-globalisation activists.

The crusading lawyer and consumer advocate Ralph Nader has surged in the opinion polls and is attracting up to 10 per cent of the potential vote in a number of key states, including California.

Though not a member of the US Green Party, Nader had already stood as its presidential candidate in 1996. His name did not get on the ballot in all 50 states, his campaign spent less than $5,000 and he captured only 700,000 votes – less than 1% of the total poll.

This time things are looking rather different: Nader is energetically campaigning and fund-raising across the country. He is riding high on the impact of last year’s N30 protests in Seattle. LA Weekly, a radical equivalent of London’s Time Out, dubbed Nader "Seattle Man", claiming that "Nader has come to personify the spirit of Seattle".

A debate swiftly developed among contributors to the radical magazine, The Nation, over whether or not Nader deserved their support. And some trade union bureaucrats toyed with the idea of backing Nader.

But as the liberal media started to complain that Nader could cost Gore the election, the big and influential United Auto Workers’ (UAW) union has thrown its weight behind Gore.

The most ardent Nader enthusiast among the union tops has been none other than Teamsters’ president James P Hoffa, the son of the notoriously corrupt union legend Jimmy Hoffa.

In June Hoffa introduced Nader to a Teamster audience, declaring that "Ralph Nader understands what globalisation means: money and jobs are going overseas. US workers can’t compete with slave labour." But to date there is no evidence that the Teamsters nationally are about to bankroll Nader’s campaign.

Nevertheless, the Nader campaign has struck a resonant chord and not only with environmentalists: student activists opposed to sweatshop conditions in the Third World have cheered him to the rafters and a significant element among the demonstrators at the Democratic Party convention were clearly backing Nader.

Since July, however, the Green Party/Nader candidacy has garnered support from a more unlikely quarter: the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and its currently estranged sister organisation the ISO in the USA.

Why are organisations that would claim to espouse revolutionary Marxism voting for a candidate who, by his own description is not a socialist, and not part of the workers’ movement?

The rising Green Party vote in both Britain and the USA may be a reflection of the growth of the anti-capitalist movement – but it is a potentially disastrous expression of it.

To equate the growth of the greens with the growth of left alliances like the LSA is to blind yourself to the class character of the Green Party: its programme is bourgeois and its membership middle class.

Nader’s hard-hitting populist rhetoric denouncing a "government of the General Motors, by the Exxons and for the DuPonts" may be sweet music, along with his attacks on "two parties merged into one corporate party, with two heads in different make-up".

The reality remains, however, that Nader enjoys minimal support within the working class, whether white, Latino or African-American. While his public identification with recent workers’ struggles may change that to some extent, the impact of his candidacy is likely to prove to be no greater than that of Jesse Jackson when he twice stood for the Democratic Party nomination in the 1980s.

At that time, the ISO rightly resisted the temptation to back Jackson’s candidacy. His Rainbow Coalition had sparked interest among minority ethnic communities and in a number of trade union locals in the "rustbelt" states

The ISO took an aloof, sectarian attitude towards the formation of a US Labor Party in the 1990s. The Labor Party was formed with the backing of leading bureaucrats from a number of unions and such broad left formations as the "New Directions" group in the UAW.

The US workers need a workers’ party. A good deal of tactical flexibility will be required to achieve that – given the co-existence of industrial militancy with political hostility to socialism.

But the path to its construction does not mean a detour through the Nader campaign and the Green Party.

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