The key is workers' representation
A briefing for activists
Produced by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, March 2001 to inform the debate at the Socialist Alliance policy conference.
Working-class representation ' the principle of workers being able to elect their own representatives in politics, rather than having to opt for the 'lesser evil' among capitalist alternatives, or abstain ' should be our cutting edge. Specific socialist ideas, on health care, jobs, education, and many other issues, and general advocacy of socialism, are vital within that. Independent working-class political representation eventually becomes not independent at all unless it is given shape with socialist ideas. But socialist politics outside a struggle for mass working-class political representation are an empty form of words, a sideshow.
'The socialist alternative' cannot just be declared. It will be developed only through a long struggle to transform the labour movement, a struggle in which the Socialist Alliance election campaign is only one link in a chain.
Over the last five years or so, Tony Blair and his circle have constructed a neo-liberal 'party within a party' on top of the Labour Party. With big-business funding, and now state patronage, Blair's machine has lifted itself away from the ties that the old Labour Party had to the organised working class. In the old, loose, federal Labour Party, workers could have a political voice through using the trade unions and the constituency Labour Parties to impose policies on Labour or to deselect MPs. Now the constituency Labour Parties have been deprived of any possibility of influencing policy, or selecting candidates out of favour with the leadership. The trade unions are left with only residual 'emergency' powers in the New Labour structure, which at present they are very far from using. The National Executive Committee has become a rubber-stamp for the Blair machine. The Labour Party conference is more like a trade fair than a conference. In this way millions of working-class people have effectively been disenfranchised.
If we understand that socialist advance is impossible with mass working-class politics to make it happen, then this 'New Labour' shift in those mass working-class politics ' and the tasks of resistance to the shift ' set the frame for our perspective. Although left unity is tremendously valuable, and painstaking advocacy of clear socialist ideas always essential, our fundamental task is not so much to assert a conglomerate of socialist groups in front of the working class, as to fight for the working class, in the first place the class-conscious and organised section of the working class, to assert itself politically.
Our campaign cannot be effective as just a loose collection of 'good causes'. It has to have an integrating idea. That idea should be that workers should assert themselves independently in politics and combat their effective disenfranchisement by the New Labour machine. We are standing to allow workers to use the ballot-box to send a clear and simple message to each other and to the Establishment ' we want policies in the interests of the working class and not of profits.
'Socialism' can be a useful word in our campaigning. But it is a word, not a policy or a perspective. To us it may mean workers' self-emancipation. To many older workers it means old-Labour leftism; to others, the old Stalinist states. To many younger people it means nothing at all. A political campaign cannot be fundamentally about explaining a word. Our job is to foster the independent political self-assertion of the working class, to put class at the centre of politics, to argue with workers for voting for candidates who uphold their class demands and interests ' rather than to suggest that we, as we are, represent salvation ('the socialist alternative').
Why spend money and energy standing candidates' Why not concentrate instead on workplace-bulletin production, immediate trade-union activity, strike support activity, door-to-door paper sales, street demonstrations, etc., all of which could benefit greatly from more resources' The answer is that there is a political job which electoral activity can do and the other activities ' vital though they are ' can't. The other activities protest and fight against particular policies of the government and the bosses. Our electoral challenges publicly counterpose an overall alternative to the very class nature of the government. The specific purpose of running independent working-class socialist candidates to raise publicly and actively the idea of workers' political representation, to rally workers and youth round it, and thus to give life and spark to the wider battle to turn round the labour movement.
The main strategic task of the organised working-class socialist left is to turn round the trade unions, to reorient the mass organisations of the working class towards struggle and towards organising new layers, and to rebuild a political culture for self-emancipation in the working class. Our electoral efforts make sense only in that context. We need to promote the fundamental idea of working-class political representation; the need for a mass workers' party, however formed; and the need for a workers' government, a government based on and accountable to workers' organisations which takes radical measures in the interests of the working class against the privileges of the rich.
This is not a matter of demanding that the British working class repeat the experience of the Labour Party, but rather of basing ourselves on the actual political axes and organisations of today. We do not know how a mass working-class socialist party will emerge in Britain. What we do know, however, is that the unions are currently being pushed back to the status of political 'clients' (like the US unions in the Democratic Party) and they should fight against that. In any case a new mass working-class socialist party will not emerge without convulsions inside the unions. It cannot be built just by leftists declaring and recruiting to 'our own' labour movement alongside the one that has developed in Britain over 200 years.