Workers' Liberty #50/51  


We should not lie to the working class by Rosie Woods
Against ideological suicide by Clive Bradley
The white rabbit and imperialism by Frank J Higgins
Candidates must be part of a broader strategy by Clifford Brown But, should socialists stand against Labour? by Stan Crooke Livingstone was forced to slobber by Len Glover

After the Good Friday agreement

We should not lie to the working class

When deciding on our attitude to the Northern Irish peace deal we must not base a judgement on wishful thinking or hope, but on a concrete assessment of whether or not the deal can work. It seems to me that as a solution to the sectarian divide it cannot.

At the most, I hoped the deal could possibly result in a cessation of sectarian violence, which may enable more “normal” working class activity to emerge. This scenario is looking more unlikely in the light of recent events. But even with that possibility, the deal remains a makeshift arrangement. Its ultimate solution is based on an undemocratic headcount to either force the Protestants into a united Ireland or the Catholics to remain part of the Northern Ireland statelet. Whatever accommodations the Nationalist and Unionist politicians may have made to form the deal, and however much they may have shifted from militarism as a tactic, the ultimate goals remain the same. This deal does not bridge this gap. It can work only as a holding mechanism within the existing Northern Ireland state.

As a solution to the national question in Ireland the deal contradicts what we argue for as an answer: consistent democracy and mutual acceptance of each community’s national rights. These are ideas which we argue for the working class to take up and use as the basis of a solution; they are not advice to the bourgeoisie and not put forward in the hope that the ruling class will think it is a good idea.

During this debate various people have argued that we should vote yes because our ideas are not presented as an option and the deal is the lesser evil. But since when have we relied on the bourgeoisie to present our ideas as an option? What we say will never be an alternative if, when we feel in a minority, we collapse in behind forces more powerful than our own. There is a certain desperation in the argument for a yes vote, to support anything which offers the hope of peace, however flawed and however vague. A generalised wish for peace is not enough.

It is true that that 71% voted for the agreement, and it is true that a large part of the reason was a desire for peace and an unprecedented level of war weariness. People are putting their faith for the realisation of this desire in the bourgeoisie, sectarian politicians and the deal. By advocating a yes vote we reinforce that faith in the deal to deliver what people hope it might. By telling the truth about it we may be going against the grain and we may not be saying what people will want to hear, but we have to say what our real assessment is. If we think the deal is inadequate we have to say so or we are lying to the working class. If we don’t think it will work how can we urge a vote for it? We have a responsibility not to go along with the general hopes for peace if we believe they are unfounded. If we don’t tell the truth and keep a hard line on an issue like this we will not gain the trust of the working class in the future.

It is also not good enough to say we can “walk and chew gum at the same time”. We are a minority voice for working class politics in a world dominated by the ideas of the ruling class. Our ideas and our slogans need to be clear. Where the tide is going the wrong way we need to stand against it and not get carried along, later using the excuse that we said it might not work. If we say yes, that is the dominant part of the message we give out, not the critical part. We can give as many warnings as we like but overall we are saying we think this might work. Many of the yes comrades have raised the problem that our ideas on the national question may be correct but what use are they if they are kept in the abstract. This is a real problem, based on the fact that we are a very small group without any forces in Northern Ireland, or in most other places in the world where we have minority ideas for the way forward. We shouldn’t give in to feelings of helplessness, putting off our ideas until a later stage. If we don’t continue to argue our ideas as a real option for now then how can we expect anybody else to take them up as a way forward.

During the summer school debate on this issue a comparison was made with the situation in South Africa, of how we refused to support the ANC as a lesser evil and backed instead the Workers’ List. What surprised me here was that some “yes” comrades countered this by claiming we supported WOSA because they represented a concrete alternative and that this was the difference. This implies that had WOSA not existed we would have called for a vote for the ANC, and I think that this is wrong.

As revolutionaries our job is not to advise as to the lesser evil in each situation or to simply judge things on the immediate material benefits they offer to the working class. If it was we would have advocated a vote for Roosevelt in thirties America, or the Israeli Labor Party in the last general election. We also have to assess this as what it is — a peace deal. It is not being put forward as a democratic reform, and self determination for the people of Northern Ireland as a totality is not the question here, it is the divide between the communities in Northern Ireland that this deal claims to deal with. If it is conceived as a peace deal that is how it must be judged, and on that criteria it will fail.

Finally, I do not think that the bourgeoisie can never come up with a solution to the national question (however unlikely) and I do not believe in putting a cross where they put a tick, but I do think we should wait until they come up with a solution we think will work and a deal we don’t think is awful, before giving them our support.

Rosie Woods

Against ideological suicide

I switched from an initial, ill-thought through “yes” attitude on the Northern Ireland referendum to the abstentionist view. My own route to this, apart from being persuaded by argument, was through my attitude to the Middle East peace process.

1. The Middle East “peace process”

The Middle East “peace agreement” signed in Oslo was similar to the Northern Ireland agreement only in that it was hailed by “world public opinion” as a major breakthrough. In fact it was a terrible deal, which granted the Palestinians autonomy far short of an independent state, gave the Israelis control over everything of any importance, and enshrined within the Palestinian Authority a viciously repressive semi-state machine. Netanyahu may have backtracked on the alleged “spirit” of Oslo, but he hasn’t reneged on much of the letter of it.

Supporters of this arrangement, apart from those who just agreed with it, argued that, a) it was better than what existed before, b) it potentially opened the way to something better and, sometimes, c) it was all the Palestinians could realistically hope for.

My own view was that it might open the way to something better, but it equally might not. In fact, so far, it seems to me it has not.

In any case, we have a programme for the Israel/Palestine conflict. Since our programme was for an independent Palestinian state, and Oslo had not created one, whether or not it eventually led to one our job was to denounce the injustice of the “peace process”. We were under no obligation passively to accept either the previous situation or the new one. We have an alternative to both.

Our role is not to bow down before “reality”, but to use what voice we have to change the options altogether. That is precisely why we have a political programme at all. All we are, fundamentally, until we have the influence to affect events, is our opinions.

If the Middle East “peace process” is an iniquitous monstrosity, all the more repulsive for the praise heaped upon it by a “world public opinion” ignorant of or indifferent to the real suffering, repression and moral and physical violence being perpetrated in its name, our job is to say so. Even if the existing alternative is worse. Otherwise we simply cease to exist. More powerful forces than us can manage the “real politik” quite adequately without us.

I think all these arguments apply to the situation in Ireland — with the added force that “our” government, our bourgeoisie, is a party to the deal. If the deal matched even in some details our programme for Ireland, there would be a case for critically endorsing it — just as if a bourgeois-negotiated deal in the Middle East resulted in genuine Palestinian independence. Even then we would warn against trusting the bastards. But nobody seems to be suggesting that the agreement in Ireland even approximates our programme, is even in a distorted or bourgeois-warped fashion similar to it.

I initially thought that the difference with the Middle East was that here there was a concrete political act which could affect events — a ‘no’ vote would be disastrous for the people of Northern Ireland. To stand aside in the name of general principles would be irresponsible.

But there was, in effect, a kind of referendum in Israel. It was the Israeli election. There is no doubt that in terms of realpolitik, a victory for Labour, which was committed to Oslo, would have been “better” than a victory for Netanyahu.

But could we in all conscience have called — or suggested Israeli socialists call — for a vote for Labor? The Israeli Labor Party is not only a thoroughly bourgeois party; it is the party of the establishment, which presided over the conquest, occupation and repression of Palestinians. And the agreement to which it was committed, Oslo, was as I have described. To have called for a Labor vote would have been to have abandoned — for today, no doubt, with the promise of reclaiming it tomorrow; just for this one little election, this one little vote — the entire project of working class independence and democracy.

Undoubtedly, many if not most of the Israelis (including Arabs) who voted for Labor or one of the parties likely to form a coalition with Labour did so because of a “desire for peace” and a fear of the consequences of a Likud victory. I am certainly not unsympathetic to their concerns; far from it. In a way they were right, and if our only interest was in realpolitik, we would go along with them. But we are also — and more — concerned with developing an independent working class voice, building and hoping to shape the forces which could create a real, democratic peace. Abandoning that project, even for this one little vote, is ideological suicide.

Moreover, if it is wrong to endorse a lamentable bourgeois solution to sectarian/communal/national conflict in the abstract, just at the level of editorialising, it is even worse to vote for the bloody thing.

2. The “vote yes” arguments.

The argument that voting “yes” in Northern Ireland did not mean endorsing the Agreement rests fundamentally on three points. 1. That we couldn’t countenance a ‘no’ vote, therefore had to vote yes or advise whoever might be paying attention that they should do so. 2. There are positive things in the Agreement which merit our critical support. 3. We have to “go through the experience with the working class”, whose “yes” sentiment was an expression of the desire for peace, rather than support for the letter of the Agreement itself.

In fact, those supporting the “yes” position resort far more to the third argument than the other two, which is logically and politically by far the least respectworthy. Logically, it would mean going along with alleged working class sentiment quite regardless of the details of the deal. The deal could be a million times worse, by this logic, and we would still critically endorse it. You could apply the logic to almost anything with horrific results.

A far stronger case is to argue forthrightly that there was something in the deal which positively justified critical endorsement of it. You would have to argue that the positive aspects outweighed the negative. But most advocates of the ‘yes’ vote insist that they are no less critical of the deal than we are. Indeed, the main thing which is observed to be positive is the “desire for peace”. But this means that the argument devolves back onto the shoddy argument about working class perceptions referred to above.

The other positive thing is that a “no” vote would be a victory for the paramilitaries. Nobody disputes, I think, that on this level, a "yes" vote is infinitely preferable to a “no”. Certainly, this is the real emotional substance to the argument.

We can go along with this lesser evilism by all means. But at what cost to ourselves? Maybe our ideological health is less important than the lives of Irish people who would die if there was a return to sectarian slaughter. But if our ideological health is important, it surely means that wherever we are faced with these options of bourgeois realpolitik, we refuse to make their choice. If you want, it does mean, unambiguously, that we are irrelevant in terms of the immediate question on the table. Okay. So be it. But we will only be relevant in the future because we have seen our primary objective — the independence of the working class — as the most important thing.

A “yes” vote means — whatever qualifications you add to it — giving endorsement to one of the bourgeoisie’s miserable options. (Incidentally, “vote no” in practice means endorsing another, worse, miserable option, which is why the argument is for abstention.)

3. ‘Taking responsibility’ and elections.

Why wouldn’t we vote for Clinton or the ANC or any other bourgeois party? Because they’re bourgeois parties. But that’s a purely negative argument. The positive reason is that our priority is to help develop an independent working class outlook, voice and political movement. We call on workers to vote Labour because of what the Labour Party represents in this respect. We call on them not to vote Democrat, or ANC, but to develop their own party for exactly the same reason as we call on them to vote Labour.

The handful of votes WOSA got in the South African elections was more important than an ANC victory. If they had got enough votes to deprive the ANC of victory, it still — and even more so — would have been more important.

Building an independent working class movement is more important even than any short-term advantage it might give to our enemies, even to fascists. If an independent workers’ party should deprive Liberals of votes, giving fascists a temporary electoral advantage, for us it remains more important to build that movement. This is the force of Martin Thomas’s reference to the Hindenburg/Hitler presidential vote-out: it was wrong to back Hindenburg, even if it meant Hitler should win, because backing Hindendburg would militate against crushing Hitler in the long run.

But where would the “vote yes” logic lead you in any of these situations? In South Africa: the victory of the ANC, for now, is vital because the alternative is dire. Workers will be better able to organise and fight for their rights under an ANC government... Or under a Clinton government... Or Hindenburg. In a certain “realistic”, ‘“practical” sense the argument is not without force. But only if you write out of the equation the possibility of the working class acting independently.

It is a dilemma that has always faced workers’ movements. It faced the early Labour Party. It faced the Workers’ Party in Brazil. Very early on they had to decide whether to back the most radical-liberal of the bourgeois parties in an election, long before they had much hope of winning elections themselves. To its immense and inspiring credit the Brazilian Workers’ Party understood that its independence, the future it represented, was more important than immediate short-term considerations. If they hadn’t made that decision then, if they had fallen in behind one bourgeois party “tactically”, they would never have become a mass independent force.

On the basis of the comrades’ yes-advocating logic, in any election you would simply look around and decide under which bourgeois government workers would best be able to fight. It is the death of working class politics.

Of course comrades don’t mean to be calling our entire raison d’etre into question, or committing ideological suicide. And I entirely sympathise with the emotional instinct behind advocating “yes”. Personally I have a strong urge to succumb to that instinct on a purely humanitarian basis. But the “yes” argument amounts to an ideological collapse. Its consequences might seem negligible — even invisible — at the moment. But if you follow the logic in the future, it will lead to a bigger and worse collapse.

4. Other arguments

Three other arguments:

1. Is there a difference between voting — voting Labour, for example — in elections and voting in a referendum? 2. Is South Africa quite different from Ireland because the national question isn’t an obstacle to working class unity? 3. Why can’t we say “yes” and also make propaganda for our politics.

Of course there is a difference between an election and a referendum. One involves voting for parties, the other doesn’t. But in either case, the same principle is at stake: does it advance our goal of a politically independent working class which can take power? The principle involved in not voting for a bourgeois party is not abolished because instead of a party there is a bourgeois policy.

The point being made in the Ireland debate is that a central argument for voting “yes” is entirely to do with the consequences of a “no” vote, ie not because of actually agreeing with the proposal on the table. If this is your argument, that it is vital for the possibility of working class politics in the future that we throw our hypothetical weight into backing the deal, you are logically faced with a problem come an election in which this is the fundamental line of divide.

The parallel with South Africa is irrelevant, some say, because the national question there is not an obstacle to working class unity. Actually it is. (Or a kind of national question. Consider the Zulus. Certainly the “liberal” position for many years was for “federalism”, meaning a kind of Austro-Marxist perpetuation both of black/white divisions and tribalism. Would you have voted for that on the grounds that it was better than apartheid?)

In any case the point to the parallel with South Africa isn’t intended to be about the national question. It’s about the whole project of working class independence. That argument logically suggests that where the national question is pressing enough, it isn’t necessary for the working class to have its own policy, or at best, that an independent working class policy is only a desirable preference.

Of course you can say “yes” and make propaganda for our programme. Nobody can stop you saying whatever you want. The question is whether it makes sense. You can tell your lover you love them one day and hate them the next. But forgive me if I consider you confused and emotional.

“Walking and chewing gum” in this situation is to be able to recognise, on a simple, realpolitik assessment, that the new situation is at lease potentially preferable to what existed before, without actually endorsing it. The number of parallels which are absolutely basic to our politics are too numerous to mention. Suffice to say, with all obvious qualifications: the end of Stalinism.

Clive Bradley

The white rabbit and imperialism

Joe Craig’s polemic reminds me of Harvey, a once famous stage play and then a movie. It is about a man — played by James Stewart in the movie — who has a friend, Harvey. He talks to Harvey, and talks about Harvey. He comments on Harvey’s deeds and tells people about what Harvey has been saying lately. Harvey is a rabbit — a giant human-sized white rabbit. As well as that disadvantage, Harvey does not exist. He is a figment of his friend’s imagination.

Joe Craig’s picture of Irish reality is structured like the James Stewart character’s picture of the world he inhabits. “Imperialism” plays an enormous role and, though Joe Craig is not alone in his delusions it is very difficult for some of us to see or define this “Harvey” he says he sees so clearly. I know what British colonialism and British imperialism is in Ireland’s history. I know the role it played in partitioning Ireland and in creating the present situation. What is it now? In fact for Joe Craig it is a pseudonym for British capitalism — or Britain. And what about Irish capitalism? Britain does not exploit Ireland economically. The basis of its rule in the Six Counties — to which it provides enormous economic subsidies — has been the majority population there. Ireland is and for long has been of negligible importance militarily; partition cost Britain in World War 2, and then NATO in the Cold War, Southern Irish bases, when they did matter. If foreign investment is considered imperialism in Ireland, then it is not especially British, but US and other imperialisms that dominate. The 26 Counties is an integral and equal part of the European Union, one of the more economically developed and privileged parts of the globe. It has, since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1985, shared political though not executive authority in Northern Ireland with Britain. Its influence is massively increased by the Good Friday Agreement, which commits Britain to legislate for a United Ireland if a bare majority of the Six Counties population votes for it. Britain’s role in Ireland is thus neither economically, nor militarily, or in any other defineable way imperialist — not in any previously defined sense, anyway.

Put at its strongest, there is a residue of the old colonial-imperialist nationally-oppressive relationship. I know of no reason to doubt that Britain is, and for long has been, working to liquidate that residue. I don’t want to minimise either Britain’s crimes against Ireland in the past, or the malign effect of the existing artificial Six/Twenty-Six Counties partition, which becomes ever more preposterous as the population balance shifts. I agree with those who say we shouldn’t take responsibility for the Good Friday Agreement. But leave “Harvey” out of it, Joe!

The core problem with Joe Craig and his comrades is that they believe that Irish nationalism still has some progressive role to play in history. Sorting out the mess in Northern Ireland would indeed be progress, but the basic problem is one of relationships between the two Irish communities — and least of all here has Irish nationalism anything good to contribute.

There is democratic ground to be won by way of a United Ireland, with autonomy for the Protestant majority areas (and closer all-Ireland links with Britain, to reassure the Protestants). The maximum possible gain will be in clearing the ground for working class politics (the Good Friday Agreement will have the opposite effect, but, that is not something imposed on either the 6 Counties or the 26 Counties by Britain). There will now be no anti-imperialist significance in a United Ireland. There is no revolutionary anti-imperialist or working class significance in the sort of warmed-up populist nationalism Joe Craig and his comrades of Socialist Democracy advocate. The opposite, in fact: it confines itself to one community, spouting a mystified and “Marxistological” unteachable version of the ideas Gerry Adams and his friends have been forced to abandon.

Frank J Higgins

Standing against the Blairites

Candidates must be part of a broader strategy

British politics are in flux. Blair’s relentless drive to turn the Labour Party away from any form of independent working class representation; the removal of any structures by which a Labour government can be called to account by the wider labour movement; the likely introduction of proportional representation; the existence of the Scottish, Welsh and European Parliaments; possible changes to the funding of political parties; the decay of even a minimal socialist culture — all of these factors mean that Marxists can no longer take for granted the political framework within which we have operated for as long as we can remember. We must begin to reconsider how the fight for socialist politics can best be carried out in a new situation which is, as yet, far from frozen into any stable outcome.

John Nihill’s article [‘Should socialists stand against Labour’ WL49] is therefore timely and raises many of the right issues: in particular, how can we advance basic class politics and independent labour representation in a period where the old structures through which this was expressed are largely blocked off, yet nothing has replaced them? How can we best bring new forms of working class political representation into being and gain a foothold for socialist ideas?

Precisely in such transitional periods, it is necessary to be very sensitive to questions of timing and tactics. Sharing a fundamental analysis of the processes underway and where they are likely to lead — as Nihill and I do — is not enough to dictate exactly what to do. It is not enough to base a strategy on an understanding of the objective changes alone without also taking into account existing levels of consciousness, which lag behind the real needs of the situation. If the Marxists take their own analysis to be held more widely than it is, there is the risk of running ahead of the process by which people become aware of the new realities and of becoming isolated. The Socialist Labour Party provides an object lesson here. This may occur out of the best motives — a desire to speak to the most advanced workers who are vigorously anti-Blair and want nothing to do with the Labour Party. However, it may cut us off from larger forces that could be brought to fight Blair on specific issues and through that fight won over to a more general political understanding.

Equally, there is a danger in a conservatism that assumes that everything can and must continue within the same structures and dynamics as in the past. This may mean missing new opportunities to transcend the limitations of those structures we take for granted merely because they have been stable for so long.

A sensitive balancing act is therefore required between focusing on struggles which will take people with us to a point where they realise that independent working class politics are only possible outside the structures Blair controls and addressing the most advanced workers, who have already broken with Blair and who may, without an alternative, fall into anti-political moods or disillusionment. Where I disagree with Nihill is on where precisely the emphasis should be placed now and what criteria should used to decide on the type of electoral activity that should be supported outside the Labour Party.

The fight within the Labour Party is far from over. Blair controls both the internal policy-making and the external mechanisms (candidates’ lists) through which discontent with his policies can make themselves felt within Labour Party structures. Nihill is right to say this means any reassertion of the left is bound to lead to a split in the medium term. However, this is not to say that discontent does not exist and that it cannot be harnessed to build a far stronger basis for any post-Blair organisation than would otherwise be the case. The recent NEC elections show a resistance to Millbank bullying and an identification with the left amongst a wide range of rank and file members, which needs to be organised in an open, democratic organisation that can take the initiative on political issues. The possibility of the trade unions asserting themselves either through campaigns such as the AEEU’s for working class MPs or, more likely, through a range of issues on which the unions are brought into conflict with the Government remains. These campaigns should form the basis for the left to seek Labour nominations for electoral office, which, when (rather than if) refused by Millbank, can then provide us with a strong basis for independent candidacies taking on the Blairite nominee. To exclude ourselves from the Labour Party without this fight would make no sense.

Nihill accepts this. He states that “to accept the definitive victory of Blairism prematurely ... would be desertion”; “the unions could still have the possibility of destablilising the the not-quite-set structures”; he talks about fighting around the de-selection of MPs; and opposes union disaffiliation. This seems to me however to argue for a more cautious and limited approach towards standing candidates against Labour, even though I agree we cannot wait passively for the day when the union leaders decide or are forced to fight Blair. The fundamental criteria that should decide whether we actively support a particular electoral campaign should be: whether it advances the struggle for independent working class political representation; whether it groups together forces outside the small groups of the revolutionary left; and whether it can be used to organise people on a longer term basis after the election. Electoral activity is, after all, a means to an end, not an end in itself.

For these conditions to be met, two things need to be the case. The first is that any candidacies we advocate must have some degree of labour movement support outside the small circles of the revolutionary left. This draws the line between the “toytown electoralism” — which Nihill condemns, but nowhere precisely defines — and a use of the electoral tactic to reorganise and rearm the movement. Without this, candidacies become either elaborate (and often unsuccessful) means for recruiting to whichever revolutionary group has the candidate (the SWP/Socialist Party model) or else a gesture that merely shows how isolated the left is and causes further demoralisation.

The second condition is that there is some genuinely democratic structure for the campaign to which candidates can be accountable and which might exist outside election times. This might, for example, take the form of a local “Convention of the Left” that chose candidates or some pre-existing framework such as the Socialist Alliances. This is necessary for three reasons. Firstly, we should at the least demand of left candidates outside the Labour Party what we demand of Labour MPs. Electoral campaigns must be more than vehicles to get particular individuals elected and then leave them to do what they want. Secondly, an open, democratic organisation is the best way to build support for a campaign and draw people in. Lastly, left election campaigns need to be part of a long term strategy of the left campaigning and developing roots in particular localities. Without these roots it is unlikely that such campaigns will be productive or successful.

Where would this draw the line in practice between those candidates we would and would not support? We would still support:

  1. left candidates who had been prevented from standing as Labour by the party machine and were therefore forced to stand against Labour or accept their exclusion;
  2. labour movement activists who sought to use elections to campaign against Blair’s policies;
  3. open campaigns of the left where the left has a real base.

It would exclude:

  1. tailending the SWP, Socialist Party, etc in their own campaigns where we had no input into “the soft electoralist face of the old debilitating left sectarians”;
  2. candidacies (our own or those of left slates) that seek to use elections as a platform to make general propaganda for socialism without any particular cutting edge or local base.

Clearly, these points are general guidelines rather than infallible and inflexible rules that cover every eventuality. There may be all sorts of hybrids, unexpected situations or negotiating positions. However, it is important to try and formulate ideas of what sorts of electoral activity are useful and which are not in terms of our general political goals. Instead Nihill seems to see standing against Labour as some kind of gesture of defiance which will of itself challenge Blair’s political monopoly. His article does not provide a clear link between standing candidates in the current situation and the other goals that we agree on.

The guidelines refer to active support for campaigns rather than where one puts one’s cross on the ballot paper. I would not necessarily rule out calling for a vote for certain candidates who stand against Blairites even where we are critical of their campaign and do not actively support it. I would however rule out any blanket rule of always supporting the far-left candidate against Labour.

Why exclude using candidacies as a means to make generalised propaganda for socialism? Mightn’t running candidates itself be the catalyst for a reconstitution of the labour movement? Nihill himself states: “To counterpose a little bit of socialist propaganda to the labour movement in politics... did not make much sense.” It still doesn’t make much sense — not because we have to accept a New Labour monopoly on working class politics but because what is necessary is precisely to find ways to draw the labour movement into a new type of politics independent of Blair. Socialist candidacies that pick up a handful of votes are more of a hindrance than a help here. They provide a political weapon to those who wish to point to the unpopularity of the left and demoralise those who are involved in them.

If we look at the experience of the last few years (Nihill agrees), the record of far-left candidates is one of failure, with only a few limited successes (in terms of winning a few thousand votes) such as Dave Nellist’s election campaigns where the candidate already had a strong local base and reputation, having been the Labour MP for five years. The total failure of the SLP’s policy of standing in seats where they had had no previous presence at the last general election shows that there is little response to generalised socialist propaganda at elections. Why has this been the case? Not just because of the SLP’s politics or because of the anti-Tory feeling in 1992 and 1997. It is more importantly a reflection of the state of the labour movement and of socialist political culture in Britain. In a recent opinion poll, only 7% of those polled identified themselves as being “left”, with a further 13% “left of centre”. This is contradictory, of course, as large poll majorities have also shown themselves to support taxing the rich and for spending on the welfare state. However, it does point to the absence of much of a “taken-for-granted” socialist identity that can be tapped into by standing candidates. This largely needs to be reconstituted.

In other words, we again face the situation of 100 years ago. It seems to me to be unlikely that electoral activity (particularly if not the product of more long-term campaigning in the localities) will be the starting point from which this reconstitution will occur. This flows from the nature of electoral activity itself — sporadic, and, for most people, a passive, isolated and limited action — but also from the way that consciousness develops through active involvement in the class struggle. Trade union activity is a much more likely pole around which the rebuilding of the labour movement and a socialist consciousness can occur. We should also not assume that there is a pre-existing mass constituency for a left alternative to Blair. It has to be created and in this process standing candidates flows from other forms of long term campaigning rather than the other way round.

For the foreseeable future we need a dual focus. Firstly, we should fight through the existing structures to bring the labour movement (including the Labour Party where possible, but primarily the unions) to break with Blair — politically and, eventually, organisationally — and begin to reassert itself as an independent political force. Secondly, we need to rebuild the labour movement from the bottom up. Standing candidates against Labour can play a role in both these aims, but only if it fits coherently into this strategy rather than being a gesture against Blair which leads nowhere.

Clifford Brown

But, should socialists stand against Labour?

Next year sees elections for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament and most local authorities in Britain.

With the Blairites now in control of the commanding heights of the Labour Party, socialists need to address the question of whether there is still any political value in continuing to call — and work — for a vote for (New) Labour.

John Nihill’s article in Workers Liberty 49 was contradictory: the conclusion he reached bore little or no relation to the analysis in the article.

Nihill argues — correctly — that the unions are effectively “imprisoned” within the Labour Party: they are still organically tied to the Labour Party, but the structures through which they have traditionally exerted an influence have largely been closed down.

The goal of the Blairite project is “the driving of the working class movement out of politics.” New Labour is, by definition, incapable of functioning as a vehicle for working class politics. It is “a barrier raised against politics for the labour movement.”

Therefore, argues Nihill, “the fundamental strategic concern of the socialists is to argue within the trade unions for the reintroduction of class into British politics.” Rather than call for unions to disaffiliate from Labour, socialists should “campaign to get the unions within the structures of New Labour to fight for class politics.”

Nihill initially seems to oppose standing candidates against Labour, especially in the light of the political weaknesses of the organisations of the British left. To stand candidates would end up as “toytown electioneering”, “small-scale electoralism”, the “soft electoralist face of the old debilitating left sectarians.”

But, after outlining the key tasks in the unions and the Labour Party, Nihill makes a jump in logic to draw the conclusion: “a combination of standing united left candidates in selected elections and continued work, as outlined above, in the Labour Party is what we need.”

Only a few paragraphs earlier, however, Nihill writes that standing candidates in elections would “logically lead to calls for unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party.” He opposes disaffiliation — but then goes on to advocate “united left candidates” standing against Labour!

At one point Nihill suggests that struggles within the Labour Party to select working class candidates could provide, “a broader base for an independent electoral challenge than could normally be produced simply by organising the already non-Labour left.” This is doubly contradictory.

On the one hand, it contradicts his proposals for work in the Labour Party — how do Labour Party members work in the Labour Party whilst simultaneously standing their own candidate against Labour? It cannot be done.

On the other hand, it is effectively an invitation to repeat the idiocies of Militant’s intervention in the Liverpool Walton by-election of 1991, condemned by Nihill elsewhere in his article. After all, Militant’s argument in 1991 was that their candidate was the “real” Labour candidate, and would have been adopted as the official Labour candidate had it not been for the intervention of the Party bureaucracy.

It is also difficult to see how Nihill’s vision of an electoral challenge to Labour emerging from within a CLP fits in with his vision of standing “united left candidates”, given that the bulk of the Left is now outside the Labour Party. Nihill’s vision of “united left candidates” standing against Labour raises two further questions: where are they going to come from, and on what basis will they contest elections.

Given the divided and sectarian nature of the British left it is idiocy to suggest that in the immediate future fundamental antagonisms between various organisations will dissipate to such an extent as to allow the standing of jointly agreed candidates. The SLP is committed to going it alone. Scargill is a guarantee of that. The SWP is likewise committed to candidates of its own. The undemocratic Cliffite regime is a guarantee of that. Calls for left unity from other organisations, such as the Scottish Socialist Party, are essentially diplomatic ploys.

It would certainly be sectarian to advocate that candidates stand against Labour on a full revolutionary socialist platform. But this does not justify indifference to the political basis of any electoral challenge to Labour. So what is on offer politically from the organisations committed to standing against Labour? A debased form of syndicalism from the SWP (less than useful for standing in elections). Scottish populism from Militant in Scotland. Dewy-eyed nostalgia about Old Labour from the Independent Labour Network. And, from the Socialist Alliances, who knows and who cares?

If one accepts that the basic task facing socialists is, “to argue within the trade unions for the reintroduction of class into British politics” and to, “build rank and file trade union groups which combine the fight for labour representation inParliament with the fight to democratise the unions,” then there is nothing to be gained from standing candidates against Labour at this moment in time.

At the same time, however, it would be political bankruptcy simply to repeat yesterday’s slogans of “Vote Labour and fight.” As Nihill puts it: “To continue to forgo socialist propaganda in elections in deference to the monopoly of the anti-socialist and anti-working class Blair party, is increasingly to boycott our own politics and our own proper, working class concerns.”

But you do not need to stand a candidate to make socialist propaganda in elections. The SWP makes socialist propaganda at election times. It might not be very good propaganda, and it might be politically incoherent. But it is nonetheless evidence of a sort, that standing a candidate is not a precondition of making socialist propaganda. Further debate on a socialist intervention in next year’s elections should therefore not focus on the search for “united left candidates”. Rather, it should focus on how the elections can be used to spread propaganda about the basic ideas of independent union-based labour representation, and to help build groups within the unions committed to making such an idea a reality.

The precise mechanics of how this can best be achieved needs further discussion. So too does the question of whether one should continue to call for a vote for Labour across the board, or advocate abstention where Blairites are standing — as Workers’ Liberty has pointed out on previous occassions, New Labour is increasingly No Labour.

But it is certaintly impossible to see how backing independent candidates against Labour — given the realities of the current political situaiton and the politics of the left alternatives — fits in with the task of rebuilding trade union political representation.

Stan Crooke.

Livingstone was forced to slobber

While I agree with most of what Sean Matgamna has to say about the appalling Ken Livingstone, his case is not helped by inexactitude about facts. Livingstone may well have slobbered over Windsor’s hand when the Thames Barrier was opened (in 1984) but, originally, he had wanted the ceremony to be carried out by representatives of the workers concerned and local Londoners — a sort of “anti-ceremony”. This idea was scotched by the workers themselves. It was they who wanted a Royal presence not Livingstone (evidence can be found in Tom Nairn’s book The Enchanted Glass, p. 47). Sean Matgamna is therefore wrong — Windsor was not present at the invitation of Livingstone.

In itself this is a relatively minor point but, even when arguing against the ignorant drivel of Livingstone, it’s necessary to get things as right as possible.

Len Glover

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