Workers' Liberty #62


Labour: the left must keep its head!

By Neil Murray

Blair has no sense of history. However, the far left is also in the process of forgetting all it has learned about the labour movement.

The big question for revolutionaries has always been how to get from small groupings to the mass revolutionary cadre party that can lead the working class to the seizure of power and, ultimately, communism.

Whatever is said about transitional demands, programme, etc., the big question for revolutionaries in bourgeois democracies has always been how they relate to social democratic/bourgeois workers' parties and the unions. Without an understanding of their nature and how to relate to them, then the best will in the world will not build a revolutionary party capable of carrying out its historic task.

Despite the meagre results in the 1999 elections to the European Parliament, most of the far left is now convinced that standing candidates in elections is the way to build the alternative to Labour. Specifically in London around the elections to the Greater London Assembly, it is hoping to emulate the electoral results achieved by the left in France, Portugal and Scotland.

However, there is no basis for the assumption that such results can be automatically repeated, given the considerable differences in political conditions across Europe. The Scottish Socialist Party, for instance, began from a much more solid base (at least in its heartland of Glasgow) arising from years of campaigning which the left in England and London does not have. However high we put the level of disillusion/disgust with the Government's record, the European elections showed that this is far more likely to translate at the moment into large-scale abstention, and votes for the Liberal Democrats and Greens than any gains for the left.

Even in the unlikely event that the London left is able to reproduce the results of any of these "mentors" it would still beg the question of what it is able to do with it. Revolutionary strategy does not reduce to winning (even lots of) council or parliamentary seats, however nice.

While it is positive that much of the far left is co-operating instead of engaging in its usual sectarian competition, in fact this left agrees on very little beyond standing together in elections. Even with an agreed election statement there is little common ground about the election campaign itself. Some (like the CPGB) want a manifesto, which raises the big issues of power, while others like the AWL, would rather reduce it all to the current "lack of working class representation".

This goes a long way to meeting those like the Socialist Party who argue that the Labour Party is now a straightforward bourgeois party like the Tories. It remains an unfortunate and embarrassing fact that Britain does currently have "working class representation" in the Labour Party. It contains the danger of seeing working class representation in purely sociological terms. It is hardly surprising that - at least for a while - the AWL welcomed the noise which the AEEU leadership made about getting more workers into Parliament (via the Labour Party of course) without recognising that this was purely a matter of the AEEU trying to secure seats for particular "chosen sons" and that the politics of the AEEU leadership differ very little from those of Blair.

Posing the present situation as a "lack of working class representation" repeats the very contradiction at the heart of the Labour Party since its formation. Working class representation meant parliamentary representation but not representation by advocates of the struggle for socialism (in any real sense). Working class representation, yes, but within the confines of capitalism.

Precisely because of these differences over programme, strategy and the meaning of the electoral alliance, the votes that are won in the election are extremely unlikely to be translated into anything more than tiny gains in membership for the separate organisations which make up the alliance. The only option which might transcend this - the concept of a new workers' party - is rejected by the majority of participants in favour of linear growth of their own organisation. Even those organisations which see such a new party as necessary/possible have such widely differing views on how it will come about and what its character should be, that there is little chance of it developing.

No doubt the left candidates in London will get votes from disaffected Labour voters and Labour Party members, as will, to a greater extent, the Liberal Democrats and Green Party. A far greater number of "traditional" Labour voters will stay away. But beyond "vote for us", the traditional cry of all bourgeois politicians, what is the LSA offering? Certainly no strategy for those Labour Party members who will vote left in protest at Blair's programme and the quality of the Party's GLA candidates. Nor even anything for those activists who no longer "look to" the Labour Party in any way. A protest vote will be registered and thenů nothing.

Yet in all this there has been little recognition that the far left in this country has been here before. And a fairly futile exercise it was too. Over the hundred years of the Labour Party's existence, the far left, in its various guises, has barely dented its hegemony over the labour movement. It has gone through periodic bouts of deceiving itself that it is about to drive the final nail into the coffin of social democracy (the CP and ILP in the '30s, the WRP in the '60s and '70s, the IMG, the SWP). Each has been a false dawn followed by a rather rude awakening, with the Labour Party emerging as strong as ever, and the far left even more isolated than before.

Yet this time around the left seems to believe everything is different. Why, when conditions are even worse than in most of the cases listed above is never explained.

All we get in response is truisms - the policies of the Government are a continuation of the Tories', internal democracy has all but been killed off in the Labour Party - rather than reasoned argument.

It is of course true that this Labour government is pursuing policies well to the right of any previous one. But the implication is often that it is not the case that all Labour governments have been committed to the smooth running of capitalism whatever reforms they have introduced to the benefit of the working class. Since its inception, the Labour Party has been a bourgeois workers' party, a social democratic party even if some of its specifics differ from social democracy elsewhere. Despite the mythology spread by the likes of Militant in its entryist period, there never was a golden heyday of British social democracy. The Labour Party did not need to undergo an August 1914 Ó la German social democracy to arrive in the counter-revolutionary camp. It was always there. The dominant ideology of the British trade unions has always been the search for concessions within the confines of the capitalist framework. The Labour Party has merely translated this into the "political" arena.

Despite all the changes made by Kinnock, Smith and Blair this essential class character of the Labour party remains unchanged. Blair's "Partnership in Power" proposals have certainly had a profound effect on internal democracy, with conference sidelined in favour of "policy forums" with little independence from the leadership. Yet despite this, conference still has the ability to pass resolutions, which, although far from throwing the Government into crisis, would at least cause disarray, and the unions have almost 50% of the votes at conference.

We are frequently told that the Labour left is dead, or at least nearly so. It is incredibly weak, although whether qualitatively more so than the extra-Labour left is a moot point. Yet, despite this weakness, the left has won at least half of the CLP places on Labour's National Executive Committee for the last two years, and the enthusiasm for Livingstone's candidacy for London Mayor among the rank and file shows that it is hardly dead. Of course, this situation has hardly been helped by the withdrawal of most of the far left from Labour Party activity.

Where mass revolutionary parties were formed in the 1920s (France, Germany, Italy) this was achieved by a mass break with social democracy. Yet the practice of most of the far left in Britain now shows it believes that social democracy (or rather its mass following) can be disregarded (or at best preached at) for the purpose of building the far left. All historical experience in Britain shows that once small far left organisations decide it is time to stand candidates in elections they also lose all concept of the united front in their approach to the Labour Party. Hardly surprising in terms of self-justification, but hardly conducive to building that mass revolutionary party.

Some will protest that this is not true, that they have supporters working in the Labour Party or that they have supported Livingstone in his fight for the Labour Party nomination for London Mayor. [This piece was written before the result of the electoral college was known.]

Yet the London Socialist Alliance has not even expressed its support for Livingstone, because of the opposition of the Socialist Party (one version says that it wouldn't make any difference anyway, which seems to be more of a statement of ineffectiveness than anything else).

Several of those organisations involved in the LSA who have supported Livingstone (not least the AWL) have done somersaults to do so. Yet while they seem to recognise Livingstone's fight for the nomination is pivotal to the direction of the Labour Party and, by extension, the unions, one is left with the strong feeling that their real hope has always been that Livingstone would stand as an independent, allowing them to pose as his support act. While Livingstone should be supported as an independent candidate if this is the final last option open, this does not alter the fact that the best option in terms of a defeat for Blair would be for Livingstone to win and be the official Labour candidate. But that of course would raise the question of whether the far left will be part of that battle over the future of the labour movement, which hardly ends with the Livingstone issue. Rather it is in the process of cutting itself off from it.

Being part of that fight does not mean everyone going to ward meetings and General Committees, but it does mean members of affiliated unions being able, for instance to stand for their union's delegations to Labour conferences to challenge the supine attitude of the Morrises, Bickerstaffes etc. But to do so, they need to be Labour Party members.

Those who protest that, while pursuing election campaigns, they also have supporters active in the Labour Party are being disingenuous. It is not just that this is merely a token presence in the Labour Party, more of a sop to those who won't give up the "old ways" than a real commitment, but that these are not complementary but conflicting tactics. You cannot coherently argue at the same time that you stand candidates against the Labour Party and fight in the Labour Party.

In seeing the standing of candidates as the answer to the considerable problems facing socialists at the current time the left is slipping into the magic solutions/short cut realm of politics, ignoring all the lessons of the history of the British left. A strategy which relates only to left activists ("the vanguard") while ignoring the question of how to connect with the bulk of the working class - arming the vanguard with the arguments to take to the wider class - used to be known as "the left of the left". It was derided by many on the British left when explicitly applied by the French left in the '70s and '80s. It is just as wrong now when used by the British left.

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