Workers' Liberty #62


The left and Livingstone

Ken Livingstone's candidature for London Mayor is an opportunity to raise independent working class politics among workers who see Livingstone as someone who has challenged the "control freaks" of Millbank, who, at least on the issue of the privatisation of the London Underground, stands for policies for working class Londoners.

By Cathy Nugent

Falling in love again...

For WL it is an opportunity to organise a serious working-class challenge to Blair. At least two of the main groups on the left - the Socialist Workers Party and The Socialist Party - have a different set of priorities.

For Socialist Worker, Livingstone's candidature is an chance to tell Labour Party members to rip up their party cards - a campaign which they have run intermittently over the last ten years. It is understandable that Labour Party members will feel like leaving the Party right now, but SW are engaged in mere a "Join the Socialists", SWP party building exercise.

Under the headline, "Should socialists break from New Labour?" (11 March), SW makes a number of crass statements, truncating Labour's history in order to fit their own spin on a complex story, leading to the pre-ordained fetishistic conclusion: Join the SWP. This is a species of polemic which needs to be countered.

There's is a one-sided history: "In the 1930s there were militant demonstrations against unemployment. But figures who led the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, like Wal Hannington, were members of the Communist Party. Labour officially did not even support the most famous demonstration against unemployment - the Jarrow hunger march…"

If Labour's leaders did not back the NUWM, neither did the TUC. The problem was an overwhelming passivity at the head of the entire labour movement. In fact there was a huge struggle inside Labour over unemployment benefit - an issue which led to a split in August 1931, when Ramsey MacDonald went on to form a national government. Economic and social struggles have always had an impact on the Party, because it has been an organic part of the British labour movement. Labour was based on the organisations of the working class - which is not to say that it has politically represented the true interests of the working class.

Equally one-sided is SW's characterisation of the historical reality of parliamentary struggle. "The key is to understand that change does not come through Parliament, but from fighting outside Parliament. Thatcher's poll tax, for example, was defeated by a mass campaign and huge demonstrations organised by ordinary people."

Partly SW is adopting a straight "syndicalists" stance because it suits its anti-Labour arguments. In other circumstances it recognises the value of socialists using the parliamentary arena as a platform for struggle - in the devolved "parliament" of London for instance! Here they want to avoid explaining how generations of working-class fighters fought for the right to vote, the right to working class MPs, the democratisation of the parliamentary system, in the '80s, the democratisation of the Labour Party not only to promote but to strengthen "extra-parliamentary" working class struggles.

Socialists who are indifferent to the creation of new socialists, or to recruiting those socialists to their organisation, or to the cardinal importance of building their own organisation, ought to give up the right to exist. Our objection is not to the degree of party patriotism SWPers display, but the way this leads them to distort reality and live in their own political dream-world. Like this, for instance:

"It is easier to relate to the mood for change in the country outside the Labour Party. Opinion over many issues is way to the left of New Labour… But it need not be forces like Plaid or the SNP that benefit from the anger against Blair. Where socialists put forward a clear left alternative to Blair they get support."

It is true that many workers feel intensely aggrieved about the Government. But it is not true that either the SWP nor even the London Socialist Alliance is yet - even with the openings created by Livingstone's stance - an alternative to New Labour, even for a protest vote. We are working to win that position. Collectively the left can and should demonstrate to as many workers as it can that their grievances are common to many and that something can be done about them. Our job is to reach a broad section of workers - to mobilise around key class demands. It is not just, as in practice it is to the SWP, to relate to ones and two by shouting "Join the socialists"!

The Socialist don't bother to pick over the history of Labour. It says - forget about the past, Labour is finished now as a vehicle for working-class political representation. Workers must leave Labour and form a new workers' party. In reality this argument is similar to the SWP's - it is code for saying "Join the socialists".

Writing in the 17 March issue, Peter Taaffe says, "the election of Socialist Party councillors in Lewisham and Coventry [shows an alternative] is being created in England… Livingstone's decision to stand has utterly changed the London and national position… out of this mayor's contest must come the basis of a new mass working class party." And, "More and more union branches are posing the question of refusing to continue to finance the Labour Party with the resources of the union membership."

A new workers' party is needed and the foundation of such a party implies a perspective of a split within the existing labour movement. However, broad sections of the union movement are not now organised in revolt against Blair's New Labour "party within a party". Socialists need to take what revolt there is and try to generalise it. We make propaganda for a new working class political organisation. But the next step is not to make a call for a new workers' party the central prop of our propaganda. There are some steps to go first. Immediately those sections of the union movement which are in revolt should organise around the idea of labour representation, and tie this idea to opposition to privatisation and cuts in public services. They should put pressure on other union leaderships to fight for their members and against the government. This is next step.

The Socialist's argument is based on a false perspective about the Labour Party. "[The Blairite right wing] have transformed the Labour Party, in the past a workers' party at the bottom, into a British version of the Democratic Party in the USA. This is underlined by the stitch- up of Livingstone, following the ballot-rigging in Wales."

Blair may yet transform Labour into a Democratic Party but he has not definitively done it yet. If he had decisively broken the links with unions we might be in that position. He has not yet, because the union tops have been content to go along with all the Government's anti-working class policies. Socialists advocate the disruption of the cosy relationship between John Monks et al and the Blairites. We say that the unions should not donate money to Labour, unless and until it backs down on privatisation and cuts in services and on maintaining the Tories' anti-union laws.

For Workers' Liberty, it is not a question, as Taaffe puts it of "urging people to stay in the Labour Party" (and many will stay in come what may) and "refusing to organise a new mass party" or "missing [with the Livingstone campaign] a unique opportunity for socialism in Britain". Far better that disillusioned Labour members band together and put up a fight both in their Labour Party branches and unions than that they drop out individually. Few of those who do so will remain in politics. We also say join with the LSA, use the opportunity in London to show working class people that there is opposition to Blair, that New Labour's political monopoly can be broken.

In reality, neither the SWP nor the SP truly believe that the LSA or themselves are a pole of attraction for the masses of disillusioned Labour and trade union members. Many thousands will vote for Livingstone and some thousands will vote for the LSA. But it will be hundreds who join the LSA.

That represents a tremendously positive development if the LSA develops into an outgoing, democratically-organised, long-term working class campaign. Those hundreds of working class activists represent the future and may help shape a new working-class party in the future. But that is not what either the Socialist Party or the Socialist Workers Party are advocating. Both groups advocate a piecemeal falling away of individuals from Labour when there no real place for them to go. They talk grandiosely about splits when potential splits have not developed in the direction of a positive movement for working class political representation. They even have no real belief that the time is ripe for a genuine split. But honesty is nothing when party-building is all.

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