Wednesday, January 03, 2007
The forward march of Labour halted?
John Haylett, editor of the Morning Star, wrote a very useful political analysis in last Saturday’s paper. (It is worth noting in passing the degree to which the Communist Party’s paper has broadened its role to carry serious debate from non-party members, it is a paper that all socialists should read and support)
Haylett rehearses the familiar arguments about Tony Blair’s legacy in Iraq, but then turns his fire onto Blair’s likely successor: “it is noteworthy that it was Chancellor Gordon Brown who was first out of the traps to declare to a gathering of City big-wigs that the government would proceed with an upgraded submarine-based nuclear weapons system. As with the billions of pounds wasted on the illegal invasion of Iraq, Mr Brown foresees no difficulty in finding adequate cash to devote to such a grotesque potential for mass murder.”
Haylett then catalogues the crimes of New Labour:
“More than a thousand compulsory redundancies [in the NHS], over 22,000 jobs slashed and 2,500 beds closed tell their own story, as does the escalating tendency of the government to hand over vast sums of public money to big business in the form of PFI and a guaranteed share of NHS operations farmed out to the private sector.
“And it is the same across the public services, from education to prisons, from the probation service to Royal Mail.
“[New Labour’s] gossip machine hints at the possibility of a true Blairite candidate standing against Gordon Brown for the party leadership when Mr Blair steps down, encouraging the nonsensical view, entertained by some in the trade union movement, that, deep down, beneath the Chancellor's new Labour exterior, there beats an old Labour, real Labour or even simply Labour heart.
“To accept this requires a stupefying suspension of belief and a refusal to look at all that Mr Brown has said and done over the past dozen years or so.
“His commitment to big business, to neoliberal economics and so-called "flexibility," to the transatlantic alliance, to imperialist military domination and to its economic expression - globalisation - is total.
“How any trade unionist could see a Brown-led Labour government as representing an alternative to the anti-working-class administration led by Mr Blair defies reason.
“New Labour's economic policies are the Chancellor's economic policies.
“They have resulted in record corporate profits and obscene rewards for a tiny minority of the population, together with redundancies, especially in manufacturing, and worsened pension provision for the vast majority.
“The public sector has been hacked and eroded, while its workforce has been derided and attacked.”
Yes indeed – but where does this lead us? During the 2005 general election I had a public debate with Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party. The strongest part of Griffith’s argument was that socialists should orientate themselves on the most progressive outcomes of the actually existing circumstances, which in the 2005 election was an overall Labour victory. In contrast, for example, many of the left groups orientate not on the actually existing arguments and possibilities for advance within the movement now, but are fixated on the question of state power, a distinction between reform and revolution frankly irrelevant to our current circumstances.
Of course, there may still be debate about what the most progressive outcome would be – and in the 2007 Hollyrood elections in Scotland the CP are likely to argue for Labour vote, when in my opinion the best outcome would be a defeat for all the unionist parties, with the largest possible vote for the SSP.
Nevertheless, the CP has consistently and correctly argued that the millions of Labour voters, and the structural links between the Labour party and the trade unions are gains that should not be lightly abandoned. Nor indeed have the political left outside the Labour party (certainly in England and Wales) sufficient weight or authority to represent any alternative. But we do need to recognise that there is a considerable progressive constituency who reject Labour, not only in the environmental and peace movements, but even among trade union activists.
And the relationship between the Labour party and its historical base has changed. Back in June I attended a workshop for Labour Party activists at the Stop the War Coalition conference. The discussion gave no hope of any prospect of socialist activists making progress in the CLPs, and in my observation the relatively high votes for Grassroots Alliance candidates for the NEC, and membership of the Labour Representation Committee, reveal only a legacy rather than a strategy for advance. The consequences of losing over Clause IV, Blair’s reforms of the party constitution, and the reduction of the powers of local government (which prevent the left consolidating local bases), have delivered a crushing and irreversible victory for the right within the party superstructure and CLPs.
John Haylett instead addressed the other major historical legacy of labour. “The trade unions, which remain the largest storehouse of pro-Labour sentiment, personnel and finance, bear key responsibility for what happens to the party that they created. They have already been conned once by the Warwick agreement, of which Hans Christian Andersen must have seen an early draft and based his Emperor's New Clothes on it. It delivered nothing for working people other than an increased level of disappointment and alienation.”
“Today, for the labour movement, the status quo is definitely not an option. Change must come or, as Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas suggests, we could see the demise of Labour, leaving the field to barely distinguishable pro-business parties funded by the rich and by taxation.
“Indeed, it is difficult even to find evidence that a party of labour - rather than a neoliberal imposter party that bears the name Labour - still exists.
“The unions have links with most Labour MPs. Those links must be activated to let these MPs, half of whom have never broken ranks to speak out against new Labour's pro-business, pro-war agenda, know what is expected of them.”
He puts it very well: “Unless Labour changes course, adopting a political approach such as that put forward by left leadership challenger John McDonnell, the future is bleak not only for Labour's short-term electoral hopes but for its very future. ”
The battle ground in not in the moribund and abandoned CLPs. Individual membership of the Labour Party is now a useless dead end, impeding socialists with the albatross of Blair’s legacy round their necks. The battle is in the unions.
In those unions affiliated to the party we have a brief window to raise the question of supporting McDonnell, on the straightforward basis that McDonnell supports policies in the interests of union members, and Brown’s policies are against our interests.. The bigger reservoir of support that McDonnell can demonstrate, the better the terrain that the left will be operating upon after the leadership elections.
Yet McDonnell will not win the leadership, and Gordon Brown will. The party will continue on a neo-liberal course that simultaneously undermines the foundations for working class politics, and also threatens electoral defeat for Labour itself. If Labour loses the next general election then the most likely outcome will be a further consolidation of the right, with the union leaders being even more uncritical to provide a united front against a tory Government.
The task facing the left is a very difficult one. Firstly, we must do all we can to strengthen McDonnell’s campaign, to put ourselves in the best tactical position. But we also need to further the debate within the unions that New Labour is now a different creature, and one no longer deserving the support of organised workers.