But what is really going on with the Labour party? Liam has responded to Tami. But I think the discussion does need to look in more detail at what is going on the LP.
Firstly, Sorry, the cartoon is not easy to read, but I like it anyway, and think it is worth persevering with. The sign on the top board says "socialism" and the cautious bloke is the Labour Party. This appeared in Socialst Worker in 1974, the year I joined Keynsham Labour Party as a precocious 13 year old. Part of the reason I reproduce the cartoon is to remind ourselves that there was a time when significant numbers of workers actually thought that the LP would one day bring about socialism. In those days most party members would have described themselves a socialists, even if they may not have all agreed what it meant!
I think that the decision of hard left MP, Alan Simpson to resign his seat at the next election is a serious blow to the labour left, and also shows the limits of the John McDonnell leadership campaign. Simpson is likeable, consistently left wing, has impeccable green credentials and is a regular correspondent for the Morning Star.
I have argued before that McDonnell’s campaign is extremely important: “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.”
But also that the left noises from Jon Cruddas may well block McDonnell’s candidature, given the dynamics of the Labour party: “If the deputy leadership contest looks like taking on the characteristics of a real debate about the legacy of New Labour, and the future direction of the party, then this may reduce support for an actual challenge to Brown. What is more, the argument of whether or not Brown becoming leader unopposed will be seen as a coronation is likely to be overtaken by media attention to the deputy leadership, which will become a leadership contest by proxy, in the same way that the Healey/Benn contest was.”
Recently the Australian socialist Dave Riley asked that someone should give an assessment of just how significant McDonnell’s campaign is, and he raised the comparison with the way Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the Democratic nomination galvanised support way beyond the Democratic Party. This was also true of the 1981 Benn for Deputy Leader campaign that dominated political life in this country, and had a deep base of support in the unions, and the women’s, gay and black liberation movements.
Even the most cursory glance at McDonnell’s campaign shows it has none of this resonance. I wish it did but it doesn’t. Even Simpson was not overtly backing him, and was linked with the Meacher leadership bid.
The strongest argument being put forward by those socialists who think we should all be in the LP, is that there is no viable option outside in England and Wales. Well they are not wrong there! But there are very deep seated structural problems with forming an alternative to Labour, not least of which the FTP electoral system, the British disease of trot groups on the Healy/Grant/Cliff model, general disillusionment with electoral politics, and cynicism, all of which reinforced by the historical legacy of the defeats of the last 20 years.
The relevance of this is that most of these factors also militate against a revival of the Labour left, but with the added obstacle of the overwhelming crushing victory of the neo-liberal right within the party, who have irreversibly and structurally embedded their victory into the party’s DNA. The rules and constitution have been changed to eliminate the levers that the left used to exercise influence, the conference is a meaningless rally, the social composition of the membership has shifted hugely towards managerial types, the neo-liberal and imperialist policies mean that outside blogland and the bizarro anachronisms of places like Hackney where all the ex-Trots live, no activists under 30 would look at the party as anything remotely progressive. Ward meetings are sparce and poorly attended, and the party apparatus is an empty shell in most of the country. Millbank prevents left candidates being selected and what is more the reduced powers of local authorities have removed the base from which the left has in the past built support from the bottom up.
The union link now exists more in form than in content. Whereas in the past union branches used to send delegates to GMC meetings in each CLP this practice has almost disappeared, lay activists and even full timers are much, much less likely to be LP members than they ever were before. The most striking thing about the last few LP conferences, has been how the big four unions have almost intervened in the conference rather than participated in it - pursuing their own agenda without participating in the wider issues like Iraq, not even pursuing their own unions polices. The only concession won by the affiliated unions was the sop of the Warwick agreement before the election, none of which polices have been implemented.
Meanwhile the LP link with Unison is certainly impeding that union in resisting privatisation. Compare the RMT (non-affiliated) - who continue to campaign for a publicly owned rail service, with the capitulation of the CWU (affiliated) over Post Office privatisation around "Shaping the Future".
The trickle of socialists into the LP – and it is no more than a trickle exaggerated by the Internet- is I believe based upon desperation. When Brown is elected leader there will be need for calm reflection.