Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Labour party, controversy revisited!

Arguments about the Labour Party seem to be all over the blogs at the moment. Not only has Louise made a very spirited argument in favour of socialists being in the LP in this blog, but former member of the Socialist Resistance editorial board, Tami, has joined the Labour party. Louise is correct to point out that there are many socialists networking together in the LP, in for example the John4Lleader campaign, labour Against the War, etc. It is the policy of this blog to recognise and support the efforts of all socialists and encourage cooperation. We dio recognise and support the efforts of our friends and comrades in the Labour Party to oppose Blairism, right in the belly of the beast so to speak!

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.


Martin Wisse said...

Actually, that cartoon says that a lot of people thought the Labour Party would ever be too timid to embrace socialism.

Louisefeminista said...


That's where the lead singer, Beth something-or-other, from the band Portshead (the rest of the band come from Portishead...)comes from originally.

Ah sorry, useless bit of information for you..

neprimerimye said...

Not nearly as pointless as the McDonnell campaign is to the working classes.

Martin Wisse said...


Everytime I look in the mirror, baby.

AN said...

Keynsam is also famous to everyoe of a slightlyolder eneratioon than me as the home of a guy who advertised on radio Luxemburg on a pools advice service.

And Bill Bailey also comes from there. Went to the same school as me and joined the WRP - but i don't recall ever having met him

AN said...

Martin the cartoon of course says both. The audience for the cartoon was those open to the arguemt n that socialism would not come from the LP. But the cartoon requires the context that some other people do think socialism would come through labour - which surely is not a mainstream view now??

Simon D said...

The idea that it is UNISON's affiliation to Labour that impede' our resistance to privatisation is ridiculous, and it lets the bureaucrats off the hook for not doing anything for our members. It is that the leadership are bureaucrats more interested in a quiet life than fighting for their members. There is no evidence that the unaffiliated unions such as the PCS or the NUT are any more or less radical than the affiliated unions, although if a union were prepared to wage a fight it would be able to do so far more effectively if it was affiliated to Labour.

Conversely there is no evidence that the RMT or FBU have become any more radical since leaving (or being kicked out of) the Labour Party. They are radical for a number of reasons, not least of all being relatively small unions organised around workplaces in a way that means they can punch above their weight on an industrial level.

There is no magical spell that makes you stop fighting for principled politics because you are in an affiliated union or you are a member of the party, nor is their any mystical formula that means leaving the party will make you radical. In the case of the unions it can oftenm lead to a failure to try and hold the Labour Government to account since Labour is no longer seen as 'our' party.

Louisefeminista said...

"although if a union were prepared to wage a fight it would be able to do so far more effectively if it was affiliated to Labour".

I agree with you Simon. If a couple of unions took on the politics of New Labour and were prepared to fight instead of selling-out then that would give multiple headaches to the LP bureaucracy. And a lot of opportunities to us!

Jim Denham said...

...unlike that bullsitter Crow, who engineered the RMT's exclusion from the LP, because he (Crow) didn't have the stomach for a real fight.

Tawfiq Chahboune said...

And what fight would that have been, Jim? The RMT quite reasonably stated that it should be able to give its money to whoever they jolly well wanted. Or are you against the democratic right of unions to give their money to whoever they want? The Labour Party said "it's us or you're out". If I remember correctly, the RMT voted on this because of the privatisation of the railways and the health and safety aspect. Crow didn't engineer anything.

I'm surprised that any socialist can look upon the last ten years of vicious union-bashing, especially to the FBU, and then exclaim that its the unions fault for not having "the stomach for a real fight". Given Labour's super-capitalist agenda the unions could probably stand a better chance with the Tories than with Labour.