Monday, June 11, 2007

Can the forward march of Labour be restarted?


The situation that the left finds itself in after the defeat of the McDonnell bid for the Labour leadership is a complex one. A bit of a debate has broken out about this around a statement issued by Socialist Resistance (SR) This was published on Liam Mac Uaid’s blog :

The key passage is: “McDonnell’s defeat throws the Labour left into serious crisis. No spin can hide it. The project of reclaiming the Labour or the idea that the Labour Party is a fruitful arena for the left to work in have been dealt a devastating blow.

“All this has implication for Respect, which should be taking the initiative to open or re-open a dialogue with those on the left who are currently not in Respect as to how they see the way forward.

“The Morning Star and the CPB are a case in point. They are likley to find it increasingly difficult to cling to a policy of reclaiming Labour. Apparently a new discussion has already opened up on this internally in the CPB. The Morning Star had already called a conference in June on “Politics After Blair” at which the issue will now be unavoidable.

“But Respect needs to be open and flexible in this situation to any new forces from the Morning Star or the trade union left. It should do whatever is necessary to ensure that new forces have space to make their influence felt. If it can do this it could break it out of its current impasse and open up a new stage of development.
“Respect’s task in this process is to turn the tide of politics back towards the left. Rebuild ideological and practical opposition to the market. Work with the left in the unions to build an independent pluralist left alternative alongside the struggle to regenerate the unions and rebuild trade union strength and organisation.”

To which I posted a comment to the effect that SR are making two mistakes: i) in not understanding that Respect is not a vehicle around which left unity can be built; and less explicably ii) that SR seem to completely fail to understand the political perspective of the CP.

I concluded my initial remarks by saying that currently “the building blocks for any serious alternative to Labour are utterly absent, but where the situation isn't hopeless either.”

Given the undemocratic manoeuvrings in and around Respect, the media galavanting of George Galloway, and the dispersal of the layer of left social democrats who had aggregated around the Socialist Alliance in various parts of the country, then I would characterise Respect thus: “Who is Respect? Galloway or the SWP? Anyone else? Will either of those forces play the productive role you are calling on them to play? If there is no actually existing force within Respect who will steer the organisation to play the role you think it could play, then how could it happen?

“Even were the SWP or Galloway to have a damascene conversion, would anyone on the activist left trust them? No-one is going to join Respect, or particularly want to work with them. The whole project is basically an embarrassment now.

“If we are looking for a left unity project, then we have missed the boat. The wave of left activists who left the labour party after Clause IV and over the Iraq war could have been attracted to an organisation that respected labour movement norms of behaviour. But were never going to be attracted to respect.”

SR are utterly self delusioonal if they believe that the CP or any significant left from the unions would touch Respect with a barge. Even were the Political Committee of the CP so minded, and I have no reason to think they are, then the membership would probably not agree to it.

The failure of McDonnell’s campaign has produced unhelpful knee-jerk reactions from Respect and the Socialist Party that the Labour Left should join them in their equally unsuccessful campaigns outside the Labour party. They remind me of the mayor of Amity, swearing that the water is safe. For example Thornett writes: "It¹s right to say to the Labour left, and those like the CPB (and some of the trade union left) who have clung to a Reclaim Labour policy for so long that after the McDonnell collapse the only rational conclusion in the cold light of day is that the Labour left has no useful future in the Labour party. There is no point in saying anything else."

In fact this approach is completely misguided. Instead of looking at whether we can reconstitute the greatly diminished left around already flawed projects, we need to take stock of the current political situation.

The overwhelming features are i) that the right within the Labour Party are utterly triumphant, and their victory is structurally irreversible. ii) The Labour party has failed to make the same shift to the right with its electoral base – the enduring progressive and social democratic attitudes of labour voters was well described recently on the SWP blog, Lenin’s Tomb ; iii) that the far left have failed to break that progressive base away from electoral loyalty to the Labour party; iv) the unions – on the whole - maintain ideological and political opposition to New Labour values, as can be seen by the way the unions make the running in opposing PFI, Academies and private equity. v) the structural problems of the unravelling British state.

So how can we seek to harness the positive aspects of the current situation to strengthen the left?

Alan Thornett has replied to me and asked whether I think Respect’s genuine electoral successes are the “wrong type of voters”. In a sense they are, but not in the sense he implies. Respect has done well particularly with that minority of voters for whom the war is the overriding political issue, but for the majority of the working class that is not the case, and opposition to the war has been subsumed into the general cynicism about politics.

This is where SR’s misunderstanding of the CP’s position is clear, because the CP are talking some sense over this issue:

As Robert Griffiths, the CP General Secretary: recently wrote : “But what is needed now more than ever is for the trade union movement, once again, to take on its historic responsibility to ensure the existence of a mass party of labour. For all the assistance that socialists and communists can render, the unions alone have the human, financial and organisational resources, as well as the class interest, to take the necessary steps.

“Together with the non-sectarian left, they need to work out a political strategy which takes account of current realities. For example, most major unions remain affiliated to the Labour Party and are unlikely to leave it in the near future.
“The first steps in this direction might be for all the major unions to affiliate and participate fully in the Labour Representation Committee. Deals between union leaders in smoke-free rooms to win resolutions at Labour Party conference are not enough. The active involvement of unions and their members in the LRC would be the clearest declaration of political intent.

“The LRC could itself go the extra mile and allow full membership status to socialist organisations including the Communist Party, respecting their right to participate independently in elections in return for an agreement not to campaign for the dismantling of the Labour Party through further union disaffiliations.
“In their relations with the Labour Party, unions should stop all financial, logistical and political support for MPs who consistently vote against key union policies. “

SR are correct to highlight the Morning Star conference as important, not least because the CP still able to punch above their weight, and alongside John McDonnell, we also have Ken Livingstone and Jon Cruddas attending. At the deputy leadership hustings at GMB congress last week Cruddas came out in favour of starting to renationalise public utilities.

The Labour Left were crushingly defeated in the PLP, but the McDonnell campaign has gathered together a nucleus of activists, who are less isolated and more motivated than they were before the campaign. It is as fruitless for us to argue with then that they should leave the party as for them to argue we should join it – comrades need to come to their own conclusions.

The way forward is for all the left, inside and outside the Labour party, to promote the trade unions in exercising their own political voice. By and large, the unions will not abandon their stake in the labour party until they have exhausted its historical usefulness. But currently they are not making enough demands on the party, and so not testing the usefulness of the link.

The Labour Representation Committee could become a vehicle for the unions to exercise collective political voice and if a substantial section of organised labour is to draw the conclusion that a party of labour needs to be refounded, as they effectively did in 1931, then the LRC could be the body around which that debate tales place.

Of course there are serious obstacles, not least of which is the LRC’s requirement for Labour Party membership, which is a serious obstacle to many grassroots trade unions and community activists. But again the way forward is for local trade union bodies to affiliate and open a dialogue about being able to send delegates who are not individual LP members.

In the meantime, we have largely missed the boat in England of building an electoral alternative to New Labour. There may still be a case of standing against Labour, but this can only be done by building grassroots links first, not by building the roof before the walls like Respect and the CNWP have done.

There is serious work that can be done, but the vehicle for that work is not Respect nor the CNWP, the focus remains where it perhaps always should have been, with organised Labour in the mass organisations of our class.


Victor said...

Difficult to follow your line of argument. Surely the point of both Respect and CNWP is that they seek to challenge Labour in the electoral arena. The LRC is a mechanism to re-tie the left to the Labour Party machine, to be easily hoovered up behind some future Crudas. Labour lefts cannot get through the LP selection filter. The TU purchase on Labour can only get weaker. As for the idea of joining the LRC to make some future left break, I can only salute the sheer masochism of such a strategy.

The Morning Star's continued existence is predicated on its orientation on the trade union bureaucracy which is tied to Labour. Lets not pretend its orientation on Labour is based on anything more than history, pragmatism and survival instinct. This is not to deny that it can play a useful role, just to point out that it is hardly in a place to provide strategic leadership. At best a platform for debate.

Saying that the large unions remain with Labour is a rather odd way to frame the debate when clearly we are in a situation whereby for the first time in British Labour history significant smaller unions are breaking or distancing themselves from Labour. In such a situation the idea that rallying around the LRC is the way forward is seriously out of kilter with the direction of travel of most left activists.

There is no correlation between the supposed views of left activists as portrayed by you and the Respect vote which clearly demonstrates electoral space beyond Labour and beyond the limits of an implied anti war vote.

The logical direction of non aligned or ex Labour activists who feel they cannot join existing options would be to gravitate around a non Labour pole of attraction and then negotiate for a left of Labour vehicle with either or both CNWP/Respect. Perhaps some form of syndicalist shop stewards network could be a halfway house in this process.

Or of course there is always the option of joining Respect, choosing a ward and ......

AN said...

The point of Respect may be to challenge labour in the electoral arena, but we have to ask whether an electoral alternative to labour is possible in the current period. You say: “There is no correlation between the supposed views of left activists as portrayed by you and the Respect vote which clearly demonstrates electoral space beyond Labour and beyond the limits of an implied anti war vote.”
But how is this “clearly demonstrated”? Respect has achieved some reasonable votes by cherry picking wards which largely match their electoral profile, and then piling in resources in a way that cannot be scaled up into a generalised challenge, or across wards more typical of the average composition of the English working class.
Effectively the CNWP has been still born, and whereas Respect may have had a potential but that has been killed off by the SWP and Galloway. How many independent socialist activists are there in Respect? Respect is an organisation that has almost zero appeal to working class activists.
Also Victor, you say “clearly we are in a situation whereby for the first time in British Labour history significant smaller unions are breaking or distancing themselves from Labour”
But noticeably the FBU and the RMT are both affiliated to the LRC, and both those unions sponsor a parliamentary group of Labour MPs, who agree to promote the interests of those unions.
You are in danger of fetishising the organisational question, which is why you cannot follow my argument, instead of starting from an analysis of the objective and subjective conditions. You say: “The logical direction of non aligned or ex Labour activists who feel they cannot join existing options would be to gravitate around a non Labour pole of attraction and then negotiate for a left of Labour vehicle with either or both CNWP/Respect. Perhaps some form of syndicalist shop stewards network could be a halfway house in this process. ”
This is just building castles in the sky. The RMT initiated national shop Stewards Movement could prove to be an important network in its own right, but has a useful role to play as a trade union initiative and there is no guarantee it will be the midwife to any political development, nor that such a political development would even be a good direction for it to take.
So you are left with an utterly idealist fairy tale of a “non-Labour pole of attraction”, that doesn’t exist, certainly not at a national level.
If we confine ourselves to things which actually exist and are real options, then looking at the basic topology of English and British society then the trade unions, at all levels from the lay activists to parts of the official machines, articulate an ideological and political alternative to neo-liberalism. Not consistently perhaps, but it is the best we have.
Yet you fetishise “the bureaucracy”, rather ignoring that although they have their own specific interests, the official union machineries do in fact have a base in organised labour, and a class interest in opposing neo-liberalism, not only on behalf of their members, but on behalf of their own institutional interests.
The starting point of looking for organised labour to further develop its own political voice, and test to destruction its relationship with the Labour party is one that flows from the objective conditions of the labour movement today.
I do not fetishise the LRC – its advantage is precisely that it does include the left unions no longer affiliated to Labour, and could provide a mechanism for the unions to debate alternative politics to New Labour. However, the key here is to encourage the unions to develop political opposition, through whatever form it takes.
What we can say is that the LRC could become a vehicle for uniting activists and the unionsfor practical campaigning over specific issues. Bit equally maybe it won’t rise to that task, and we may have to find another way.
But we do need some honesty that if the McDonnell campaign has demonstrated that the weakness of the Labour left, then the trajectory of Respect and the CNWP over the last couple of years has demonstrated futility of trying to build an electoral alternative to Labour, at the current time
And finally you say: “Or of course there is always the option of joining Respect, choosing a ward and ......”
Which is just facetious isn’t it, given the efforts of the SWP of driving independent minded activists out of Respect.

Muon said...

Your attempts to continue rubbishing Respect's prospects are looking a bit strained. The Birmingham results (12,000 votes across 7 wards) were not based on piling in massive resources, in several wards new candidates pretty much got on with it by themselves. Other areas (eg Cambridge) show some very good results, which will allow Respect to push out more widely in those areas next time. There is every chance that Lindsey German will be successful in getting on the GLA next year, and that's without looking at preston and Bolsover, which show that Respect can clearly have an appeal beyond (let's cut out the mealy mouthed talk) areas with a large percentage of Muslims.
There will still be resources issues, but the progress that has been made will make it possible to pull in other resources - the whole is not just the sum of the parts remember. And yes there are independent socialist activists in Respect.
The argument that Respect is not the whole solution is fine, and there may be reorganisations, new alliances, who knows. But this continued insistence that Respect is dead in the water is just plain daft.

AN said...

Well the Bolsover result was a t horse race between labour and Respect, where Respect were standing a well establishe dlabour movement activist, so that doesn't tell us much.

And Preston pulled in resources from the whole of the North west, and was defending a seat, where Lavallette has been a very good sitting councillor. So based upon that evidence Respect is doing no better that - for example the SP - who have also managed to maintain seats where they already have councillors.

There were good votes in Birmingham, in predominatly Muslim wards. But can we draw national conclusions from that? The success of the Community Action Party in Wigan has been even greater, in terms of seats won - but no one advoactes them as a model.

But the point about respect is not whether or not is gets votes - it can in certain specific circimstances - but whether i) it is an attractive political home for activists given the SWP dominate th structures, and Galloway is a maverick; and ii) whether its electoral successes can be scaled up.

It is clearly not dead in the water, i never said it was.

I said it is an embarassment, and cannot become a vehicle for left unity. that is not the same as being dea.d

AN said...

Oh and Muon. The question of whether Respect has an electoral appeal beyond Muslims, is not the same thing as my contention that it has an appeal for those for whom the war is the biggest issue.

Many Muslims may indeed be attracted to respect for that reason, but so are parts of the political left who overestimate the relative political resonance of the war, as opposed to other class issues.

In electoral terms this may not only therefore be wards with large Muslim components, but also perhaps areas with a larger student population.

Victor said...

So apart from wards with large numbers of muslims, predominately white working class mining communities, middle class wards in Cambridge, predominately white working class wards like Locklease in Bristol and areas with large numbers of students what exactly have the Romans ever done for us?

AN said...

Victor, this is a foolish point you are making isn't it.

I have not now nor ever denied that Respect has been able to achieve reasonable votes in local elections.

In particular they have done well in Muslim areas becasue of the identification of many Muslims that the war is the most important political issue. I have also been on record right from the beginning in praising that aspect of Respect.

In Bolsover, it was a good result because of a strong candidate in a two horse race against labour. You cannot draw any generalised conclusions from that, in local elections around the country independencts and minor parties do well in some individual wards.

Equally, given the Jer HIcks comes from Lockleaze and has lived in that part of bristol his entire life, and been a prominent trade unionist, and given the massive effort that Bristol Respect put into the ward ( i don't know how they got so many leaflets printed within their allowed budget), then their vote is good, but is not something that represents a breakthrough against labour (or in the specific case of Lockleaze the Lib Dems).

A comparison (not politically obvioulsy, but just on terms of votes) with the BNP, depsite having a much higher national profile than Respect, they are struggling to establish themselves and retain council seats. Despite havng many more councillors and much higher votes than Respect the BNP realisticaly described their may results as (for them) standing still.

The question is not whther Rrespepct can get some decent votes in a relativaly small number of seats, the question is why do left activosts outside the SWP not want to be in it? And why was its trade union conference last years smaller than equivalent eveents organised by the Socialist Allaince before Resepct was launched.

Had Respect embraced normal democratic structures, and made itself a welcoming home for activists, then it would have been a different story. BUt right throughtout the movement it is regarded as undemocratic, and in most places - and certainly at conferecne - the SWP calls the shots.

The telling feature is that Respect membership has fallen massivaly, and the composition of the memberhsip is less representive of the general population than it was.

Of ocurse it is easier for you to argue against the straw man you have created, but if you instead address the points I am actually making we may get on better.

Phil said...

Despite havng many more councillors and much higher votes than Respect the BNP realisticaly described their may results as (for them) standing still.

BNP: 39 seats uncontested in 2007, 8 lost, 1 retained, 8 gained.
RESPECT: 15 seats uncontested, 2 lost, 1 retained, 2 gained.
The fash also took considerably more second places than RESPECT, and closer second places (including one tie).

Any reading of the local election as a success for RESPECT ought to go on to say that it was a bigger success for the BNP. Alternatively, if you read the BNP results as saying that they're not really getting anywhere outside a few heartland areas, the same is surely true in spades of RESPECT. (I went into all this a bit back.)

Liam Mac Uaid said...

Andy, this is a creative bit of thinking but delusional. The LRC doesn't do much but organise an annual conference. It didn't even have enough clout to get John Mc Donnell on the ballot paper and while it's true that Respect is not very appealing to most socialists the Labour Party is even less so.
Whatever new post-Labour anti-capitalist formation emerges will have to encompass Respect, parts of the current Labour left and the CPB. The LRC is not going to be the vehicle for this.

Muon, Respect has hit a big brick wall with the letters "SWP" all over it. It offers a caricature of democracy. My experience in the Labour Party was that political ideas and discussion were accepted as normal. In Respect the parameters for serious political discussion were very circumscribed in a manner favoured by the SWP. Why have so few of the ten of thousands of ex-Labour people joined or remained in it?

AN said...

Perhaps I have not explained myself well enough Liam, or perhaps rather I have not differentiated clearly enough between what i perosnnaly am arguing, and the similar but not identical position of Griffiths.

The LRC is put forward by the CP as a suggestion, and Martin Wick's open letter to John McDonnell suggests a smiliar thing.

However, whatever the mechanism, the key here is that starting from where we are now the most promising avenue open to us is to encourage the unions to flex their political muscles, and test their relationship with Labour.

I agree that for most activists (me included) the Labour party is thoroughly unappealling, but we need to find a way for the socialst left to encourage the unions in this political task - maybe the LRC will be a possible vehicle, maybe it won't.

More importnatly though is practical collaboration over concrete issues, between socialists of all persuasions.