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.