Sunday, 3 February 2008

Left Unity and the Labour Party

This post was going to be a straight review of the latest edition of Labour Briefing. You can find a brief overview of its contents here, and at 15 quid a subscription it is well worth the money.

What I want to look at are three articles discussing the problems of working class political representation. Mark Serwotka of the PCS looks at the extent to which trade unions can continue to support Labour and offers a way forward for the left. Marshajane Thompson and Jon Rogers argue the peculiarities of being members of the party mean such a strategy has to be carefully followed so the Labour left does not undermine itself. Finally Stephen Beckett looks at the the opportunities opening up for the left after the abolition of conference as the nominal decision-making body in favour of the National Policy Forum.

Mark begins by outlining how New Labour's love affair with neo-liberalism demands the industrial and political unity of the left. Obviously we are as far from this as we were 20 years ago, except our influence and weight in British society is at a far lower ebb. Firstly, to achieve real and lasting unity the left has to be bold. All socialists in the labour movement, regardless of affiliation, need to tackle the hidebound conservatism of the bureaucrats who still believe the present government is qualitatively superior to any incoming Tory administration. For too long this has been used to blackmail trade unionists into thinking the Tories would be far worse, regardless of the vicious anti-working class policies pursued by Blair and Brown. Second, the unions cannot be bypassed. They have a crucial role to play in overcoming the crisis of political representation, be this by standing/sponsoring candidates and/or pressurising them to adopt pro-worker policies. Finally, the left as a whole needs to start working together without preconditions. For activists and organisations outside of Labour they need to realise there are principled leftists within the party still worthy of support. For the Labour left, they need to deal with the situation at electoral time where they're expected to campaign for the very Blairite/Brownite neo-liberals we have to organise against; particularly when they face left challenges from outside the party. As Mark puts it, "our loyalty must be to our class, not to our party card".

MarshaJane and Jon's reply looks at the difficulty of such a strategy from the point of view of the Labour left. The left outside may be able to support whoever it wishes, this is not an option for activists inside - "A gleeful Labour leadership would purge those socialist MPs who support PCS (and other unions) in a minute if they called for a vote for George Galloway or Bob Wareing". Instead, the Labour left should concentrate on supporting and campaigning for Labour's remaining socialist representatives, seek to extend the left's influence, and avoid destructive rows in public with the lefts outside of the party.

On the question of challenging neo-liberalism and advancing socialism inside Labour, is this no longer possible? Did not the abolition of conference as a forum for policy making sound its death knell as a vehicle for working class politics? Not so, argues Stephen. Though the closure of conference was a setback the NPF does afford some opportunities. All units of the party can submit proposals all year round, as opposed to the annual ritual that characterised conference. While the NPF could ignore these proposers have direct access to regional NPF members. This grants "the opportunity to lobby and demand support for our submissions, and introduce our representatives to the notion of accountability in practice". So far, Labour CND and Labour Against the War have used the new structures to circulate model submissions, and the Labour Representation Committee are going through the process of drawing up proposals as well.

Accepting these arguments, what does it mean for those of us outside the party? I would make four suggestions. 1) The game isn't over for the Labour left, despite many (including myself) arguing this in the past. As long as the avenues exist to expand the influence of socialist politics and give the leadership serious headaches they should be pursued. 2) The interminable debate over inside vs outside is not going to be resolved until the new NPF structures have been thoroughly tested. 3) The left in Labour has social weight many degrees greater than the combined left outside. But generally this weight is dependent upon residual Labour loyalty among working class voters rather than positive identification. It would be ultra left madness to abandon these positions in the absence of a serious concrete alternative, and fruitless to make demands of this character on our comrades in the party. For them it would be like a leap into the dark. 4) Standing candidates against Labour lefts is foolish and irresponsible. Instead where we can, we should be critically supporting them at election time, especially when they face a serious challenge from the reactionary right.

A de facto pact between the two wings of the left cannot be all one way. While it is too much to expect Labour comrades to actively support the likes of Galloway or Dave Nellist, given the reasons outlined by MarshaJane and Jon. Nevertheless comrades should avoid campaigning against them and try to use whatever influence they can to not make such contests a priority for the party.

If both wings of the left could come to such an arrangement it is just possible we might be able to get socialism back on the map of British politics. And leave Life of Brian firmly in our past.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

While the Unions do nothing at all against workfare I really wonder whats the use of being a union member

Mark P said...

AVPS said: "Accepting these arguments..."

Why on earth would you accept these arguments? For that matter why would you accept the claims of the rump Labour left about their own significance? I'm utterly astonished by this post and by your seeming willingness to accept the delusions of the small number of fools still bashing their heads off this brick wall at face value.

The key point to remember is that for all intents and purposes there is no Labour Left left.

Yes, there are still a few bewildered Campaign Group MPs, although even some of them aren't all that "left" themselves. But as they retire or die off they are by and large replaced with more Blair/Brown drones. More importantly, the Labour left can mobilise practically nobody. The McDonnell campaign was their last hurrah. They pulled together every last left activist in the party and in the end that turned out to be a few hundred people, including the various disappointed and dismal ex-revolutionaries they attracted.

The youth organisation of the Labour left, the SYN, launched at the height of the McDonnell campaign has an activist base smaller than that of the youth fronts of the runts of the Trotskyist litter like Workers Power or the AWL.

The last institutions of the Labour left, the Campaign Group and the LRC get less than 300 people to their open annual events! These are the cold hard facts. There is nothing there. The game IS over for the Labour left and it's been over for quite a while.

Anonymous said...

"3) The left in Labour has social weight many degrees greater than the combined left outside. But generally this weight is dependent upon residual Labour loyalty among working class voters rather than positive identification. It would be ultra left madness to abandon these positions in the absence of a serious concrete alternative, and fruitless to make demands of this character on our comrades in the party. For them it would be like a leap into the dark."

only well known old time lefts have any weight. true this is greater than the far left.

they don't use their weight effectively to build a mass movement against new labour policies. if they did they would be expelled.

they shouldn't "abandon their positions" they should use them effectively, including to lay the basis for a new party of the left. the concrete alternative is that they, the leading lefts in the labour party, actively build an alternative party. they shouldn't wait for the unions or the far left to do anything or it will never happen.


best wishes,



ks

Phil BC said...

Mark, I disagree, there is still a Labour left left. It may lack cohesion and not be as strong as it once was, but it does exist and it still has influence. I may not be the biggest fan of our local leftish Labour MPs (I'm thinking here primarily of Mark Fisher and Joanne Whalley) but they are in a position where they can get their views communicated to a quarter of a million Stokies and give weight to any local campaign they support. This is not imagined, this is real influence. The problem with them is, because of their political weaknesses, they do not use their influence for progressive ends enough.

It doesn't matter whether we accept these arguments or not, because the Labour left does. What we have to do is come up with a way of establishing comradely relations between the left inside and the left outside. I think this is worthwhile because it makes any future political unity that little bit easier as well as cohering our opposition against the attacks to come. That's the bottom line as far as I'm concerned.

KS, I just cannot see the Labour left decamping without a serious alternative already there, waiting in the wings. Time and again since the foundation of the SLP the left has shown a chronic inability to build lasting and meaningful unity. Whether Respect Renewal will remains to be seen. I would hope so, but the track record hasn't been great. So the impetus for a new workers' party is likely to come from the unions, if anywhere, or from an upsurge in the class struggle. In the absence of them the Labour left will stay where they are. We might wish they didn't, but it still remains the case that a leftwinger is far more likely to get elected as a Labour candidate than running under any other label. So, in the meantime, we should cooperate as much as possible.

realist said...

How about 'the small number of fools banging their heads off the brick wall' of the CNWP? Are they also deluded?

complexsystemofpipes said...

"It doesn't matter whether we accept these arguments or not, because the Labour left does. What we have to do is come up with a way of establishing comradely relations between the left inside and the left outside... I just cannot see the Labour left decamping without a serious alternative already there, waiting in the wings."

Indeed. Some comrades and I have talked about the idea of a "Left List" of candidates from Respect, Labour Campaign Group, progressive independents, the big far Left groups, maybe Plaid and Greens, who would sign up to a certain programme, and in return all the organisations involved would campaign for the whole list. Of course, drawing up a list and a programme to suit everyone would be a bit of a nightmare, but if it could be done...

Of course the Labour left need to be bold to make up for lost time, but the risk of their deselection isn't as much as all that. It didn't work for Galloway, but I think Bob Wareing is planning to "do a Ken", ie to defeat the Labour candidate and then be welcomed back to the fold. Likewise, if they haven't sacked Corbyn, McDonnell etc yet (and if Tony Benn can seriously contemplate a comeback) it's for a good reason! The Labour Left makes for far more effective campaigning than New Labour, and New Labour know it.

Anonymous said...

agree with most of your reply phil.

we should still raise the need for a new party with the labour lefts though and encourage them to play an active role though. they wont agree, but we can agree to disagree, it still raises the issue with left labour onlookers and activists.

accidents of history often push unlikely figures into a leading role, so maybe expulsions or de-selections (or further rule changes or wars!) will force some labour mps into this role.

yes a sucessful left party would encourage the labour left to defect! unfortunately as we know this hasn't happened and looks unlikely in the near future.

the unions and the labour left are both very hesitant and lacking clear political vision, they are unlikely to do anything serious in these conditions, until pushed from below if/when mass struggle breaks out.

advancing a clear perspective of a new mass workers' party is necessary now though so as to prepare for future mass struggles where this could get a real echo and take on form.


best wishes,




ks

Mark P said...

Phil:

Your response doesn't really clarify much. My point wasn't about whether or not the Labour left believe that it's necessary to work in the Labour Party, my point was that there isn't a significant Labour left to establish comradely relations with.

As I said, and nobody has disputed this, the Labour left - in the form of its last remaining institutions like the LRC, the Campaign Group and the SYN - nowadays has about the same ability to mobilise activists as some of the mid tier far left groups. Yes, they still have a small number of MPs, but these are almost the definition of generals with no army.

In so far as socialists do actually encounter the Labour left as any kind of force it is within the unions and nowhere else. Now the unions are arguably the single most important area of work for socialists so it could be argued that in this field at least we will find ourselves working with Labour lefts. And that's true on many industrial issues and we should work with them where we can. However, as you yourself say, the unions have to be central to any push for a new workers party and on that key issue the Labour left are our bitterest opponents. Their role is to provide a "left" cover for New Labour supporting bureaucrats.

It's all very well to talk about rebuilding the left. But we have to look to new forces for that, combined with those existing forces (like the unions) which still have some vitality. The Labour left is a twitching corpse. Orienting towards it in any way would be a serious mistake.

ian said...

'It's all very well to talk about rebuilding the left. But we have to look to new forces for that, combined with those existing forces (like the unions) which still have some vitality. The Labour left is a twitching corpse. Orienting towards it in any way would be a serious mistake.'

A think that statement is a little too secterian for me.
we have to work together. Our forces are too small to be choosey.

We all have a lot of common ground to work on.

Otherwise that was a really good blog from Phil. Very thought provoking and one that leads me to believe that I can (and do) work with the SP.

Ian

Phil BC said...

I still think you're mistaken on the significance of the Labour left, Mark. For example, suppose the Labour Representation Committee decamped from the Labour party, we would quite rightly hail it as a very significant development and recognise it being much more important than earlier splits like the SLP, ILN, Galloway, etc. This is because its trade union backing, number of elected reps etc. that counts, not the number of activists it can get to conferences. If that was the criterion we'd be permanently charging after the SWP because they can get a few thousand at their Marxism events.

The second point I want to make is the influence of the Labour left varies a great deal geographically. Here in Stoke there is the odd leftish councillor, and that's it. In my experience they are mostly the real dregs of the labour movement, people who offer our class nothing. But go up the road to Keele Uni - Labour students here is a thriving and active group, running from leftish Brownites to self-described Marxists. Socialist students comrades have had no problems working with them, in fact I can think of at least one that is a member of Labour students as well. Furthermore they have a similar strategy to Stoke SP of rebuilding the local labour movement. In short they cannot be ignored.

This post was not about orienting to the Labour left. But it is concerned with having a serious attitude toward comrades who are in the Labour left. As Ian says, "our forces are too small to be choosey".

Last, it's good to see Peter Taaffe's started an open debate about political representation in The Socialist. I won't cut and paste it into this comment box, but it can be viewed here (Just scroll down Mark Serwotka's contribution, which was also featured in Labour Briefing).

kellyred said...

In Southampton I wrote an article warning of the outcomes for selling of public services to Capita.
The only response was from our one leftist local Labout Cllr - he called me an armchair socialist who stands once a year to clear his conscience. We have a long way to go down here to galvanise the Outer Left