Saturday 23 January 2016

Sectarianism, TUSC, and Jeremy Corbyn

I read with interest that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition have decided to stand aside at a February council by-election in the Lower Stoke ward of Coventry. According to the Cov Telegraph, TUSC are seeking talks with Jeremy Corbyn about a merger between TUSC and Labour, and an alliance to fight the next round of local government cuts the Tories are due to impose on councils. Speaking for TUSC, Dave Nellist (who else?) said "Unfortunately TUSC hasn’t yet had the opportunity to sit down with Jeremy to discuss what he can do to get Labour councillors, in Coventry and elsewhere, to refuse to implement Tory cuts ... So, on this occasion, the Socialist Party has agreed not to stand a candidate, so that there is no artificial obstacle to having that discussion with Jeremy and his supporters ..." Dave goes on to say that TUSC are happy to have conversations with Jeremy supporters "serious about fighting the cuts." But if nothing is forthcoming, "any politician who votes for cuts cannot expect to have a free run at the ballot box, no matter what party label they wear."

You've got to admire the chutzpah. For one, TUSC is but a minnow set against the Greens, let alone Labour - and that was before the Corbyn surge had taken place. We're talking no more than 2,000 people here on paper as against Labour's 380,000-odd. Second, TUSC as such doesn't exist. It's a banner the Socialist Party and a smattering of SWP candidates and independent lefts choose to use at election time, and apart from a conference here and there and placards on demonstrations, it has no independent dynamic of its own. The fact Dave himself interchangeably uses SP and TUSC to refer to the same entity suggests this assessment is shared by the (nominal) leader of this still-born project. And thirdly, their election results are almost universally embarrassing. Of the 257 local council by-elections in 2015, it could only muster challenges in 15 seats and accumulate a grand total of 878 votes between them. I would say TUSC is in Elvis Bus Pass Party territory, if it wasn't for the fact he routinely beats them at the polls.

Okay, let's cut the crap. Rolf Harris has a greater chance of resurrecting his national treasure status than the SP "merging" with the Labour Party. You, me, even the old bloke from the John Lewis Christmas campaign knows this. And, yes, that wouldn't have slipped the notice of Dave and the SP executive committee either. What is going on? Is this a genuine offer to unite against the cuts, or is there more afoot?

Whatever one thinks of the SP, they are committed socialists. Their strategy might be less that optimal and counter-productive to the interests of the labour movement on occasion, but it is sincerely held. That, of course, doesn't rule out the use of cynical tactics to advance one's agenda. Anyone and everyone active in politics will have done so at some point, be it a little white fib on the doorstep, the use of petitions that were never meant to get delivered, or shafting someone for the greater good. I'm afraid to say this alliance-talk is also a transparently cynical move.

Since 1992, coincidentally coinciding with the abandonment of Labour Party entryism by Militant, the SP have held that it is a "capitalist party" and the chief political objective of the labour movement is to set up a new workers' party that can represent the interests of our class. This view is based on an understanding of Labour bequeathed to the communist movement by jolly old Lenners' speech to the 2nd Congress of the 3rd International. Though not a phrase of Lenin's, 'bourgeois workers party' is a formulation routinely used in far left circles. It describes how Labour is a contradictory fusion of a pro-capitalist leadership and a mass of proletarians whose interests ultimately lie in an antagonistic direction. While right at a superficial level, it's a touch more complex than that. As far as the SP were concerned, entering Labour and recruiting to their undercover revolutionary outfit was justified because that's where the workers were. After 1992, those workers were abandoning the party and so reasoned that pickings would be juicier on the outside. But in so doing, they argued that Labour had become a straight party of capital no different in qualitative terms to the Tories and LibDems. The rise of Blair and the diminution of member-led (in reality, constituency-led) democracy, and subsequent over-friendliness to business confirmed their position. Of course, an actual analysis of what was going on in the Labour Party would have located Blair's hegemony in the weakness of the labour movement as a whole, which thanks to its formal/bureaucratic and multiple, substantive informal links and interdependencies with the party, saw this weakness reflected in the party's composition and policy orientation. Unfortunately for the SP and its theoreticians, analysis made way for exercises in Marxist box ticking. Because Labour under Blair, Brown, and Ed Miliband didn't conform to their ideal type of what a workers' party should look like, not only did it justify their own independent existence but also provided their own derisory election results.

Fast forward to summer 2015 and Jezmania is sweeping politics. The media are fixated with the prospect of a Labour leadership being taken, for the first time since the 1930s, by someone decidedly on the left. An exciting time for some, a depressing one for others. Plenty of people who analyse politics to inform activity were confused. Some of us were even honest about it. The SP, however, reacted to a complete collapse of its perspectives by maintaining they were right all along. What Jeremy Corbyn and the movement he inspired are doing are creating a new workers' party. Certainly, Labour is very much a new party thanks to the tidal wave of members, yet the SP are at a loss to explain why if the Labour Party was over for the purpose of socialist politics why this "founding" was taking place ... inside the Labour Party. Rather than address the yawning deficit in their analysis (and understanding of the Marxist method for that matter), they have retreated into a theoretical bunker.

Since Jeremy's election as leader, whole sections of the far left have collapsed into the Labour Party. Some of it has been organised, other have just seen a drift. Left Unity, for instance, has practically disintegrated as members have simply upped sticks and followed the radicalised tens of thousands into the party. Lots of comrades caught up in last year's Green Surge have decamped, and not a few "independent" TUSC'ers have drawn the same conclusion. It is increasingly tenuous to maintain a revolutionary socialist outfit independently when the ideal audience are now Labour Party members. How then to stop the SP from getting eroded by the currents streaming towards Labour? By setting up a narrative to insulate its supporters from the allure of mass radical politics.

It goes something like this. Jeremy's election is a welcome step forward for the working class in Britain. Yet he now has to work to deselect "Blairite MPs" (i.e. anyone not on the far left). He has to restore the sovereign decision-making powers of conference. He must work to restore Clause IV, committing Labour once again to public ownership. And he has to be consistent with his anti-austerity rhetoric and order Labour councils to refuse to pass on Tory cuts, thereby forcing a confrontation with the government. As we know, most Labour MPs are facing compulsory reselection anyway thanks to the coming boundary gerrymander. Conference and NEC changes are being muted. Clause IV, if changed, is more likely to reflect radical cooperative principles than the SP's nostalgia for 70s Keynesianism, and there is no prospect whatsoever of local authorities revisiting the ill-fated experience of the 1983-7 Liverpool City Council. Yet what this allows the SP to do is draw a line between Labour and themselves, and tell their members that there remains a clear red line between us and them, between ourselves as tough class fighters and them as shilly-shallying reformists and Blairites.

It is in this context that Dave's proposal for an alliance should be received. It has no prospect of getting taken up, but the refusal of Labour to even acknowledge the hand of the SP's hardened anti-austerity crew plays well at the branch meetings and regional conferences. The proposed joining of forces is all about shoring up the SP, of remaining the keepers of spotless anti-cuts banner matters more than anything else. I believe it was Marx who said that the very definition of a sectarian organisation is one that puts its own interests before that of its class. By placing its shibboleths out there to inoculate members against contamination by what's happening in the Labour Party, the SP, for once, is conforming to one of Marx's analyses.


Igor Belanov said...

I'm not sure that you could actually be more patronising.

You also seem to forget that Nellist was regarded as one of the finest MPs in the Commons even by the capitalist media, and it was the Labour Party that chucked him out. Whatever the merits of Militant's changing political line, they achieved quite a lot during the 'entryist' period, particularly in Liverpool and in the anti-Poll Tax campaign, where they were much more instrumental than the wider Labour Party to its eventual replacement.

Plus, those within the Labour Party can be every bit as sectarian as those without, as you really should know.

Phil said...

I can be plenty more patronising.

Of course, if Militant's record was of direct relevance to this discussion it would have duly been visited. But it isn't so it wasn't. Ditto Labour Party sectarianism.

Igor Belanov said...


What was this in the post for then?

"there is no prospect whatsoever of local authorities revisiting the ill-fated experience of the 1983-7 Liverpool City Council."

Whatever the ultimate political consequences, Liverpool was 'ill-fated' enough to get a few thousand council houses, several sports centres, parks and schools, and the creation of jobs to accompany them, that other tamer councils did not. Plus, Militant-influenced Liverpool was one of the areas that saw a significant increase in the Labour vote at the time. But I'm sure none is this is relevant to anything.

Anonymous said...

tusc have only two unique selling points to differ them from the centre left labour and the greens, one there belief in refusing to pass legal budgets ie admistering the cuts and two, there anti-eu agenda.
so i would say by not standing in this election they are undermining there own unique selling point. after all even labour left councilors believe that refusing to pass a budget would be a futile gesture.
if tusc dont have the confidence to push this position and win support for it and (the only way labour might support this position is if it was losing votes to a part that advocated it) then they dont deserve to exist.

Phil said...

And, of course as well you know, those "created jobs" were shed in short order and cuts had to be made to balance the books after the Militant period. You're not going to convince people in the long-term to vote for socialist politics if socialist administrations try and run things on the never never.

But again, this has nothing to do with the post to hand. The fact is the SP are putting forward a set of cynical tests that Labour is never going to meet, thereby justifying its continued independence. It has that right, of course, but that doesn't mean someone can't point out what they're up to.

Anonymous said...

A recent article by the AWL about the SP covers similar ground. The most interesting thing was the little anecdote below which may indicate a change. Perhaps we'll see an the SP officially outside and a sympathetic Tendency within Labour as we see with "Weekly Worker" and "Labour Party Marxists".

"However, there are indications that the SP is quietly preparing the ground for a return to Labour. We know that at least some SP members have taken out membership cards. There is muffled talk of “investigatory work”. "

John R

Phil said...

I know of at least one "ex-SP member" who has done just that.