Diversionary dead end
The Socialist Party’s decision to stand candidates in May is delusional, argues Paul Demarty
Every so often, the polite mutual silence of the two largest far-left groups in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales, is breached - usually in the context of some dispute.
So it has proved in the first quarter of 2017, on the issue of May’s local and mayoral elections. The SWP and SPEW have stood candidates under the common banner of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition for the last seven years. In January, the Tusc conference - against the objections of the SWP - resolved to stand, again, albeit only in wards where they faced pro-austerity, anti-Corbyn Labour opponents. For the SWP, this was reason enough to announce in March the suspension of its participation in Tusc, in England and Wales.
SPEW, of course, will press on. Tusc has so far registered 60-odd candidates for the elections, markedly fewer than last year, when close to 300 stood. After a reasonable showing in the Liverpool mayoral election in 2016, where he won 5.1% of the vote, SPEW die-hard Roger Bannister will run for the Liverpool city region mayoralty (a new mega-municipality of the type favoured by George Osborne).
Clive Heemskerk, SPEW’s polemical point-man, responded to the SWP’s decision with disappointment, but not surprise. He takes issue with the apparent inconsistency that the SWP continues to stand Tusc candidates in Scotland, on the basis that Scottish Labour “is headed up by the anti-Corbyn Kezia Dugdale [and] the rise of the Scottish National Party has raised the question of alternatives to Labour”.1 Heemskerk asks, not wholly unreasonably:
The political context in Scotland is clearly different - but qualitatively so? Labour in Wales, for example, is led by the anti-Corbyn Welsh first minster, Carwyn Jones, rightwing Blairite councillors dominate local government, and Plaid Cymru is able to pose as a radical alternative. Why does this not mean that Tusc should stand candidates in Wales?2
Comrade Heemskerk is correct to imply that the SWP’s reasoning does not stack up on this point; the difference is, first of all, one of scale (the SNP is vastly more powerful in Scotland than Plaid is in Wales) and, secondly, one of wholesale capitulation on the part of the SWP to Scottish nationalism. The latter problem does not occur to Clive, naturally, as SPEW capitulated much earlier on this point. He goes on, anyway:
The big majority of Labour’s 7,000 local councillors oppose Jeremy Corbyn and, as the Socialist Worker article [announcing the SWP suspension of Tusc participation] says, are “ruthlessly imposing Tory cuts”. How would giving these councillors a free run at the ballot box in England and Wales help “Corbyn-supporting Labour members” in their fight against them?
We note, first of all, that this gives the lie to the idea - promoted in SPEW’s successful motion to Tusc conference - that Tusc’s electoral interventions are targeted in any meaningful sense. After all, by Clive’s own admission, the “big majority” of Labour councillors meet SPEW’s criteria for a Tusc challenger. The Tusc electoral intervention this May is not surgical in its precision - merely smaller than previous ones. Why?
In any case, this argument - though superficially convincing - is, on slightly closer examination, absurd. Let us imagine that there was a highly successful leftwing challenge in the boroughs and cities where Tusc is able to stand anyone much - in Liverpool and around Merseyside, for example. A few safe Labour councils are suddenly thrown into the ‘no overall control’ column. Is comrade Heemskerk really saying that this would strengthen the Corbyn leadership’s position vis-à-vis the right?
On a rail
When people speak obvious nonsense, we cannot stop at its internal determinations, for there must always be some external inducement to contorted reasoning and ill-advised action.
The story of how SPEW came to be peddling these riddles bears examination, then. Its longer-term roots will be familiar to regular readers, in that SPEW was once the Militant Tendency, the most successful of the Trotskyist entryist groups in the Labour Party, but turned away from Labour work in the early 1990s after a sustained witch-hunt against them, in pursuit of greener pastures. This turn was overtheorised into the idea that the Labour Party had been transformed, by Neil Kinnock’s purges and then by Tony Blair’s exuberant rightism and dictatorial methods, into a plain old bourgeois party, no different in substance from the Tories or Liberal Democrats.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest put this perspective under severe strain. Observable since that time has been a real tension - the leadership plainly wants, on one level, to row back on its previous strategy and re-engage with Labour politics, but without conceding that the intervening 25 years of Militant-SPEW history were based on a theoretical error. The question of standing candidates against Labour is a particularly sharp one in this regard, for doing so makes a turn towards Labour incomparably more difficult.
By last autumn, it seemed that SPEW was prepared to take the necessary step. Dave Nellist, formerly one of Militant’s Labour MPs and these days the front man for Tusc, began making noises about suspending electoral activity for the time being. He said as much in a meeting at SPEW’s annual school, Socialism, in November. Many lay members object to any such move (after all, those who would support it have tended, for better or worse, to vote with their feet) - and so did Sean Hoyle, president of the RMT union, who was also speaking from the platform.
Sean Hoyle, in the SPEW universe, is not a nobody. The organisation’s strategy of pursuing the creation of a new party based on the trade unions has met with very little actual engagement from the unions themselves - hardly surprisingly, since most of them already have a party. The exception is the RMT, which broke with Labour in the Blair years and immediately began supporting candidates from other parties (as well as individual Labour MPs and so on), and is a key component of Tusc. Comrade Hoyle said that the last RMT conference had agreed to continue supporting candidates on an ad hoc basis, instead of committing to Labour, and the union leadership was not prepared to defy that decision. Fast forward a couple of months, and SPEW has come around to the same view. Just fancy that!
It looks, for all the world, that the say-so of the RMT leadership provided sufficient inducement for immediate retreat. Indeed, on the basis of the ‘new workers’ party’ strategy, that kind of veto is natural and proper. In statements passim ad infinitum, SPEW tops tell us that the unity of the left will not be achieved by “bolting the existing groups together”, but by movement among the mass contingents of the class, by which (the Labour Party being excluded from consideration) they mean the unions. Baby steps in this direction by the RMT thus achieve the possibility of great historic importance, just as the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP - in spite of its apparent modesty at the time - had such vast influence over the course of the 20th century.
Thus the counterintuitive result that SPEW - in its own view destined to be the vanguard party of the working class - is led around like a well-trained shar pei by a section of the trade union bureaucracy. The problem with this situation is, in fact, staring the comrades in the face. The RMT’s militancy is undeniable, and sticks out particularly in these days of (albeit uneasy) industrial peace. No partisan of the working class should begrudge it admiration on that point. Yet a union it remains, and thus preternaturally vulnerable to sectionalism.
This malady, in fact, governs the very electoral policy that forms the basis of the RMT’s veto. What was agreed at that union conference? To back candidates, regardless of party, that support the union’s industrial objectives politically: that is, a sectional policy (albeit one that seems itself to be devoid of usefulness in the current political situation). In Liverpool and the surrounding area, meanwhile, comrade Bannister seems to be running almost on a single-issue basis in support of the striking Merseyrail workers.
In SPEW’s open defence of its position, the other major strand of its strategy is far more in evidence: its energetic advocacy of resistance to austerity at the level of local government.
That is hardly surprising - the peak of the Militant’s influence came in the 1980s, when it had three MPs and took effective control of Liverpool council. The legacy of the Liverpool experiment is, at best, ambiguous, but it remains a touchstone for SPEW comrades to this day. A recent restatement of this principle comes, again, from the pen of comrade Heemskerk, criticising the decision of Corbyn, John McDonnell and John Trickett to write a letter to Labour councils urging them not to set illegal budgets.
Heemskerk’s take is not uninteresting, not least because - as SPEW comrades sometimes do - he goes into some detail on the practicalities of municipal defiance. Corbyn’s “letter misleadingly conflates the issue of not setting a budget at all - which would be open to immediate legal challenge - with the legal requirement that councillors have to set a ‘balanced budget’,” he complains:
But in fact a no-cuts budget could meet the legal requirement to be ‘balanced’.... by drawing on the councils’ reserves, using the borrowing powers that councils have, and ‘creative accountancy’ ... But they would only have bought time for the individual council, preventing cuts for a year or two. They could only ever be a first step in a national campaign to force the government to properly fund local public services.3
If such resistance is not forthcoming, then no quarter should be given: “any politician who votes for cuts cannot expect to have a free run at the ballot box ... There can be no compromise on cuts.”
Heemskerk’s tactical advice has at least the plausibility afforded to every fully elaborated plan of action. Does it stand up to deeper scrutiny? After all - no council has tried any such thing since Lambeth and Liverpool in the 1980s. The outcome of the Thatcher period was the decimation of local authority power, already eroded by the centralisation of social provision in the post-war years. By the 1970s, 60% of local authority funding came from central government, already a very substantial proportion; by the millennium, that had risen to 85%. Osborne’s and Cameron’s cuts inflicted the level of damage they did in part because of this total dependence on central government grants.
That dependence is wholly artificial. It was the logical outcome of a deliberate process of disenfranchising local government. Revenue-raising powers were scrapped, areas of responsibility hived off (one consequence of the forced academisation of schools is the destruction of local education authorities, for example). If councils step out of line, or otherwise fail the hardly politically neutral tests of good governance, central government has broad discretion to send in administrators.
We must, then, voice a certain scepticism as to Heemskerk’s ‘creative’ budget setting. It works on paper, but, of course, almost any budget can be subject to “immediate legal challenge” - even a time-wasting injunction with no real legal basis can be costly to fight. Take the borrowing powers Heemskerk refers to, awarded to councils under the Local Government Act 2003: these are used typically to fund large projects, where the expected revenues or cost savings can be plausibly expected to finance the debt. There are plenty of rules, and thus plenty of opportunities for an “immediate legal challenge”, however vexatious.
But say it does work, and you can defy cuts for one or two years. Comrade Heemskerk’s expectation is that a mass movement will emerge and mount an insurmountable collective challenge to Tory policy:
A combined campaign of Labour councils refusing to implement the cuts could defeat the government. If the total gross spending of the 100-plus Labour-controlled councils in Britain was counted as a ‘gross domestic product’ (GDP), they would be the 18th biggest country in the EU! How can it be credibly argued that they ‘have no power’ to resist the Tories?
Yet this is exactly what didn’t happen in the 1980s. None of the ‘loony left’ councils followed the example of Liverpool and Lambeth - not even Ken Livingstone’s infamous Greater London Council. Since then, local government (as noted) has been gutted like a kipper, and the political complexion of Labour councils has drifted to the right - and indeed these phenomena are mutually reinforcing, for who other than careerists and the corrupt can be bothered with the endless punishment diet of municipal government?
It would be one thing, in such a situation, to fight within the Labour Party for a coordinated programme of municipal defiance. It is quite another to demand that councils implement, on an individual basis, budgets that may lead to their immediate political expropriation without the reasonable expectation of coordination.
Heemskerk and his comrades present in particularly clear form a very common symptom on the left, which is the setting up of local authority cuts as an absolute fetish, a litmus test entirely devoid of context or mitigation. This is surely unsustainable in its limits (as an extreme example, civil war-era Russia was pretty big on austerity ... ), but in the immediate situation involves presenting a programme of municipal suicide as a shibboleth, to ‘prove’ that Labour councils are beyond the pale. The policy of Corbyn and McDonnell, that councils should set budgets and make the best of it, is the other side of the coin: for them, stepping outside the law is inadmissible tout court. Both are wrong - the one an empty posture, the other just another dreary compromise with the right.
There is, finally, an underlying commonality between this defect in SPEW’s analysis and its prostration before the whims of the RMT. For the demand that some locality or other set itself up as a bastion of resistance is also subject to the lures of sectionalism - do not shut our hospitals, do not close our libraries. The most sensational example is Militant’s Liverpool ‘experiment’, which was paid off by Thatcher when she was busy with the small matter of the miners’ 1984-85 Great Strike, and then crushed at her leisure. Full marks for tactical nous to the government; not a great advert for isolated acts of leftwing fiscal irresponsibility.
For all these reasons, the SWP is right to radically wind down its participation in Tusc, and SPEW was wrong to (apparently) retreat from its earlier intention to do the same. For Tusc offers only support for trade union struggles, and only inveterate localism and calls for defiance, and not a national political alternative that could make these things more than symbols and gestures.
In truth, Tusc was a hopeless project all along - an attempt to build up an alternative Labour Party in competition with the existing one, on the false premise that a combination of internal reforms had decisively resolved the class contradiction in the original version in favour of the bourgeoisie. For the last two years, that perspective has been proven comprehensively false - there is, at the very least, still a battle to be had, if people can be found to fight it.
For the first five years of Tusc’s existence, it faced the dying Labour government of Gordon Brown and then the lukewarm centrist opposition of Ed Miliband, with occasional Blairite sniping in the wings. In such circumstances, we in the CPGB sometimes judged it politic to call for votes for Tusc candidates over rightwing Labour candidates, in spite of the project’s hopelessness, in order precisely to highlight the division within Labour between its bourgeois and working class poles.
In the current political conjuncture, there are many places where that distinction can be drawn, and its related contradictions sharpened - wards and branches, CLPs, conference ... That is where the battle is - or ought to be, and would be, if the Labour left had a little more backbone. (We note, with some frustration, that SPEW often makes correct and pertinent demands on the Labour Party for democratic changes, the opening up of affiliations, reselection, etc - the problem is that SPEW seems to expect other people to do it all for them.) The battle, moreover, is not about ‘cuts’, as everything seems to be for SPEW, but about power. Corbyn will never be able to compromise enough for the right - his leadership in itself is an insult to their banker and press baron friends.
In this situation, every election is treated as a referendum on Corbyn’s leadership and, by extension, a referendum on the natural right of Labour’s bourgeois wing to govern the party in perpetuity. The only reasonable course of action for communists in such conditions is to vote Labour. We do not suspend, for a moment, our criticisms of Corbyn, his endless compromises, the way in which he and his cronies conspired to strangle their own Momentum organisation at birth, and so on. We vote for Labour because it is the duty of the British Marxist left to exploit the opportunities that even now remain open, to revolutionise the Labour left and then the party.
The overwhelming rightwing coloration of Labour councillors presents its own problem, and comrade Heemskerk is justified in returning to it constantly. We recommend that comrades, where possible, expend their campaigning energy on leftwing candidates, supportive of the leadership against its rightwing foes (obviously readers will make their own judgements on this point). And lastly, we invite the comrades in SPEW to join battle where it is actually raging, not where they would like to fight.
1. Socialist Worker March 7.
2. The Socialist March 15.