Left should not stand on sidelines
Help defeat the Blairite right by winning all unions to affiliate to Labour, urges Peter Manson
‘Bystander’ by Jane Lee
In the run-up to the general election the left was just about unanimous in its support for Labour and, in particular, the Jeremy Corbyn leadership. But what has been lacking is any consistent strategy in relation to Labour - what is the party’s future and how can it be transformed into a coherent working class force?
Of all the left groups the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has been the most uncritical in its backing for Labour - indeed the Star has been reading increasingly like an official Labour paper recently, with every policy and statement reported approvingly, and criticism of the Labour right being virtually abandoned in the run-up to June 8.
The best example of this came with the June 1 edition of the Star - or June 1-8, as it is dated. This general election special is being distributed free and, according to the Star itself, is available in “hundreds of supermarkets” across the country. At first sight it has the appearance of a regular edition, even down to the letters column and sports page. But everything in it is dedicated to bigging up Labour - the single sports article informs us that under a Corbyn government funding for sports would be significantly increased, for example.
However, I am not so sure that Corbyn will be very pleased by the reprint, in this edition, of his Morning Star column from October 21 2008, in which he advocated a socialist transformation and stated: “We have to ... conquer the global hunger and poverty brought about by the madness of free-market global capitalism.” Not something that the Blairite right - with which Corbyn and John McDonnell are trying to campaign unitedly - would approve of.
What he wrote a decade ago stands in sharp contrast to today’s vacuous generalities, as demonstrated by the Star’s“Q&A with Jeremy Corbyn”, published in the same issue. How about this?
Question: You’re a socialist - that hasn’t been in fashion for a long time. What ... motivated you to keep going for all the decades when your own party had turned its back on these ideas?
Answer: I have always stood up for what I believe in - the principles of equality, peace and social justice. This is what keeps me going and is exactly what I’ll do as prime minister.
How about Socialist Worker? We are told in the June 6 edition that “Jeremy Corbyn has promised to break with Theresa May’s policies of austerity, racism and war” and that “This radical, socialist message has put a firm dividing line between the main parties …”
I’m not sure that expressing a belief in “the principles of equality, peace and social justice” can be described as a “radical, socialist message”. As a Labour voter tells Socialist Worker, “In years gone by there wasn’t a lot of difference between Labour and the Tories. But Jeremy Corbyn talks about fairness and justice.”
The same article concludes by declaring: “We have to vote for Labour in England and Wales” (my emphasis). Is the Socialist Workers Party advocating a vote for the Scottish National Party north of the border then? That would be consistent with its continued highlighting of the demand for Scottish independence - although, of course, the SNP itself played that down in the run-up to the election.
At least, unlike the Star, Socialist Worker comments on Labour’s ongoing internal battle. In an article headed “The Labour right remains a millstone around Corbyn’s neck”, editor Charlie Kimber writes: “Pressure from Labour’s right has seen Corbyn make concessions over Trident nuclear weapons and the rights of migrant workers.” But simultaneously the Labour leader is coming out with that “radical, socialist message”, it seems.
What about the Socialist Party in England and Wales? According to The Socialist, SPEW has been “an active participant in the campaign to elect a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government, elected on his manifesto that gives a real choice to voters for the first time - from one of the main parties - in decades” (May 31). However, unlike the SWP, SPEW notes that the Labour manifesto “does not offer the full socialist programme necessary to transform society. It is a mistake that these policies … haven’t been made official party policy”.
The same article refers to the TUC call for a meeting of public-sector unions on June 14 and the comment from Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, “for that to be a ‘council of war’ in the event of a Tory victory”. The Socialist comments:
But the meeting should also be utilised in the case of a Labour victory. For example, if there is any attempt to derail a Corbyn government, whether from inside or outside Labour, the meeting has to call immediate action to ensure the implementation of the policies that challenge the pro-market consensus of the last 38 years ...
SPEW urges that:
the battle within Labour between the ‘two parties’ must be brought to its conclusion. To carry that out effectively, Jeremy must open up Labour to all socialist fighters, such as the Socialist Party, to help remove the Blairite, pro-capitalist agents from the party.
This is all well and good. But how, in the meantime, can groups like SPEW further the working class cause in Labour’s internal battle? What about the role of the trade unions mentioned above, for example - not least PCS itself? SPEW has consistently opposed its affiliation, along with that of other unions, to the Labour Party. True, for the quarter-century before Corbyn’s election as leader, SPEW (and its forerunner, Militant Labour) had declared that Labour could no longer be described as a working class party - it was a “bourgeois party” pure and simple.
Obviously SPEW has now abandoned that position in practice, even if it is yet to publish any self-criticism of the old line. Now it believes that Labour can indeed be transformed from its current status as “two parties” (surely a code for its continued reality as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’) into a vehicle for the working class. But how in practice do we aid that transformation?
Groups like SPEW are, of course, denied the right to affiliate, but that does not apply to the unions. And PCS - along with the National Union of Teachers and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, to name two other major unions - could throw their weight on the side of our class within Labour if they were prepared to do so. So why did SPEW (or the SWP, for that matter) not rally behind comrade Serwotka and fight to win members for Labour affiliation at last month’s PCS conference?
Writing in last week’s Weekly Worker, Dave Vincent (who is not a member of any left group) explained why he was for a Labour vote on June 8 but against PCS affiliation:
I made the point that if Labour loses on June 8 we would not get another leader like Jeremy for a generation, nor would we get a manifesto like the current one for a long time. A PCS recommendation for a Labour vote would really be a significant boost to Jeremy - everyone knows that Labour-affiliated unions will recommend any Labour leader/policies to their members, but PCS, which is not affiliated, was only doing so whilst Jeremy is leader and on his manifesto (Letters, June 1).
But it does not seem to occur to comrade Vincent that PCS (not to mention the NUT and RMT) could do something more than watch from the sidelines. He writes: “there is no point talking of affiliation until we see the state of the Labour Party after the general election”. Don’t you think that militant, fighting unions could help play an active role in determining Labour’s “state”, Dave?
By the way, comrade Vincent uses the occasion of the PCS conference to push his particular, British sectionalist line on immigration and to rail against open borders. He writes, in relation to a conference motion advocating “the free movement of workers”:
I argued that freedom of movement of workers is the means by which bosses import cheap labour to undermine trade unions and the rate for the job. Having a limitless pool of cheap labour as competition is the enemy, not ally, of organised workers. I mentioned I was with Bob Crow and Arthur Scargill on this and it was not the case that all socialists support free movement.
Well, comrades Crow and Scargill were “socialists” of a particular type: they were national socialists, who in practice advocated ‘socialism in one country’: we can establish it here in Britain alone. That is very much in line with the sectionalist notion that our job is to defend the conditions of workers in Britain, while those elsewhere can go hang.
Comrade Vincent is right in “opposing the persistent attempts to redefine racism” - mainly by the SWP - to include anyone like him who wants to curb immigration. Of course he is not a racist. However, he is a sectionalist - sectionalism being a largely spontaneous failing amongst trade unionists, who believe that their role is to defend and advance the pay and conditions of a particular section of workers. Usually that section will be those in a given trade or workplace, but in comrade Vincent’s case it applies to those who happen to be in Britain, as opposed to those outside.
This leads him to deny workers the basic right to live and work wherever we choose - when it comes to different countries, at any rate. Would he, for example, deny the right of workers in a poverty-stricken area of Britain to migrate to a more prosperous area? After all, many of them might be so desperate for work that they would be prepared to “undermine trade unions and the rate for the job” in their new locality.
It is self-evident that we are opposed to such scabbing. But, as comrade Vincent himself would surely agree, the answer is not to deny the right of workers to move to a different town or city, but to fight for workers’ rights and defend their jobs, wages and conditions everywhere by winning them to join the common struggle within a trade union.
The same principle applies internationally. The world belongs to all its peoples and our long-term aim as communists is to abolish all borders and achieve universal emancipation within a single global entity.