End of the Tory road

Whatever the outcome of the Tory election contest, Blair’s New Labour looks set for government. How should the revolutionary left prepare?

JOHN MAJOR’S decision to pre-empt a possible leadership challenge in November is not an act of courage. It is a pathetic gamble by a desperate man which cannot pay off. Clearly the idea is to reassert his long lost authority. “Put up or shut up” sounds bold and firm. But with the Tory Party deeply divided it may just be an elaborate way of leaving the political stage with honour intact.

July 4 will be no presidential referendum ending with some predetermined result. There will be no walkover. Those opposing Major are not merely the tiny clique of former whipless Europhobes like Tony Marlow and Teresa Gorman. The right wing has a heavyweight champion in the form of John Redwood - ‘ward nine’ has already been marginalised. There is, of course, an overarching body of malcontents. Among all sections of the Tory Party dissatisfaction with Major is palpable. Endless by-election defeats and a 20% poll rating shatter nerves and breed intrigue. Moreover from within the cabinet other ambitions crave fulfilment. As a result Major is unlikely to receive a ‘thumping’ mandate. He might score an arithmetical victory. But that will leave him humiliated and vulnerable to resignation calls. Surely a second round will finish him.

How things unfold is therefore uncertain and made all the more so, given the interweaving of party interest and personal calculation. One uncertainty compounds another. Take the Michaels - Heseltine and Portillo. Despite protestations of loyalty they are feverishly manoeuvring behind the scenes. In the secrecy of the ballot booth their supporters could well abstain or vote for Redwood in sufficient numbers to trigger a second round, which would allow cabinet ministers into the running. Major’s backers may insist he will hang on to the bitter end. However the real content of a second round would be a battle between the Tory left and right represented by Heseltine and Portillo (who at 42 appears at the moment content to bide his time).

The votes of the 329 Tory MPs might be impossible to predict. Those of the 40 million electorate at the next general election is another matter entirely. Even if a compromise candidate emerged - Gillian Sheppard has been widely touted - the Tory Party would be seen as hopelessly divided and guilty for the failures of the system. Whoever leads it, the Tory government might drag on for another year or two, but the end is in sight. The question is not so much whether the Tories will lose the next general election. Rather it is by how much. A Canadian-type wipeout, which reduces them to a mere rump, is far from inconceivable.

It is essential for the revolutionary left to correctly assess this moment. Looked at one way, nothing important is happening. For all the media attention, the Tory leadership contest will be conducted over lunches at Claridge’s and Pimm’s on the terraces of Westminster. The masses are playing the purely passive role of TV audiences and atomised potential voters.

As the party in office, it is natural for the Tories to be unpopular. Equally it is natural for Labour to be popular. That is how the two party capitalist system of politics is supposed to work. The 1980s were unusual in that Labour’s splits and consequent return to its 1920s and 30s role of a party of crisis allowed one Tory victory after another and the phenomenon of Thatcherism. Blair will reap, and has added to, the success Kinnock and Smith had in restoring Labour as the alternative party of government.

Having for years dully limited itself to the politics of ‘Tories, out, out, out’, the pro-Labour left looks as if it will get what it always wanted, a Labour government. However - and this is what is important - a Labour government will be saddled with the problem of managing a British capitalism whose relative decline has gone on unabated. There has been no turnaround. No Thatcherite economic miracle. Germany, the USA and Japan continue to leave Britain behind. Italy, Spain, Korea and Taiwan continue to catch up. More to the point, British capitalism can only compete by continuously upping the rate at which the workers are exploited. In other words there will be no restoration of the post-World War II social democratic consensus.

Whether they like it or not, Blair and his ministers will be forced to attack our rights and conditions. That is why he and his cronies in the shadow cabinet make no pledges to spend beyond what capitalism considers it can afford. And that in turn explains why Blair spoke of Margaret Thatcher’s “admirable qualities” in Murdoch’s Sunday Times, courts big business, promises to retain the anti-union laws and champions a market system which for millions means unemployment, pauperisation, speed-ups and mortgage debt.

That world capitalism stands on the threshold of a new, unparalleled general crisis tells us that any honeymoon period for a Blair government will be short-lived. Discontent will be profound and will seek out expression - in all probability creating the conditions for political polarisation. A British version of Le Pen - or something worse - is far from impossible, and would no doubt produce a panic on the pro-Labour left. However the task of the genuine revolutionary left is to fight for what is needed. That is, the positive negation of capitalism with socialism, not imagining, Menshevik-like, that choosing the lesser evil represents the key to social progress. The rise of a neo-fascism cannot be fought by trying to rescue Labourism from the inevitable consequences of its own pro-capitalist nature. Our task is to organise the workers as a revolutionary class.

Labour attacks on the workers have to be met, not with the pious, useless and dishonest slogan that they are Tory attacks. The prospect of a Labour government demands at the very least that the revolutionary left immediately unites to present a viable alternative to Labourism. That means standing independent candidates, committed to a minimum platform of what the working class needs - £275 for 35 hours, £275 pension, unemployment and other benefits, troops out of Ireland, self-determination for Scotland and Wales, free abortion and contraception on demand, etc. Crucially though, conditions cry out for the reforging of the Communist Party of Great Britain. By that, of course, I do not mean the CPGB circa 1920, 1930, let alone 1990. I mean the organisation of the advanced, vanguard, section of the working class into one democratic centralist party.

Readers of the Weekly Worker will know that the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB considers this the central, overriding question of the present period and has advanced concrete proposals for communist rapprochement for exactly this purpose. A number of different groups have entered into discussion with us and we are seeking a further broadening of this process - next week we will be publishing an historic joint statement by ourselves and the Revolutionary Democratic Group (external faction of the SWP) on communist unity.

Sectarianism - the division of revolutionaries into tiny, ineffective groups, marked out by this or that theoretical tradition or nuance - must be overcome. Different opinions are natural and, as long as they are within the theory of Marxism, perfectly healthy. The unity of different opinions in one organisation is what we should fight to achieve.

Democratic centralism, as opposed to the deadly practice of bureaucratic centralism, allows for full factional rights, the open expression and development of differences. And that provides the best conditions for the unity of communists both in theory and action. This is no time for holding back or staying apart. We partisans of the working class have a duty to come together in one party.

Jack Conrad