Labour Party: Griffiths ends CPB truce
Open struggle has erupted between those in the CPB who want to 'reclaim' the Labour Party, and those who want to... start another one. Peter Manson reports.
The publication in the Morning Star of a series of three articles by the Communist Party of Britain’s general secretary, Robert Griffiths, has marked the end of the truce within the Star’s CPB between the ‘traditionalists’ and ‘innovators’.
The dispute, which has sharply divided the organisation, not least its leadership, first arose a decade ago and has been simmering beneath the surface for several years. It concerns the nature of the Labour Party and whether, in comrade Griffiths’ words, it can still be “reclaimed as the mass electoral party of the labour movement”, as the traditionalists believe; or whether, as the innovators would have it, the time has come to give up on Labour and work for the establishment of a “new party of labour” to replace it in that electoral role.
The traditionalists have up to now retained their majority on the CPB leadership, but the innovators are led by no less a figure than comrade Griffiths and supported by such notables as former Star editor John Haylett and Stop the War Coalition ex-chair Andrew Murray. The traditionalists’ most authoritative figure is CPB international secretary John Foster.
It has to be said that both sides are in agreement over their support for the CPB’s national-reformist programme, Britain’s road to socialism, whereby a series of more and more leftwing Labour-type governments, backed up by a raft of communist MPs and mass extra-parliamentary support, legislates into being socialism in a single country. The dispute is over whether there is any realistic hope of making the existing Labour Party fit for that purpose.
Comrade Griffiths’ series of articles is presented as an even-handed discussion of the two alternatives, but it is pretty clear which of them he favours. For example, the three articles are headed ‘Is Labour still a labour party?’ (April 22), ‘Decision time is coming’ (April 23) and ‘Labour’s next steps’ (April 24). Yet if, as the CPB traditionalist majority still accepts, Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party, then why would “decision time” be approaching? In reality, comrade Griffiths is presenting the adoption of a policy for a “new party of labour” as a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
His first article starts by asserting: “On March 1 the Labour Party decided to embark on what might well be the final stage of its mutation into a non-labour party. Delegates to its special spring conference decided by an overwhelming majority to weaken, perhaps fatally, the collective basis of trade union involvement in the party. They endorsed the main proposals of a review chaired by Lord Collins, agreeing to abolish the electoral college which elects the party’s leader and deputy leader, including its trade union and socialist societies section. They backed phasing out the system whereby workers in affiliated unions can pay a political levy and vote in Labour Party leadership elections.”
Yes, those decisions were taken, but to say that as a result the party will now “embark on what might well be the final stage of its mutation into a non-labour party” is one-sided, to say the least. Similarly, later in that first article comrade Griffiths, having reported the demand from the Labour right that trade union representation on the national executive and at conference be reduced if the number of affiliated supporters goes down, he contends that this would signify that “Labour’s mutation from a broad, federal party based on the working class and labour movement to a mass of atomised individuals will be nearing completion.”
However, while leaders of the affiliated unions agreed to abolish their distinct role in electing the leader, they have not accepted that their representation on Labour’s executive or at conference should be cut - certainly not to the extent that the potential influence of those unions would be more or less wiped out, as comrade Griffiths implies.
In his second article, ‘Decision time is coming’, comrade Griffiths helpfully reminds us that “for decades the Communist Party has urged the labour movement to turn left and help secure a ‘Labour government of a new type’, one whose policies would open the road to socialism in Britain”. But he then asks a very pertinent question: “… is the labour movement able and willing to reclaim the Labour Party or, failing that, to re-establish its own mass party of labour?”
Leaving aside the use of the word “reclaim” - as if the workers’ movement has ever actually exercised control over the party - the Weekly Worker has pointed out time and again that the problem is not just the Labour right: it is also the union bureaucrats, who have willingly voted for rightwing Labour leaders and rightwing Labour policies, in the belief that they would be more likely to win elections for the party - and, after all, they would not be as bad as the Tories, would they?
Comrade Griffiths is forced to admit this when he says: “The trade union surrender at the March 2014 conference, where they backed extensive ‘reforms’ to the party-union link, indicates that most unions have neither the political understanding nor the will to fight to reclaim the Labour Party.” He goes on to say: “It could be argued that trade unions not prepared to fight to reclaim the party to which they are affiliated are even less likely to leave it to undertake a much more politically advanced task.” Exactly! That is why it is pointless demanding that the unions take the lead in establishing a Labour Party mark two. Even if a miracle occurred and they took such an initiative, why on earth would their leaders behave any differently within a replacement party?
Comrade Griffiths reminds us that Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has “warned that his members might disaffiliate the union and help form a new workers’ party if Labour doesn’t reject austerity and adopt a pro-worker election manifesto”. Well, if you believe that … However, “It may well be the case that the initial moves towards re-establishing a labour party will have to come from a minority of unions, including non-affiliated ones.” So, in comrade Griffiths’ imagination, unions like the RMT, PCS and FBU will join up with the likes of Unite to set up a new party. Some chance!
Yet, in pursuit of this unlikely possibility, comrade Griffiths continues to speculate about the process that will bring it about, claiming that “the period up to and immediately following the election could demonstrate conclusively whether or not Labour can be reclaimed”. For example, will Labour’s manifesto “contain commitments in favour of public ownership, progressive taxation, public-sector housing, price controls and additional rights for workers and their trade unions”?
For the benefit of CPB traditionalists, he pays lip service to the idea of “an all-out offensive by trade unions and the Labour left to win back the party to social democracy [ ! ], if not to socialism, and to see this represented in Labour’s general election manifesto”. However, if such a campaign does not take place or is unsuccessful, “the labour movement and the left will have no option but to take the necessary steps to re-establish a mass party of labour”.
So, if the non-appearance in the manifesto of the “commitments” listed above is the determining factor in deciding whether Labour can be “reclaimed”, why did comrade Griffiths not decide long ago - under Tony Blair, for instance - that the party was beyond redemption? In reality, however, the Labour leadership has always, to a greater or lesser extent, including within its pro-business measures, made gestures towards the working class - and in fact Ed Miliband is no exception in that regard. It is likely that the Labour manifesto will contain “price controls” - Miliband has been talking about a cap on both energy prices and rents. And what about “public ownership”? After 30 Labour prospective candidates, led by John Prescott, called on the party to renationalise the railways (in a move that had all the hallmarks of a top-down initiative), Miliband refused to rule out at least part-renationalisation as a means of returning the railways to some kind of “coherent system”.
Unlike comrade Griffiths, we do not claim that such policies would “open the road to socialism in Britain”. All those mentioned in the list above have in the past been adopted to one degree or another by mainstream bourgeois parties in Britain - not least during the post-war period, which we have referred to as one of “social democratic consensus”.
In the final article in the series, ‘Labour’s next steps’, apart from stressing his belief in the centrality of the People’s Assembly and the People’s Charter for building a movement to win back such a “social democratic consensus”, Griffiths makes clear that the CPB is advocating a Labour vote in the coming general election - the “only practical and viable alternative” to a coalition that “must be defeated”.
However, apart from launching a campaign to persuade Labour to adopt more worker-friendly policies, “Trade union bodies at every level - up to and including the Trades Union Congress - should organise discussions, meetings and conferences to consider the future of the Labour Party and how more workers can be drawn into political activity and representation.”
And comrade Griffiths is particularly impressed by the “proposal floated at the 2014 Campaign for Labour Party Democracy conference that unions form their own, distinct party affiliated to Labour”. He adds that, if such a proposal was followed through, “Were unions to decide later that they need to re-establish their own mass party outside the Labour Party, much of the initial preparatory work would already have been done.”
He ends his third article by stating: “… full account will also have to be taken of the national question when seeking to solve the crisis of working class political representation”. For example, “In Wales, the Labour Party and the Welsh Labour government pursue policies which broadly reflect a social democratic outlook: notably support for jobs and public services, selective nationalisation and the rejection of privatisation of health and education services.” He continues: “While Welsh Labour is not organisationally independent, it may have to assert its own political and organisational autonomy in order to retain trade union influence in its own policy-making processes.”
As for Scotland, “Labour has followed much the same political line as the leadership centrally, although its April 2014 conference indicated that this may be changing. However, Scotland’s separation from the rest of Britain would mean that, inevitably, any developments in a positive direction would take place in an increasingly different and separate set of political conditions.”
These remarks seem to indicate that, in order to further his dead-end schema, comrade Griffiths is at least flirting with the idea of Welsh and Scottish separatism. But the very fact that he holds up the Welsh government as an example to be followed by London only demonstrates his bankruptcy.
For us, the fight within the Labour Party is far from over. The aim ought not to be “to win back the party to social democracy”, but to purge it of its pro-capitalist elements and transform it into a genuine federal party of the working class.