Gambling on a government - or bidding for an opposition?
Our voting recommendations are not about deciding how we should be ruled under capitalism, argues Peter Manson, but about constructing a working class alternative
Come election time, the left in Britain has traditionally taken up the call, ‘Vote Labour, but ...’ In other words, we put Labour into office either as the lesser evil or because, in theory at least, it will be more susceptible to working class pressure. Of course, there is nothing unprincipled in calling for a blanket Labour vote - with or without a ‘but’. However, electoral recommendations are all about tactics - how actually can a genuine working class alternative be built?
There are two parts to that question: first, how do we assess the current forces of the working class, including the Labour Party? Second, what type of working class organisation do we need and how precisely do we expect it to come into being? To answer the second question first, we are clear that we need a single, united, mass Marxist party, which somehow must be initiated from within the currently constituted revolutionary left in a way that brings together its best elements.
Which brings us back to the first part of the question - how do we assess our current forces? Frankly, the organised working class movement, and especially the revolutionary left, is in a truly dire state. The latter is divided amongst pathetic confessional sects, each believing that it, as long as bureaucratic control is maintained, and the leadership can successfully adapt to this or that spontaneous outburst or movement, will become the vanguard party at some time in the future.
What about Labour? Along with most of the left - the most notable exception being the Socialist Party in England and Wales - we hold that Labour remains, at root, some kind of working class party: it is still a bourgeois workers’ party, to use Lenin’s famous phrase. It is sponsored and financed by the trade unions, and its members and supporters are overwhelmingly working class. While this situation remains, it is criminal to simply turn our backs on Labour, as SPEW has done, claiming that it can never become a party that actually does represent our class in any shape or form. You might just as well say that the unions can never be won to really represent our interests either. The truth is, if the union bureaucrats can be forced to fight for workers through rank-and-file pressure, they can also be made to fight within Labour to transform it - into a party that groups together all the main organisations and trends within the working class, including, of course, the Marxists.
If that is the case, it is futile to attempt to create a Labour Party mark II, as SPEW is doing, currently through the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Our electoral recommendations ought to reflect the possibility and aim of winning Labour for the working class. We need to emphasise that Labour does indeed remain a bourgeois workers’ party - although, obviously, the bourgeois pole is today very much in the ascendancy. Nevertheless, there are elements within Labour, including amongst its general and local election candidates, who represent the working class pole, albeit in a highly attenuated sense.
Vote Labour left
The immediate task is to create political lines of demarcation within Labour. We are therefore calling for a critical vote for those Labour candidates who have signed up to, or commit themselves to supporting, Michael Meacher’s left alternative platform. These include - in addition to Meacher himself, obviously - John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.
The Meacher statement calls for an “alternative to the continuation of austerity and spending cuts”. The Tories are for austerity because “it gives them political cover to achieve their real objective, which is to shrink the state and squeeze the public sector back to where it was in the 1930s”. By contrast, “We need public investment to kick-start the economy out of faltering growth and to generate real job creation and rising incomes.”
The statement claims that “a £30 billion investment package can be financed for just £150 million a year - enough to create more than a million real jobs within two-three years”. This money would be “used directly for industrial investment rather than for bond-buying by the banks as hitherto, or through taxing the ultra-rich by a special levy”.
The statement also calls for rail renationalisation: “The most obvious and simplest way to achieve this is by letting the rail franchises expire and then taking them back into public ownership at no cost whatever to the taxpayer.” And it demands “the restoration of collective bargaining and employment rights as a check against excessive corporate power”.
The declaration bemoans the current weakness of the unions: “When the Thatcher government came to office in 1979, 82% of workers in the UK had their main terms and conditions determined by a union-negotiated collective agreement. The latest figures now show that the coverage is down to just 23%. One very significant result is that the share of national income going to salaries and wages has fallen dramatically from 65% in 1980 to 53% in 2012 ...”
This has resulted partly from “the collapse in trade union membership from 55% of the workforce in 1979 to 23% in 2012”, partly “as a result of the anti-trade union laws introduced in the 1980-90s” and partly “because the state has withdrawn support for collective bargaining as part of the free market ideology of deregulation of all markets, including the labour market”.
Therefore, “An incoming Labour government should choose to enhance the role of trade unions”. That would not only create “more just and equal workplaces”, but “will assist on the road from austerity”. We should therefore “actively promote sectoral collective bargaining and strengthen the rights of trade unions to recognition, and of their members to representation”.1
Despite the blatant reformism of this statement, it represents the working class pole within Labour, as opposed to the openly pro-capitalist right. Which is why we should prioritise a vote for such candidates - even if they are opposed by candidates of the left, such as Tusc. We want to emphasise that Labour remains a strategic site of struggle.
Eleven of the 15 candidates on the Meacher list are also among the 39 Labour candidates who are “sponsors and participants” of John McDonnell’s Left Platform. The Left Platform statement is more wide-ranging than that of Michael Meacher. It too demands, “collect the taxes” and “end austerity”. We also need “a wealth tax” and a Tobin tax to “tackle speculators”. It also calls for “a living wage of £10 an hour, the outlawing of zero-hours contracts and the restoration of trade union rights”, plus “full employment” and renationalisation (not just of the railways).
These demands, it says, are inspired by “the vision of a socialist society we aim for”. Such a society would be “thoroughly democratic in all aspects of our life”, it would be “more equal, so that the extremes of wealth and poverty are eliminated”, and within it “our core economic assets” would be “held in common to serve the whole of society, not a rich few”.
The platform declares that “a governing administration that can assist in moving towards that” would implement the measures it advocates: “By adopting a number of extremely practical policies, Labour in government after May could have as radical an impact on our society as the Attlee government in 1945.”2
Once again, the reformist illusions are evident, and once again, despite that, it is clear that this statement also represents the working class pole of the Labour Party. Those who sign up to it should be offered critical support. However, a word of warning: the 39 parliamentary candidates named as “sponsors and participants” are those who backed comrade McDonnell’s initial call, and, in our view, voters should ask them to confirm that they actually uphold the platform subsequently drafted.
Where there is no supportable Labour candidate, we are urging comrades to vote if possible for other working class organisations - Left Unity, Tusc, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Respect, Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Party of Great Britain, Workers Revolutionary Party …
Unfortunately in five constituencies a Tusc candidate is opposing a Labour left, but for the most part it seems that an effort has been made to avoid a clash. That does not apply, of course, to the smaller sects, which in many cases have declined invitations to consult about a single candidate. So in 17 seats there is a clash involving either Left Unity or, more usually, Tusc. In Vauxhall, Simon Hardy is opposed by the SPGB, while in a further 16 constituencies Tusc is opposed by the SPGB (three seats), WRP (four), CPB (two), SLP (two), and Respect, Class War, the SEP, Republican Socialists and Communist League (one each).
In such cases, we are clear about the order of priority.
1. Left Unity. There are many weaknesses in LU’s manifesto, but despite that there is much that is positive. Eg, it stands against demands for British withdrawal from the European Union; it supports open borders. We also note that, though LU has no agreed position on the Labour Party, it has declined to stand candidates against Labour lefts.
All but three of the 10 LU candidates are standing jointly with Tusc. Apart from Simon Hardy in Vauxhall, the other two exceptions are Stewart Weston in Bristol West and John Pearson in Stockport.
2. Tusc, which is standing by far the largest number of left candidates (135, including 10 in Scotland). The main organisation involved, SPEW, aims to establish a Labour Party mark II, basing itself on lowest-common-denominator unity. Furthermore, we expect that after May 7 Tusc will disappear from the radar, as has been the case with past electoral contests. SPEW, and obviously the Socialist Workers Party too, will go back to prioritising their own organisations. Nevertheless a half-decent showing by Tusc candidates, would undoubtedly be positive, given the suffocating austerity consensus reigning amongst mainstream parties.
3. Other leftwing groups and candidates. A vote even for the WRP, SEP and SLP (which is standing only in Wales this time) represents a leftwing, working class protest against capitalism and should be advocated in the absence of a more serious left candidate.
A full list of supportable left candidates - in order of priority, where there is a clash - is now available on the CPGB website.3
Greens and Nats
Given the widespread leftwing infatuation with green and nationalist politics, we seek to draw a clear red line. While undoubtedly the Green Party, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are putting forward policies that are to the left of Labour, these parties represent at best a diversion, at worst a reactionary, pro-capitalist alternative. We say:
l No support for nationalists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Nowadays the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity are merely external factions of the SNP. No matter how weakened, the unity of the working class in Britain must be defended. We support the demand for a federal republic and oppose all manifestations of separatism, especially when it poses in the guise of socialism.
l No support for Green Party candidates. At this juncture the principle of class politics must be highlighted. The Green Party is a petty bourgeois political formation and does not even pay lip service to working class and socialist politics.
Where there is no supportable candidate, the CPGB urges voters to spoil their ballot papers with some suitable message: eg, ‘For socialism’.