No strategy towards Labour
What is the left saying about the general election? Daniel Harvey has been investigating
Contradictory and confusing advice over which way to vote is on offer from the left. This is centred, as usual, around its incoherence over the Labour Party and the best way to build an alternative to Labourism.
What are the various organisations saying?
The Socialist Party in England and Wales may now be the largest group on the left - it certainly provides the main support for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The organisation is, of course, the former Militant Tendency which was purged from Labour in the late 80s and early 90s. It is a die-hard article of faith for SPEW that this was the turning point in Labour’s history, when it stopped being a classic bourgeois workers’ party in the sense that Lenin described. Deputy general secretary Hannah Sell puts it this way:
At root ... Labour today is a capitalist party. Unlike in the past, when ‘old’ Labour, though it had capitalist leadership, was nonetheless a workers’ party at its base, it could via its democratic structures, be pressured by the working class.
In the past when Labour had been defeated, particularly after 1979, a strong leftward move developed in the ranks of the Labour Party. Following 2010 this has been completely absent. Labour’s pro-austerity programme has been accepted by the party with barely any protest.1
This, of course, ignores the fact that at least 39 Labour parliamentary candidates are supporting old Labour-type platforms in the current election (see opposite). According to the SPEW argument, the democratic structures in the Labour Party were “destroyed long ago” and so now there is no means of putting pressure on the Labour leadership and so no point in trying to influence members of it, or the millions of working class people who still vote for it. Partly this is just nostalgia, ignoring the actual history of Labour, which has always had a remote elite in the Parliamentary Labour Party which is largely disconnected from the base, and was designed that way in the first place to protect the leadership from ever having to bend to that kind of pressure.
The actual behaviour of the Labour Party, even in its supposed heyday, back during the long boom from the late 40s to the late 60s, was to try to impose restraints on the labour movement, trying to push through In place of strife, for instance, before imposing ‘pay restraint’ in the late 70s, when inflation surged to double digits.
Yet SPEW’s view that the Labour leadership can no longer be pushed to the left is contradicted in its own analysis elsewhere. For example, “The idea that Labour would face ... being propped up by parties who say they want to push a Labour government left fills the capitalist class with dread.”2 So which is it then? Is Labour irredeemably Blairite, or is it capable of moving leftwards when it comes under pressure?
And what is the alternative that SPEW puts forward with Tusc? Another federal lash-up with what it can scrape together from the left union bureaucracy in the sole form of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union. Tusc has no actual members or branches, so there is in fact even less democracy than in the Labour Party in that sense. Decision-making and policy is determined by the participating groups - the Socialist Workers Party and Independent Socialist Network, as well as SPEW and the RMT, who all formally have a veto. Tusc even goes along with Labour’s reactionary policies on immigration - the SPEW leadership ensured that Tusc rejected a move to come out against all immigration controls at its recent conference.
The purpose for this is obvious: Tusc’s role is to be a reformist front for SPEW, which is itself ‘the party’ to which it wants to recruit. This is actually only an adaptation of the earlier Militant modus operandi. And there is only one recommendation regarding the election: vote Tusc and ignore the Labour left.
The SWP is very much the junior partner in Tusc, where it is content to take a back seat, whilst putting forward a few of its members as candidates. The SWP is generally more apathetic about electoral politics in line with its Luxemburgist ‘mass strike’ orientation, but the approach this time around seems to be quite vague and non-committal. The SWP implies that a vote for Labour would be a good idea where there are no Tusc or Left Unity candidates standing, but it is in no way definite about it. Here, for instance, is how an article on the Labour Party opened in Socialist Worker last week:
The majority of working class people dread the idea that the Tories might win the general election. They know that it will lead to an attempt to finish off the NHS, years of more assaults on our living standards and a systematic offensive to take away everything workers have fought for and gained. But many do not see the Labour Party as a serious alternative. The last Labour government backed war and privatisation, while in opposition Labour has accepted austerity.
Of course it is not irrelevant who wins on May 7. If the Tories win the election then every reactionary, racist and pro-capitalist throughout the land will rejoice. They will feel that bit more confident to attack us.
The bullying boss, the police chief and the judge will all be even surer that the politicians will back them up. If Labour wins it will boost many working class people’s confidence to have got rid of the Tories.3
The important thing though is this:
It’s about positioning ourselves within the weakening of Labourism to try and break workers away from it - during the election and afterwards. The decline in support for Labour underlines the need for a united left alternative in England and Wales, as well as in Scotland. It must have real roots and, unlike Labour, an orientation on workers’ struggles and fighting for socialism.
The idea that Tusc fits this description, when it has no actual existence on the ground between elections, is ludicrous. But the SWP shares with SPEW the notion that ‘the party’ that has an actual “orientation on workers’ struggles” already exists - ie, itself.
Besides this, there is also the naivety that these two groups seem to share about what is taking place in Scotland. Both acknowledge that the Scottish National Party has “claim[ed] the mantle of an ‘anti-austerity’ alternative standing to the left of Labour”,4 but, seeing as they both succumbed to the Scottish nationalist call for independence in the September 2014 referendum, they have been left to compete with this far more effective campaigning machine on the basis of the denuded “anti-austerity” politics they have been pushing up to now. According to The Socialist, “The huge growth in support for the SNP in Scotland following the TV debates shows the potential for a genuine anti-austerity alternative to be built.”
Without any serious critique of the role of nationalism grounded in actual socialist politics, both groups have been reduced to criticising the SNP (as well as the Greens in England) solely on the basis that they voted for cuts in this or that council.
Then there is the party representing the fag end of ‘official communism’ in Britain, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, which is standing nine candidates in the major cities (but also in North Devon!). At the same time it is very much for a vote for Labour everywhere else. The telling point though was demonstrated in The Daily Telegraph this week, where readers were asked if they could tell the difference between extracts from the CPB’s and Labour’s manifesto.5 True, the Telegraph’s anti-Labour agenda is clear in pretending that Miliband can be confused with the CPB, but I have to admit that, although I probably pay unusually close attention to these things compared to the average member of the public, I only managed to get seven out of 12 answers correct.
Which party, for instance, pledges to abolish the non-domicile rule? Labour, the CPB, or both? Which party pledges to build 250,000 new affordable homes? There are some modest differences in terms of the CPB supporting a “wealth tax” at two percent on the richest, and pledging to get rid of British overseas tax havens, but this is very thin ground on which to be competing with Labour, especially now Miliband has inched left from Blairism over the last few years.
There is something to be said, however, for sincere reformism. As a feature in the Morning Star put it, “It’s time for some bright sunny uplands, an end to Cameron’s awful diet of austerity and fear. Come May 7 I will cast my vote for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party with a slight glimmer of hope in my heart.”6
This “glimmer” is based on the notion that “on some of the core issues ... - the NHS, the welfare state, housing and foreign wars - there is clear blue water between the Tories and Labour”. There is a tiny basis in reality for this, but it is clearly delusional to ignore the race to the bottom against the UK Independence Party and the Tories that Labour has been pursuing on migration, where all of them have got into an arms race over denying welfare to migrants. Labour has pledged to uphold Tory cuts in its first years in office. It was the party that introduced privatisation proper into the NHS, and it is committed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which will add to a number of previous trade agreements making privatisation of the remaining public services more likely.
But the prize for most enthusiastic auto-Labourism this time around must go to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, which has surpassed even the CPB in one sense: the AWL-sponsored Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory does not just come out hard for a Labour vote, but, unlike the CPB, which is prepared to call for a Tusc vote, for instance, in “non-marginal seats”, does not recommend a vote for any left-of-Labour candidates at all:
... we see the Tusc effort for May 7 as a much inferior way to build socialist awareness than the SCLV. Tusc is also running in many marginals (something previous minority socialist election campaigns have generally avoided), and that disdain for the labour movement’s wish to oust the Tories cannot help.
Equally, Left Unity is no better:
The Left Unity group, launched by Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson after they quit Respect, will also run a few candidates, but in general it is a small group pretending to be a ‘broad left’ party like Die Linke in Germany, and neither politically nor organisationally better than Tusc.7
Fundamentally, the AWL has fallen in behind the union bureaucracy in backing Labour, and poses equally risible ‘demands’ to expose it and put ‘pressure’ on the Labour leadership:
Because Labour remains linked to the unions - because they could use their voice in the party to shift its course, if they chose to - we should support the election of a Labour government. But if we are going to avoid becoming foot soldiers for the Labour leadership, we need to do more than that.
We need to demand the unions stop covering politically for the Labour leadership, and start fighting for workers - in the first instance, by actually campaigning for union policies.
The AWL does acknowledge that a “strong slate of class-struggle socialist candidates, to champion workers’ interests, raise the profile of socialism and put pressure on Labour from the left, would be best”. However, it continues: “But that is not on the cards. Non-Labour left candidacies will be weak both organisationally and politically. In any case, even if you want to vote Green, Tusc or Left Unity here or there, that doesn’t answer who will form the next government and what it will do. The left should not attempt to dodge this question.”8
Of course, what the AWL is actually doing to build that working class alternative to Labourism is extremely meagre. It now has only one active member in Left Unity, Ruth Cashman (who stood with the Workers Power candidate, Rebecca Anderson, for the position of joint trade union representative in LU’s recent internal elections). The actual pressure the AWL approach brings to bear on Labour is negligible.
The other thing to note about the AWL is the way its position on Labour has wildly oscillated over the years. It was only in 2008 when Workers’ Liberty had an article headlined: “The Labour Party is a stinking corpse!” Back then it advocated “winning support from unions, or (the more realistic option now) from local or regional union bodies, for authentic, independent working class electoral challenges to New Labour. Obviously how and when this is done is a tactical question, but in general it is now essential.”9
What all of these different perspectives represent is the left’s failure to escape the orbit of Labourism or present any credible strategy for actually breaking people away from reformism. You either get a rose-tinted recreation of old Labourism, or a falling in behind the existing Labour Party as is. None of the tactics put forward really poses a solid political test in regard to Labour.
Even Workers Power, which calls for support for all socialist candidates, but alongside a blanket vote for Labour everywhere else, fails on this basis. There are no conditions placed on support for Labour candidates at all. In the end it just boils down to the same lesser-evilism: ‘Kick out the Tories’.