Stop digging, Peter
How has SPEW responded to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid? Incompetently, Paul Demarty discovers
Say what you like about the Socialist Party in England and Wales: it is nothing if not persistent.
In its glory days as the Militant Tendency, it became the largest Trotskyist group in Britain simply by sticking to Labour Party entry for several consecutive decades, whereas its competitors had a habit of flipping back and forth on the matter. However, since the early 1990s, the majority of Militant and now SPEW - led by Peter Taaffe - has eschewed Labour entirely, declaring its bourgeois transformation complete and irreversible, and has stuck to that line more or less as doggedly as it previously insisted on entryism.
We read with interest, then, a rather incoherent article in The Socialist (June 19) by Taaffe himself on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for the Labour leadership. After all, the SPEW position gets most of its plausibility from the total dominance of the Labour right wing since the mid-1980s, and most glaringly during the Blair-Brown New Labour governments. Corbyn’s candidacy is a reminder that the Labour left still exists, and can put together a high-profile challenge every once in a while.
Taaffe states his position at the outset: “We wish Jeremy well - we hope that he gets the maximum number of votes and, in the unlikely event that he wins, we would welcome that,” he writes. “But we do not believe that he will succeed in reclaiming Labour as a political weapon for the workers’ movement. Any attempt to foster illusions that his challenge could do this is a dead end.”
We note, first of all, that despite kind words about Corbyn, Taaffe does not call upon anyone to vote for him. Indeed, he seems somewhat annoyed that Corbyn is even on the ballot:
Corbyn only managed to get on the ballot paper because of a ‘nail-biting’, last-minute decision of some on the so-called Labour ‘centre right’ to ‘lend their votes’ to him for their own cynical political reasons ... The danger of accepting this ‘charity’ could yet be further delay in workers drawing the obvious conclusion ... that it is now an urgent task for the unions and the working class to take the necessary steps towards a new mass workers’ party.
This is the central conundrum for Taaffe and his organisation, after all. On the basis of their analysis of Labour, something like Corbyn’s challenge should not be possible, and the fact that it has nonetheless come to pass is ruddy inconvenient for them. So much of Taaffe’s article consists in delegitimating the leadership contest as such.
The ‘charitable’ actions of Labour rightwingers in getting Corbyn on the ballot thus are read, crudely, as an attempt to hoodwink people into believing there is still a Labour left - when there cannot be by definition. (Is it so desperately implausible that lay members of the party, or even constituents, might have applied some pressure?) Likewise, Taaffe (correctly) criticises the drift towards US-style primaries in the post-Collins report Labour leadership procedures:
So anybody, literally anybody, who can text and pay a measly £3 can decide who is to become the leader of the Labour Party ... This is a perfectly fashioned weapon - for instance, of the most venal capitalist paper, The Sun, who described Jeremy Corbyn as a “terrorist-loving lefty” - to literally select the leadership of the Labour Party; not indirectly, as they did in the past, but more directly, through urging support, with massive publicity, for their preferred candidate. This is akin to the buying of votes!
The trouble is, of course, that Labour has haemorrhaged support primarily to forces posing to its left (most strikingly the Scottish National Party, but also the Greens or even, in the Iraq war era, the Liberal Democrats); it is just as easy for these people - well-meaning lefties in the main - to pay their three quid as a stereotypical Sun reader. Time will tell who does best out of the ‘registered supporters’ vote, but it would not be terrifically surprising to see Corbyn pick up a good few. Tens of thousands of people have already taken out full membership of Labour in the last month or two (a similar bounce occurred in 2010). Does Taaffe really imagine they are all Kendallites?
Put another way: if The Sun can exhort its readers to vote for a rightwing candidate, then The Socialist can equally exhort its readers to register for Corbyn. SPEW, as a disciplined Trotskyist group, can even make sure its thousand or so members do so, and that they encourage their trade union contacts and so on to do likewise.
We have, to use a Taaffe cliché, ‘no illusions’ as regards the relative influence of the Murdoch empire and SPEW. Yet this refusal to seriously mobilise in favour of a good vote for Corbyn cannot be explained other than as a fatuous attempt to save SPEW’s woefully theorised line on the Labour Party.
Its error consists, first of all, in the fact that SPEW’s view of the Labour Party as was is illusory. Labour has, from its inception, played the same role as it does now: politically representing the organised working class in a manner favourable to capital and British imperialism, through the medium of the labour bureaucracy. There was no ‘golden age’, when it was “a political weapon for the workers’ movement”.
The total dominance of the right in the Labour Party this last quarter-century is not the result of a fundamental change within Labour, but of the circumstances in which it does its job. Put simply, we have had decades of near continuous defeats. The left has shrivelled (outside Labour as well as inside - at its height, Militant was many times larger than today’s SPEW). Union membership is down. The cold war is over.
Misrecognising a shift in the world situation as a shift within Labour, Taaffe is left only with fantastical prescriptions for the movement today. We note, first of all, a piece of advice from Taaffe to Corbyn:
Corbyn should make a direct appeal to all Labour councillors to resist the cuts that are coming from Osborne and Cameron, not just by a show of hands in councils, but to throw down the gauntlet to the government by adopting no-cuts ‘needs’ budgets.
This is the ‘strategy’ of municipal resistance most frequently recommended by SPEW under the slogan, ‘Take the Liverpool road!’ We are offered as a model the Militant Tendency’s control of Liverpool city council in the 1980s, and indeed one of the most bizarre characteristics of SPEW today is its insistence that this infamous episode was not a failure.
For the uninitiated, the Militant and its broader periphery carried out exactly the manoeuvre recommended here: they refused to set a legal budget, and initially succeeded, inasmuch as central government made up the shortfall in 1984-85. In that context, however, this amounted to little more than a (successful) attempt on the part of the Tories to keep the striking miners isolated. With the Great Strike defeated, Thatcher brushed Militant aside, forcing Liverpool council to issue redundancy notices to all its employees and giving Neil Kinnock his golden opportunity to purge Militant.
For the sake of argument, however, let us accept SPEW’s view of these events: that the Liverpool 47’s successful construction of a few thousand rabbit-hutch council houses was a glorious and unprecedented achievement; that all it would have taken to topple Thatcher was two or three more such rebellions in Labour municipalities, and so on. The fact that it got as far as it did is fundamentally an index of the bitter struggles taking place in that era. It is simply implausible that, were SPEW to recruit all of Liverpool council tomorrow, they would not be isolated and crushed very quickly indeed - especially given three further decades of assaults on local democracy.
A fortiori, the same is true of the main prong of SPEW’s strategy today: viz, convincing “the unions and the working class to take the necessary steps towards a new mass workers’ party”. The current incarnation of this strategy is the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which unites SPEW, the Socialist Workers Party, the Independent Socialist Network and (notionally) the Rail, Maritime and Transport union in pursuit of electoral humiliation. Besides that, SPEW calls on Labour-affiliated unions to sever their ties, and commit themselves instead to “a new mass workers’ party”.
The difficulty is that the Labour Party remains the political expression of the labour bureaucracy: it was the strength of the unions that put Ed Miliband into the leadership last time around and, Collins report notwithstanding, we can expect them to be influential this time around too. It was union votes, likewise, that pushed through the replacement of clause four, that elected Tony Blair ...
The union bosses’ political choices are currently characterised by the pursuit of an ‘electable’ alternative to Tory rule, which leads them mainly into the camp of Andy Burnham. This is partly because being on the defensive turns people’s minds towards lesser evilism, and partly because a period of defeats has left the bureaucrats under little in the way of rank-and-file pressure. Either which way, it is utterly fantastical to imagine that Tusc offers an attractive alternative to the Labour link either for left bureaucrats or for rank-and-file militants, things being as they are.
If you are in a hole, it is a good idea to stop digging. Thus Taaffe should drop the spade and accept that the Labour Party is still what it always was: a site of struggle, against some of the most pernicious would-be (and will-be, if the wider left abrogates its duties in the manner recommended by Taaffe) misleaders of the British working class. The Labour left may be weak, but again so are we all. A strong challenge from Corbyn would rattle a few cages, because he is a member of the Labour Party - which matters (unlike Tusc, which does not).
A good result for the Labour left in September would be a step towards transforming Labour (not ‘reclaiming’ it), and a step forward for all of us.