Drawing lines of distinction
We need to look beyond 2020, urges Paul Demarty
Given all the excitement over Brexit and the prime minister’s personal finances, recently it has been very easy to overlook the fact that there are elections coming up - the first significant trip to the polls of the 2015 parliament, with local elections in England and Wales, elections to the Scottish parliament and the replacement - oh happy day! - of the buffoonish plutocrat, Boris Johnson, as London mayor.
The polling data at this point is indecisive, with national polls generally putting the Tories a point or two up (although David Cameron’s nightmare week over his father’s offshore interests may redress that a little). But in London Sadiq Khan is on course for a solid victory. Unsurprisingly, then, we find the Tories in truly diabolical barrel-scraping mode. Having attempted to smear Khan initially for having a sister who used to be married to someone who apparently used to be an Islamist, to no visible effect, we now learn that Khan has defended Islamists ... in court, in his former day job as a lawyer. Heaven forfend! So that is the line of attack - vote Khan, get terrorism.
Zac Goldsmith, about whom the best that can be said is that he is not quite as weird as his late father, Sir James, declared that “London cannot afford a Labour mayor who opposed stop and search, whose party leader thinks shooting terrorists is a bad idea, a mayor whose career before becoming an MP involved coaching people in suing our police.”
Khan calls all this ‘dog-whistling’, and it is difficult to disagree - would he really face this sort of vileness if he had a different sort of surname? In any case, we doubt it will work any better this time than it did before: London is becoming more of a Labour city in every vote, the exception being Boris’s re-election in 2012.
North of the border, however, the outlook for Labour is pretty grim, with the Scottish National Party maintaining a 30-point lead and on course for a majority of the popular vote. Many in Labour had hoped that a leftward shift in the leadership would repair the damage done by Better Together; but, hardly surprisingly, those wounds have not healed overnight. A further humbling is in the offing.
There is then the question of how to vote in these elections. The Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB is recommending a vote for Labour across the board, and campaigning activity in favour of leftwing Labour candidates (ie, those who support Momentum). We will take each of these recommendations in turn.
The CPGB has, in recent history, tended to offer similar tactics in elections. We have recommended a vote for particular Labour candidates who meet certain conditions (in 2005 for example we urged a vote for all Labour candidates prepared to advocate an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Iraq, of whom there were a very small handful). Failing that, we recommended that people vote for far-left candidates where they were standing. We have refused to advocate voting for leftish petty bourgeois parties, such as the Greens or Scottish nationalists.
Our standing argument for voting Labour over the far left has been that the far left, with the exception of a few exotic outfits, such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain, has campaigned invariably on the political basis of left Labourism (in reality, a fantasy version of left Labourism acceptable to the conscience of the run-of-the-mill Trot). But there is already a Labour Party, deeply rooted - for better or worse - in the British working class movement. The far left’s electoral tactics in this period have been based on the conjecture that there basically is no such party, thanks to Neil Kinnock’s and Tony Blair’s project of dragging Labour decisively to the right.
At this point, it is barely worth mentioning that this perspective is a heap of smoking ruins. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was, to use a sporting cliché, against the run of play. Yet it would not have been possible if the Labour Party had been as terminally stitched-up as the likes of the Socialist Party in England and Wales has pretended in recent history. We now have a Labour Party under leftwing leadership, and that leadership is unsurprisingly under constant and virulent assault from the Labour right and the press.
Recommending a vote for far-left candidates under these circumstances is not unthinkable. It is unthinkable, however, to recommend a vote for far-left candidates standing for their own version of Labourism. What was already wrong is now plainly stupid. The job of Marxists is to use the opportunity opened up by Corbyn’s election to advance a universal, internationalist socialist project, as against the bureaucratic and nationalist socialism of the Labour left. In our tactical judgment, today that means voting Labour, without conditions, although not without criticism. To raise, as SPEW does, the problem of whether this or that councillor voted for cuts is monumentally ridiculous - an obsession over trivialities taking the place of a re-examination of mistaken political perspectives. As for its candidates standing on May 5 under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition banner, we wish them the votes they deserve, which will be the votes they get.
Our recommendation for a Labour vote does not mean that we consider divisions within the Labour Party unimportant, however. For us, the Labour Party is a site of struggle - our aim is to transform it into a united front of the organisations of the working class, fundamentally changing its character. This is a long-term project.
The Labour Party is divided on political grounds between those who believe in some kind of socialism and those who believe only in ill-defined progressive sentiments, to the extent that many are avowed advocates of neoliberal capitalism (the Blairites), and/or paid shills of corporate lobbyists.
The party is, however, almost entirely united on the idea that any Labour government is better than any Tory government, and that the crucial question is winning the next general election. The hard right pursues this aim by trying to overthrow the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn; the hard left imagines that defending Corbyn will deliver victory, on the basis that many of his most ridiculed policies actually enjoy a great deal of passive support among the electorate at large. Nonetheless, we are dealing, nearly unanimously, with a time horizon of 2020.
For the right, this is perfectly fine; careerism breeds short-termism (see David Cameron’s inglorious tenure) and a lack of ambition to actually change anything. For the left, it is toxic. Just how toxic can be gleaned from erstwhile Trotskyist Paul Mason’s recent conversion to the cause of renewing Trident nuclear missiles. An anti-nuclear Labour Party will never be elected, therefore opposition on this divisive issue should be shelved in favour of concentrating on ‘popular’ bread and butter issues.
Mason is a seasoned media apparatchik at this point, so he cannot seriously believe that the press opprobrium directed at Corbyn is solely in regard to his sentimental anti-imperialism. If it was not Trident, it would be something else - and it will be something else. What do we do then - retreat further? If so, then Mason is simply repeating Blairism. If not, then why give in on Trident in the first place? Corbyn’s pitch to the electorate is that he is principled, above all on issues of war and peace. That is why people voted for him. Without those politics, we may as well have voted for Andy Burnham (perhaps Mason did).
The underlying point is that, by current operative definitions of ‘electable’, Corbyn really is a dead duck - nukes or no nukes. The power in the country remains the capitalist class, its judges, its media, and all the rest. Our task is to rebuild the workers’ movement as an independent force with its own sources of power: its own economic institutions (revived trade unions and co-ops, for example), its own media, and its own political parties. Above all, we need an organised expression of the idea that the working class should take over the administration of society internationally - a Communist Party. No Labour leadership election is going to change that by itself, even one as dramatic as last year’s.
Pursuit of independent power, however, requires that we are willing to break with the right; which means being willing to spend time in opposition. It means that we must be willing to advocate policies that will never get support from the right - Trident being the present example - but also the breaking up of the corrupt judicial system (the ‘rule of law’) and other such matters of central importance. Millions must be convinced that the institutional furniture of the British state is utterly illegitimate. The Labour Party right does not agree; and, indeed, not a few of them personally profit from the corruption at the heart of capitalist society (most especially in its coupon-clipping British form).
For this reason, it is imperative that we draw a distinction between the left and right in the Labour Party. Thus, while we urge readers to vote Labour across the board, they should get involved in campaigning and canvassing for leftwing Labour candidates only. (We cannot, obviously, provide a comprehensive list of acceptable candidates; but, for the avoidance of doubt, Sadiq Khan is not among them.) The task in front of us is not a march into No10 as quickly as possible, but turning Corbyn’s victory into the opening shot of an irrevocable transformation of British politics - a transformation that will leave the Labour Party’s shills and cheap careerists behind.