Consistent orientation needed
Peter Taaffe should admit that SPEW’s previous characterisation of Labour was badly mistaken, writes Peter Manson
Since the start of the Corbyn phenomenon the Socialist Party in England and Wales has been gradually rewriting its characterisation of the Labour Party - without ever admitting to any change in position, let alone criticising its previous stance.
SPEW had declared for almost a quarter of a century that Labour was a spent force for the working class, that the pro-capitalist right had definitively seized control and all intervention inside the party was futile. On that basis, SPEW expected little from Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership in June 2015: indeed the campaign he built up just should not have been possible.
When he first entered the race, The Socialist declared that he most likely would not get on the ballot paper, and thus “all efforts must turn to building a new mass workers’ party”.1 But when - thanks to the “morons” - he did scrape together enough nominations, it was declared that he did not have a hope of winning and so, when the inevitable happened and he lost, “he should draw the obvious conclusion and break from historically obsolete Labour and help to found a new mass force”.2
The following month, when SPEW’s initial assessment of Corbyn’s prospects was being more and more exposed as the folly it was, an editorial in The Socialist - presumably under instructions from general secretary Peter Taaffe, solved this riddle ingeniously, by declaring that a Corbyn victory would “inevitably” provoke an immediate and final showdown with the right, and thus “would mean, in effect, the formation of a new party”.3
According to the SPEW narrative, the Labour Party had suddenly ceased being a workers’ party of any sort in the early1990s, when the purge of SPEW’s forerunner, the Militant Tendency, was complete; and now the line was that it would just as suddenly spring back into existence should Corbyn prevail. So, when Corbyn did win in 2015, SPEW continued to cling to the idea that this represented not a sea change within Labour, but in reality the founding of an entirely new party: any old humbug can be justified, so long as it is not inconsistent with the absurd line SPEW had been pushing since the mid-90s.
Yet, despite this founding of a “new party”, SPEW reaffirmed its commitment to standing Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates against pro-cuts Labour incumbents - an absurd tactical blunder, especially given Tusc’s risible electoral performances. And in this year’s May local elections too Tusc contested 310 council seats, as well as six Scottish parliamentary constituencies, three regional lists for the Welsh assembly and the Liverpool and Bristol mayoralties.
SPEW had claimed from the beginning that its Tusc coalition could be the basis of a new “mass workers’ party” - a Labour Party mark two, in other words. And the participation of the Rail Maritime and Transport union - the only trade union to have officially backed Tusc - was the straw SPEW grasped at to claim this could actually happen. But surely now it can only be a matter of time before the RMT applies for reaffiliation to Labour (it was forcibly disaffiliated in 2004 because of its support for the Scottish Socialist Party).
And now, it seems, Tusc itself has all but given up on the idea of a “new mass workers’ party”. On October 12 its national steering committee met and eventually got round to issuing a statement a week later, on October 20. It reported that one of the items discussed at this meeting - the first since “Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour Party leader” - was “what role Tusc could play in backing up Jeremy’s leadership by encouraging Labour councillors to join the resistance to the Tories’ continued attacks on local public services, so that Labour can be an anti-austerity party in action as well as words”.4
A rather different orientation, it seems. Whereas before such approaches to Labour councillors were made in order to justify standing against the vast majority of them who refused to cooperate with Tusc, now the declared aim is to make Labour “an anti-austerity party in action as well as words”.
Tellingly the statement continued:
The steering committee also had before it other proposals on how Tusc could campaign in the new political situation created by Jeremy Corbyn’s decisive re-election, including the role of trade unions and that socialists excluded from Labour should be reinstated and socialist organisations allowed to affiliate. These issues will be further discussed at the next meeting in November.
Reading between the lines then, it looks as though Tusc is about to formally dump its original central aim in favour of a new orientation to “historically obsolete Labour” - which, of course, would mean that the coalition itself would then be completely redundant.
After all, SPEW itself has now urged Labour to allow its leading comrades to join the party. Last month The Socialist carried an article entitled ‘Readmit expelled socialists’ (October 26), reporting that “more than 60 socialists” had signed a letter to Labour’s national executive committee “calling for their readmittance to the Labour Party”. Some had been recently excluded, but others were “expelled in the past for supporting the Militant Tendency”.
According to the article,
Since Jeremy Corbyn was first elected as Labour leader a battle has raged within the Labour Party. In essence the struggle taking place in the Labour Party is about in which class’s interests it is going to act - the working class majority in society and the middle class with no hope for the future, or the representatives of the capitalist 1%.
For decades it has acted in the interests of the capitalist establishment, consistently supporting austerity, privatisation and war. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the pro-capitalist elements were struggling to establish an iron grip on the Labour Party, one of their first acts was to expel hundreds of socialists, particularly supporters of the Militant Tendency, now the Socialist Party.
Note that the above statement contains no indication that a radical change occurred in the 1990s, when Labour, according to SPEW’s previous line, was irrevocably transformed from a bourgeois workers’ party to a bourgeois party pure and simple. After all, back in the first half of the 20th century the Labour leadership was “consistently” backing “war”, and at times “austerity”, if not “privatisation”.
But now “a determined struggle needs to be waged to consolidate Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and to transform Labour into a democratic, socialist, anti-austerity party”. And an “essential part of that struggle is campaigning to readmit all those socialists, individuals and organisations who have been expelled or excluded from Labour because of their socialist views”.
The letter itself - whose signatories include comrades Peter Taaffe, Hannah Sell, Clive Heemskerk and Dave Nellist - declares that “many of us who found ourselves outside the Labour Party rightly continued the struggle for socialism through membership of other organisations” and “we have no wish to hide our background”. It ends by stating:
We urge the NEC to boldly undercut the media’s attack not only by admitting us into membership as individuals, but by deciding favourably on requests for affiliation from any socialist organisation that so applies.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership marked the beginning of a new struggle against a capitalist establishment determined to see off all challenges to their interests and we want to play our part in seeing that struggle through to victory.
And in an editorial in the following issue The Socialist turned its attention to Momentum:
... what is needed is an open, democratic, fighting organisation that brings together all who want to fight to transform Labour into an anti-austerity party; whether or not they are currently allowed into the Labour Party by the rightwing machine. Such a force should fight clearly for the transformation of the Labour Party; including the democratisation of its structures - mandatory reselection, restoring trade union rights, readmitting expelled and excluded socialists ... and allowing socialist organisations to affiliate.5
Logically SPEW should now be actively campaigning for unions to affiliate to Labour. After all, if it is right for “socialist organisations to affiliate”, why not trade unions? But it has continued to urge the likes of the RMT and the PSC to steer clear of the party. The argument has been that the right is still in control and, until Labour had been taken out of its hands, the “precious funds of the trade union movement” will continue to be poured down the drain.6 This ignores the fact that unions should not merely content themselves with paying their affiliation fees, but should exercise their collective muscle in their members’ interests so as to decisively shift the balance of power within the party. That would be money well spent!
This weekend, SPEW comrades are gathering in London for their annual Socialism school. Let us hope the process of rethinking not only continues, but does so in a much more honest way. To start with, the comrades should admit that their characterisation of Labour as just another bourgeois party was disastrously mistaken. But, even more importantly, the acceptance that the party remains a vital site for struggle should be followed through in a much more consistent way.
1. The Socialist June 10 2015.
2. The Socialist June 19 2015.
3. The Socialist editorial, July 29 2015.
5. The Socialist November 2 2016.
6. The Socialist October 29 2015.