The left is reduced to campaigning to ‘stop Mandelson’

Socialist Worker clings to Labour

New Labour has committed itself to carrying on where the Tories left off. But, as conference prepares to vote in the ‘Partnership in power’ rule changes, the left is strangled by its own Labourism

The lengths to which some on the British left will go to defend their attachment to the Labour Party are truly remarkable.

A case in point is the Socialist Workers Party. For years the SWP saw it as its solemn duty to issue dire warnings to New Labour that its chances of election would be jeopardised in direct proportion to its adoption of rightwing policies. Only by committing itself to policies directed against the power of big business and in favour of the working class could Labour hope to achieve electoral success, according to many a Socialist Worker editorial.

Strangely, as the opinion polls foretold the margin of a Blair victory in the months before the general election, this advice was quietly dropped. And when the inevitable happened, the SWP ‘analysts’ pronounced that Labour had been elected by a “class vote” (Socialist Review May 1997) despite its overtly pro-capitalist policies.

But now they go even further. Charlie Kimber, writing of Peter Mandelson and his coterie, says: “Their problem is that they are rightwing politicians trying to ride a leftwing mandate” (my emphasis, Socialist Worker August 16). The same issue calls on its front page for “everyone who wants to stop the government adopting Tory policies” to join the SWP’s lobby of the Labour Party conference next month.

So perhaps there is some consistency in the SWP line after all. Unbeknown to the rest of us, Blair must have taken the advice of Socialist Worker prior to the election and accepted a “leftwing mandate”. Unfortunately however, since May 1 “New Labour’s U-turns have mounted” (Socialist Worker August 16) and only now is it adopting aims identical to those of the Conservative Party - ie, the reanimation of British capital.

The idea that only those in the government such as Mandelson and his ilk are on the right is certainly a curious one. Labour MPs who retain any semblance of commitment to workers’ interest, let alone socialism, are very few indeed and almost entirely marginalised. John Prescott, Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Clare Short, Peter Hain - the list of former ‘lefts’ now gracing Blair’s team is endless.

In that respect Mandelson is little different. He may be the grandson of Herbert Morrisson, but he too has ‘left’ credentials. According to Mike Waddington of the Socialist Party, he “marched the Hendon South branch of the Labour Party Young Socialists out of the Labour Party and into the Young Communist League in the early 1970s” (letter to The Guardian August 22). The Mail on Sunday (August 24) quotes former MI5 agent David Shayler to reveal that Mandelson was bugged for three years by British security because of his involvement in leftwing student activism.

The difference with Mandelson is not that he is more rightwing than the others but that he is more coherent in his single-minded dedication to the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party and more ruthless in its application. That strategy requires a Labour Party totally dominated by and subservient to its leadership. “We will not succeed if we return to the days when ministers and party were at odds,” he writes in support of his own candidacy to Labour’s NEC (The Guardian August 19).

Just as Arthur Scargill calls on democrats in the Socialist Labour Party to drop all opposition to any aspect of the SLP leadership’s ‘constitution’ and policies - “Our fight ... is against capitalism, not against each other” (Socialist News August 1997) - Mandelson condemns those in the Labour Party who are “more interested in internal argument” than “taking on the Tories” (The Guardian August 19). The claim that unity can only be achieved through the suppression of opposing views is as old as the hills.

Even The Guardian, Labour’s number one fan among the bourgeois press, is worried that the use of this device is being overdone. Fearing that the silencing of dissenting voices and the imposition of discipline could backfire, its editorial calls on delegates to the September conference to “strike a blow for internal democracy” (August 19). Those who “want to call an urgent halt” are advised to vote for Peter Hain or Ken Livingstone - “the man guaranteed to irritate the ruling elite” - rather than Mandelson in the elections to the NEC.

The Guardian no longer has anything to fear from Livingstone of course. Scuttling to the right along with the rest of his party, Red Ken sets out his ideas for the reform of British capitalism in the same edition of the newspaper:

“The government should intervene to change the priorities of the British economy to favour investment over the short-term consumption of the wealthiest. Corporate taxation must be reformed to favour long-term investment” (August 19).

It is a telling indictment of the state of the British left that its interventions concerning the Labour Party are now expressed in almost identical terms to those found in The Guardian. The defence of the ‘socialist’ clause four, the retention of the union link, the opposition to the ‘Partnership in power’ rule changes - all have been subsumed and overshadowed by the campaign against a single individual. Mandelson and co “could be defeated if Labour members stood up to them”, writes Charlie Kimber (Socialist Worker August 16).

“As people grow more fed up with Labour,” he concludes,

“it will be disastrous to keep quiet. Yet there is no reason why socialists should remain silent, and if we speak out we can find a ready audience among those who voted for change in the general election.”

Notice how the Labour rank and file merges so seamlessly with the “socialists” - “we” being the SWP. But that is hardly surprising, given the bankruptcy of the organisation’s Labourism. Like so much of the left, it seems incapable of imagining the achievement of working class gains except through the medium of the Labour Party or another social democratic clone.

The tactic of intervening within Labour - with the idea of replacing it as the mass party of the working class through building a revolutionary organisation - has long since been discarded in favour of defending at all costs its existence as a reformist barrier.

Peter Manson