Seize the moment
Another small left split from New Labour now appears inevitable, giving the revolutionary left a new opportunity
Clearly we live in a period of reaction. But it is a period of reaction of a special type - ie, one that contains within it positive potentialities, possibly even the seeds of its own negation.
The birth and formation of the Socialist Labour Party was one such indicator. Another sign can be found in the European parliament. There has been rumbling discontent from Labour MEPs over the rightist drift by Tony Blair, taking particular objection to the proposal for a ‘closed list’ system - a device which enables the leadership to rid itself of ‘undisciplined’ and ‘troublesome’ (ie, left) MEPs. This band of MEP malcontents have been labelled the ‘Strasbourg Six’, and there has been recurrent speculation that they would split from the 62-strong Labour group in order to stand as independent Labour candidates.
At long last, two of the ‘six’ have gone public and announced their intentions - and have been duly expelled from the Labour and Socialist groups in the European parliament. The two are familiar suspects - Ken Coates, MEP for North Nottingham and Chesterfield, and Hugh Kerr, MEP for West Essex and East Herts. As The Observer put it, “Both have along history as leftwing rebels ... They claim they could tap into the well of political discontent that is spreading beyond the traditional left to include the supporters of full benefits for single mothers and the disabled” (December 28).
Both Coates and Kerr have announced their intention to stand against Labour. Writing in the same paper, they declared: “We have decided to consult our party co-workers and supporters to see if we can lay the basis for contesting the next European parliament election in June 1999 in opposition to, and with an alternative to, the Blair government’s social policies.”
Coates also told the 4,000 party members in his Euro-constituency that he would be ashamed to stand for the “authoritarian and intolerant” New Labour, describing the Blairite platform as “indistinguishable from Old Tories”; while Kerr told his members: “The decision to abolish free education and introduce tuition fees and abolish grants in higher education has breached the whole of Labour philosophy.” According to Kerr and Coates six other MEP colleagues are privately considering similar action - if Blair continues his rightward stampede.
The introduction of proportional representation for the 1999 European elections provides an opportunity for left candidates like the Strasbourg Two - as they have pointed out. With as little as nine percent of the vote in the London region it will be possible for the left to win a Euro-seat - and it is also quite possible that New Labour will lose up to half its seats. Another bonus is that as sitting MEPs they will attract EU funding of £25,000 each towards general election expenses.
In all likelihood, of course, they will be expelled from the Labour Party itself by the NEC when it meets on January 28.
This ought to be viewed as a positive development, which needs active encouragement. No doubt some leftists will dismiss the Kerr/Coates initiative out of hand, on the grounds that it does not provide the “revolutionary programme” necessary for the class. Of course that is true, just as it is also true that the two have been motivated at least in part by careerist considerations. Nevertheless we must use every opportunity that presents itself in the interests of independent working class organisation.
Kerr and Coates have spoken of the need to form a Socialist Alliance. For the left here is an opportunity to overcome its inveterate sectarianism and make a mass impact - surely a step in the direction of a united class party. The Kerr/Coates grouping in Strasbourg at the very least could become a popular focus for resistance - and create more space for the articulation of left views.
There are positive signs. Hugh Kerr shared a platform with Tommy Sheridan at a press conference in Glasgow under the Scottish Socialist Alliance banner on December 30 and is likely to stand in the coming elections to the Scottish parliament as an SSA candidate. Allan Green, national secretary of the SSA, said: “We envisage Hugh Kerr being part of the full Alliance slate for the Scottish parliamentary and European elections in 1999.”
Kerr said he was “interested in talking to the Scottish Socialist Alliance because they have managed to unite the left outside the Labour Party in Scotland and it may be the kind of body we can work with in Scotland if we develop an alternative slate of Labour members”.
Ken Coates sent a message of support to the meeting of the Socialist Alliances Network in November, while another dissident MEP, Michael Hindley, addressed the conference in person.
Communists welcome the Kerr/Coates split. It provides us with an opening through which we will argue and fight for the type of organisation the working class really needs if it is to liberate itself - a single, reforged Communist Party.