Euro rebel defies Blair
Ken Coates talks to the Weekly Worker about the need to build a fightback
That are your thoughts on your expulsion from the Labour Party?
It was all a case of parliamentary spin-doctoring and deliberate confusion-mongering. I have had no interview, never mind a trial. It is extraordinary that the European Socialist Group jumped at the word of the British Labour Party. I didn’t want to leave the socialist group and I get on well with its leader, but she felt she had no option but to go along with the wishes of the Labour group.
It is not true to say we joined the parliamentary greens. I never considered joining them. All that happened was they offered to provide a letterbox and act as honest broker in our dispute with the Labour leadership. You have to apply to join a European parliamentary group. That requires at least two interviews, including with the group as a whole. None of that happened.
The Labour leadership could have found out the true situation, but the truth is they didn’t want to know. So that is the end of a lovely relationship.
You may be interested to know that I have now applied to join the Gauche Unifieé Europeénne, the group that contains the French Communist Party and the Italian Communist Refoundation.
How long have you been dissatisfied with the Labour Party?
Ever since Tony Blair was elected it has been brewing up. He made it plain from the beginning he wanted to reform the welfare state. Now we see the cuts, the war on lone parents, the attacks on invalidity benefit.
I am not just talking about cuts in the next parliamentary offensive, but cuts that are going ahead right now. My post is already full of people having their benefits cut off. Most of these people voted Labour, but this is something different, something they did not vote for.
When did the crisis come to a head?
When they instructed us not to speak out in public about changes in the election process for candidates to the European parliament. We refused to be gagged. These are reforms of a most undemocratic kind and a huge regulation of the system. For example, my own constituency covers three million people from Northampton to Sheffield. Yet people would not be voting for individuals, but for party lists picked by the leaders. Never mind ‘one person, one vote’: this is ‘one leader, one vote’.
What is the main task we face now?
How to develop a network of people uniting the various struggles. We have put up a flag and people are already writing to us. We need to attract welfare campaign groups and those representing the disabled.
How do you view the development of a network of Socialist Alliances?
The Socialist Alliances provide one area of work, but they are only a small part of the constituency being hammered by New Labour.
Have you considered joining the Socialist Labour Party?
No, I have not considered the SLP. They have a firm position on Europe which I am strongly against. I am for the unity of the European working class.
There is a sizeable SLP minority who would agree with you.
I am very keen to talk to them all. We need an open dialogue. I am in favour of a pluralistic movement containing different tendencies such as those they organised in the French Socialist Party. At present all the different groups are in powerful disagreement and we are not able to unite our efforts.
Are you in favour of a new working class party?
The idea to unite might come about, but until then it is too early to talk about a new party. The situation in the old party was that only 47 rebelled in the recent vote. That was a great victory, yet still a defeat from the point of view of the lone parents. We have to bridge that gap by creating a sense that we’re all moving in the same direction of opposition. Everybody thinks they’re isolated, yet many people are thinking those thoughts.
So we must get the movement first. You can’t blueprint it. We must unite people to have a go and, if enough do, you can have a movement. Then you can really have out all the arguments.
What is your view of the Labour Party historically?
I was 40 years in the Labour Party, but it has been a battle all the time. Recently I was happiest when John Smith was leader. He was an old-fashioned moderate, committed to full employment. He wanted to introduce Keynsian methods on a European level in order to create jobs. That was the most hopeful time in recent years.
Undoubtedly over half a century the position has improved under Labour governments. Not as much as some of us would have liked, but working people have been defended nevertheless.
There were three strands to the Labour Party over this period. Firstly what you might call the ideal position of democratic socialism, summed up perhaps by clause four. The second function was to organise an elected presence, both locally and nationally, and the third was to protect people who belonged to our natural constituency. For example, measures were introduced to help the trade unions to improve wages and conditions, ensure safety at work, etc, and legislate accordingly; also to help the poor through the welfare state, the health service and state education.
These three functions were still being discharged under John Smith, but now that distinctive doctrine has gone, to be replaced by neo-liberalism. You could say that the elected presence has not gone, but the social composition of the parliamentary Labour Party has changed rather adversely. There has been a triple roll-back.
How would you describe yourself politically?
Broadly as a libertarian socialist. I am not for centralisation or a directed economy. As a lifelong advocate of workers’ control, I am not in favour of capitalism. Most of the labour movement are for taming it, but abolishing it is a tall order. It is a matter of how people organise themselves. You can have workers’ control under capitalism. Workers themselves can decide how to organise their labour. You can’t have self-management - no: but you can have workers’ control.
Yes, there would still be a profit motive, but you can have a collective where the workforce is sovereign and elects the directorate. If capital is needed, it could be borrowed from a bank or state funds and the increments would belong to the workers. Today workers have no say over the disposition of their labour - they are wage slaves.