AWL election contest

As Tony Blair continues to pull New Labour to the right, to the stage when the party’s pretence to be some kind of vehicle for working class advance is almost a distant memory, slowly but surely the left is being forced to abandon its previous automatic support for Labour.

A case in point is the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Along with most left groups, it advocated a Labour vote on May 1 1997, in full knowledge that Blair’s government had not the slightest intention of implementing any measures at all in favour of working people. But, according to Workers’ Liberty, “Breaking the icy Tory grip is the only way to begin to open British politics up again ... It is the only way for the labour movement to begin to move forward again” (my emphasis, April 1997). The AWL persuaded itself that Blair was “likely to be more vulnerable to working class pressure than the Tories ever could be”.

It hardly seems worth the bother of asking the obvious questions just over two years later. Is the labour movement moving forward? Has Blair been “more vulnerable”? What “working class pressure”? If voting Labour really had been the “only way”, then clearly our cause would be hopeless. But, as we predicted, the “crisis of expectations”, so eagerly awaited by so many, failed to materialise.

The left got it wrong - even if most of them do not care to admit it openly. However, actions speak louder than words, and the welcome decision by the AWL to begin at long last to contest elections, to stand against Labour, represents a glimmer of recognition that the working class needs to press forward its own independent political alternative.

For this reason the AWL’s participation in the aborted Socialist Alliance electoral bloc for the EU elections, its more active cooperation with local alliances and its standing in local elections should be viewed as a positive step. Leading AWL activist Jill Mountford is fighting a south London council by-election on July 15. She is standing in Churchdown ward, Lewisham, as ‘Socialist, defending jobs and public services’. The intention had been to stand as ‘Socialist Alliance’, but strangely Lewisham SA had been unable to obtain the necessary accreditation in time from Dave Nellist, the registered ‘leader’ of the national Socialist Alliance, or his London representative, Julie Donovan of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Written confirmation is necessary in order to comply with the Registration of Political Parties Act.

Nobody should expect comrade Mountford to run the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates close on July 15. However, circumstances are reasonably favourable for the intervention of a socialist candidate. Firstly, the by-election comes just a few weeks after the well publicised victory of SPEW’s Ian Page in another Lewisham ward. Comrade Page himself has been helping the AWL campaign. Secondly, comrade Mountford was able to mobilise members and supporters who were in London attending the June 19-20 AWL school for mass leafleting and canvassing. And thirdly, it is less than two years since another candidate bearing the name ‘socialist’ contested a Churchdown by-election. Terry Dunn won 104 votes (5.5%) for the Socialist Labour Party in July 1997.

Although the AWL has been working with Lewisham SA alongside SPEW, it seems that some elements have been less than happy with the AWL’s complete absence from comrade Page’s successful campaign to win back his council seat in Pepys ward, which he first held as a Labour Party member. Replying to a “Lewisham council worker” who had criticised this non-appearance in the previous issue of the Welfare State Network’s Action for Solidarity, the AWL’s semi-official fortnightly, comrade David Pendleton of Lewisham AWL writes:

“It is no secret that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has had an ongoing discussion about the Labour Party and working class representation ... In the light of the changing situation in the Labour Party, our position was altered at our national conference earlier this year.

“We were unable to help in the Pepys by-election because, firstly, our comrades were tied up in building the Left Unity event that a number of notable Socialist Party members had agreed to speak at, although none of them turned up, and because some of our comrades are trying to keep Labour Party membership cards and were well known to Labour Party members in Pepys” (Action for Solidarity July 2).

The concern about retaining Labour membership seems to have diminished somewhat within a couple of weeks. AWL members of Blair’s party in Lewisham have been noted, including by Labour canvassers, backing comrade Mountford’s intervention.

The AWL may have “altered” its position, but there is no doubt that it propagates an outlook entirely within the narrow frame of practical reformism. It stands before the electorate as a Labourite Janus - campaigning for “a working class alternative to New Labour policies”, while at the same time looking back to a mythical Labour Party. The address states:

“Lewisham already has one socialist councillor. Returning another socialist committed to truly representing the interests of local people, exposing Labour’s cuts and privatisation policies and campaigning for the Labour council to deliver what they were voted in for would be a big step forwards in making politics work for us and not against us.”

The AWL is, or pretends to be, unaware that the Labour council was “voted in” a year ago on an openly Blairite programme of continuing its “cuts and privatisation policies”.

After initial consultations with Lewisham SA comrade Mountford’s address was drawn up by the AWL alone. It does not result from a series of lowest-common-denominator compromises, but from the AWL comrades’ own considerations. Here is the total list of demands it carries:

The address concludes:

“All this and more besides could be paid for by taxing the rich and big business. Taking back the tens of billions of pounds given away to the rich by the Tories in tax cuts kept in place by New Labour.”

It would be difficult to come up with a more dismal set of demands for workers to aspire to. The AWL is explicitly calling for a return to the situation before Thatcher, when gas, electricity, water and railways were nationalised; when higher income tax paid for better “public services”. In other words, a return to the social democratic consensus, a return to old Labour governments like those of Wilson and Callaghan. In fact just 20 years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a Labour politician - left or right - who would have opposed any of those demands or their equivalents.

Is this your vision of ‘socialism’, comrades of the AWL? Why do you even fail to mention the word in your election material? There is not a hint of the need for workers’ own self-activity, of a new society, of the real political questions under capitalism that our class must adopt as its own if it is to free itself. Not a word about self-determination for Ireland, Scotland and Wales; abolition of the monarchy and the second chamber; Nato’s Balkans adventure and Kosovar independence; rights for women and gays. The address is also strangely silent on the environment - at least the greens have some sort of global alternative to neo-liberalism.

For an economistic AWL workers need not concern themselves with such matters. They are to remain a slave class, hoping for better conditions and a (slightly) bigger slice of the cake. They must begin with vague, sub-reformist platitudes before tackling high politics.

The AWL is distancing itself from the Labour Party’s structures. But it is as though it dare not discard Labourism. Communists must do all they can to encourage that break, to pose the need for a Leninist alternative. That is why we call for critical support for Jill Mountford in Churchdown.

Peter Manson