Tory policies yes, crisis of expections, no

Unity against Blair

SWP and the left must break from auto-Labourism

New Labour has continued with Tory policies, betraying millions of workers” - that has been the standard battle cry of the Socialist Workers Party, as it mobilised for this weekend’s lobby of the Labour Party conference at Bournemouth.

But the question must be asked: in what sense can the New Labour project be viewed as a ‘betrayal’? Surely Blair made his intentions only too clear long before the general election of May 1997. He went out of his way to dampen any expectations workers might have had that New Labour would deliver anything more than the most meagre of crumbs.

There was to be no repeal of the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation. No meaningful tilting the balance in favour of workers’ rights. No return to full employment policies. No massive cuts in the arms bill. The most that “millions of workers” were expecting was a marginal improvement compared with the Thatcher-Major governments. Things could hardly get worse - or so they thought.

The SWP, however, was fully aware of exactly what New Labour had in mind. Yet it could not bring itself to break from its traditional call come election time - ‘Vote Labour, but ...’ True, there was a caveat. Instead of urging workers to cast their votes only for Blair’s party everywhere, the SWP gave the most confusing, ambiguous and pitiful advice: ‘Vote Labour or socialist’.

As we were to learn within 18 months, this pathetic slogan was not merely the result of woolly-mindedness. In which constituencies, in what circumstances were workers supposed to ignore their ‘traditional social democratic party’? Just who were the socialists the SWP deemed worthy of support? After all, the deeply sectarian SWP leadership usually makes it a rule never to mention the existence of other left groups - a partial exception has been Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party - and likes to imply that it provides the only working class alternative (“Join the socialists” is its weekly recruiting call in Socialist Worker). Yet the SWP as usual pointedly refused to stand itself, leaving the field clear for the SLP, Socialist Party in England and Wales, CPGB, and Scottish Socialist Alliance (now the SSP). Before 1997 it had routinely insisted that for a revolutionary group to contest elections consisted in itself of “electoralism”.

No, the SWP’s position at the general election did not result from confused thinking alone. Primarily it was a compromise - the first public sign of the deep divisions within the organisation’s top committees. On the one hand there is the old guard, epitomised by Julie Waterson, who warns against repeating the “disaster” of the Stechford by-election contested by Paul Foot more than two decades ago, when “the socialists” were beaten by the National Front. This faction on the political committee is equally dismissive of left cooperation in general and wants to continue along the same old path - leaving elections to the Labour Party, while the SWP continues to focus exclusively on trade union-type questions - in other words economism, but carried out in the name of revolutionary action, of course.

On the other hand there are those around national organiser Chris Bambery who, given New Labour’s headlong rush to the right, can no longer stomach the thought of supporting Blair’s party. Obviously, if you have consistently been telling your members to automatically back the bourgeois workers’ party (despite your proclaimed aversion to “electoralism”), you cannot simply switch to abstentionism - not without a great deal of discomfort at any rate.

So the SWP began to contemplate not only candidates, but electoral blocs. The first concrete example of this was in the North Defoe council by-election in Hackney in January of this year, when the local SWP organisation gave its backing to the CPGB’s candidate, Anne Murphy, standing for Socialist Unity. Then, in what seemed to be an indication of the Bambery faction’s victory, the SWP began to discuss with others the possibility of a left slate for elections in May to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, and in June for the EU elections.

But this new position was not without its contradictions. Both factions seemed to be united around one thing: that the election of a New Labour government would soon provoke a “crisis of expectations”. It was a position echoed, to one degree or another, by the Socialist Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Socialist Outlook, etc. But the SWP was not content with predicting the imminence of an upsurge in working class combativity: it kept insisting that the explosive fightback was already beginning. The absurdity of this can be seen, even if it were to be judged solely on strike statistics, from the most recent figures: in the 12 months to June a mere 259,700 days were lost through industrial action. Just 105,200 workers out of 27 million employed were involved.

And what of a political opposition to Blair? In fact the largest demonstration by far since the election of New Labour has not come from the left, but from the rightwing Countryside Alliance. A large proportion of the 200,000 who marched through London in March 1998 were actually supporters of the Conservative Party. Similarly this weekend’s SWP-sponsored working class lobby of the Labour conference, despite winning the backing of the likes of Tony Benn, Tariq Ali and NUJ general secretary John Foster, is likely to be rivalled - in terms of numbers - by the Countryside Alliance, who will once more be mobilising behind pro-hunting slogans. CA claims it will have “a symbolic” 16,000 in Bournemouth on Tuesday September 28 - “one for each job loss” if hunting with hounds is banned.

Be that as it may, if, as the SWP ludicrously maintained, workers’ anger with Blair was soaring, surely this ought to be reflected in high votes for leftwing candidates? Not surprisingly the organisation was reluctant to see the vacuousness of its analysis completely exposed. When its candidates in Scotland and Wales could only win one to two percent in the devolution elections, the Waterson faction was looking for an excuse to pull the plugs on June 10. This came with the announcement that Scargill was to head the SLP’s list in London. In contrast to king Arthur’s motley crew, the Socialist Alliance electoral bloc was no longer considered “viable”. First the SWP, then the Independent Labour Network, SO, the AWL and finally SPEW all abandoned the field, leaving the CPGB to stand alone.

So where does that leave the SWP now? For example in next year’s London mayoral and assembly elections, Scargill is bound to ignore all approaches from the left for electoral unity, just as he did last spring. Already the signs are not good. Although it sent Rob Hoveman to the August 1 relaunch of the London Socialist Alliance election bloc, the SWP was conspicuous by its absence from the follow-up meeting two weeks ago. Yet it has never been clearer than today that what is needed is a united left alternative at the polls to challenge Blair and begin the task of breaking workers from Labour.

Ken Cameron may have called for ending of the Labour-union link at the TUC, but he specifically ruled out talk of a new party. The SLP has now definitively failed as an attempt to win over the left union bureaucrats. But a new impetus could yet come from another quarter. As the Labour Party faithful gather in Bournemouth, Ken Livingstone is still talking up his own candidature for London mayor. In view of the fact that he will surely be barred by Millbank gerrymandering, this week could see him make a further move.

If Livingstone’s London Independent Labour becomes a reality, there must be no moralistic refusal to give critical support to his campaign. Yes, he was an enthusiastic ally of bomber Blair over Kosova. But remember, comrades, Labour’s wholehearted backing of the World War I carnage did not prevent Lenin from advocating the kind of “support” a rope gives a “hanged man”. What is important is the opening up of a space for working class politics and a real movement.

Those who will not abandon auto-Labourism will be left on the sidelines. The left must seize whatever opportunity the new situation presents.

Peter Manson