Comrades around the country have told me how heartened they are to see that the left in London finally seem to be getting their act together. The first few meetings of the London Socialist Alliance of the new year have been business-like, productive and conducted in a fraternal manner. Of course, important differences of approach remain. Most importantly, the stance of the Socialist Party in England and Wales remains fraught with contradiction.
First, it indicates that if the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation presses ahead with its stated intention of standing a full slate of candidates for this May's Greater London Authority elections, it will get the votes of the SP. The LSA remains in negotiations with the CATP, but these have proved fruitless so far. Whether the SP would vote for the CATP slate, against the LSA's has not yet been clarified. This would be an important mistake in our view.
Second, the SP has a big difficulty with Livingstone. If he splits from Labour to stand as an independent, then there seems to be no problem. The Socialist has consistently told readers that "if Livingstone really wanted to offer the socialist alternative Londoners need, he would leave the Labour Party and call for a new workers' party on a clear fighting programme" (November 5 1999) - ideally, he should adopt a version of the SP perspectives, in other words. However, what if this pleasant scenario does not unfold. Suppose he stands as an independent on a non-SP platform? Or, even more problematically for the SP, what if he actually manages to win the Labour nomination, in the teeth of the bitter hostility and outright gerrymandering of the Labour mandarins? How could the SP then advocate a vote for a man standing as the candidate of a party the SP has characterised as being purely bourgeois, as having no working class content left in it at all?
For us, the there are no such qualms. The very fact of the Livingstone challenge and the form it takes underlines that Labour remains a bourgeois workers' party, albeit operating in very peculiar historical circumstances. However much he might protest his loyalty if he wins the official nomination, 'Red Ken' would be a rebel candidate, sharply at odds with the Labour electoral slate he supposedly heads. Under these circumstances, the principled position would be to call for a vote for Livingstone and against Labour. The LSA should fight to attach itself to Livingstone in the minds of the electorate, so that both would be a mass working class protest vote against the pro-market policies of Blair and the Labour apparatus.
But what could the SP say having definitively characterised the Labour Party as a bourgeois party pure and simple? Its confused and sectarian reaction to the Socialist Workers' Party's perfectly principled lobby of last year's Labour party conference illustrated its difficulties.
Peter Taaffe, the key figure in the organisation, went as far as to publicly denounce the lobby in a public meeting. "As Blair is totally insulated from workers - he has his money from big business - the lobby is a waste of time . we are not supporting the lobby", he bluntly told his audience (Weekly Worker September 16 1999). On the day, the SP actually backtracked and handed out a leaflet stating that "[we support] this demonstration against the government" as it was "an expression of anger against the government's attacks on working people and their families" (SP leaflet 'For a new workers party', September 26 1999). Although the leaflet reminded protesters that the SP had "consistently pointed out that Blair's Labour Party can no longer be considered a workers' party", its only criticism of the action was the feeble comment that "it would have been better if the organisers of today's event had called it as a protest rather than a lobby".
The furore around Livingstone poses the same sort of problem, only writ large. The SP has simply asserted the claim that Blair's Labour has ceased to be a bourgeois workers' party, it has never seriously attempted to theoretically explain what would be a pivotal development in the workers' movement in this country. In truth the real motivation for this new turn came not from an honest appraisal of the dynamics of New Labour, but from the narrow sect interests of the SP and its organisational predecessors. A makeshift excuse was invented to justify the abandonment of the deep entryist strategy - ironically itself justified by the spurious and positively dangerous notion that the Labour Party was simply a "workers party" and that all attempts to build independently of it, including the formation of the Communist Party in 1920, were presumably ill-fated sectarian adventures.
Clearly, Peter Taaffe and his leadership clique believe that the world should be made to turn around the sectarian pinhead of the SP and its parochial needs. When it was embedded inside this bourgeois workers' party, apparently Labour was the party of the working class and even a viable vehicle for socialism: since it was purged in the late 1980s/early 90s, independent work has been justified by the assertion that Labour has become purely a "bourgeois" party.
Today's SP flimsy position even contrasts to what it said at the moment of its political predecessor's departure from Kinnock's party. Then it was emphasised by the leadership majority that "there is no proposal to abandon a long-term orientation towards the Labour party and a long-term tactic of entry" ('For the Scottish turn: against dogmatic methods in though and action', September 1991, p8). The turn to independent work was characterised as "a temporary switch to more open work". The new assessment of Labour serves the needs of making that "temporary switch" permanent; it has never been rigorously debated. Had it been, the current controversy would still have proved it wrong, but then SP activists in London might have been less theoretically adrift.
In however inarticulate, refracted and secondary a way, the success of Livingstone's challenge to Blair's regime clearly reflects mass, primarily working class discontent with Labour in power. Therefore, a vote for Livingstone - even if he manages to become the official Labour candidate - is a blow against New Labour, a tactic that can open up masses of people to the project of the reconstitution of a working class politically. In other words, just like the SWP-initiated Labour party lobby last year, it would be a legitimate "expression of anger against the government's attacks on working people and their families" (SP leaflet, September 26 1999).
Despite at the moment being more cautious than most, SP comrades could still play a constructive and valuable role in the challenge to Blairism in the capital. The tensions and contradictions in their positions that I have highlighted here have not yet fully run their course. After mid-February and the decision on the Labour mayoral candidate, they will become questions of not simply tactical manoeuvre, but of the continued existence of Taaffe's Socialist Party in England and Wales.