Labour can?t be wished away

?Diane Abbott says she supports the priority pledges of the Socialist Alliance,? said comrade Anne Mc Shane in an all-London CPGB meeting a few days after the general election. ?OK, if that?s so, we should now hold her to account. We should openly proclaim that we support her, that she is in part our SA MP and seek to develop an ongoing deeper political relationship. How would Tony Blair feel about having an SA fifth column in the ranks of his party??

?Diane Abbott says she supports the priority pledges of the Socialist Alliance,? said  comrade Anne Mc Shane in an all-London CPGB meeting a few days after the general election. ?OK, if that?s so, we should now hold her to account. We should openly proclaim that we support her, that she is in part our SA MP and seek to develop an ongoing deeper political relationship. How would Tony Blair feel about having an SA fifth column in the ranks of his party??

As we analyse the general election results, it is clear that our attitude to Labour lefts, and to the Labour Party itself, needs to be serious and correct. The Socialist Alliance majority simply wrapped themselves in old Labour clothes and expected disillusioned old Labourites to flock to us. But that constituency is a shrinking pool - that is why New Labour was able to maintain its stranglehold over working class voters. In any case our task is surely to break the mass of Labour-voting workers from Labourism. Unless we formulate a consistent, coherent strategy to do that, we will remain on the fringes.

Comrade Mc Shane challenged Abbott to say where she stood on the SA pledges at a Hackney hustings meeting shortly before the election (see Weekly Worker June 7). As we have reported, the local SA had been embroiled in controversy over its attitude to left Labour candidates. Socialist Workers Party members refused to countenance any sort of active political engagement with the Labour lefts. This passivity reduced many SWP comrades to the absurd position of actually voting for Arthur Scargill?s stillborn Socialist Labour Party in Abbott?s constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

Thus, such comrades gave their support to an ultra-Stalinite rump of political odd-balls and has-beens, a nasty little sect whose candidate in the same hustings meeting refused to voice support for the SA?s priority pledges for no reason other than ?anti-Trot? sectarianism. Meanwhile, we have a left Labour MP, in what is possibly the most leftwing borough in England, publicly disavowing any notion that she is a ?lackey of Tony Blair? and giving her backing to the platform of a left of Labour group challenging her party in nearly 100 seats in England and Wales. Abbott should have been supported and campaigned for. What a wasted opportunity!

The SWP leadership?s foolishly undifferentiated slogan of ?Vote socialist where you can, Labour where you must? is in no small measure to blame. It manages to end up in the worst of all possible worlds. Either it encourages passivity and gives a blank cheque to Labour, or it delivers a wasted vote to a sterile sect for no better reason than it is not the Labour Party. This is not good enough.

In microcosm Hackney emphasises the fact that if the SA is to develop as a genuine alternative to Labour, competing to actually supplant Blair?s party as the ?natural? party the working class supports, it must develop more sophisticated tactics than either auto-Labourism or auto anti-Labourism.

Historically, the relationship between the left and right in the Labour Party has been a symbiotic one. The right presented a ?moderate?, ?realistic? and fiercely patriotic face to the establishment, reassuring them that the interests of British imperialism were safe in its hands. The left of the party had a radical reforming visage - one with an expressly working class appeal. This helped secure Labour?s class conscious electoral base throughout the 20th century. It was the dynamic relationship between the two wings that made the party such a potent force. The right permanently ?betrayed? in the interests of capital. The left criticised and held out the promise that ?next time? will be different. Despite the genuine contempt the strands of Labourism often displayed for each other, they were in fact mutually dependent - with the right nearly always in the ascendancy, of course.

The former Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman captured the essence of the relationship well in his Diaries: ?The Labour Party required militants ? politically conscious socialists to do the work of organising the constituencies. But since these militants tended to be ?extremists?, a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm ? while excluding them from effective power.?

The defeats of our class domestically and internationally in the 1980s and 90s have created a mutation in the hybrid beast that is the Labour Party. The pro-working class element of the party has shrunk dramatically. Blair feels no need to pander to the traditional left wing in his party when the working class is regarded as no threat and notions of alternatives to existing society seem - in the aftermath of the debacle of the USSR - wacky anti-capitalist utopias.

It is not impossible that this could change dramatically. Were the class struggle to hot up, a Labour left could emerge or be re-invented to ensure that anger was channelled into safe avenues. The idea that this historical possibility is precluded is self-serving nonsense. It is peddled by groups such as the Socialist Party, who - in a totally untheorised way, of course - tell us that Labour is now simply a ?bourgeois party?, no different in essence from the Tories. This crudity justifies the SP?s separation from a party that was its host organism for over 50 years. However, it tells us nothing about Labour and the tasks of genuine revolutionaries in relation to it.

Labour retains an electoral hold over the working class - even as it ?deLabourises? itself. This is a measure of the extent to which our class has been depoliticised by the terrible setbacks of the last century. It underlines that - despite the changes in Labour - the key strategic task of the British revolution remains breaking the stranglehold of this counterrevolutionary party.

This will require time, patience, the right strategy and tactical skill. We must stand against any suggestions that we should dismiss Labour as one undifferentiated reactionary bloc. We must learn how to use internal tensions in this party to promote the project of working class independence and genuine socialism. In this, understanding the positive experience of the past is vital.

The attitude of the Communist Party and its Provisional Central Committee is often caricatured as being uniformly hostile to Labour and in favour of just standing against it anywhere and everywhere we can. This is nonsense of course, as Anne Mc Shane has illustrated in Hackney. We favour systematic work in the ranks of the Labour Party. We believe that under certain conditions electoral support can be offered to it. Equally the leadership of the party could be approached for joint work and political cooperation. Were times and constitutions to change, it could be a principled tactic to attempt to affiliate.

Our approach flows from the best practices of the CPGB in the last century. In particular initiatives such as the National Left Wing Movement. Here was a CP-inspired left opposition in the Labour Party of the 1920s  that dwarfs later amateurish efforts, including those of various Trotskyist entryists.

After the bureaucratic exclusion of communists from the Labour Party in 1925, the NLWM was founded to draw together the disparate strands of the left and provide them with a coherent programme. At its founding conference, the organisation reported that ?65 groups had been established: 24 in London, six in Wales, five in Lancashire, nine in Yorkshire, four in the Midlands, three in naval ports and the remainder in other parts of the country? (CPGB The Communist International, between the fifth and sixth world congresses July 1928, p122).

The circulation of the NLWM?s weekly paper - the Sunday Worker, edited by the communist William Paul -  climbed to 100,000. Time and time again, the Labour leadership were forced to lop off whole branches and entire regions of the party that had been contaminated by the NLWM menace.

Of course, history cannot be repeated mechanically. However, the need for thoroughgoing organisational and political coordination is crystal clear. Neil Thompson - our Socialist Alliance candidate in St Helens - described the chaotic events that led him to break with Labour (Weekly Worker May 24). Essentially, an individual process.

Blair?s rightism  inevitably creates spontaneous left opposition. Should we be content to see this opposition leave the party in dribs and drabs?

Similarly, we should have ?done a Hackney? nationwide. Labour candidates should have been approached to state openly where they stood on the SA priority pledges. Electoral support backed up with independent campaigning should have been conducted for those who were prepared to endorse. No support should have been offered to those who refused.

This approach makes far more sense than wasting our time with meaningless debates over whether the leftwinger Dennis Skinner is sufficiently rightwing to allow us to stand against him (an SA executive committee in the lead-up to the election filled up its time with this rather esoteric discussion). Skinner, along with all the rest of the Labour candidates asking for the support of our class, should have been approached with the SA?s priority pledges. By his response, he defines himself as leftwing or not leftwing, as being worthy or not worthy of our support.

Of course, there is another lesson here. As in the 1920s, the truly effective work in the Labour Party is predicated on the unity of revolutionaries in a single organisation. In contrast to what some in the alliance foolishly suggest, the democratic unity of Marxists is not counterposed to an active and productive engagement with workers who still look to Labour. Actually, it presupposes it.

The election results underline that we cannot wish Labour away. We need correct, revolutionary tactics to break the grip of Labourism over our class. And we need a genuine revolutionary party to implement those correct tactics.

Mark Fischer