Alternative to New Labour?

George Monbiot cuts a vaguely interesting figure through his appearances in the pages of The Guardian, Channel 4 and at various forums held by Globalise Resistance and the like. As a leading authority on the new anti-capitalism movement, he presents a middle road between the revolutionary left and the Desmond Tutu/Bono axis. Twenty or 30 years ago, while the equivalent of his politics might have been found within some pressure group or even perhaps the Euro wing of the old CPGB, most probably it would have been contained within the Labour Party. Today his politics inhabit a radical reformist space that now exists largely outside of New Labour. Monbiot has to date concentrated his fire on an array of multinational corporations, environmental polluters, producers of GM crops and western warmongers. However, his 'solutions' have had an almost surreal eccentricity with the human element as an optional add-on to the environmentalist schemas. However, there has been some shift of late in favour of social issues which have propelled him into the territory you would expect to see occupied by the working class left. Therefore his recent Guardian article ('Wreckers unite', February 19) will be of interest to communists and socialists and no doubt will have the editorial team at Red Pepper leaping with joy at this example of red/green convergence. Monbiot finishes his article thus: "It is not hard to see why the unions are reluctant to let go. Labour was its creation and its construction was an extraordinary achievement. But the creature has lumbered away from them and it works now for those they sought to oppose. Only by building a new one can they hope to lure it back." His alternative, however, is not one predicated on Labour's working class base at all. Rather he paints a depressing picture of "the Greens, the Socialist Alliance, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and perhaps even the Liberal Democrats" coming together to create a "radical opposition" capable of winning millions of votes from New Labour. But the best he can come up with is a politics that is just as top-down and hostile to the working class as that of the establishment parties. Monbiot's untypical - and unconvincing - dalliance in 'class politics' can perhaps be put down to the recent mild upturn in industrial struggle, the election of some left trade union leaders and perhaps the courtship of the Socialist Workers Party. He quite astutely identifies the lack of logic in the Labour-union relationship, noting that the CBI, "which does not give the party a penny, swings far more weight with Tony Blair than all the hard-earned millions scraped together by the people Labour is supposed to represent". Monbiot seems to relish the prospect of workers lining up to vote for well-meaning individuals such as himself - a kind of 21st century Sidney Webb, the Fabian socialist who hated 1917 but looked to Stalin's Soviet Union as a new form of "civilisation", where the workers were happy to do what they were told. Certainly Monbiot would cry foul at being linked to such politics, but we must be clear that his top-down approach has nothing in common with the working class vision of socialism from below. How then should the Socialist Alliance react to such musings - not least his suggestion that the workers (or rather union bosses) should join forces with others widely viewed as being to the left of Labour, with the aim of creating a new red-green alliance? Some on the left no doubt place their waste in the recycling bin, purchase Ecover washing powder and have already gone veggie so as not to appear lagging behind the fashionable green consensus. Certainly during the 1990s class struggle in Britain and internationally has been at a low ebb. This paper has often described the current reality as a period of reaction of a special type - ie, without the firing squads, but featuring low levels of industrial disputes and a decline in the trade unions and the organisations of the left. In this period a good number of the radically minded have been thrust into the dead end of single-issue and green politics, localism and/or third worldism. The green parties across Europe have partially filled the void once occupied by the traditional social democratic parties, now scuttling rapidly to the right, although in practice they themselves have generally acted as little more than green Blairites. In Britain the Green Party reached an electoral plateau in the 1989 Euro elections, scoring a creditable 15% of the vote and, while it has not been able to maintain that position, it has secured a few dozen local councillors, MEPs, and representation in the Greater London Assembly and the Scottish parliament. Membership has declined steadily from the 20,000 high following the 1989 success to around the 5,000 mark - low considering the positive press coverage of green issues and the tendency of establishment politicians to parade their environmentalist credentials. Most greens have no connection with the working class, sociologically or politically. The desire of the Green Party to cut the population of the UK to around 20 million and reduce consumption is not generally regarded as compatible with the trade union demands for rising wages and so on associated with the left. Thus the occasional crossing of paths over issues like the poll tax are not generalised. In fact communists and socialists are the best champions of the environment, which can only be genuinely protected, controlled and humanised on the basis of democratic planning. Reds are also green, but that does not make all greens red. Rather than rushing to sign up to Monbiot's scheme, we need to win those repelled by Blair to our agenda - based on a working class-led struggle for consistent democracy. As our Socialist Alliance takes on more flesh, as it develops and becomes more of a force, it will attract others to our banner. The notion that the unions should withhold their funds from Labour, only to redirect them in favour of Liberals, nationalists or greens, is not only wishful thinking: it is counterproductive in the extreme. The formation of the Labour Party by the union tops in order to create a reformist political party was at least based on the collective movement of the working class. It is the duty of socialists to engage with the millions of workers who are still tied to Labour as a result of that tradition. That is why bald calls for the unions to 'break the link' are misplaced. The demand must be for the democratisation of the unions' political funds, allowing them to be withheld from Blair's party. The rank and file must call for donations to Labour to be made conditional upon the party agreeing to a raft of demands in the interests of trade unionists (similarly, socialists should offer to recommend a vote for any Labour candidates in the forthcoming local elections who agree to back a set of minimum demands in the interests of the working class). In this way, any claim that New Labour is still the party of trade unionists or is on the side of the working class can be put to the test and exposed as the lie it is. Hand in hand with such a strategy is the need for the SA to push ahead towards a deeper, democratic unity on the road to Socialist Alliance party based on the working class. This, not some lash-up with a pot pourri of bourgeois radicals, greens and nationalists, is the way to build an alternative to Blair's party. Bill Jeannes