Death agony of 'old Labourism'

Neither localism nor Labourism but revolutionary republicanism, demands the RDG's Dave Craig

A few months back Peter Dennis commented on "another awful vote for the SA" (Weekly Worker June 20 2002). He was referring to the council by-election in Luton, where the Socialist Alliance candidate "scored an incredibly low 18 votes". It was the worst SA election result in its brief history. That is, until we heard shortly afterwards of an even more shocking result. The SA stood in the Blackwall and Cubbitt Town by-election and the SA candidate won nine votes! It was tempting, prior to Blackwall and Cubbitt Town, to account for the Luton result in terms of local factors. Superficially it could certainly be explained in this way. In April 2002 Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance (BSA), which covers the Luton area, was captured by the Socialist Workers Party. So the council election was a natural extension of the SWP takeover, into the electoral field. The method of selecting the Luton candidate was one factor in the dismal result. An SWP member emerged as the candidate without a democratic selection procedure. When white smoke was seen rising above the town, cynics claimed this signified a selection procedure similar to the way the pope was announced to the assembled flocks in Vatican Square. This was a bit unfair. Members were later told that there had been no time to hold a selection meeting, because there had been only eight days between the realisation that an election was to be held and the closing date for nominations. So the old adage rings true. If there is no time to organise a selection meeting open to all members, there will not be time to organise a serious campaign. With 18 votes who can really argue with that? This does not explain the whole story, however. The BSA was deeply divided, reflecting national differences first identified at the March 2001 SA conference in the debate over policy and priority pledges. This drew a sharp demarcation between 'old Labourites' and 'new republicans', most clearly over amendment 17 on the federal republic. This dealt with the issue of a democratic republic and the relationship between England, Scotland and Wales. The republicans secured over 70 votes. But about 300 voted against. Under the old 80-20 formula the federal republic was entered in the '20%' column and Labourism in the '80%'. The battle between old Labour and the new republicans did not end here. The final twist came in the SA priority policies, or bullet points. Taken together, the SA priority points can be summarised by the slogan, 'Restore Britain to what it was like in 1979'. The SA promised to restore the Elizabethan welfare state to its former glory! The SA Labourites promised to give us back full employment, pensions linked to earnings, civil rights, comprehensive education, no student tuition fees, no sell-off of council homes, a fully funded NHS, no privatisation, bring back British Rail, no anti-union laws, tax the rich, etc. These difference are not simply a matter of policy, but fundamentally about political strategy. The 'old Labourites' stress the betrayal of socialism by Blair's New Labour. They want to take up the old Labour mantle and run with it. They believe this should enable them to rally all disillusioned Labourites to the SA cause. The new republicans have a very different set of perspectives. Harking back to the good old days of old Labour is not one of them. The renewal of the socialist and communist movement is not about resurrecting the reformist politics of the 1970s and 80s Labour left. It is about setting a new, independent political agenda for the working class movement. The new republicans identify the parliamentary monarchy as a rotten and corrupt system of government. It serves the interests of the bureaucracy and the capitalists, not the people. It is incapable of delivering real social and economic progress. The working class is now massively alienated from this system. Fascism and republicanism represent alternative solutions to the crisis facing this system of 'democracy'. Whilst the BNP is beginning to make visible progress, Labourism, not republicanism, still dominates the mindset of the left. Nostalgia for old Labour is still what socialism means within the trade union movement. Very little progress has been made in convincing the working class that democracy is a necessary precondition for real social change. Elections therefore serve quite different aims for old Labourites and new republicans. The old Labourites see the aim of SA propaganda as winning the support of Labourites and becoming the focal point for an anti-Blair mood. The new republicans have a different message. They want to use elections to mobilise the working class in the struggle for democracy. Many hundreds of separate workers' struggles will dissipate unless they have one unifying political objective. Sinn Féin has done this very effectively. It campaigns on a whole range of local issues, but these are channelled into the fight for the political-constitutional objective of a united Ireland. Republican socialists and communists in the SA want to use elections in the same way. What does this have to do with the Luton election result? More than any other local Socialist Alliance the differences between the old Labourites and the new republicans are most sharply posed in the BSA. In April 2002 Labourite politics took over the BSA and appealed to the people. The result was a raspberry in the June election. Of course we cannot prove that democratic and republican politics would have done any better. But 18 votes suggests that Labourism does not work. Now we can see that Luton and Blackwall were not freak results, but part of a trend. SA member Nick Long comments on another by-election, held last week: "We gained 68 votes in the Tottenham Hale by election. This is a fall from last May, where we gained over 100. We seem to have run an active local campaign, with a firefighter as our candidate and no doubt we made a strong case of opposition to the war, but we failed again. We have to ask why in such favourable circumstances for us - growing hostility to the local Labour council, popular support for the firefighters, the government about to wage an unpopular war - why do we keep getting lousy votes!" Contrast this with the Islington Bunhill election, where the Independent Working Class Association stood a candidate. The Liberal Democrats won 797 votes and Labour 412. The IWCA came third with a very creditable 398 votes, or 22.42%. I do not know exactly what policies the IWCA stood on. But I am sure that promoting 'old Labourism' was not one of them. If anything, I suspect the IWCA has learnt some of its electoral activity from Sinn Féin. Gary O'Shea, the IWCA candidate, said: "I am very pleased with our result. For the IWCA to stand in the area for the first time and get 22% is a significant achievement for our party. The level of vilification the Lib Dems aimed at me is a compliment to the IWCA's campaign. The Lib Dems made a lot of promises they have no intention of keeping. Labour campaigned against cuts and closures, while their colleagues are butchering services in neighbouring Hackney. I am confident the electorate will find them out soon enough and that the Lib Dems and Labour will pay the price for their cynicism." Debate inside the SA has contrasted the two campaigns and has tended to praise the orientation of the IWCA to local issues. Rob Hoveman, the SA national secretary, replied to some of the criticism with reference to an IWCA leaflet he had seen: "It did not to my mind represent a socialist campaign leaflet, something I expect the IWCA would acknowledge, as nowhere do they use the word "¦ It is simply not true to say that local issues were ignored" in Tottenham. So the IWCA did not attempt to steal old Labour clothes by dressing up in 'socialist' language! It is therefore useful to go back to the Blackwall and Cubbitt Town election campaign, because afterwards there was a full report and analysis by two SWP members, Kambiz Boomla and Paul McGarr. Certainly this campaign did not suffer the disadvantage of a divided BSA. It is therefore perhaps surprising that their campaign should have scored even less votes than in Luton. The clue to what might have gone wrong here can be found in their report. They say they did not run a poor campaign. On the contrary, "We had an excellent candidate, and ran a very decent campaign. We did far more work in this by-election than we did in any wards we contested in the May 2 full council elections." In those elections the SA secured between 200 and 400 votes. This time they leafleted the entire ward and canvassed door to door in four key working class estates. They produced a second leaflet for those estates and for some other parts of the ward. Their canvass showed up to 60 people who said they would vote SA, who were visited on polling day. So what went wrong? It must surely have been the politics rather than the organisation where the problems could be found. First of all the main parties ran unprecedented campaigns. All had big teams of canvassers out. The Tories had built up a base in the luxury housing developments. They were able to make a real challenge to Labour. The election campaign became a contest between the major parties. At the same time there was "huge disaffection with politics" evident on the doorsteps. At the start of the election the voters had a choice between New Labour and the SA's brand of old Labourism. But, as comrades Boomla and McGarr noted, "Labour panicked, and knew from its initial canvassing, that it was having problems motivating its traditional supporters in what has been a solid Labour area and worried it was losing votes to the Liberal Democrats and that the Tories could win." What would Labour do? The SWP comrades explain that "they opportunistically turned to 'old Labour' language with a vengeance. The candidate was pictured in the local paper saying he would stand up for the rights of muslims and fight for them to have a proper prayer room in the ward." Labour also organised a stunt over a threatened new luxury estate, organising its supporters around demands for affordable housing. In other words there were two old Labour campaigns. One was run by the original and the other was organised by the unknown, untried and untested copy. The result is surely obvious. Labour stole the SA's clothes. The SWP comrades sum up the problems when they point out that "their opportunistic, and probably short-lived, old Labour stance undoubtedly hit us hard". We could of course see this as a failure of the electorate to see through Labour's opportunism. But perhaps the voters are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. Maybe the voters felt the SA were the ones with an "opportunistic, and probably short-lived, old Labour stance". Perhaps it was SA opportunism that "hit us hard". What the campaign showed was that, as soon as Labour shifted, even verbally, to the left, there was no place for the SA. The truth is that the SA has no independent politics. It has no strategy or policies of its own except to 'opportunistically' substitute itself for Labour. As soon as Labour shifts left, the SA might as well pack up and go home. We can return to the Luton election. It is true that the SWP's BSA campaign was not as well organised as the SWP's Blackwall and Cubbitt Town intervention. It is true that the leadership of the new BSA did not understand that democratic methods are not a luxury, but absolutely essential if the BSA was to unite around any candidate. But it is no more surprising that when Luton SWP goes round dressed up as the SA, pretending to be old Labour and spouting old Labour politics, the electors of Luton will give them the thumbs-down. In response to the IWCA result comrade Hoveman appeals for calm: "Everyone sincere about seeing the Socialist Alliance grow into an organisation of many thousands of socialists whose home might have been the Labour Party, plus the many, many thousands being radicalised over the war and through the growth of the anti-capitalist movement, would like to see SA candidates not only getting many more votes than we currently get, but actually challenging for elected office. No one has a magic formula as to how to secure this growth and this success." Yes, but can we learn some lessons? The "magic formula" for what we should not do is surely this - stop impersonating old Labour.