On the crest of a wave

Mark Fischer discusses with George Galloway his attitude to the Labour Party, the prospects for the new Respect coalition and the importance of democracy

What are your thoughts on the Labour Party now? Should people keep up the fight in its ranks?

Firstly, I am genuinely surprised that they expelled me. It therefore follows that I am sorry that they did.

I’m not of the ilk of the old Militant group, or Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, who now pour bile on the Labour Party, even though they themselves were in it for a very long time and - in the case of Militant - would still be in it if they hadn’t been chucked out. As someone thrown out of the party against my will, I am bound to say I am sad to be out - on a personal level I am quite distraught about it. It’s a kind of wrench that I find - in quieter moments - quite upsetting.

Politically, it follows that I am determined never to adopt a sectarian attitude to those who remain in the Labour Party. No progress on the left is going to be possible that does not win the hearts and minds of Labour’s members and - most importantly - its voters. Labour retains the electoral alliance of perhaps 10 million or more British people - the majority of them working people whose families have often supported this party for generations. So, an acerbic, sectarian approach to Labour and its supporters is not only wrong: it is counterproductive.

There are good people left in the Labour Party. I suspect not enough to recapture it and I believe there is not the democratic space even if there were enough numbers. Therefore, while I doubt whether my friends still in Labour can reclaim it, I’m certainly not going to pour scorn on them for trying to do so. Apart from anything else, that will only alienate them. When - as I suspect - they have failed to reclaim the party, we will want them to come with us - so we don’t want artificial barriers.

On the other hand, as I said at the coalition’s ‘first outing’ on October 29 (a more appropriate description than ‘launch’), we should not allow a false dichotomy to be created. If outside Labour a progressive, mass left burgeons and starts to score successes, that can only have the effect of strengthening the left inside the party. It will encourage people to pull the plug on Blair and the New Labour clique.

If we find the right tone, the correct vocabulary, then we can expect to welcome significant sections of Labour activists, MPs, trade union leaders and - most importantly of all - sections of the Labour voting base. We will need these sections if we are ever to build anything big, progressive and successful in terms of a social movement in this country.

I’m also surprised by the mixed messages that are being sent out. I don’t know what it means to throw me out and bring Livingstone back in. That strikes me as extremely confused. I do think they launched the proceedings against me when they thought I was dead and buried in the aftermath of the bombardment from The Daily Telegraph. I thought that perhaps when it became clear that this attack was being discredited they would pull back. Through a very important intermediary, I had originally received from David Triesman, the party secretary, not quite a finished deal exactly, but the outlines of an offer along the lines that I would not be expelled if I would apologise for my words.

Obviously, I refused to even discuss that. However, the fact that such a deal was even floated - during the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, very close to the date of the tribunal - seemed to me to indicate that they were not hard and fast on the decision to expel me. However, when we got to the tribunal - as any reading of our pamphlet will show - it was so blatantly rigged, it was so absurd, it really took my breath away [see Weekly Worker November 27]. The whole transcript is even worse.

So perhaps the decision to press ahead with my expulsion expresses some disorientation at the top of the party. But then one can never rule out the personal in politics: it could simply reflect a personal animus Blair feels for me - I certainly have been pretty unsparing in my criticisms of him. I have a weekly newspaper column and that gives me both opportunities as well as pitfalls.

Opportunities to weave your own rope …

Exactly. It’s very hard to claim you were misquoted in your own column!

On the other hand, perhaps they took what I’ve been saying and writing seriously. They should. I have no intention of being simply an irritant. I want the progressive movement to seriously compete for power in this country.

Is this then the purpose of the Respect project - not to punish but to replace? Isn’t there a danger that it simply constitutes itself as a repository for protest votes?

Again, it would be a mistake to draw a false dichotomy between the two. I don’t want to turn away anyone who wants to vote for us out of protest on June 10 on the raft of policy issues we have identified as the immediate platform of the coalition.

So I suspect there will be a substantial number of people who will use the European elections to register a protest against Blair - they probably would have used them in this way anyway, given that there’s no danger of the Tories being let back in. That’s fine. I think we’ll get hundreds of thousands of votes around the country and seats in several areas.

What happens after that partly depends on how we do. If Scargill’s breakaway from the Labour Party had been successful, then it would have gone on to be more successful. Nothing succeeds like success. It was the fact that it failed that leads to us to say it was ill-judged. It was ill-judged for a number of reasons, few of which I hope are replicated with this new project.

First, Arthur formed a new organisation on the basis of a big defeat - the removal of clause four from Labour’s constitution. I think we are forming this new organisation on the crest of a wave. I fully supported Scargill throughout the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 and afterwards I helped Seamus Milne expose the smear against him. I have no hostility to Arthur Scargill, but I don’t think he’s a good leader.

I think his method of work minimises rather than maximises support. I don’t think our leadership will repeat that. I think the radicalisation of big sections of the community since 9/11 has opened up new layers of public opinion to a progressive alternative. I’m confident we will recruit significant numbers of people who are not pre-existing members of leftwing groups, people who may be joining their first ever political organisation.

Now, let’s assume it does really well and let’s assume it doesn’t provoke a coup inside the Labour Party and a fundamental change of direction away from Blairism. Then I think it will continue. It will continue to the general election, as well as being involved in movements around war and peace, trade union action - as we have been already in our limited period of life. We don’t intend to be one thing or another - we want to be an electoral force and a force involved on the picket lines, on the streets, in the mass movements.

If, on the other hand, we do well and Blair is deposed, there is a complete change of direction in the Labour Party - and that can’t be ruled out - then it probably won’t go on to become a party. The objective conditions would be inimical to it.

We could do badly, it could be just another flop. That will tell us something important about where we are, about the current state of consciousness in the country.

Of these three - if you force me to pick one - I think the first option is the most likely. We’ll do well, but it will not provoke the overthrow of Blairism and thus we will continue. Now, whether we continue as a coalition or whether we try to forge that coalition into a party, well that’s something for then. It would be premature to speculate about that now.

Possibly, but I’m going to do it anyway. Surely the problem of a coalition rather than a party is its viability. An important criticism we have made of the Socialist Alliance is that it failed to follow its own logic - towards a party. Salma Yaqoob is an interesting political figure, clearly in transition. But say she was elected as a representative of this new coalition. What would people be getting other that Salma Yaqoob and her - essentially personal - take on politics? Ditto if we vote for George Galloway and he gets into the European parliament - what would we be getting? How are people to be accountable? A party can contain a wide range of different opinions and approaches, but is democratically united around a programme, even an election manifesto. Surely a coalition risks falling apart not simply if it fails, but also if it is successful? So this question of party is key.

I understand the strengths and weaknesses of the two forms. It would be premature to attempt to create an alternative ‘party of labour’ - let’s agree to call it that! - when important figures on the left are still engaged in a significant struggle to reclaim the Labour Party. That would be a message to them of no confidence: it would be likely to drive them away from any future involvement with us, should they decide that their project inside Labour is going nowhere.

That doesn’t give them an indefinite veto on our actions. Clearly, we’ll know soon enough whether or not the ‘reclaim Labour’ project is working. I doubt it will, but I wish the people involved in it the best, not the worst of luck.

After June, if we are right and we can demonstrate a big groundswell of progressive opinion to the left of Labour and at the succeeding party conference in October that does not provoke a seismic shift, then I would argue that the ‘reclaim the party’ comrades would be running out of time.

So what’s your timetable …?

In less than a year from June, in less than two years from now, we will be able to say definitely one way or the other about the fight to reclaim Labour. Then the question of a party will be very sharply posed.

What sort of party are you talking about?

A party of new type in some ways, of an old type in others. A party of the 1918 Labour party constitution. A party that communist and other socialist organisations can affiliate to and still remain parties in their own rights. That organises people collectively through the affiliate trade unions and also as individual members who have democratic rights - to select and deselect candidates, to elect a national leadership. We used to laugh at the Tories for their system of appointment from above - for example, of the national chairperson. We now have the same system visited on us in the less than impressive form of Ian McCartney.

So, a party of an old type organisationally in this sense. But it will have to be a party of a new type in terms of its appeal and style. I’m for modernisation. But we need to modernise our message in order to make our actual, core socialist beliefs more accessible to masses of people.

So progress - or otherwise - in the Labour Party remains key for what the left needs to do in the coming period?

Definitely. The Labour Party has millions of voters. It is known in every household in the land. It has hundreds of MPs, thousands of councillors. Even now - though we note the haemorrhaging in its ranks - it still has a couple of hundred thousand members. This is a behemoth compared to other left groups, even the most successful of them.

Let me go on now to the coalition. I just don’t accept your premise that a coalition can’t have a coherent programme. When our programme, of which we thrashed out the basis yesterday [Sunday November 30 - MF] and which will be presented to the convention we are going to have on January 25, is published, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Of course, it will be open to amendment - or even being thrown out totally. However, I think it is a coherent programme. Also, it is supported by people from the likes of Salma Yaqoob and George Monbiot to myself and people to my left.

You’ve indicated in your editorial this week the thrust of the project is “entirely laudable” (Weekly Worker November 27). Your argument goes on that it is necessary, but not sufficient, that it doesn’t go far enough, etc. Perhaps one or two issues of personal politics are not in the programme that some on the left would argue should be there. However, I don’t think anyone who attends the convention on January 25 could argue that on macro-politics - war, peace, the economy, the environment, democracy - this programme is deficient.

The chasm between a coalition and a party - at least in that respect - will not be as great as you think. In other words, we will not be standing simply on a bland ‘peace and justice’ ticket, as some of your correspondents have sneered in the past.

Would you define it as progressive or socialist?

We want to rally people who are progressive, but perhaps might not define themselves a socialists yet. All of this is still under discussion, but the word ‘socialist’ is in the proposed title of the new organisation.

However, I still think is it important that we don’t define ourselves in such a way that we rule out winning people that we can win. I am socialist, I believe I can persuade anyone of the case for socialism. But to do that, I have to be connected to them in the first place.

Is this where your concept of democratic revolution fits in? As an organisation we put a great deal of emphasis on constitutional questions, democracy, etc - something that is not common on the left.

I think this reflects a contemplation on my part of my own past. There was a time when I regarded democracy as less important than I do now.

I miscalculated the abuses of democracy that existed in the states and parties of the USSR and the socialist countries. There was a failure to achieve the right balance. I reproach myself for that. I persuaded myself that, surrounded by enemies at it was, with imperialism at the door, born in revolutionary ferment, not according to revolutionary plan, prematurely - coming from your background in the Communist Party you will know all these phrase and notions yourself - many of the abuses of democracy could be excused, if not justified.

That was a mistake. One of the reasons why there now is no Soviet Union, why these once mighty parties disintegrated without a shot being fired, without a worker downing tools in their defence, has to be linked to the lack of democracy.

So I believe any new left movement has to prioritise the concept of democracy and live by it internally and insist on it externally. We need democratic control of the economy, of parliament, of society itself.

Having made the criticism of our own movement, let’s not underestimate the failures of bourgeois democracy in the current period. We should never allow failures of socialist democracy to obscure the failures of bourgeois democracy. In fact, it is abundantly clear that even the core civil liberties in bourgeois countries are easily suspendable and are currently being suspended. In the US most extremely, but hard on the heels over here. Look at the war itself.

The postal workers in Portcullis House had their backs doubled over under the sacks of mail opposing the war sent to the MPs in this place by their constituents. Every MP who voted for the war did so knowing that their constituents were against it. And most of them did it knowing it was wrong.

This is a crisis in bourgeois democracy. The mask has slipped. We have a chance - if we properly grasp what democracy actually means - of being the movement for democracy in this country. And that’s an extremely powerful position to be in for a progressive, left movement.

It’s a vital question, isn’t it? We’ve made the point that the very phrase ‘bourgeois democracy’ has a problem, given the way it is used by much of the left. There is an implication that bourgeois social relations - the rule of capital - automatically brings with it a certain amount of democracy, almost as part of a package. In truth, history actually shows that it is has been struggle from below that has forced our rulers to concede even the truncated, hollowed out democracy that we have. The working people’s struggle has won us the democratic space we have now …

That’s a good observation: I think you’re right. These are dialectical processes. The threat of genuine socialism got us social democracy. The threat of the suffragettes won women the vote, that of Chartism won the franchise for the working class.

We mustn’t trap ourselves in this template, as if the democracy comes on the other side of the coin to capitalist exploitation. It doesn’t. And therefore our democracy can easily be removed - the society can still be capitalist without the democracy. That, in a sense it what is happening.

We have a political system that is completely unresponsive in the face of public opinion on a whole range of issues, not simply on the war. Things happen now on the electoral level, on the civil liberties front, across a whole swathe of issues that would never have happened over most of the past 100 years. And this is because the countervailing force against them - the democratic counterweight from working people and progressive organisations - was too great. The danger of another system than capitalism - palpable and just over the horizon - was too immediate: a clear and present danger.

Precisely because the labour movement has been in a period of decline, socialism as an alternative system seemed to have disappeared, and the people who run our society thought they had carte blanche to roll our democracy back.

I’m not sure they have got that right any more. Dissent is bursting out all over. People want an alternative - they’ve seen through this farce of a government and society. That’s why I’m optimistic.