Walk on two legs
Mark Fischer reports on a debate that concerns the whole left
Workers Action - a small, critically-minded Trotskyist group that currently works in the Labour Party - hosted an important debate on Sunday February 1. Titled 'Which way forward for the Labour left and the trade unions?', the meeting brought together around 20 comrades from a variety of backgrounds to listen to platform speakers Graham Bash (editorial board, Labour Left Briefing), Pete Firmin (WA) and Martin Thomas (Alliance for Workers' Liberty).
Comrade Bash was perhaps a little harsh when he described the line-up as a "Trot version of Last of the summer wine", but the problem he pointed to was real enough. New Labour's crisis has thrown into relief the crisis of the left, he suggested. This manifested itself both inside and outside the party.
Internally, the left remained small, fragmented and its inert nature unchallenged by last year's mass anti-war movement. Externally the situation was largely the same, with the added problem that this extra-Labour left criminally wasted its not inconsiderable energies and talents in a project that was "doomed" because of the intrinsic "nature of the Labour Party itself". It was "futile", comrade Bash stated bluntly, to attempt "to build an electoral alternative to New Labour"- a project that was for him a "key error".
Instead, the task must be "to realise, not destroy, the trade union and working class base of the Labour Party". In this struggle, the key allies were to be found on the left - internally and externally. In particular, the comrade identified the need to find "conduits" that could channel the energy, anger and elemental force of developments like the anti-war movement into the party.
Pete Firmin did not add that much to the central points made by comrade Bash - both seemed quite surprised at their level of agreement. He did correctly point to the fact that much of the left - or the "ultra-left", as he referred to comrades outside the Labour Party - "underestimated" the levels of passivity and the low levels of consciousness amongst wide sections of the class.
From this, he drew a similar conclusion to Graham Bash's - that much of this left had a cramped vision of building an alternative to Blair's party. The "narrow concentration" of the Socialist Alliance and the new Respect formation on an electoral challenge to Labour is a no-hoper and distorts the true picture of political alignment on the left. For example, in the unions, comrade Firmin said, "the ultra-left" does not necessary "stand to the left of those in the Labour Party".
In his opening, Martin Thomas usefully reminded the meeting that disaffection with and disengagement from Labour was not the exclusive preserve of what comrades had rather glibly referred to as the "ultra-left". The RMT's position was instructive, he suggested. This is a real workers' organisation, not a small sect. And the summer conference of the firefighters' union looks set to follow the railworkers' lead. Things have clearly changed and "history cannot be rewound". The channels of democratic debate in the party had been "clogged up", he said. This is slightly less final than the "concreted over" analogy I have heard AWLers use to justify their extra-LP work in the past, but Martin was still keen to stress that fundamental things about Labour had changed. Its open, federal structures had gone. The situation where even a small group like the AWL could force a conference debate every year had disappeared: now the RMT cannot even get a discussion on vital questions such as the war.
Left life in the unions was reviving, but very slowly and unevenly, he correctly noted. Therefore, comrades should be mindful of what the last year or so of British politics had taught us - "there are different paces and tempos to different strands of the movement". While the fight to get the unions to reassert themselves within Labour remains a key task for the reconstitution of working class politics, should revolutionaries effectively boycott the tens of thousands of new activists drawn into struggle by the anti-war movement? Surely the task was to intersect with these new fighters, to equip them with an effective programme and orientate them to the workers' movement.
There was much to agree with in comrade Thomas' contribution, particularly his comments on the experiences of the left outside Labour. He pointed to the electoral successes of Lutte Ouvrière and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France. He cited the limited breakthroughs of the Scottish Socialist Party. The problem in England and Wales was "the politics of the revolutionary left". The Socialist Alliance had been "criminally mismanaged" by the Socialist Workers Party, he said. Exactly.
Much of the debate that followed reflected the high level of formal agreement the main speakers had displayed. However, the key problem for most LP comrades was the question of electoral challenges to Labour. Comrade Firmin suggested that challenging Labour in the ballot box effectively constituted worthy initiatives like the SA as "a barrier", not a "link" for activists in the party. Comrade Bash underlined this idea in his summing up - it was "not possible to build a mass electoral alternative to Labour", as that historical 'space' simply did not exist. Thus, we had to be "'outside' in one sense, but not on the electoral level", the comrade stressed.
I backed up many of the points made by comrade Thomas in my contribution, but expanded on a critical aspect of the SWP's 'mismanagement' of the SA. Its attitude to Labour was a crippling weakness. Since its lurch towards electoralism, the SWP had shifted from auto-Labourism ('Vote Labour, but "¦') to an almost punk auto-anti-Labourism. I reminded comrades that the CPGB had fought in the SA for a tactically nuanced orientation to Labour candidates. Such an approach could be as varied as critical support on an agreed minimum platform, support for other working class candidates, standing our own or even - inconceivable given the current configuration of forces in Labour, of course - blanket support.
Comrades were wrong to equate building an "electoral alternative" with block-headed opposition to every Labour candidate - left, right or centre - on the basis of some prissy moralism. I cited the example of Hackney SA. Here CPers had fought a long battle against the stance of local SWPers. These comrades were prepared to vote against Campaign Group MP Diane Abbott (and for a local Green!) simply on the basis that she was a member of "bomber Blair's" party. This sort of guilt by association method has no place in serious working class politics.
We had to "walk on two legs", I suggested - both inside and outside Labour. That had to include the tactical possibility of direct electoral challenges to Labour, not simply work in the trade unions or in what comrade Firmin called "united fronts" like campaigns to defend asylum-seekers or against privatisation, etc.
The dilemma of comrades who argue against any electoral challenge to Labour was illustrated by a light-hearted exchange between comrade Bash and myself. During his summing up, I heckled him. A recent front page and editorial in Briefing had dubbed Blair a "war criminal" - what would the comrade do if the prime minister was opposed by an anti-war candidate at the next general election? Would he vote for the official Labour candidate - a war criminal?
Comrade Bash good-naturedly brushed off my interjection with the comment: "Like what I do in the privacy of my bedroom, what I do in the privacy of ballot box is my own affair." No argument about the bedroom of course, but revolutionaries have to make very public what they intend to do in the ballot box and what they call on others to do. So the question for Graham is not so much what he would do if Blair were to be challenged - despite his joking, the comrade made that abundantly clear - but should he be confronted in the ballot box?
If yes, what about all the other cravenly pro-war wretches on Labour benches? Then what tactics should we have to the marshy middle ground, the vacillators? Should we just advocate an automatic vote for these spineless wonders simply by dint of the fact that they are Labour candidates - or should support have strings attached? And ditto the left of the party, of course. Contributions in the meeting which cited the distinctly dodgy recent voting record of Campaign Group MPs underlined that these are - at best - inconsistent allies.
Clearly, there is huge confusion inside the Labour Party and outside about how to fight New Labour, what are principled tactics for revolutionaries in relation to Blair's party. This key debate must be had, however. We need more meetings like this useful discussion staged by Workers Action.