Devil in the detail

Mark Fischer spoke to both sides of an important debate at the November 17 Labour left conference

This year's annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee revealed two important things. First, that the left of the Labour Party did not go into dramatic meltdown following the pretty abject failure of the John McDonnell campaign. The numbers attending were slightly down on last year, but respectable at 250-plus. Also, the mood, while not what you might dub bullishly optimistic, was far from despondent.

Second, that it - like the left outside Labour - is utterly bereft of a viable strategic vision of the way forward for the working class. The LRC's national committee statement to the conference talked of the movement being forced to face up to some "hard truths" over past few years (www.l-r-c.org.uk/#conf). True, but there was little in the way of evidence that lessons had been learned, that some concrete plans to turn the new situation around are being formulated.

The most important debate of the day centred on the first two motions on the order paper, both of which attempted in different ways to orientate the LRC to an engagement with forces outside the party. Motion 1 was moved by Vince Mills on behalf of the Scottish-based Campaign for Socialism; the second was submitted by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and motivated by Chris Ford.

Superficially, the two motions were very similar. Both recognised that "as currently constituted the Labour Party is no longer a vehicle for promoting progressive or socialist ideas" (CFS); that the decisions of the major unions to deprive themselves of even indirect influence over the direction of party policy was potentially "an historic turning point in the process of change that has taken place in the Labour and trade union movement" (AWL); that the LRC is "best placed" (CFS), an "axis" even (AWL), to "reach beyond the Labour Party left" (CFS) and "to issue an appeal to all socialists and trade unionists to join our project" (AWL).

There was an important difference in the detail, however. Despite its rather opaque language in places (itself perhaps a product of the fact that the organisation is seriously split on this question), the AWL's motion in effect was a call for the LRC to provoke a confrontation with the New Labour bureaucracy that would result in it being excluded from the party.

If passed, the AWL motion would have mandated the incoming LRC national committee to "enter into discussions with those socialist organisations, trade union broad lefts/rank and files, etc that are not affiliated to the LRC", with a view to them signing up. This inclusivity would find expression on the ground, where local LRCs would be "encouraged to adopt a flexible approach, utilising whatever means available, to secure working class political representation".

Not unreasonably, delegates opposing this motion asked the AWL comrades to be a tad more up-front - "the comrades should be explicit," stated Pete Firmin of the Communication Workers Union. Was this conference being asked to set off down the path of trends such as the Scottish Socialist Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales, the comrade wondered? This would be a huge mistake, he stated - there are "no short cuts". Owen Jones suggested that the motion was actually "deliberately ambiguous" and demanded that the comrades make clear one way or another whether they were "calling for a split" - something he would regard as "sheer lunacy".

The AWLers who spoke in the debate were at pains to emphasise that their motion did not embody some imperative ultimatum. Comrades should simply bear in mind that Labour was "not the be-all and end-all", AWLer Christine Hume cautioned us. Another comrade conceded that formulations in the text should be interpreted as allowing the LRC to look to fresh pastures, but "sometimes it will be" necessary to stand against Labour. John Moloney reassured conference that this was little more than an "enabling motion" that would allow the LRC leadership to muse on the question for a year or so and perhaps come back in 2008 with some constitutional proposals "¦ which "conference could vote down" anyway.

So not exactly fighting talk from our AWL comrades, then. Again this probably reflects the organisation's internal disorientation on perspectives, but it was pretty timid stuff to listen to. Although wrong-headed, at least in his reply to this debate, the AWL motivator of the motion, Chris Ford, spoke with some passion. What was needed was a "new beginning" and "courage", he said. He rejected the idea that we might have to "wait a generation to find a vehicle for socialism": an LRC with such a perspective would inevitably "stagnate" and face its "demise", he predicted.

That said, the notion that the LRC should take steps to place itself outside the ranks of the Labour Party in the context of a workers' movement still shaped by the effects of decades of defeat and retreat is idiotic, quite frankly. Indeed, such a move would be yet another symptom of that more general malaise rather than any serious move to start to overcome it. The motion was overwhelmingly defeated.

This is not to say that the people who spoke against the AWL are any more clear. Whatever his personal opinions on continued Labour Party membership, John McDonnell told conference that the fight had to be "within the Labour Party, but with every progressive movement as well". Mark Serwotka stated that it was a "wrong analysis" to suggest that progress can be achieved "only through the Labour Party"; although he emphasised he was not calling on anyone to leave.

Instead, we had to unite "where we can" on "certain questions" of campaigning and trade union work - that is, exactly what activists from the plethora of left groups mostly do spontaneously in the here and now in the trade union, anti-war and progressive movement.

We actually need rather more than that, comrades.

Martin Thomas, Alliance for Workers' Liberty

Could you elaborate a little on the reasoning behind your motion? Your comrades seemed vague about what specific forces outside the Labour Party that have stood candidates you propose the LRC could work with.

Well, unions like the RMT have backed the Scottish Socialist Party, of course. There are trades councils that have backed other candidates. There's the Socialist Party and others. There's that sort of thing going on at the fringes.

But the key thing is a new situation with the rule changes at the Labour conference in Bournemouth. It's not all over yet, as there is still a struggle in the unions to be had, as our speaker indicated. There is still a chance that those union leaders that voted to voluntarily disenfranchise themselves are called to account and the decision reversed.

But realistically, that will be very hard. We have to look beyond that. That means that the LRC is in a pivotal position and could - if it showed the will - unite some of those trade union forces with the socialists outside the Labour Party plus those trade union bodies that have taken an independent political initiative. This would be a start on the task of recreating independent working class political representation.

But there's an implicit contradiction in what you say. Like clause four, the debacle in Bournemouth is not simply a result of shifts and realignments at the top, between different wings of the workers' movement bureaucracy. It also reflects the low level of class struggle from top to bottom - and the AWL is suggesting that in this climate the LRC splits from Labour. To merge with what?

Well, if we had a period of higher class struggle readily available to us to take this move, then we would do it under those conditions. We don't. But in truth, there is a split happening now. In the sense that Brown and the New Labour machine are breaking the party away from its traditional base in the workers' movement.

The unions no longer have a voice in the Labour Party. They cannot even put a motion to conference to oppose anti-trade union laws. There is a split process there. This will precipitate other moves to split. It is quite likely in the coming period that the CWU will disaffiliate, for example.

So the unions that have shown the greatest degree of political initiative - not to exaggerate the levels of this - are moving in that split direction anyway. So we think we would be in a better position if we recognised that there is this relatively large force on the left of the Labour Party and a large force in the union movement that is on the move. It would be a much better scenario if we brought these two together in a new mass party. But we are not doing that at the moment.

If you wait until you have the masses, and you don't take the initiative with the forces you have now, then the masses will never come to you at all.

Conference overwhelmingly rejected your motion. What did you think of the debate?

I wasn't surprised by the debate in the sense I knew we would face a lot of inertia. A lot of the arguments were almost framed in a way that implied recent events in the Labour Party had simply not happened. No-one gave an alternative assessment to ours of the Bournemouth decisions. Some people were even talking as if they just had not happened.

That's not surprising. Comrades - particularly older comrades - are reluctant to attempt new beginnings, to take a bold step. To carry on as before and hope that, as Graham Bash put it, the next generation or the generation after that are able to do something a little more ambitious.

I don't think we have generations to start the fightback.

Everything you say is premised on moves amongst sections of the left trade union bureaucracy. So, by definition, you are talking about a new Labour Party, aren't you?

We don't use the slogan 'Build a new workers' party' - there simply isn't the base for that at the moment. That doesn't mean you can do nothing; it doesn't mean you can't start fighting for working class representation; for unions, socialist groups and trades councils to challenge Brown's attempt to drive us off the floor of politics.

I'm asking you what programme you are fighting for "¦

We are talking about building a movement for working class representation and in that we fight for our programme. We don't put it as a condition for supporting any moves, but we argue for our politics.

Graham Bash, Labour Left Briefing

What was the problem with the AWL's motion?

What lay behind this debate is that there is a recognition that it is no longer 'business as usual' in the Labour Party. What happened at Bournemouth represented a potentially decisive moment in its degeneration. The AWL comrades are right on that.

I think there was also a recognition from the majority of conference, however, that we did not want to go along the road of standing candidates against Labour with all the attendant disasters that would entail - see the SSP, the Socialist Labour Party and Respect for evidence.

The view that I put was that we don't have a Labour Party and what we need to do is build a Labour Party. This could take years, even a generation. But in the meantime, to go into sectarian electoral adventures would be a disaster from which we could not recover. It was therefore a recognition that we are in a very difficult political position at the moment. The left has been defeated outside the party as well as inside it. We have to hold our forces together, but that does not mean we will be tempted into some form of socialist unity, when what matters is the unity of the labour movement.

That movement is at a low ebb. We cannot build a new Labour Party in a period of defeat such as this. It is a question of the recomposition of the labour movement, which could take several years, not the recomposition of the left.

How is the movement to be put back together again?

That's a profoundly difficult question. It involves above all the trade union movement recovering its strength after decades of defeat. I have no simple answers - no-one has.

But unless that can be achieved, any question of working class representation is an irrelevance. At the moment, the working class has lost its vehicle for its representation as a class. Not its socialist vehicle: it never was that. But it no longer has a body in this society that can represent its interests - even in a partial way - against the capitalist class.

John McDonnell put it well. He pointed out that the leader of the Labour Party is actually a fraternal delegate from the City of London. That's our problem. The question of rebuilding the class's political representation cannot be separated from the labour and trade union movement regaining its strength, its ability to function in some meaningful way.

Unless and until it does that, then the question of working class political representation is off the agenda. No-one went to the rostrum today and came up with a simple or convincing answer, because there isn't one. It is not that the Labour left is stupid; it is simply that the answer is not immediately available to us. It is a task that we must start to actively address in the next few years without the prospect of an answer being immediately presented to us.

The day-to-day work of recovering the fighting strength of the labour and trade union movement is the precondition for rewinning the political representation of the working class. It just cannot happen separate to that process.

What will be the role of the LRC in this?

I see the LRC at the crossroads of various struggles. Between the affiliated unions, the non-affiliated; between the Labour left and - hopefully - the extra-Labour left. If we can keep together and start to properly fulfil that role, perhaps at future conferences at least the shape of a solution can start to emerge. At the moment there isn't one visible.

So to be impatient, to try to force the issue and try to get a green light for standing candidates against Labour - after the experience of everything the left has gone through, the debacle of the various sectarian electoral projects - is parliamentary cretinism and madness.