Labourism a stinking corpse - Labourism is not the answer
Ken Crisp looks at AWL efforts to save Labourism from LP leadership attacks by fighting for a Labour Party MkII
“The Labour Party is a stinking corpse,” screams the headline of the editorial in the April 10 issue of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty paper, Solidarity, reprising Rosa Luxemburg’s characterisation the German Social Democratic Party when its deputies voted for war credits in 1914.
But do not adjust your sets - the AWL is not denouncing social-imperialism. The article is not a repudiation of the AWL’s own ‘August 4’ - its support for the occupation of Iraq. If only. The article is in fact a meandering epitaph to the Labour Party, culminating in a call for trade unions to organise “authentic independent working class electoral challenges to New Labour”... a Labour Party mark two in all but name.
Solidarity editor Cathy Nugent rightly argues that recent attacks on democratic space in the Labour Party, culminating in the ruling at last year’s Bournemouth conference to bar affiliated trade unions and Constituency Labour Parties from presenting motions, are a concerted attempt to disenfranchise the working class and silence (potential) opposition to the government from among Labour’s own ranks.
Commenting that in the past “the labour movement had no direct power over Labour governments - no-one should pretend otherwise, or idealise the old Labour Party - but it had serious influence”, Solidarity comments that the structures through which “the Labour Party ‘in the country’ and the unions” could once control the Labour Party leadership have now been closed down.
But comrade Nugent is not quite sure that the Labour Party really is finished. You might think that by the time the “corpse” was actually “stinking” it would be certifiably deceased, but the AWL is not to be pinned down. She admits that “the responses [to Brown’s constitutional reforms] will not be ‘in’ until after the end of this year’s round of union conferences and of the current campaign within TGWU-Amicus-Unite to force a special conference of that union”. Meanwhile, an article about the local elections by AWL number two Martin Thomas on the opposite page argues for a Labour vote where no other socialists are standing - “because of the remaining, very strained, links between Labour and the grassroots labour movement”.
Even Solidarity’s claim that, “short of some startling about-turn in the coming months, the Bournemouth conference has to be taken as the formal announcement of the death of the Labour Party” leaves room for doubt. But these three statements can all be translated into plain English: there are still opportunities to defend democratic space in the Labour Party, but the campaign is bound to fail, so we may as well give up on the fight. And, as if to emphasise the point that it is impossible to fight inside the Labour Party, the AWL recently expelled Mike Rowley because he was standing in the Oxford local elections for ... the Labour Party!
This break without a fight stands in sharp contrast to the AWL’s comments just 18 months ago: “Understandably, some may consider [rejoining the Labour Party] a waste of time. But getting the political representation we need can only be won through a struggle inside the existing labour movement, which includes the Labour Party. British socialism has a long tradition of arid sectarianism. Attempts to proclaim an alternative which have not been founded through a struggle in our own labour movement have led to one sect after another. The consequence is self-isolation” (www.workersliberty.org/node/7103).
However, in line with the latest turn, at the recent conference of the Socialist Youth Network (youth section of the Labour Representation Committee), David Broder and Sofie Buckland of the AWL argued that SYN/LRC should look to the rest of the far left and provoke a split with the Labour Party by standing against it in elections.
Of course, there is no principle under which self-proclaimed Marxists ought to support the Labour Party come what may. But that does not excuse the AWL from explaining in front of the class, and in particular to Labour activists, why the latter should want to follow them out of the Labour Party when the alternatives (the Socialist Workers Party variant of Respect, Respect Renewal, Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, etc) are so unappealing.
There is no point declaring that all is lost in the Labour Party and calling for its supporters to split, without being able to offer some better alternative. Given that the AWL comrades were far from specific about what their alternative was, it was no surprise that at both the SYN and LRC conferences delegates voted down their motions by a large majority.
So we know that the AWL has decided to give up on the Labour Party, and that Solidarity calls for the LRC to convert itself into a “Workers’ Representation Committee advancing workers’ candidates in elections”. But what does “workers’ candidates” mean? What should their politics be? Is the AWL in favour of a Communist Party? The answer is implied when comrade Nugent writes that throughout the Blair-Brown era the AWL has argued for the trade unions “to push things to a break with New Labour, as in 1931 they broke with James Ramsey MacDonald, and refound a trade-union-based Labour Party”.
But, of course, now that the Labour Party is “a stinking corpse”, the AWL wants to start this project for a ‘new old Labour Party’ from scratch: “winning support from unions ... for authentic independent working class electoral challenges to New Labour”, along with efforts to develop trades councils and win the backing of local union bodies. Such plans are apparently unconnected to the AWL’s decision to join Respect-SWP (Left List), a turn which goes without mention in the article!
Abstract calls for “workers’ candidates in elections” devoid of any political content clearly do nothing to bring us closer to the unity of Marxists, whether that be in the Labour Party, outside it - or half in, half out. The AWL, of course, has no particular interest in the unity of Marxists, even if its plan for a Labour Party mark two and the endless quest to reheat the leftovers of social democracy have led it into all sorts of turns and alliances in recent years.
After a long time as Labour entryists the AWL gave up on that in the early 90s, then supported the Socialist Alliance (and Scottish Socialist Party) before refusing to take part in Respect. In 2005-06 it stood its own candidates in elections under the banner of ‘Socialist Unity’, before surging back into the Labour Party during John McDonnell’s leadership campaign and, most recently, joining Respect-SWP after the split with Galloway. This meandering path is ample evidence of the AWL’s instability and lack of programme for the working class. Its course has nothing to do with the fight to rebuild a Communist Party.
The guiding principles for what constitutes “authentic independent working class electoral challenges” seem remarkably fluid. In the 2005 general election the AWL supported New Labour candidates against Respect (most notably, Oona King against George Galloway) and (largely correctly) denounced Respect’s popular frontism and its silence on women’s and gay rights; yet, now that the SWP’s Left List runs on a programme near-identical to that of Galloway’s Respect Renewal (and indeed on a 20-page manifesto which is silent on women’s and gay rights ...), the AWL raises no objections. It has nothing to say about the fact that the Left List, although not popular frontist in form, still has the same programme as its former popular front incarnation - presumably because the AWL has a proven track record of running the same uninspiring reformist campaigns.
Bizarrely the AWL is also centrally involved in the Socialist Green Unity Coalition, an electoral pact between the Socialist Party in England Wales, the Alliance for Green Socialism and Walsall’s Democratic Labour Party, whose minimalist politics cook up the same sort of stuff as the Left List. Solidarity offers no accounting either for the arid economism of the AWL’s own election campaigns or for the many 180-degree turns it has taken. The AWL is very keen on getting leftwing trade unions to support electoral initiatives which will likely produce derisory results, but it proposes no political alternative to Labourism nor any project for a party of Marxists.