Devil and deep blue sea
Some 250 people packed into Conway Hall for the November 15 annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee. Ben Lewis looks at the key questions facing the Labour left
Despite, for the most part, not getting much younger, those attending the LRC conference were certainly optimistic about the coming period. Talk was very upbeat about the prospects for ‘socialism’ and the success of the LRC, which now boasts 150 affiliated organisations, including six unions, and 1,000 members.
This sense of confidence and urgency was underlined by the hectic agenda: 20 motions, committee elections, trade union caucuses at lunchtime, and a whole number of platform speakers - Tony Benn, MPs Katy Clarke, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, trade union general secretaries Matt Wrack and Jeremy Dear, plus guests from Norway and Denmark.
The indefatigable LRC founding member, Tony Benn, kicked off proceedings. He is still around, as he put it, to “blow on the flames of anger and hope” and is brimming with “confidence” that we can make an impact in these stormy times. I do not know how many times he has spoken of “turning points” in his life, but he assured us that the financial crisis was the most historic occasion “since the fall of the Berlin wall”.
He lavished praise on the recent Convention of the Left event for bringing us together on the question of “what needed to be done” and for taking us “into the movements” - as opposed to the arid attempt to achieve what he calls “ideological unity”. Didn’t we know that you can’t have “a pure socialist party”? He once more described the Weekly Worker as his favourite paper, declaring, to much applause, that we “write about left unity on page 1, but then proceed to attack everyone on pages 2, 3, 4 and 5”.
Jeremy Dear of the National Union of Journalists made a good speech indicting the hypocrisy of those in power - a theme also picked up by Fire Brigades Union leader Matt Wrack. Millions of people are angry and we need to organise to bring about political, economic and social change. Both of these union lefts spoke of how socialism is no longer discredited and urged us to prepare for a battle between free-market ideas and our own. They also referred to joint action over pay in order to forge unity across the unions from below, but, of course, there was no concrete proposal as to how this would arise and who would coordinate it.
Comrade Wrack made a good point about the need for a political fightback which no single union would be able to wage, but he did not mention the political alternative that will be necessary to counter the stifling effects of the labour bureaucracy and make “TUC paper policies something real”.
John McDonnell reminded us of the struggles that followed the recession of the early 1980s. Our tasks are great and we cannot let one or two minor points come between us, as in the past - the left has acted as though it almost enjoys being divided: “Those who try and split us are objectively working against us” - especially in these times: “People are looking to the left” and the LRC, as the biggest group uniting the left inside and outside the Labour Party, is best placed to answer their questions.
Comrade McDonnell said we need a “broad united front” working alongside the unions to defend the class. The time has now gone for selling each other papers and recruiting ones and twos - that is in the past, whereas now we are “on the march again”. As the rest of the conference was to show though, we are hardly about to see such unity take organisational form, least of all on the basis of a principled working class programme.
As is usual on such occasions, although the platform speakers made some points upon which we can all agree about the anarchy of the market and so on, the disproportionate amount of time they were allotted meant that the time for genuine debate was reduced accordingly. Motions were proposed and discussed in batches under different themes rather than individually. Speakers from the floor were allowed two minutes, whilst those moving motions got a generous three.
The LRC committee statement, ‘Rising to the challenge’, continued along the lines of the platform speeches. It declared that “we can only succeed if we can unite the wide-ranging but often fragmented resources of the left and progressive movements within our society” and contained a left reformist shopping list - “supporting public ownership and opposing privatisation, redistributing wealth and power, democratising control of our economy, investing in public services and public housing, tackling climate change, reasserting trade union rights, equal rights and civil liberties, and opposing war and securing peace”. In other words, a combination of platitudes and vague measures to be implemented by an old Labour-type government.
A motion from the Campaign for Socialism called for “an alternative strategy which takes us in a socialist direction, away from individualised solutions to the crisis”. It was far from clear what was to be understood by “a socialist direction”, however. For example, one speaker said, “If Obama can tax the rich, then so can we”, while a lunchtime caucus was devoted to so-called ‘Scandinavian socialism’. The Socialist Appeal motion, on the other hand, called for full-scale nationalisation of the banks, utilities, transport, food distribution and the remnants of industry - the SA speaker explained that “workers’ control” of these nationalised industries would be implemented “through the TUC and the government”.
I am not sure how compatible this is with the motion from the Commune, which committed the LRC to “set as its goal a system of genuine social ownership, organised on the basis of workers’ self-management, a system of participatory democracy based on the sovereignty of those who produce the goods and services in society”. In any case, both were passed.
Also successful was the motion from Lambeth and Southwark calling for an LRC campaign “equivalent to Stop the War” for “democratic public ownership” and a “major programme of public works”.
The international section of the conference supported two principled motions on the politics of the Middle East, correctly recognising that internationalism is a central tenet of a working class fightback.
I moved the motion calling for affiliation to Hands Off the People of Iran on behalf of the Socialist Youth Network, the LRC youth wing which had already affiliated to Hopi earlier in the year. Pointing out the increased likelihood of inter-imperialist rivalry and the fact that one of the best ways for capitalism to resolve crisis historically has been through war, I underlined how urgently Hopi’s political outlook is needed in the struggle for a working class policy independent of both imperialism and the Iranian theocracy.
The motion was overwhelmingly passed, with only an unholy alliance of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, New Communist Party and Communist Party of Britain voting against. None of these groups chose to speak on the motion though. Interestingly the Morning Star report of the conference quoted my speech approvingly, but ‘forgot’ to mention the affiliation to Hopi or the fact that Star staff member Ivan Beavis and his comrades actually opposed it (November 17).
AWL number two Martin Thomas chose to speak against the LRC anti-war commission motion on Iraq “not so much for what it says as what it doesn’t say”. However, he went on to say that the call for “the immediate withdrawal of troops” contained in the motion might imply “handing over Iraq to sectarian militias”, so perhaps what it said did trouble him after all. It was overwhelmingly carried, of course.
Many of the policies passed are certainly supportable, but how are they to be implemented in the absence of a political organisation capable of actually carrying them out, linking up the different campaigns and uniting our class in the fight for socialism? There are a quite a few different opinions within the LRC on this question.
Chair Simeon Andrews, for example, has come in for quite a bit of flak from the more traditionalist Labour wing of the LRC for inviting leading Socialist Party member and Campaign for a New Workers’ Party chair Janice Godrich to speak at the LRC fringe meeting at this year’s TUC. In his speech he defended this decision by referring to the “tidal wave of disgust” at the New Labour project, and underlined the need to “think outside the box” by speaking to those who “share a class analysis”. Quite right.
Yet not everyone was of this opinion, and it was only in the debate resulting from the AWL’s motion on “working class representation” - a more or less carbon copy of the one moved the year before - that these differences came out into the open. The AWL bemoaned the fact that “no union leadership has challenged the Bournemouth decision to ban political motions to Labour conference” and called for the LRC to support not only official candidates who are “loyal to the labour movement”, but also “non-Labour socialist candidates adopted with the support of local workers’ representation committees or other substantial bodies of the local labour movement”. This was the only motion which attracted much debate, and the only one to be voted down.
LRC treasurer Graham Bash spoke of a “class-based party”, by which, of course, he meant Labour. Our task is to reclaim this party, not try to set up something which could only be a sect that would stand in elections and get a derisory vote. He argued that the history of our movement was “littered with the corpses of those who tried and failed” to establish an alternative. This was echoed by Communication Workers Union executive member Gary Heather, who said our task was to “refound Labour as a party of radical change”.
The AWL speaker, John Maloney, neatly summed up the AWL’s (and indeed most of the left’s) ‘third period Bernsteinism’ - the Labour Party is now a bosses’ party and the answer to this is … Labourism!
Old Labour for New
He argued that “probably it was true that 40 years ago the Labour Party was synonymous with working class politics”, whereas today, as his comrade, Duncan Morrison, put it, it is “no longer a vehicle for working class representation in any form”. The LRC must therefore be ready to support candidates against Labour.
Both sides of this debate essentially agree on the need for a Labour Party, but the AWL insists that the LRC should effectively arrange to be kicked out of the existing one - others pointed out that this would amount to committing suicide. Morrison claimed such people had a “shaky grasp of history”. He reminded us that at the start of the 20th century the majority of unions looked to the Liberal Party. Back then lots of people argued against ‘breaking the link’, and it was a brave minority who campaigned for what was to become the Labour Party.
Yet we must be clear what the Labour is and always has been - the project to reduce working class politics to economic issues within the framework of her majesty’s imperial government - ‘socialism’ and clause four were merely sound bites aimed at keeping control over a British working class which had been inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917.
It is hardly the duty of Marxists to argue for such a party, let alone call on the trade union bureaucracy to do it, as the AWL insists on doing (see ‘Why won’t union leaders fight for a workers’ party?’: www.workersliberty.org/node/10669). The Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party and the experience of Respect underline how trying to break the working class from Labourism by offering them a smaller version of the same thing simply will not cut the mustard.
Although the LRC is rightly pleased to have organised such a well attended conference, the key political questions posed by the lack of working class representation remain unanswered. Is it the task of the left to ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party or build ‘something new’? If so, what? Should it be another party or just a loose network? All into the Convention of the Left?
In a situation where the Labour left is now so marginalised that comrade McDonnell was unable even to get onto the ballot for the 2006 leadership contest and where the far left is in programmatic and organisational meltdown, the LRC seems to be stuck between the New Labour devil and the deep blue sectarian sea.
Tony Benn is correct, in a very limited sense, to say it is not the “ideological unity” that creates sects that we should be striving for. What is required is unity on the basis of a practical programme - that can be summed up under the headings of working class independence, democracy in respect of both the state and the workers’ movement, and consistent internationalism. These three Marxist principles are diametrically opposed to Labourism.