No reason to vote Labour
James Turley agrees with offering No2EU conditional support but criticises the PCC’s call to vote Labour
On June 4, the CPGB advised the world to vote Labour in the elections to the European parliament. That day’s Weekly Worker carried a lengthy article from Mike Macnair, extending the argument for this voting advice greatly beyond what we had been offered beforehand.
Readers of the last issue of this paper (June 11 - and indeed, those who put together cryptic comments from the comrades of the Provisional Central Committee over the last few weeks) will know that this line - and the process that led up to it - was a matter of great contention in our ranks. All oppositionists, whether “rightwing” or “ultra-left” (Jack Conrad’s words - Weekly Worker May 21), agreed that the Labour vote was the wrong outcome, though for some very different reasons (which do not, contra Jack, map onto a simple left-right spectrum).
There is little value in getting completely fixated on an election which is little more than a register for public apathy at the best of times, and in this case registered a protest vote whose scale was shocking, but whose form is more than likely ephemeral. I do not want to be arguing about tactical differences on June 4 when we reconvene next month for another aggregate.
Nevertheless, some consideration of how we got here and what was wrong in the PCC’s approach will illuminate what are key strategic questions going forward from here.
On the far left, with the exception of the Socialist Workers Party and its sect-cohering lurch into electoral abstentionism, the big story was the formation of ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’, an electoral front consisting of RMT union tops, the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain and - later - the Socialist Party in England and Wales (along with a certain element of the flotsam and jetsam of sects past and present).
This front sent the wider left forces into disarray - to support or not to support? It certainly presented a challenge to the CPGB; the initial position was a down-the-line “no support”, as on our front cover for March 12: “No support for Crow’s nationalist stunt”. Internal discussions revealed concern that this was too absolutist, and that it may happen that we need to support it; indeed that seemed to be the general argument from centre in private discussions and the party podcast. Out of this came the tactic of conditional support, as both a compromise and (in my view) a genuine improvement that allowed us to attack its ideological basis more forcefully.
It was obvious from the start, however, that our conditions (commitment to open borders and to republican democracy, including the right to bear arms) would not be widely acceptable - in fact, they were partly chosen precisely because the more reactionary forces involved would not be able to sign up to them. The PCC, to my knowledge, was not out to ‘save’ Brian Denny and John Foster from chauvinism. This left the question of who to vote for instead. The solution proposed by the PCC was - in such circumstances as the lead No2EU candidate for a region fails the test - vote Labour.
The reason given - and the only reason given until Mike’s article on election day, as well as a previous internal email along similar lines - was simply that No2EU set itself up as a Labour Party mark two, but the ‘old model’ was still knocking around; so if No2EU failed the test, we ‘may as well’ vote Labour.
The obverse of this provides another justification, but not a substantially different argument: the left by and large refuses to vote for Labour, but this is essentially an opportunist deviation based on an incorrect orientation to social democracy in post-cold war conditions; voting Labour is therefore a propaganda point against “auto-anti-Labourism”.
This is the same argument, simply because the ‘fantasy Labourism’ that forms the operative politics of the ‘new/broad left/workers’ party’ is predicated on the view that Labour has ‘gone wrong’ and abandoned its roots, so someone else will have to be more Labour than Labour. Mike Macnair’s memorable phrase is ‘third-period Bernsteinism’.
In its ‘may as well’ form, this argument amounts to using the elections simply to spite No2EU, and is therefore obviously childish. Whether or not it is worth targeting our entire electoral intervention at an ephemeral front that the CPB seems already to be trying to forget (in the wake of a truly laughable performance at the polls), a ‘may as well’ vote blunted our attack and obscured the underlying political dimensions.
As it morphed into its second form, the argument grew more serious - it is true that anti-Labour dogma is an obstacle to principled communist politics (and, as we have said, a political justification for ‘another’ Labour Party). The thing is that this is not a sufficient justification for voting Labour in a particular situation. I am entitled under British law to drink a large variety of alcoholic drinks, for example; but that does not in and of itself justify drinking pints of neat gin in a political meeting. Comrades at the meeting would be entitled to wonder why I had decided to do so, beyond its abstract permissibility.
The failure to provide any such reason actually meant that the argument against ‘auto-anti-Labourism’ was comprehensively sabotaged. I would be surprised if anyone was lured away from the target ideology one iota by the Weekly Worker coverage; indeed, from contacts with SPEW comrades highly dissatisfied with No2EU and on the group’s left, it seems to have been absolutely counterproductive. One such comrade actually confessed relief that, after finding himself worryingly in agreement with our coverage of No2EU, we had revealed ourselves to be “beyond mad” by voting Labour.
Under other circumstances, of course, this would be no argument against any election tactic at all - but if we were trying to use the election to prepare comrades to vote Labour when necessary, it does matter, because we simply haven’t been convincing at all on this question. In order to use a vote to prove a more general point, it has to be a vote that proves your point - otherwise you are merely offering sophistry in the place of analysis.
For all Jack’s bluster about oppositionists confusing strategy and tactics, this approach is truly demonstrative of tactical incompetence.
This brings us to Mike’s arguments, which purport to offer just such a concrete justification. Though in the event they were published too late (and other PCC comrades seem not to have considered them important enough to refer to in the course of the debate prior to his interventions), we can nevertheless imagine, hypothetically, the Weekly Worker pushing this line in the few weeks before the election (all quotations are from the June 4 article, unless otherwise noted).
The line is: a vote for Labour is a “shadow” of a vote for “the idea of independent political organisation of the wage-earning class”; Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party, organically connected through the unions to the direct struggles of employed workers against their employers, and indeed named after that connection. A century of class-collaboration - peculiarly naked today, but fundamentally present at least from the fledgling party’s participation in the World War I cabinet - has not fully destroyed this factor.
Now, however, this (shadow of an) idea is fundamentally under threat. The political crisis of Labour meets an immediately damaged but generally resurgent Tory Party, and a rise in rightwing populism; the promotion of celebrities of the Esther Rantzen type as potential politicians is emblematic of a broader trend. The risk is that we will end up with Italian “Berlusconi-style” politics, where the political elite becomes fused with media capital and the major opposition is from a bourgeois liberal direction.
In such circumstances, a vote for Labour is a defensive move - however degenerated it is, the Labour Party is a gain for the working class, and the transformation of it into something like the Italian ex-Eurocommunist rump or the US Democrats would be a serious defeat.
There are two major difficulties with this argument. The first is that it is inconsistent with conditional support for No2EU. What if we had recommended votes for one or another No2EU list? Is this really compatible with a serious defence of what remains progressive in the Labour Party? What has happened here is a sleight of hand, by which we slip from one social universe - in which it is ‘business as usual’ for the CPGB with reference to the last decade (direct propaganda for Marxist unity through conditional support for No2EU) - to another, where our overriding priority is elementary defence of existing working class gains and institutions.
At the recent members aggregate (June 6), comrade Tina Becker objected to this line of reasoning (which has been lifted from Nick Rogers) on the basis that there is no reason why we cannot conduct defensive campaigning alongside propaganda for a Marxist party. This is true. But Mike argues the necessity for this defensive action on the basis that the demise of the Labour Party is immediately on the agenda (ie, a matter of concern at next year’s general election at the latest) thanks to the ruptural unity of economic, political and ideological crises it is undergoing.
Therefore, we are in a situation where we can apply Trotsky’s reasoning vis-à-vis fascism: “When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy.”1 This reasoning precludes a vote for No2EU (the ‘poisoners’); but without it, it simply is not at all obvious that defence of the Labour Party is a priority anyway. The only permutation of logic that permits the two tactics to coexist is the raising of conditions with the full intention of them not being fulfilled - an accusation made by Nick Rogers and others, but strenuously denied by PCC comrades.
The second difficulty should be prefaced with an admission - I share Mike’s broad assessment of the situation the Labour Party is in, that it does indeed face the prospect of its liquidation as a (bourgeois) workers’ organisation. I agree that we should take heed of the recent history of Italy.
But this was irrelevant to this election. A blanket vote for Labour lists, as I argued at the aggregate, is a vote for the party machine, which is utterly in the hands of the New Labour apparatchiks - that is, it is a vote for those within Labour who look forward to just such a liquidation into bourgeois politics proper. The most obvious impulse towards liquidation right now is from the rightwing press, true - but for social contradictions as tense as the role of the bourgeois workers’ party in capitalism, it is ‘turtles all the way down’; the working class and the bourgeoisie as poles of attraction from the Labour Party represents a division which is expressed internally within Labour as well, with tendencies pulling it in different directions. Powerful trends in the party machine precisely look forward to the final liquidation of Labour’s proletarian character.
The fact is, at the European parliament elections, a vote in defence of Labour’s remaining connection to the working class simply was not on the agenda. Mike’s analysis is just not applicable here. Rather the British public was presented with its four-yearly opportunity to lash out at the government, and duly took it. It was all theatre. My view is that conditional support for No2EU was correct and useful, but beyond that there was no plausible option other than a spoilt ballot, to register protest at the worthlessness of the European parliament, the establishment parties, their far-right rivals and the sub-nationalist idiocies of the left.
So what now? It seems clear that the immediate crisis in the Labour Party which dominated the election is over. The Blairite rebels have been outmanoeuvred by Brown; Hazel Blears now affects contrition at the manner of her resignation on the eve of the election2. Brown will probably limp on until being turfed out of office next year. The underlying contradictions remain, however; the right populism that has been raised up will not go away, and the threat of a serious reorganisation of British politics on an (even) more bourgeois-friendly basis remains. The left, in its nadir of decrepitude, faces the unenviable task of combining elementary defence of workers’ interests with the equally necessary process of building a communist alternative.
This is what we should be discussing going forward from here, so that our next intervention is not so internally contradictory and slapdash.
For a workers’ united front against fascism (1931): marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1931/311208.htm
See, for example, www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/jun/12/hazel-blears-timing-resignation