McDonnell blocked by NEC bureaucrats
Despite the current ascendancy of the right, Labour is likely to see a shift to the left, argues Peter Manson
In a move designed to strangle John McDonnell’s leadership campaign, Labour’s national executive has decreed that nominations from MPs will close on Thursday May 27, just three days after they open. Voting is not due to begin until August 16 and the new leader will not be announced until the start of annual conference on September 25.
So why the rush to determine who will be on the ballot? According to acting leader Harriet Harman, this is supposed to ensure that an “open, engaging and energising” contest can commence immediately: “Over the next few months, up to four million people will have the chance to help shape Britain’s progressive future by choosing the next leader of the Labour Party.”
One snag, though. Only the 258 Labour MPs have the right to determine who can contest the leadership in the first place - in order to stand, any candidate must win the nominations of at least 12.5% of their number. In 2007, when Gordon Brown was elected unopposed, 45 MPs’ nominations were required, but McDonnell could only muster 29 and the party machine achieved its desired coronation. However, there was a relatively long period between Tony Blair’s announcement that he was stepping down and the close of nominations to elect his replacement. This allowed comrade McDonnell to campaign at numerous meetings around the country to try and win rank and file Labour members and trade unionists to demand that their local MP or union leadership endorse his nomination.
Because now there are far fewer Labour MPs, reducing the threshold for nominations to 33 (ie, 32 others apart from the candidate), some on the left have suggested that McDonnell might actually succeed in getting on the ballot paper this time. However, only 16 of those who nominated him in 2007 are still MPs and there are only three newly elected members who were backed by the Labour Representation Committee - which he chairs, of course. It is conceivable that 13 others will be prepared to sign his papers - even if they do so out of democratic instinct and end up voting for someone else. As McDonnell himself states, “I will seek to gain sufficient nominations to stand in the hope that Labour MPs will support an open and democratic election” (London LRC press release, May 18). But don’t hold your breath.
The London LRC statement concludes: “Effectively this means that the whole process is biased towards the Labour hierarchy’s favoured candidates, largely excluding the possibility of others coming forward to secure sufficient nominations. It also prevents rank and file party members having any say over the process. Labour MPs will have no real opportunity to consult their local parties and constituency parties will have no time to meet.”
Even before the timetable was announced, McDonnell knew the odds were against him. At the May 15 LRC conference he told the Weekly Worker: “We’re taking any prospect of myself being on the ballot paper pretty steady at the moment. Obviously, there are 32 nominations to get from individual MPs, which is a hurdle.
“At the same time, we are emphasising to people that it’s the campaign that’s important, not just the ballot. The key thing is the process of linking together in the Labour Party - and outside it - to forge a fighting alliance to resist the attacks coming from the coalition government.”
He stressed: “Now, the Labour leadership campaign could be part of that: it could give us a platform to expose the attacks and agitate for a fightback, but I don’t want to sow illusions. The most central element of our campaign in the future has got to be deep within working class communities and the movement.”
Not even the soft-left populist, John Cruddas, who stood for deputy leader in 2007 and was widely believed to be aiming for the top job this time, will be on the leaders’ ballot. He withdrew after being touted by front-runner David Miliband as his deputy - part of a “dream ticket”. Cruddas admits that being Labour leader requires “certain qualities I do not possess”. So that should rule him out as deputy leader too then.
Thus, if McDonnell does not make it onto the ballot paper, it could be the former schools secretary and close confidant of Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, who ends up as the most leftwing candidate. A number of union leaders are supporting him, just as they supported Brown last time. And former London mayor Ken Livingstone has also made it clear he backs Balls as the most realistic ‘left’ candidate.
As for former foreign secretary David Miliband, he is an out-and-out Blairite, who, rather than “recreating New Labour”, prefers to talk about building “Next Labour”. As he has said of his late Marxist father, Ralph: “My oh my, he must be thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’” And commentators have speculated that he is likely to want to move the party towards even more reactionary positions on questions such as immigration and crime - which has led some to suggest that his brother, former energy secretary Ed Miliband, might be regarded by the unions and Labour left as more acceptable. However, in announcing his candidacy, he talked about migrants taking the jobs of British workers and helping to undercut wages. He also implied that perhaps Labour had been too soft on welfare ‘scroungers’.
For the moment, then, the Labour right remains in complete control, able to marginalise the left still further through bureaucratic measures such as those agreed by the NEC for the leadership contest.
But for how long is this likely to remain the case? There are strong reasons why a shift to the left is likely. Whenever Labour has been beaten in an election, there is a tendency to move, however slightly, to the left. It is not only the luxury of opposition, but the pressure from the rank and file, trade union affiliates and the necessity of winning back the party’s working class base.
Even the period of opposition from 1979 to 1992, which ended in a qualitative rightwing shift with the ascendancy of Tony Blair and New Labour, had followed that trend. It was only after the third successive defeat at the hands of the Tories that many Labour and union leaderships bit their collective lip and backed Blair in the hope that at least he would make the party ‘electable’ again (after all nothing could be worse than the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher and John Major).
For Labour the move towards the left has to some degree reflected militant working class action, as workers resist Tory attacks on their pay, conditions, union rights and social services. In opposition, even rightwing Labour leaders accuse the Conservatives of having gone too far, of being too confrontational and so on.
There are two specific features of the current situation that will add weight to this tendency. First, there is a coalition between the other two mainstream parties, allowing Labour to pose as the “only progressive party”, now that the Liberal Democrats - with their demands for democratic electoral reform and support for ‘human rights’ put on ice or watered down, in the name of tackling the budget deficit in the ‘national interest’ - have made themselves appear indistinguishable from the Tories.
This has already led to thousands of people applying to join the Labour Party - including, of course, disaffected Lib Dems who hate the Tories. But it seems probable that many left-inclined workers will have done so too, hoping that Labour will be as good as its “progressive” word under the new leader.
The second feature of the current political landscape that points to a Labour shift to the left is the fact that the working class is about to face the fiercest attack on its living standards and conditions since the 1920s and 30s. The further the government goes in its vicious cuts, the more widespread will be the resistance and the more workers’ struggles will find general support throughout the population. When the unions call one-day protest demonstrations and marches, we are likely to see not just Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the platform, but Ed Miliband or Ed Balls.
Of course, these predictions are based on our assessment that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party: while its leaders and practical policies are “thoroughly bourgeois”, its membership is working class - not least that of the affiliated trade unions. The trade union link means strong pressure on the Labour leadership, as union bureaucrats are at the very least forced to go through the motions of resisting the Tory-Lib Dem assault. And it still is the trade unions which hold the purse strings. The biggest slice of Labour finances comes from the political funds of affiliated trade unions.
Despite all the ravages suffered under Blair - the dropping of clause four and any pretence of aiming for socialism or even advancing working class interests, the hollowing out of party ward and constituency organisations, the gutting of conference - the union link has ensured that Labour’s fundamental nature has not changed. On the one hand, it is a party supported by the trade union movement, which the mass of class-conscious workers identify with (although, of course, this has have been markedly weakened under New Labour); on the other hand, Labour has always been the loyal servant of British imperialism.
But what about those on the left who claim that Labour’s nature has been totally transformed? Those like the Socialist Party in England and Wales who say that it has become an unambiguously bourgeois party, just like the Tories and Lib Dems? How will they respond if the Labour left experiences a revival in its fortunes?
To her credit, SPEW deputy general secretary Hannah Sell has tackled the question in a recent article.
“Since the election,” she writes, “some have argued that there is a possibility of shifting New Labour back to the left now that it is out of power.” Not surprisingly SPEW does not “think this is on the agenda”. Comrade Sell admits that there has been a “trickle” of people joining the Labour Party since the election, which she puts at “about 12 per constituency”. Of course, that amounts to several thousand new recruits in a little over a week, so it is not that paltry.
“However, to stand a chance of reclaiming capitalist New Labour for the working class it would take a mass influx into the party - of trade unionists and young people - determined to rebuild the democratic structures which have long been destroyed.” This, she says, has not happened in the case of “other ex-social democratic parties in Europe, which have not altered their capitalist character when out of power and have largely remained empty shells”.
Rather, she claims, “new left formations” have sprung up, and it goes without saying that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - whose “excellent campaigns were not fully reflected in the votes we received” - represents “an important preparatory step towards such a formation” in Britain. That is why any campaign to “reclaim the Labour Party” would be “a mistaken strategy”. The unions should “stop funding New Labour and to begin to build a new party”.
However, she continues, if SPEW’s advice is ignored, “a serious campaign to reclaim New Labour by affiliated trade unions would be a huge step forward on the current policy of the majority of the union leaders of clinging to the coat-tails of the Brownites and the Blairites”. Although SPEW does not think it could succeed, “were it to do so, we would turn towards such a development”.
In fact comrade Sell has already come up with some policies for such a campaign: “It would ... be necessary to demand that the pro-capitalist and pro-war Blairites and Brownites be expelled from the party. Linked to this would be the rebuilding of democracy within the Labour Party, which is currently non-existent at national level.”
In the meantime, “McDonnell is almost certain to be the only candidate that stands in defence of workers’ interests. Therefore, as Socialist Party members will argue, all affiliated trade unions, if they are serious about fighting to reclaim New Labour, should mandate their sponsored MPs to back him.”
The contradictions are well and truly exposed. Leave aside the notion that Labour can be ‘reclaimed’ for the working class - it was never a workers’ party in any genuine sense. But even to entertain the notion that such a working class fight is possible within the party surely calls into question SPEW’s insistence that Labour is one of those “ex-social democratic parties”, a straightforward bourgeois party like the Tories and Lib Dems.
Why does SPEW not rule out the possibility of a working class fightback within Labour altogether? Could such a development occur within the Conservative Party, for example? What is it about Labour that still marks it out as different from the Tories and Lib Dems? Those are the questions arising from comrade Sell’s article that cry out to be answered.
We welcome the commitment to “turn towards” a pro-working class fight within Labour - not to mention the backing from SPEW for John McDonnell’s campaign in the here and now. But what does this say about SPEW’s belief in the possibility of creating a Labour Party mark two? Which union is seriously going to consider backing such a move under current circumstances? In fact, we are likely to see quite the opposite trend, with disaffiliated unions applying to rejoin and even SPEW’s half-hearted allies like Bob Crow seriously rethinking their approach.
- ‘Time for the fight of our lives’: www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/9537/14-05-2010/time-for-the-fight-of-our-lives