Only game in town

Mark Fischer was at the 'After the election ... Join the resistance' event

The speaker from the floor at the May 15 meeting who suggested that it would be preferable for John McDonnell MP not to appear on the ballot paper in the Labour leadership contest probably did not expect to receive a standing ovation. Quite apart from the fact that this 200-strong meeting was actually hosted by McDonnell’s own Labour Representation Committee, the umbrella organisation that is effectively the left of the party, the whole mood of the meeting flowed in precisely the opposite direction. ‘Frosty’ probably best describes the way the suggestion  was received.

The hapless comrade was clearly concerned that a McDonnell candidacy - which could not hope to win in current circumstances - would be perceived as a hard-left spoiler by elements in the soft-left/Compass marsh. The leading figure of that section of the party, Jon Cruddas MP, was at that stage still being spoken of as another possible leadership contender. Subsequently he has ruled himself out - bizarrely, in order to vacate the ‘left’ slot on the ballot paper for Ed Balls. Although at this conference the idea went down “like a turd in swimming pool”, as one participant muttered to me, the fact is it has a pedigree on Labour’s ‘hard’ left.

For example, at the May 2008 annual conference of Labour Briefing, Richard Price - LB editorial board member and prominent London civil servants’ union activist - put the case for a similar orientation. The choice was a stark one, he suggested. LB and others could “face left” to work with those outside the ranks of the party; or it could turn towards “the centre-left” (the trend in and around the Compass think tank plus MP Jon Cruddas were mentioned specifically by comrade Price, rather than just implied). “Let’s be real,” the comrade appealed. “Who are the forces around us in Labour?” The answer, he said, was to LB’s right in the shape of “the centre-left” composed of “thousands”, while at best there were “hundreds to our left”. The numbers for any other orientation just did not add up, he suggested. An alliance with the extra-Labour left was simply “unworkable”, given the failure of all of their projects - “with the brief exception of the Scottish Socialist Party”, the comrade conceded. Other comrades at the 2008 meeting who took up the same theme called for the left to break out of its “marginalisation” and look to a “new coalition” with the centre and those who had previously supported New Labour (Weekly Worker May 15 2008).

The firmness with which such ideas were rejected in May 2010 indicates a change in the mood on the left of the Labour Party. Although McDonnell was at pains to dampen down expectations of actually being able to stand in the leadership contest, there was no question that there was not going to be a fight for him to do so. In fact, far more indicative of the confident mood of the gathering was the enthusiasm that greeted comrade McDonnell’s blunt statement that - in the likely event of his being excluded from the ballot - we should “not support anyone”. All the others would have “blood on their hands from Iraq” or be at least partly culpable in all sorts of reactionary policies.

This new-found confidence is not just wishful thinking. Three recent developments appear to have vindicated the stance of the Labour left over the preceding period, a time when all sorts of siren voices were calling on them to abandon the Labour Party ... in order to build a Labour Party mark two.

First, the relief that not only did Labour not suffer electoral meltdown, it was boosted in the days leading up to the election by a residual ‘class loyalty’ vote from working people appalled at the prospect of a Tory government: a stubborn allegiance, despite the fact that, as McDonnell put it, to general approval, the Labour Party actually “deserved to lose”, given its record in government.

Second, Labour left MPs - particularly those directly associated with the LRC and those it backed - in general registered a smaller swing against them than most Labour candidates.

Third, and in stark contrast, the left outside Labour was annihilated on May 6, registering almost universally pathetic votes. The Labour left feels that life itself has proved it right against all those who have attempted to build some sort of viable electoral alternative outside the party. From numerous speakers throughout the day, we heard variations on the same theme. Like it or not, said Labour candidate for North West Hampshire, Sarah Evans, “Labour is what we have”; John Lewis from Gower constituency, South Wales, noted the “derisory votes” for the far left, and underlined that “the real fight is in the Labour Party”; other speakers from the floor cuttingly observed that if the likes of the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Party in England and Wales had not built anything serious in electoral terms over 13 years of a rightwing Labour government, “they have no chance in the future” - now “the pendulum has swung back” to those socialists who had opted to stick it out inside the party. “It’s the only game in town,” ex-Labour MP Christine Shawcroft said, with an air of finality.

Even Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty was up for a “campaign inside the Labour Party”, whose aims would include overturning the structural barriers to left influence erected by the right, and to “restore conference” to exert some measure of democratic control over the parliamentary party. The fact that the disorientated AWL has lurched back in this direction is indicative of the way the political wind now blows. After all, this was the organisation that at the 2007 LRC AGM put forward a stupid motion that would have seen the LRC embark on a suicidal policy of confrontation with the New Labour bureaucracy and which would have certainly led to its expulsion (see Weekly Worker November 22 2007). Gone now are the days when the group’s newspaper could editorialise that working class political representation requires that “there has to be a functioning, living Labour Party. No such party exists any more. This is an enormous event …The Labour Party is a stinking corpse!” (Solidarity April 10 2008).

The irony is, of course, that almost all of the sects that have beavered outside Labour to build ballot box alternatives have based these on the political programme of left Labourism, not the Marxism they profess to believe in. So, while the left of Labour may feel some quiet satisfaction that all of these attempts have ended in abject failure (it must be said, there was no smugness or malicious pleasure at the rest of the left’s idiocies on show at the May 15 conference), it too should take note.

The Labour left - just as replete with ‘Marxists’ as the groups outside the party - unsurprisingly peddles a variant of left Labourism. That was exactly what the so-called revolutionary left has insisted on doing via formations such the Socialist Alliance, Respect, the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, etc. The Labour left is not united but, like its counterparts outside the party, is chronically divided into competing grouplets, often bitterly opposed to each other over what are, in essence, nuances of theory or history. It has often displayed none of the strengths and all of the weaknesses of those outside its ranks.

The hostility both share to partyism - the commitment to unite in a Marxist party - leaves them rudderless. So the suggestion from Tony Benn on May 15 that “new parties are not the answer”, but instead we should go for “campaigns”, was a recurring theme from many. Yet, as the dismal experience of left trends outside Labour shows, without a thorough and ruthless examination of the failures and absurdities of our programmatic method and inherited political culture, the left - in or out of Labour - is doomed to ultimate defeat.

In this context, it does not bode well that the ‘facilitating’ of the day’s discussions was handed over to John Nicholson of the Convention of the Left - a comrade who insisted that the “style of contributions” to our debate should be universally “positive” and “without recriminations”.

We need to be a tad harder on ourselves than that, I fear.