Programme of renewal

What next for the Labour left? Mark Fischer spoke to Graham Bash of Labour Briefing

What opportunities are there for the Labour left after Labour’s general election defeat?

After 13 years of New Labour misrule, attacks on the working class and imperialist wars - developments that have strained almost to breaking point the relationship between the party on the one hand and the trade union movement and working class communities on the other - the vote for Labour on May 6 stood up amazingly well, even taking into account the five million votes we have lost since 1997.

In the Labour heartlands - places like Hackney, Islington, east London, Scotland, Merseyside - we polled well. To me, as I went round the polling stations on the day and saw the working class, the black and ethnic minorities queuing round the block to vote Labour, it was a moving experience. I was observing an undeserved class loyalty to the Labour Party.

There is an opportunity in this electoral defeat to build. But that depends on certain conditions. The first has already been realised - Labour was not wiped out at the ballot box. Secondly it did not go into a cuts government with the Lib Dems, which would have led to an electoral annihilation at the next general election.

The third condition is equally important. Labour must reconnect with its base. It will not be able to do that if it has a leadership that is no different in any fundamental way from the one that got us into this mess in the first place - but the Milibands and Ed Balls are all New Labour. Of course, it’s not all about the leadership. It’s also what we do in our individual wards, our communities and trade unions. But a New Labour leadership will be an obstacle to achieving a fundamental change of direction.

So there is room for the party to re-establish itself in working class communities, in the trade unions, but it has to be the party of resistance. The title of this post-election meeting - ‘Join the resistance’ - encapsulates what has to be done. We must build a genuinely rooted party of resistance.

What’s amazing is the residual loyalty of the working class to Labour despite its record.

Is it positive loyalty to the Labour Party, or more hatred of the Tories?

That’s a good question. In fact, I think it’s both. It’s obvious that the vote for Labour was motivated by fear of the Tories. It had nowhere else to go in this election and, clearly, it will have nowhere else to go when the next election comes around. It has to be the Labour Party or it will be nothing.

There seems no realistic chance of John McDonnell getting onto the ballot paper for the leadership election. So the perception of most people will be that it is ‘business as usual’ at the top of the Labour Party ...

It might have been possible, if unlikely. It would have needed a mass campaign in the trade unions, in the various constituent parts of the labour movement, to put pressure on MPs to nominate him.

But the party membership is now facing a constitutional coup imposed by the leadership. The decision by Labour’s national executive to end parliamentary nominations on May 27 is an outrageous attempt to ensure that party members have no say in who gets on the ballot paper and to restrict leadership candidates to those acceptable to the Labour establishment.

What sort of support is there for John McDonnell?

If he was on the ballot paper I think he would get a significant vote from the constituencies - his constituency support is clearly better than in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the trade unions, that would depend on the pressure that could be exerted. It would be necessary to connect his campaign with the fight to renew the party, to make it a party of resistance and protest - not a party of attacks on the class, of increased levels of inequality and of imperialist wars.

On one level, it might seem odd that the left in the Labour Party is in a more optimistic mood than the left outside it.

I couldn’t really say. There are now opportunities for the Labour left and we cannot ignore the reality of the devastating electoral results other left organisations suffered.

It is really important not to have any illusions about the current state of the Labour left. It, and the party as a whole, needs renewing from top to bottom. Yes, it’s in a better mood than those outside - not simply of defiance, but actually the realisation that an opportunity is opening up. This has to be seized or we will remain in the same terrible position we have been in for the last few years. Yes, there is a window of opportunity, but unless we take advantage of it nothing fundamental will change.

Yes, but conferences are all very well. What concrete measures need to come out of this event?

We need a basic programme of renewal for the Labour Party premised on the idea that the crisis is a crisis of the banks and the capitalist system, not of the working class. That means defence of public services, opposition to cuts, opposition to privatisation, opposition to hostility against migrant workers, opposition to imperialist wars, defence of civil liberties and so on.

In other words, we need a basic programme that differentiates the party from the New Labour leadership. Then we must reach out to those in struggle, to take concrete steps to support them.

It was interesting to hear people at this conference who were parliamentary candidates describing how they have been supporting their communities, their working class constituency in struggle against a Labour government. We need to do this much, much more, as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition steps up its attacks.

What we are facing are draconian attacks on our living standards. Good organisation is therefore important, but the key is reaching out beyond the ranks of the party and being part of the struggle.