Where now for the left?

The Labour left has a constant tendency to look to its right for allies, writes Ben Lewis

Around 20 comrades attended the June 5 London Communist Forum at the School of Oriental and African Studies entitled ‘After the elections: where now for the left?’ They heard speeches by Owen Jones of the Labour Representation Committee, Pete McLaren of the Socialist Alliance, Jenny Sutton (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate for Tottenham in the general election) and Jack Conrad of the CPGB. Despite its small size this forum provided an opportunity for an honest, frank and comradely discussion - not the overblown rhetoric and near-delusional official optimism witnessed elsewhere on the left.

Comrade Conrad spoke first and introduced this point about honesty. The left had expected to do much better out of the crisis in terms of paper sales, recruits and activity. But in the two elections held in Britain since the economic crisis it has performed extremely badly. Its votes were more or less “statistically irrelevant”, exposing the boast of the Socialist Party in England and Wales about its own “social weight”. Comrade Conrad recognised that the candidates backed by the LRC had in general done better than other Labour candidates, but the LRC had not grown in parliament and the Labour left as a whole was probably the weakest it had ever been. But where was the accounting for any of this?

Given the urgency of the threats against the working class, many will argue that now is not the time for in-depth political discussion and high politics, but action and agitation. Comrade Conrad argued for exactly the opposite approach. Patience, long-term vision and unity around building a Marxist party must be the order of the day. Without this the left will stumble from one blunder to the next - including the Labour left, he maintained.

Comrade Jones disputed Conrad’s analysis of the elections, saying that many LRC-backed candidates had actually increased their vote since 2005, in contrast to the “unmitigated disaster” that was Tusc. To hammer home the point he said that Tusc nationally got half of the votes that Labour left MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, Katy Clark or John McDonnell won in a single constituency.

Comrade Jones claimed nothing to the left of Labour had ever had any real relevance. Since all such alternatives had been born in “much better circumstances” than today, the non-Labour left did not have a hope in hell now. He mentioned the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party and Militant as failed projects, but interestingly omitted any discussion of the CPGB - in spite of its many failings even before Stalinisation, the highest form of revolutionary unity the British working class has seen.

Comrade McLaren spoke of three possible ways forward for the left - we can either continue with our crazy division and ineffectiveness, rejoin the Labour Party or redouble our efforts to build a “new party of the left”. For him it was no longer possible to “reclaim” Labour. Local constituencies and conference had been gutted, with little or no influence. Instead “we need a new party quickly”. He spoke of the attempt to organise a new network that will take place in Rugby on July 24 and welcomed CPGB interest in the event. He emphasised that any new initiative must be “democratic and inclusive” (unlike Tusc or No2EU before it).

I had two major problems with the comrade’s talk. Firstly, he seemed to suggest that, in the initial stages of setting up a new formation, left groups should give up their own individual positions - demanding it should be Marxist or revolutionary, for example - so as not to exclude those who want a reformist or green party. He “very much hoped” that Marxists would one day lead that formation and imbue it with revolutionary perspectives, but not at the outset. This belies the fact that building a Labourite halfway house is just as much a ‘position’ as calling for a Marxist party. Moreover, it ignores the fact that a Labourite party already exists. One of our key strategic tasks is to win workers from the domination of Labourism (described by comrade Jones as “the bureaucratically distorted expression of working class political representation”) to the perspectives of Marxism. This should be the overriding consideration, whether we are operating in or out of the Labour Party.

Secondly, comrade McLaren seemed to be defending the ‘federal principle’, where comrades can stand in localities under their own banners and politics, arguing that this would militate against any new formation being dominated by “one single group”. I challenged this, saying that federalism was a shibboleth drawn up by SPEW from the days of the Socialist Alliance to enable it to ignore majority decisions and do its own thing in its local strongholds - building itself and nothing else. The federalist ‘principle’, I argued, was responsible for the situation in Tusc where local SPers and SWPers were almost hermetically sealed off from each other, each group campaigning only for its own or sympathetic candidates, but not the other’s.

Comrade Sutton mainly focused on her candidacy in Tottenham - Tusc had been a springboard for an “all-important electoral challenge” to New Labour’s David Lammy. However, there were a lot of things that needed to be addressed. She agreed that there was a lack of openness and democracy in Tusc, with many things being decided in “smoke-filled rooms”. She has been invited to the post-election Tusc meeting on Saturday June 12, but has no idea what is on the agenda or even where the agenda is being discussed.

She spoke of “left unity on an ideological basis” being “difficult and problematic”. For her, the way forward for the left was unity “on the ground around practical and concrete issues” - ideological differences should be “put aside” and would eventually be “sorted out in the wash”. However, comrade Sutton did conclude by talking of the need for a revolutionary party of the left which is able to break the “stranglehold” that Labour has traditionally had on the British working class.

Comrade Conrad concluded by talking of the Labour Party as a legitimate site of struggle to build the Marxist party our class needs. Responding to points raised in the discussion, he spoke of “claiming”, not “reclaiming”, the Labour Party - it is impossible to get back something that was never yours: the Labour Party’s ignominious history of support for imperialism, the constitutional monarchy and the secret state apparatus can hardly be described as working class political independence.

Moreover, the Labour left has always been tied to the Labour right, leading to a constant tendency to look to its right for allies. Consequently, its ‘strategy’ for a ‘socialist transformation’ has often been linked to a ‘national road’ (comrade Jones saw it in terms of a left Labour government, backed up by mass extra-parliamentary pressure). Ironically, this strategy owes quite a lot to The British road to socialism, the programme of the ‘official’ CPGB, whose influence he had dismissed.