Labour Party and communist strategy

Is there space within Labour to struggle for democracy and a left revival? Peter Manson reports on the CPGB debate

The June 19 aggregate of CPGB members focused on the strategic question of the Labour Party and the attitude of communists to Labour and Labourism.

Comrade Jack Conrad opened the debate with a restatement of the CPGB belief that Labour, despite the overwhelming dominance of its bourgeois pole since Tony Blair and New Labour, remains a bourgeois workers’ party. What is more, with its defeat in the general election and its replacement by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, we should expect a revival in the party’s working class pole.

Already rightwing Labour leaders have responded to the coalition programme of deep, immediate cuts by posing left - stating their opposition on the grounds that it is the poor who will be hardest hit. As these cuts begin to have their effect on jobs, pay, working conditions and benefits, there is bound to be resistance from our class. The unions will surely organise days of action and protest strikes, and Labour leaders could well feature on the platforms of their demonstrations.

Comrade Conrad, looking back to the formation of the Labour Party, reminded the meeting that it was the product not only of the trade unions, but of the organised left, such as it was in 1900 - including the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation (later to become the British Socialist Party). Lenin supported Labour’s affiliation to the Second International and, following the Russian Revolution, the party adopted the ‘socialist’ clause four both as “an anti-Bolshevik antidote” and “a concession to the left”, said comrade Conrad.

With the foundation of the Communist Party in 1920, Lenin urged the CPGB to apply for affiliation to Labour - the CPGB’s largest component, the BSP, had indeed been an affiliate, but the application of the CPGB was consistently rejected by the Labour right. Nevertheless, individual communists were Labour members and over the years many were elected as Labour councillors and MPs. The CPGB exerted a strong influence over the Labour left, not least through the Sunday Worker (circulation: 100,000) and the National Left Wing Movement, which enjoyed the backing of the most militant wards and constituency Labour parties.

Today, continued the comrade, Labour is “still fundamentally the same beast”. The overwhelming majority of unions are still affiliated and class-conscious workers still regard it as their party - however grudging their support, they still turn out to vote for it, as was demonstrated at the election, when long queues formed unexpectedly in many working class areas (so much so that many were turned away, not able to vote).

Our view has always been that the Labour Party is a strategic question for the British revolution. Crucially the task for communists is to positively overcome Labourism. And so it remains today. Which is why the development of a strategic approach (as opposed to short-term tactics) is needed. Comrade Conrad said that there was no reason in principle why the Labour Party could not play a positive role in the battle for socialism. But that would only happen if Labour was transformed into what it was originally designed to be. That is, a united front of the entire working class, with affiliations from trade unions, socialist societies, co-ops and political groups and parties. Hence the bar on political affiliations, not least from communists, had to be reversed - something that would be possible only through the democratisation of the entire labour movement, crucially the trade unions.

The comrade emphasised that he was talking about what needs to be fought for, not what would happen. It is inevitable that the pro-capitalist right will oppose democracy in the movement and will do its damnedest to block any advance of the revolutionary left in the Labour Party. But if the revolutionary left was successful that would mean a decisive split with the pro-capitalist right. In that case the Labour Party would become a united front which had amongst its affiliates a mass Communist Party.

The last thing the CPGB envisaged was a “smash and grab raid” on Labour, said comrade Conrad. But we would do all we could to aid the struggle of the Labour left in its fight for party democracy. Such a struggle, if successfully waged, would open up a space for Marxism within the party. And we would certainly want to give every support to Labour Party Marxists if, for example, there was a move to set up an openly Marxist Labour Party publication.

While most CPGB comrades are agreed that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party, Nick Rogers thought that its enthusiastic adoption of neoliberalism, plus its changed membership, had called that definition into question. Nevertheless, continued trade union affiliation clearly meant that Labour was still a site for struggle and in his view it remains a working class party. He agreed that the general election had seen a big increase in the Labour vote in working class areas, compared with the previous year’s European poll.

However, comrade Rogers was puzzled by what seemed to him the “strategic perspective for propping up a mass Labour Party” that comrade Conrad was proposing. But he accepted that we need to engage more closely with Labour and described such an orientation as a “turn to mass work in a small way”.

Comrade Yassamine Mather also thought that Labour’s embrace of privatisation and the market marked a significant change. Nor could the support of capitalists like Rupert Murdoch and Alan Sugar be ignored, in the context of a decline in union funding. Comrade Mather said she could not believe the Labour leadership would allow any space for left comrades to argue for democracy.

On the other hand, Jim Gilbert asserted that Labour was most definitely a site for struggle, while Mike Macnair explained why he thought the ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ description is still appropriate. For him it evoked not just a struggle between left and right, but constant movement and fluidity. For example, Labour in opposition has to recapture its base, which means that the right has to start talking left - as it is already doing in claiming to oppose government cuts.

Comrade Macnair stressed that campaigning for Labour Party democracy was not a waste of time. A struggle to overturn the bans and proscriptions had the potential to transform Labour into what it has pretended to be - a party of the whole class.

Comrade Conrad intervened again to state, in response to comrade Rogers’ point, that Labour could never be the main vehicle for socialism. But it could be a weapon in the struggle for working class power. He pointed out that the affiliation of unions to a Communist Party could never even be contemplated, yet communists need to develop an organised relationship with the unions. Why could this not come about in part through the Labour Party?

Comrade Rogers came back to say that in his opinion there was “no possibility” of Labour becoming a broad workers’ party. In fact he wondered if to advocate such a thing was to argue for a “halfway house” - something that the CPGB has consistently opposed. But Stan Kelsey pointed out that we never seek to create halfway houses - we always fight for the kind of party workers need, a Communist Party. However, that certainly does not preclude intervening in them when they are created by life itself.

In parallel with this debate over strategy, questions of tactics were raised by comrades. As comrade Gilbert said, that was unavoidable. Tina Becker was the first to raise the need to intervene in the current leadership contest, particularly since there will be a left candidate, Diane Abbott, on the ballot paper. But comrade Mather described Abbott as a “leftist Blairite” and wondered how it would be possible for communists to support her candidature when she had a totally different view to ours not only on Labour democracy, but on the war in Afghanistan. James Turley suggested that our support for Abbott should be conditional - we should back her only if she came out for an immediate withdrawal of British troops.

Phil Kent’s view was that there should be a “very big ‘but’” if we say ‘Vote Diane Abbott’, but comrade Rogers thought that it was important to engage with sections of the Labour left who are backing her. This would give us an opportunity to develop our study of the Labour Party.

However, comrade Conrad pointed out that Abbott was trying to promote herself, not any left fightback inside Labour. While we should call for a vote for her, her campaign did not provide communists and Labour Party Marxists with a big opportunity at all. The leadership contest was an example of the right “adjusting to post-Brown”. Comrade Macnair stated that our main concern should not be the immediate question of Diane Abbott, but our entire strategic orientation to Labour in view of that party’s expected sharp move to the left.