Expel the collaborators

James Turley questions the nature of Labour as an organisation

Anyone still in doubt about the nature of the Labour right would do well to note the trickle of rightwingers taking up jobs for Tory-led administrations. Kate Hoey started the ball rolling by taking a sport-related advisory role for the buffoonish Boris Johnson when he became London mayor two years ago.

It took general election defeat to see others follow her lead, of course. One Labour MP and two former MPs have now taken Cameron’s proverbial pieces of silver. All represent forms of politics radically alien to the interests of the working class (though not, unfortunately, to the extant traditions of the workers’ movement) - all have all been invited, and agreed, to take up appointments offered by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Together, they are a kind of bestiary of Blairism.

Alan Milburn stands out from the rest of the New Labour swamp for one small, biographical, reason. In the 1970s, this hatchet man’s hatchet man - rather than being a Eurocommunist, like several others recently to have graced Labour’s front benches - was a Trotskyist firebrand. A fairly typical path through local councils and the trade union bureaucracy saw him drift steadily to the Labour right, where he became one of Tony Blair’s closest allies.

Frank Field, of course, has no such lefty skeletons in the closet - it is not without significance that he was elected to Birkenhead, right on the doorstep of the Militant Tendency’s embryonic ‘red base’ in Liverpool. In this, he resembles another rightwing Labour MP of the time - the odious, perma-tanned Robert Kilroy-Silk, whose selection was forced through in order to undermine Militant’s influence. Both have ended up spouting truly malevolent chauvinist garbage - Field within the Labour Party and Kilroy-Silk through a whole series of disastrous nationalistic adventures outside.

John Hutton, meanwhile, is the careerist’s careerist - a member of the Tory, Liberal and Labour societies at his Oxford college, he manoeuvred himself into cabinet positions under Blair and, later, a peerage for a golden goodbye.

Field very rapidly signed up as a ‘poverty tsar’ (that is, point-man for attacks on state benefits). Hutton is to head an inquiry into public sector pensions (one wonders what his conclusions will be ...). Milburn, most recently, has become a tsar himself - for ‘social mobility’. That word - ‘tsar’ - speaks eloquently as to how democratic this all is. After all, neither Hutton nor Milburn stood for election in May; and Field campaigned for re-election on a Labour ticket - however sullied it was by his name. It is difficult not to wonder how the good people of Birkenhead - as safe a Labour seat as they come - feel about seeing ‘their’ man taking up with the Tories.

There is nothing particularly surprising about these collaborators, of course. This kind of careerist opportunism is endemic to bourgeois politics, and serves as a kind of collective bribe of politicians as a caste. The political careerists, with their small-c conservative reliance on the establishment, are always in some kind of contradiction with the ever-present political ‘hards’ - these lines are clearly visible in both the Tories and Lib Dems over the issue of the coalition government itself, for example.

In the Labour Party, the contradiction is particularly pronounced, since Labour is already a contradiction unto itself - a bourgeois workers’ party, whose role has been to defend capitalism from the working class through extracting appropriate concessions from their rulers. For it to be useful to the system, the bourgeois workers’ party has to have some traction in the working class; conversely, for the workers to consider giving it political support, it has to exact some kind of leverage in the corridors of power.

In boom times, of course, this double act is - if not a simple matter - more than possible. There is capital around to make the concessions, after all. The post-war long boom, in this country, saw the creation of the NHS and the rapid expansion of the public sector through a series of nationalisations; there followed a period of relative social peace. Likewise, though on a much more pitiful scale, under New Labour there really was a great deal of new headline investment in public services, and the introduction of some token measures such as the minimum wage. They were small concessions - but concessions they remained.

Under conditions of crisis, the poles of the contradiction pull in opposite directions. The party’s right - or more precisely, the section most closely integrated with the state and bourgeois politics - begins to identify so strongly with the establishment that its presence in a party still funded by the unions and to a considerable extent still staffed by ideologically committed Labourites becomes an obstacle to even quite modest oppositional activity. Some individuals among them can always be found willing to collaborate with the government of the day.

In the early 1930s, the last decade when capitalism faced an economic crisis as serious as the present one, the incumbent Labour minority government found itself irretrievably split on cuts in unemployment benefit. Prime minister Ramsay MacDonald responded by forming a ‘national government’ with Tories and Liberals; he, and the other Labour members of the new government were immediately, if reluctantly, expelled from the party.

It is impossible to imagine that this is any less necessary when faced with the current crop of turncoats. Sure, they may be political minnows compared to MacDonald, Philip Snowden and JH Thomas; but they represent every bit as clearly the baggage that must be shed if Labour is to look halfway close to a serious oppositional force.

This is as true for Labour-loyalist Blairites as it is for Marxists. The former, more cut off from the largesse of the bourgeoisie than many have been in their careers (this is, of course, relative), can only turn to the fabled ‘grassroots’ (not to mention the union link) for financial and logistical support. Even the Blairite front-runner in the Labour elections, David Miliband, has had to reinvent himself as a tireless fighter against ‘Tory cuts’.

So, also, the virulent denunciation of Field and Hutton by Blair’s deputy PM, John Prescott - they were “collaborators”, who had made themselves into “human shields” for “policies that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest - the very people Labour was founded to protect. I would ask if they can live with their conscience but I’d question whether they even had one to begin with.”

For Marxists, if Milburn, Hutton or Field are allowed to get away with this, they will undermine even the most modest united front actions with Labour organisations in the defence of the working class. Every act of resistance will meet with wails of protest from Labour figures, at a time when exerting serious traction on the Labour left is likely to prove key in the class struggle in the coming period. Yet Prescott’s rhetoric is oddly not being reproduced very widely in the left press - no mention in Labour Briefing, the entrist Socialist Appeal or on the Labour Representation Committee website of the collaborators. The Morning Star, for once, is to be commended for taking a hard line on Field et al.

For us, however, the issue is more than simply the immediate one of political expediency (ie, the need for Labour to distance itself effectively from the government now it is in opposition), but of the nature of Labour as an organisation. There is not as much to separate Field from David Miliband as the latter might have you think. The three collaborators did not suddenly become representatives of the bourgeoisie upon entering into their tokenistic advisory roles in the coalition; it was rather one logical outcome of their project as Labour figures in good standing.

That project - Blairism, the most reactionary form of Labourism in the latter’s already sordid history - was wholeheartedly supported by Miliband, and supported in its essentials by the ‘Brownite’ challengers, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. That a few of them found Labour in opposition no longer furthered their careers, where the vast majority of the Labour right still have their eyes on regaining office, ultimately says nothing.

Frank Field should be expelled, and perhaps will be - but to the extent that the workers’ movement can exert pressure on Labour, his basically ‘red Tory’ views (emphasis not on the ‘red’) should not have been welcome in the first place. The same goes for the hard neoliberal, Milburn, and the bureaucratic mediocrity, Hutton. Their expulsion is one front in a wider battle to make Labour into a party that actually serves the working class.