Debating the Labour leadership contest
Opposition to the CPGB call to give a critical vote for Diane Abbott is based on leftist abstentionism, argues Peter Manson
The CPGB has been calling for a vote for Diane Abbott in the Labour leadership election, which closes in less than a week, on September 22. However, this call has been opposed by a number of CPGB comrades, whose statement we publish here.
Broadly the position of the Provisional Central Committee was set out last week by Alex John (‘Vote preference one for Diane Abbott … and fuck the warmongering ex-ministers’, September 9). Comrade John points out that we are voting for Abbott - despite the “grave shortcomings and ambiguities in her record and current policies” - because she is a candidate clearly identified with the left and claiming to be a socialist, and the only one not closely associated with previous New Labour administrations. There is a pretty obvious line of demarcation between her and the other four.
Unfortunately, however, those comrades who oppose our line refuse to see it - or, if they do, they insist the distinction is insufficient to justify voting for Abbott. What is more, they misrepresent our reasons for wishing to do so, claiming we want to “gain favour with and build the Labour left”, a section of which we propose “tailing”. There is absolutely no basis for making this claim, either in what we have said or done. Communists consistently seek out allies, but we never disguise or water down our principles in order to “gain favour” with those allies. Nor do we cease to criticise them. We always fight for our own principled, working class politics - the very opposite of “tailing” the likes of the Labour left.
It is true that we want to gain a hearing on the Labour left. We think that this section of the party contains within it comrades with healthy, pro-working class and anti-capitalist instincts. They should be encouraged in their, at present, feeble attempts to launch a fightback against the pro-capitalist, New Labour wing of the party, while at the same time their reformist illusions need to be overcome through patient, long-term and serious joint work in defending and promoting the interests of the working class.
The comrades state: “Some on the left consider a large vote for her would be a morale boost for the Labour left and workers in struggle, that she is somehow a pole of attraction for militant workers and socialists within the Labour Party. Nothing could be further from the truth.” I do not know who is saying this, but it is not that far from the truth. I agree that Abbott herself cannot provide a “pole of attraction” - she is not attempting in any serious way to organise the Labour left and seems more interested in organising her own career. But it is correct to say that a big vote for her would provide a “morale boost” for the Labour left. It would demonstrate that the overtly pro-business wing can be challenged. If, for example, Abbott finished in third place - ahead of two of the warmongering ex-ministers - with a healthy share of the vote, this would demonstrate that the left cannot be written off as dead and buried.
It would also have wider repercussions within the movement. As workers begin to resist the coalition onslaught, union leaders will feel obliged at least to go through the motions of resisting it - left leaders like Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka will be looking for a more serious fightback. While the unions they lead are not affiliated to Labour, those that are will almost certainly reflect the increased militancy of their members in the way they act within the party. They could find themselves allying with the Labour left. It is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that militant workers, attracted by both the left-sounding phrases of Labour leaders in opposition and the increased confidence of the Labour left, will start to join the party and demand it begins to fight for working class interests.
While all this is far from certain, surely our comrades who rule out giving Abbott critical support will admit it is both possible and desirable. So, yes, we want to “build the Labour left” - but not in the sense the comrades mean: creating illusions in Labourite reformism. We want to engage with it so as to win the Labour left towards the politics of Marxism. The larger and stronger the Labour left is, the bigger the pool for Marxists in the Labour Party to operate in.
But the comrades say, in relation to Abbott: “Her support amongst the union leadership and membership is minimal, with most unions backing the ‘credible left’ candidate, Ed Miliband.” It is not true that her support among the union membership is “minimal” - according to the polls, there is a reasonable possibility that she will pick up a substantial number of their votes. It is true that many union bureaucrats are urging a vote for Ed Miliband - and some on the left are doing the same as the only realistic way of keeping out his brother.
But we are more ambitious than that. We are not interested in seeing the marginally less repulsive of the Milibands elected Labour leader. And it is completely mistaken to imply (or, in the case of some of the comrades, to assert) that there is no difference, or virtually no difference, between the policies of Ed Miliband and those of Abbott. One is a pro-cuts warmonger and the other is a (vacillating, inconsistent and unprincipled) opponent of imperialist war and anti-working class cutbacks.
In order to pretend that the opposite is the case, the comrades write: “In March 2009 Abbott demonstrated her lack of anti-war credentials by voting for a motion against an inquiry into the Iraq war, which contained the clause that the House of Commons ‘recognises the heroic efforts of the British armed forces in Iraq, who have a continuing role’.”
This is not quite right. On March 26 2009 there was a Conservative motion calling for an inquiry into the war to be announced. They wanted it to be “conducted by an independent committee of privy councillors”. The argument was that troop numbers were about to be substantially reduced, so that there was no longer any “reasonable impediment” to an enquiry, which, both sides were agreed, should not go ahead if it might compromise ongoing military action.
A government amendment (not motion), for which Abbott voted, was for delaying such an announcement, in view of the troops’ “continuing role”. Both sides of the house were agreed on “the heroic efforts of the British armed forces” - the difference being that the Conservatives did not bother to insert such a phrase in their motion. Other left MPs, including John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and Harry Cohen, voted with the Tories on the grounds that they wanted an enquiry sooner rather than later. I do not know why Abbott preferred the government’s delaying amendment, but it is rather disingenuous to imply she did so because she favours the “continuing role” of British troops.
If you want to know Abbott’s true, publicly stated position on the occupation of Afghanistan it is best to refer to her own website. On July 20 she posted a piece headed ‘Diane calls for timetable for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan’.
She begins by noting the remarks of soldiers in Afghanistan, who “have told me that we are now referred to as an army of occupation” and, she says, “no western army has won an army of occupation [sic] in Afghanistan for two centuries”. That is because the “terrain makes it impossible for invaders to prevail against a determined Afghan resistance”.
The whole intervention has been futile: not only have “we not brought peace to Afghanistan, but the opium trade is at record levels”. As for the Afghan army, it is “corrupt, as are the police”. While Nato troops should be withdrawn, “It may be that there is a need for a peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, but this should be a UN force, ideally led by Muslim troops.”
Because of the occupation, “The Afghan people are suffering. The rate at which British troops in Afghanistan have been killed has nearly doubled in recent months and is proportionately far higher than our American counterparts. Our troops are enduring a horrifyingly high level of mutilation.”
She concludes: “So I believe the time has come to set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on August 16, Abbott was asked if she would ever “send the country to war”. She replied: “Well, if it was a legal war I might do. The problem with the Iraq war [was] it was widely judged to be illegal.” As for Afghanistan, “It might have been legal … in the very first place, but 10 years on, where is the legality for it?”
So are these the arguments of a pro-war, pro-occupation politician? To my mind it is quite absurd to claim such a thing. They are typical of the arguments of the Labour left historically, whenever it has opposed imperialist interventions. The war is illegal, it is unwinnable, it is counterproductive, it is “horrifyingly” violent. The money would be better spent on the NHS and the troops should be pulled out ‘as soon as possible’ - perhaps to be replaced by some idealised ‘peacekeeping’ force.
Of course, for communists these politics are dreadful. As left Labourites always have done, Abbott strives for ‘respectability’, to be ‘reasonable’ (in the eyes of bourgeois opinion). The result is that the anti-war argument is posed in a way that accepts bourgeois parameters. The case is made against this particular war, implying that other wars “might” be acceptable. What if the suffering was less horrifying (we could use ‘smart’ weapons)? What if the “terrain” was easier? What if the war was ‘legal’, if it was less costly and so would not divert funds from the NHS?
But what else do we expect from left Labourites? A principled, consistent, anti-imperialist, proletarian-internationalist approach? No, Labourism is by definition nationalistic and opportunistic, and left Labourites like Abbott will always seek accommodation with the labour bureaucracy and through this with the ruling class.
However, it is incorrect to crudely draw the conclusion from all this that Abbott “supports wars as long as they are ‘legal’ and the British army can win”. She actually got herself into a bit of a pickle in the PM interview by desperately trying to fit Afghanistan into the ‘illegal’ template. Bereft of any principled, working class principles, she seizes on any argument she can find against the current conflict, no matter how weak.
It is equally absurd to claim that Abbott is “pro-cuts”, as at least one signatory of the minority statement has. As with war, she frames her opposition to cuts in populist, ‘reasonable’ terms. Writing in the Morning Star, she states: “It is easy to rail against the proposed cuts in school building. But it is even easier for the government to point out ... that we too were planning billions of pounds of cuts ....
“If the public sees that the labour movement leadership has the same underlying economic assumptions as the coalition government, they will not take what we have to say on the economy seriously ... Wringing our hands and disputing the timing of the cuts is not enough ... women and families should not pay the price for the irresponsibility of the bankers. We have to make the case for investment ...
“We do not have to make cuts on this scale. And some economists argue that we do not need to make public-sector cuts at all.”
Once again, despite the snipe against “the bankers”, there is an underlying implication that “we” have a common interest in running the capitalist “economy”. But there can be no doubting Abbott’s genuine concern for working class women in particular, just as there can be no doubting her opposition to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In fact, it seems that not all of the signatories to the ‘No vote for Abbott’ statement are prepared to dub Abbott “pro-war” and “pro-cuts”. So, alongside the false claim that Abbott “supports wars as long as they are ‘legal’ and the British army can win”, there is the rather more accurate assessment that she demonstrates a “less than clear support for troops out now”. Also more realistically, she is criticised for showing only a “vague commitment to oppose cuts” and for not being “at the centre of organising resistance” to them.
The comrades’ opposition to the CPGB leadership’s ‘Vote Abbott’ call is based on a healthy, but impatient desire to see the creation of a principled, solidly working class movement of resistance to government attacks. They complain that our support for candidates like Abbott should not be unconditional, “whilst our class is facing the biggest cuts since the 1930s …”
This is a typical leftist error. Leftism does not just mean “opposition to standing or voting in bourgeois elections”, to “trade unions” and to “working with and maybe within the Labour Party”, as comrade Chris Strafford has claimed. Nor does it necessarily mean considering Labour to be “a totally bourgeois party”. It means failing to deal with things as they are, not how we would like them to be. It means rejecting temporary alliances with unprincipled forces. It means an abstentionist unwillingness to associate with unreliable compromisers and tactically support or vote for people with whose politics we strongly disagree.
The comrades are clearly implying that unconditional but critical support for left Labourites cannot be considered when our class is facing such fierce attacks. Why not? It all depends on the circumstances and on what we are trying to achieve. And in these circumstances, as I have explained, we are trying to aid the development of a left opposition within Labour in order to win it to Marxist politics.
- Morning Star September 13.