So we should all join Labour?

Dave Vincent gives his view

Having read the three exchanges concerning the affiliation of Communist Students to the Labour Representation Committee in Weekly Worker January 13, I was then gobsmacked at the sneering complacency of Stan Keable's own diatribe the following week, in which he reports on the LRC's AGM and advocates the tired, old, worn-out line of 'Join Labour and turn it left' ('Cuts and rebuilding', January 20).

Of course, the fact Labour did so well in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election has Labourites all excited that the party looks electable again so soon. Such people are not allies of those wanting to fight the coalition government's cuts. For these Labourite working class betrayers why build for a strike (harms Labour's electoral chances) or go on a demonstration - unless there is a Labour MP addressing the crowd on the need to vote Labour?

On the one hand, there is a disunited left - although, as Lee Rock's report on the Coalition of Resistance's national council meeting in the same issue states, COR does seem better than the Socialist Workers Party's Right to Work at bringing the left together ('Good turnout, timid politics', January 20). On the other hand, there is the 'Join Labour and turn it left' brigade - a combination of young people who do not know any better and many an old Labourite who should know better in a classic case of the triumph of hope over experience.

I provide my perspective on this as someone who did not go to grammar school or university, went into office work at age 16, and now at 52 am a busy Public and Commercial Services union lay rep (branch secretary for 26 years now). I started out with rightwing views, was educated to move to socialism by the left in what was then the Civil and Public Services Association and remain an independent socialist.

I was in the SWP in the 1990s and, having stood it for a few years, left because of the complete lack of internal democracy. I joined Left Unity in PCS, but eventually left because I cannot accept its yearly pact with the PCS Democrats and the stifling Socialist Party control of Left Unity, the national executive and conference - though PCS under SP control is way better than when it was under the control of the right.

I never joined Labour because by the time I had had my union political education I could see, thanks to the expulsion of Militant, that the party was not the place for socialists. I have voted Labour now and again, but with no illusions. I will vote Green if there is no left alternative, but not Labour.

I have some awareness of the theories about entryism (not least thanks to Mike Macnair's recent contributions in the Weekly Worker) and the arguments of Lenin, Trotsky and lots of others on this. I am no academic though - just a working class militant who has been affected by the Labour Party's betrayals in government.

As has been said, the attitude to the Labour Party and the relationship and role of socialists and revolutionaries to it is an old argument. We have the dismissive sneering of those in the Labour Party that the left outside cannot get decent votes. Well, that depends, doesn't it? The Scottish Socialist Party had six MSPs for a time and Respect had one MP before the usual left splits. I wonder where the Socialist Alliance would be today if it had stayed together. Their policies of MPs on a worker's wage and recallability are even more relevant today in the wake of the electorate's disgust over the MPs' expenses scandal.

When I and 70 others were at the inaugural anti-cuts meeting in our town where were the 'decades of membership' local Labour Party stalwarts? At a Labour Party meeting the same night, trying to ensure their branch did not become pro-cuts! When they had the choice of supporting people gathering to decide what to do about the coalition government's cuts, Labour members put a local internal party squabble above uniting with non-Labour Party people. Whatever the result of that internal branch struggle, can it change their official party's line of supporting cuts - but just over a longer timescale than the coalition government's? Anyone would think this was the 1930s rather than just 12 months after the end of a Labour government elected 13 years earlier on a landslide.

In government

We saw all trade union strikes condemned under Blair and Brown. Now 'Red Ed' Miliband has recently condemned any idea of unions uniting in strikes against the cuts to bring the coalition government down. This from a man whose election depended on those unions affiliated to the Labour Party and who made a pitch for the votes of workers during the leadership contest.

The gap between the rich and poor widened more under New Labour than it did under the Tory governments before them - fact. We have seen the Labour Party in government take Britain into war in Iraq despite the largest ever demonstration in British history. That dwarfed the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s. How many Labour MPs voted for war?

We saw none of the privatised utilities brought back into public ownership - in fact we saw more privatisations - despite the pledges made against by Labour in the lead-up to the 1997 general election. Private finance initiative extortions continued under the Labour government and anti-union laws were retained. A drive towards funding by big business to move away from reliance on union funding was only set back by the cash for honours scandals! Well, Stan?

We soon saw what happened to the promises of an 'ethical' foreign policy, of the government being 'whiter than white' and sleaze-free. We saw increasing attacks on civil liberties, the draconian and misused 'anti-terrorism' laws and a drive for compulsory ID cards - actually revoked by this coalition government! Labour got us involved in the occupation of Afghanistan, remained committed to the renewal of Trident and signed us up to the production of two aircraft carriers (destined to be without planes for 10 years).

New Labour did nothing to restrain the irresponsible gambling by the banks and finance industries and, to top it all, Brown claimed to have abolished 'boom and bust'. How many people because of those grossly irresponsible proclamations (made by a Labour leader, not a Tory) - and in the belief that property prices would forever rise - took out second mortgages or massive credit card debt?

The marketisation of the NHS and education went further under a Labour government than it did under the Tories. Privatisation of our public services were added to by attacks on final salary pension schemes. All the while most Labour MPs acted like they were to the manor born and constantly voted themselves large pay rises, pension enhancements and expenses, whilst urging restraint on the working and middle classes.

Not one word about any of this from Stan. No revolutionary expects much from any reformist government wedded to trying to moderate capitalism. But one with a landslide majority and benefiting from a buoyant economy that produced so little gain for the working class? Where was the left in the Labour Party during all this? Backing Blair, then Brown in the name of 'unity' and for a Labour victory 'to keep the Tories out' - that's where!

The Labour right have learnt enough to ensure the left will get nowhere near gaining control. Look what happened to the leadership bids of John McDonnell, a good friend of PCS. He could not even get enough nominations to stand as a candidate against Blair, and then Diane Abbott headed him off by playing the diversity card to magnificent effect: she kept John off the ballot, but not the other middle-aged, white males. A far, far cry from the Tony Benn-Eric Heffer challenge of 1982!

Internally, clause four was jettisoned and party democracy crippled, with the result that Labour conference cannot make manifesto policies; MP selection procedures were changed, allowing candidates to be imposed from above; and the Parliamentary Labour Party is not accountable to the organisation as a whole. How will the left be able to operate today? Every democratic change that the LRC argues for will be voted down if those in control (with eager media support) assert that it will hinder Labour's electoral chances.

Labour-affiliated unions will think twice about strike action against the cuts, now Miliband has argued Labour will not support them. Remind me, how many such unions called strikes under the last Labour government? What does anyone think Labour would do back in power with a massive deficit after arguing for cuts at the last general election? This will not be 1997 all over again with the cheerful optimism, seemingly justified at the time in the context of an economic boom. Well, Stan?

Why not try to inspire all the decent socialists who have left the Labour Party in droves after each betrayal? Look at the typical Labour Party membership today - either those who always justify support for Labour, no matter what the betrayals of the working class, with 'the Tories will be worse'; or those seduced by meaningless babble from Blair, Brown and now Miliband. Revolutionaries have not won masses of Labour Party members away from Labourism - however, Labourism has won over many revolutionaries.

Those wanting to participate in the LRC and the Labour Party are aiming to engage with people whose loyalty is 'to the Labour Party, no matter how awful'. Instead we should be engaging with those disgusted with all three main political parties, not fostering illusions in Labour all over again. It is not up for change, never really was, and is even less open to socialism today.

It is, of course, far easier to mix with 'socialists' in the LRC than to engage with the mass of the working class outside the Labour Party. It is easier to stay in the Labour Party and have a pint in the bar, commiserating over every betrayal, than start a real working class party all over again. But the LRC is misleading millions of working class people into once again looking to the Labour Party rather than to themselves.

No place for Marxists

The constant splitting of left parties is a huge problem for which I have no answer - except that those using them as fronts must stop their control-freakery and urge to dominate. The SSP and Respect showed a left alternative can win, but if the answer is not to build a halfway house, a "Labour Party mark two", it certainly is not to 'reclaim the Labour Party and turn it left'- groan. I agree with the Weekly Worker that the left has to openly argue for Marxism (even though it is still tainted by Stalinism). But that will not receive a warm welcome in today's Labour Party.

In his article on the LRC conference Stan describes the listing of the Labour government's sins by PCS activist Austin Harney as a "diatribe". What a disgraceful, sneering comment to make of a truthful summation. Keable the feeble then dismisses all PCS activists' comments because "PCS, of course, has never been affiliated to Labour". Why might it be that we have never affiliated?

For decades civil servants felt they had to be politically neutral - and seen to be. Is that the explanation? Or might it be the 100,000 job losses in the civil service under the New Labour government, the 13 years of pay restraint (that also devalued our pension benefits later), enforced whilst wages in the private sector took off? Might it be the Labour government's attacks on our pensions, then our redundancy scheme, and the forced introduction of regional pay in my department, the ministry of justice? Might it be the attacks on sick absence with warnings that can lead to dismissal? Might it be the privatisation of civil service work, forced through by Labour? Or are we to simply agree 'the Tories will be worse', shut up, ignore what has been done to us by the party in government - our employer - and vote Labour? Well, Stan?

I think we should concentrate on backing all resistance and strikes against the cuts and let us see where the people unified and involved in such activity go politically. I think PCS is right to debate at its May annual conference standing its own 'non-party' candidates in some elections on an anti-cuts basis. That will mean workers once again having to debate how we hold our candidates to account, and whether we should stand as independents or perhaps form another party truly representing the working class.

Personally, I am not interested in winning over people in the Labour Party if it means having to give Labour MPs a voice on anti-cuts platforms. My loyalty is to my union members and the interests of working class people. The loyalty of Labour MPs is to their party. Their priority is to elect another Labour government without any minimum demands, without worrying about those who will excuse every betrayal with 'We're better than the Tories'. I am not with union barons who will not allow their members to debate the link with Labour or to reduce donations, who will hold back strike action if they judge it harmful to Labour's election chances.

Millions of working class people are disgusted with the spin and expense-fiddling of MPs, many of whom have never had a real job. They are looking for a credible alternative - and ideally from a left that will stick together. The British National Party has been knocked back, so there is now a real chance to bring together those angry with the cuts with those joining militant protests. The students have led the way, shouting down their own president - a sign that plenty of people are no longer prepared to blindly follow the usual 'leaders' with the usual dead-end politics. They are now ready to look past the Labour Party for answers, not to it.