Taking on redder hues?
Eddie Ford argues that Ed Miliband is shuffling to the left as the resistance to the Tory-Lib Dem cuts takes mass form
Labour is now just another bourgeois party like the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats - or so some on the left have insisted, like the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and Workers Power. So when Tony Blair ditched clause four, or whenever the cut-off date is supposed to have been - take your pick - the Labour Party suddenly ceased being a bourgeois workers’ party, the party of the trade union and labour bureaucracy under a pro-imperialist leadership, and therefore could no longer be a vital arena in which to fight for the politics of Marxism. Time to set up shop elsewhere.
Needless to say, those who have dismissed Labour in such a way are making a fundamental blunder - whether due to a genuine misreading of the situation or just downright self-serving sectarianism. Of course, it is unarguably the case that the Blairite project of prostituting itself before big business and a rogues’ gallery of billionaires saw the party’s bourgeois, pro-capitalist pole become suffocatingly dominant. That is, Blairism represented the most reactionary or sordid manifestation of Labourism in its already inglorious history.
However, it was always the case that not every section of the Labour Party was relaxed about people getting filthy rich (the New Labour credo) and that at some point there would be a counter-push in the direction of the working class pole. A revival, to one degree or another, of the left and its ideas within the Labour Party - even if, at least initially, this would not take Marxist or communist forms on any substantive scale.
Well, the worldwide financial crisis - the credit crunch - and the near economic meltdown that resulted put a spike in the New Labour and neoliberal wheel: the masters of the universe and their free markets no longer looked so glamorous. Maybe capitalism does not have all the answers after all. Even the George Bush government was forced by events to ditch its instinctive laissez-fairism and adopt emergency measures that effectively nationalised large sections of the banking and insurance industry in order to stop the system going under - leading, of course, to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez joking that Bush was now “more leftwing than me”. Clearly then, the economic crisis that struck like a whirlwind, combined with the permanently ongoing environmental crisis, has acted to discredit Blairism and equivalent projects everywhere. Indeed, in general, more and more people are coming to the conclusion that there is a crying need for an alternative to the destructive merry-go-round of business-as-usual politics and seemingly inevitable economic cycles of boom-and-bust: it is not working. Not fit for human and environmental purpose. But what alternative exactly?
This mood of resistance to the politics of the past was on display at the TUC-organised ‘March for the alternative’ protest on March 26 - with hundreds of thousands turning up to demonstrate against the coalition government’s vicious, anti-working class, austerity assault. They want us to pay for the gross failures of their system, a grievance exacerbated by the fact that when in opposition the Tories bitterly resisted any measures that would encroach upon the sacred profit margins of the bankers and speculators - thus George Osborne vehemently, and cretinously, opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock, etc. More to the point, and inevitably, the Labour Party - and the trade union bureaucracy as a whole - is being forced to the left, as it comes under pressure from those at the wrong end of the cuts, including its own rank and file. In other words, the reality and logic of class struggle - and just the mere fact of being in opposition, of course - dictates that the Labour Party leadership has to be seen opposing the Con-Dem government and its cuts. Hence Ed ‘Red’ Miliband’s appearance and speech at the TUC’s March 26 rally, trying to put a little bit of colour back into his doubtlessly unwanted and thoroughly undeserved moniker.
Addressing the huge crowd at Hyde Park, Miliband was at pains to associate Labour with worthy progressive causes from the past: the safely distant and anaesthetised past, naturally. “We come,” he declared, “in the tradition of movements that have marched in peaceful but powerful protest for justice, fairness and political change” - going on to cite the “suffragettes who fought for votes for women and won”, the “civil rights movement in America that fought against racism and won” and the “anti-apartheid movement that fought the horror of that system and won”. And - you guessed it - so too can the Con-Dems’ austerity drive be defeated - after all, “we are standing on the shoulders” of all those who “struggled” against injustice. But “our struggle”, he said hitting a Churchillian note, is to “fight to preserve, protect and defend the best of the services we cherish because they represent the best of the country we love” - such as the NHS, the welfare state, “homes fit for heroes”, maternity services, children’s centres, community centres, libraries, and so on.
In a direct rebuttal to David Cameron, Miliband asserted that it is precisely those assembled in Hyde Park in such large numbers who actually constitute the “big society” and the “mainstream” of Britain - “united against what your government is doing to our country”. He ended on a carefully calculated rousing note by quoting Martin Luther King to the effect that the “arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice”, but “only if people bend it that way” - towards the politics of the future, which, of course, is embodied by the Labour Party under Ed Miliband.
The speech contained a sting in the tail though. During his righteous paean to resistance and struggle Miliband dutifully reminded his audience, as a possible future prime minister of UK plc, that there is a “need for difficult choices” and hence “some cuts” are required. Under a Labour government a more kindly axe would have fallen upon us, we presume - one that does not “sacrifice” quite so many libraries, youth centres, Citizens Advice Bureaus, sexual heath clinics, etc. This was surely not the message that the majority of those listening wanted to hear. The logic of so many coming together was that the attacks on all of us - and therefore all cuts - had to be opposed, no matter who was wielding the axe.
But, having said that, the rhetoric emanating from Miliband and the Labour leadership - vague and tentative as it is - signifies a move to the left, however small at the moment. And we can only expect this leftish-sounding talk to continue and indeed be stepped up in tone, as the anti-cuts movement goes into serious battle against the government - which it inevitably will.
Yes, obviously, Miliband and the other ‘Brownite’ heirs to the Labour throne backed the Blair project and hence, ultimately, represent the politics of capitalism within the Labour Party and the wider workers’ movement. But it would be profoundly foolish, and self-defeating, for the left - both within and outside the Labour Party - to pretend that this shuffling to the left is not happening. The very fact that Ed Miliband turned up at all on March 26, becoming the first Labour leader to address a major demonstration for decades (or indeed to address any demonstration of any sort), only serves to indicate that possibilities are opening up for the left, if it is imaginative enough to put its bad old sectarian habits behind it. Let us unite to kill off Blairism/New Labourism for good.
Therefore, in that sense, the SWP is quite right to say, “it’s great that he felt the need to attend” - and to point out that the “rank and file of the Labour Party were out in force too”, counting “at least 68 Labour branch banners on the march”. It is also encouraging - and of some significance - that Miliband is due to address the Durham miners’ gala, the first Labour leader to do so for more than two decades. We do live in interesting times, it appears. As comrade Dave Osler, the left Labour blogger, waggishly remarked, “Short of openly coming out in favour of the Transitional programme and the decisions of first four congresses of the Communist International, little could be better calculated to piss off the residual Blair fan boys that still populate sections of the media and the back benches.” But, joking aside, the conscious and deliberate strategy of New Labour was to distance itself from anything that even vaguely resembled ‘old’ Labour - ie, the politics of social democracy - let alone trade union militancy and mass demonstrations. The horror, the horror.
It could be that the rules of the game might be changing - not something that has gone unobserved by the rightwing press, of course. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London (just showing how out of touch with reality he really is), even went so far as to accuse Miliband of being “quietly satisfied” with the clashes that occurred after the demonstration between an extremely small number of anarchistic activists and the police, who, it seems, were intent on talking up acts of violence or even provoking them. Anything to please the BBC.
What the Hyde Park march and demonstration showed is that the labour and trade union movement, despite being handicapped by a congenitally bureaucratic leadership, still has the ability to mobilise masses of people onto the streets - and that it remains a force to be reckoned with. But to become a winning force it must become a class for itself - something that requires, among other things, a protracted fight inside the Labour Party against the rightwing and nakedly pro-capitalist elements. The fight to transform Labour and the fight to create a mass Communist Party are not counterposed, but form part of the same struggle, which is to overcome both Labourism and left sectarianism in all their various guises.
The local elections are coming up in May, with the Liberal Democrats facing obliteration - and possible big gains for Labour. But, frankly, what sort of Labour candidates will get elected? In all likelihood, rightwing ones committed to cuts - only at a slower pace, à la Ed Miliband. Yet the mood within the rank and file is moving in the opposite direction - to the left and towards militancy. They could well be lumbered with a new layer of rightwing Labourite councillors who do not reflect the interests or politics of party members.
These activists, together with the hundreds of thousands like those who came to London on March 26, would be well advised to vote only for those Labour candidates who are anti-cuts. By which we mean, of course, those who will campaign and vote against all cuts in public services. Of course, at this early stage of the fightback, there will be very few of them - communists have no illusions on that score. But this is just the beginning of the war, not the end.
- Socialist Worker April 2.
- The Daily Telegraph March 28.