Labour debate: repackaging of a tenuous argument

James Turley responds to Chris Strafford

Comrade Chris Strafford manages to cram a goodly number of confusions, elisions and misstatements of our positions into his article - some of which are recycled from previous articles, some of which are (relatively) new. Correcting every minor point is clearly out of the question, so one must turn to the key questions raised by the comrade with regards to our strategy:

1. Is the Labour Party moving to the left (and is this an ordinary part of the British political cycle)?

2. Is the Labour Party a major site of struggle in the coming period of working class resistance?

3. Is the long-term transformation of Labour into a genuine ‘party of labour’ - that is, an alliance of all partisans of the working class, a ‘permanent united front’ - a viable and principled application of the united front?

Comrade Strafford appears to answer with a resounding ‘no’ to all these questions, although there are some points where his (annoyingly persistent) misunderstanding of the nature of our project in Labour leads him to bait straw-men and he may thereby have to accept a level of agreement, and still others where his attempts to hedge positions against the inevitable accusations of ‘leftism’ reduce him to incoherence.

We shall take the questions in turn.

Moving left?

Comrade Strafford is disdainful of the idea that the Labour Party is moving to the left. Its year in opposition has been marked by “dithering at the top, insignificant increases in membership and the implementation of savage cuts by Labour councils” (true enough, though any increase in membership is significant, given its precipitous decline for a number of years). Ed Miliband’s opposition to the June 30 strikes is cited too.

On one level, these are empirical facts (although his further statement to the effect that “even the most leftwing of MPs and Labour leaders have consistently opposed the class struggle”, in a context which appears to cover all Labour MPs ever, is absurdly overblown). Yet the assessment is basically one-sided.

Ed Miliband ‘dithers’, addressing a mass TUC demonstration one day and rubbishing strike action the next. True: but did Tony Blair ‘dither’ in this way? Was he at all prone to respond to mass pressure from the working class? The answer is no - because, ensconced in No10 with substantial support from the ruling class and a substantial parliamentary majority, he did not have to.

That the Labour leadership is being forced to do anything at all is a function of objective conditions in the British political cycle, the relative weakness of Labour with its command of the state bureaucracy and attraction to the ruling class reduced. That, even by Labour standards, the shift to the left is anaemic has much to do with the decay of working class organisation over decades.

If we had confidently predicted that Ed Miliband would come out in favour of waves of militant strike action, then Chris would be quite right to argue that our position has been shown to be a nonsense. Yet we did not say any such thing. “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”, wrote Eddie Ford (‘Taking on redder hues?’, March 31); I meanwhile made it clear that “when Labour tacks left, this is always fundamentally a pose” (‘Intervention, not incoherent abstention’, April 14).

To the rhetoric against Tory cuts, and reticence about exactly what Labour would cut, we may add Miliband’s dalliance with blue Labour. Though the theorists of the latter are keen to stress ‘conservatism’, it is nonetheless of crucial importance that the great intellectual fad of the Miliband regime has been focused overwhelmingly on the project of rebuilding the traditions of working class organisation against ‘finance capital’. Blue Labour may be a peculiar chimera and insist on considering itself ‘beyond left and right’, but objectively it repeats in an idiosyncratic way the reorientation to the class typical of Labour shifts to the left.

Site of struggle?

We and comrade Chris agree that these poses are the bare minimum required to restore credibility with the labour movement more generally. So why should it matter that they take place at all?

This is to move on to the terrain of political priorities in the present period: because the significance of even anaemic shifts in the political profile of Labour has real and material effects on the class struggle. Labour may be a completely inadequate and congenitally treacherous mass workers’ party, but a mass party it remains. We should expect, then, that the politics of the Labour Party and of the trade unions will have a profound effect on the shape of the struggles to come.

This is not some theoretical canard. It is a visible tendency right now. Look back at what has happened in the anti-cuts movement so far. What are the headline events? June 30, March 26 - both initiatives of the trade union movement. June 30 may have been organised by non-affiliated unions, but their leaderships remain just as crippled by Labourism. Going forward, the next key date is to be a strike in the autumn, this time possibly involving Unison and other Labour-affiliated unions. If Prentis and co hold their nerve, it will be a seriously large strike.

As a counterpoint to this, there is the student movement - but the demonstrations visibly began to fizzle out long before the exam period; promising initiatives, like the London Student Assembly, followed suit. The anti-cuts campaigns and local committees, likewise, have not had the mass impact that many had hoped. The tendency is clearly for the official labour movement to assume ever more control over what is going on, which means that we must have an intervention directed at it.

So when Chris claims that the demand for affiliation of all unions to the Labour Party is a “distraction”, he is in fact taking up an untenable position. He has two options - one is to support disaffiliations, the logic of which would be to consider it an advance even for Labour itself to sever its remaining links to the unions. The other is to consider the whole debate a chimera, which leaves him with nothing to say on a question which is likely to be posed ever more sharply in the coming months and years.

Every month, it is said, the RMT submits an affiliation cheque to the Labour Party. Every month, it is returned. The RMT is possibly the most consistently militant union in the country at this time (which, to be sure, is not saying much). If a mass campaign of union activists could create enough pressure on Labour leaders to accept that cheque, surely that would have a galvanising effect on the struggle, would put Miliband and his quisling allies under more pressure from our side.

The logic of Chris’s argument is the exact opposite - a doomsday scenario. “If further affiliations are successful,” he writes, “they will only strengthen the bureaucratic prison working class resistance is trying to escape.” Yet the formation of the Labour Party was a concession to the rank and file from the labour bureaucracy that political action of the working class was necessary at all. That amounted to a chink in the armour of the bureaucracy, not a whole new suit of plate-mail. Ed Miliband certainly does not want ‘undue’ union influence on his policies, which might after all subject him to more indirect pressure from the masses. Neither, apparently, does Chris.

What, then, is all this a “distraction” from? “In workplaces and the unions communists have clear tasks,” Chris tells us. “Rebuild working class solidarity on all fronts, redouble our efforts to bring together all workers into assemblies, whether they belong to a union or not, and set about the creation of communist cells in workplaces to spread our ideas and participate in the fight against the bosses.” The first clause is worthy, but empty of concrete content. The second is a dodge; an attempt to ignore the political problems of the official labour movement by pretending that building assemblies and local committees is a separate matter.

Nobody could object to communist cells in workplaces - but what are they supposed to argue for on crucial questions like the Labour link? Chris declines to provide an answer, though his preference for disaffiliation is obvious.

Our strategy

As for the CPGB majority view, stubborn misunderstandings remain. Again we are accused of focusing on Labour’s general committees, a charge as to whose basis I must confess bewilderment. It is certainly not in the CPGB theses (Weekly Worker October 21 2010). Yet it does allow Chris to conveniently elide our position into that of Graham Bash and Labour Briefing, and ignore our long history of polemic with this current.

Onto the united front - alas, Chris has nothing more to say on our arguments than to dismiss them as Bashite. He insists that he does not hold to the Comintern understanding of united fronts as strictly temporary out of dogmatic loyalty to old formulae, but where he attempts to offer another rationale he slides directly into classic leftist errors. A ‘permanent united front’ would mean permanent unity between revolutionaries and reformists, and would thus undo the cardinal division in the workers’ movement; yet the logic of this is that united trade union work should also be impossible, and we are in the territory of classic left communism at best, or incoherence otherwise.

Attempting to shore up the distinction between Labour and union work in other ways, comrade Strafford argues that Lenin’s insistence on “complete liberty of agitation” is not satisfied by the present conditions of work in the Labour Party. “Could we organise with ‘complete liberty’ as communists within Labour? No. Comrades within Labour would be isolated and forced to push left Labourite politics by the structural limitations in which they operated.”

But even if the bans and proscriptions were as complete and rigorously enforced as Chris makes out - they are not - that is not the same thing as liberty of agitation, which (we have emphasised repeatedly) is not a test applied to individuals, but to the party. Will the Weekly Worker be forced, as a result of our Labour strategy, to disavow communism? No? Then we, as an organisation, retain liberty of agitation - it really is that simple.

If, alternatively, we define it as Chris does - that any individual comrade’s work has to be characterised by complete honesty at all times - then the range of historical circumstances in which communists can conduct principled work at all is considerably reduced. To put it as bluntly as possible - if it was legitimate for Spanish communists to lie about their loyalties when agitating in Franco’s Vertical Syndicate, then it is legitimate to lie to the petty Francos of the Labour bureaucracy. Mutatis mutandis, if Marxist intervention in the Labour Party can only make Labourites out of Marxists, then those communists who bravely conducted illegal mass work in Francoist Spain, and under other conditions of severe repression, can have succeeded only in recruiting to fascist corporatism. The reader may decide.

Of course, any reader who has made it this far into the debate will surely be vexed by a feeling of déjà vu. History has inched forward in the last few months; but arguments from the CPGB’s anti-Labour minority have not. More discussion is necessary, but will not happen in any meaningful sense until our opponents see fit to respond to what is before them, rather than very slightly repackaging arguments and accusations that were tenuous to begin with. They could do worse than attempting a serious critique of our theses on the Labour Party.