Fighting on two fronts

One fight, inside and out

What are the tasks of communists in relation to the Labour Party? Mike Macnair answers some key questions

Since early March there has been a running debate in our letters column about the question of the relationship of the left to the Labour Party. The debate is both internal to the CPGB (eg, comrade Chris Strafford’s letter of March 22) and external. The ‘break with Labour’ argument has been most fully developed in this debate by comrade Dave Vincent - most recently in his letter in last week’s paper (April 5). This article attempts to respond to comrade Vincent.

Comrade Vincent’s letter argues that the CPGB’s line on the Labour Party would lead us to call for a Labour vote in Bradford West; on the contrary, he says, George Galloway’s stunning victory shows the possibility of wider anti-cuts candidacies in elections. It is perhaps unfortunate for this argument that comrade Vincent’s letter appears in an issue of the Weekly Worker whose front page headline is ‘Galloway shows what can be done’, headlining Peter Manson’s strongly positive evaluation of Galloway’s victory. In other words, comrade Vincent misunderstands the CPGB’s view of the question.

The debate is not new. In the Socialist Alliance the CPGB argued for the SA to use critical support tactics towards elements of the Labour left, as opposed to simply trying to maximise the number of alliance candidates. This was, perhaps, not much noted at the time. In the 2005 general election we argued for support for openly anti-war Labour candidates (there turned out to be exactly four who were prepared to stick their heads above the parapet) as well as for those Respect candidates who were linked to the workers’ movement (as opposed to the mere political Islamists). This line was criticised both by comrades who found it too hard on Respect and those who found it too soft on Respect, but the aspect of critical support to a small number of Labour candidates was criticised only by real head-banging purists.

In 2009, the CPGB made the highly controversial assessment that the ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ project was to the right of official Labour. In the context of that election, which was dominated by right-populist attacks on ‘party politics’ round the MPs’ expenses scandal, it amounted de facto to a left cover for the United Kingdom Independence Party. Hence we were only willing to call for a vote for those No2EU candidates who made it clear that by ‘democracy’ they meant something other than defence of the pre-1972 Westminster parliament. We made the idea of the militia and the right to bear arms one of the tests for this. Whether that was tactically right can be debatated, but the underlying point - that No2EU candidates were not supportable without a very sharp differentiation from the project’s overall politics - is clear.

In the 2010 general election, we campaigned actively (so far as we could) for candidates of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition; but also argued for a vote for any Labour anti-cuts and anti-war candidates who could be found, and campaigned actively for John McDonnell.

Since that election, we have been debating the question of policy towards the Labour Party on and off more or less permanently.

Strategic line

I have given a superficial run-through of this recent CPGB history to emphasise the continuity of the issue and the fact that our approach has been and remains two-sided. We do not advocate general entry into the Labour Party in order to “move it to the left”. We do advocate the unification of the Marxist left in a real (albeit inevitably at first small) party, on the basis of a programme based on the elementary ideas of Marxism. For this reason we have given as much (critical) support as we can, given our small forces, to any practical attempt to develop a left political alternative to Labour which could, however remotely possibly, develop towards a unified party based on Marxist politics.

At the same time, we oppose the idea (commonplace on the left since the rise of Blairism) that the Labour Party has become simply a bourgeois party like the US Democratic Party. I argued the point in a pair of articles in July 2009.[1] The belief that Labour has become a purely bourgeois party displays a simple failure to compare British politics and political dynamics to those of countries like the US, where there is no ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. It leads in practical politics to attempts to recreate the ‘old Labour’ Party, which is imagined to have ceased to exist.

For these attempts there is - as yet - no political space: because broad masses retain a class identification with Labour. This was demonstrated with remarkable clarity in the 2010 general election. There was an unexpectedly high turnout in working class districts, Labour held onto its core vote and Clegg’s attempt, backed by important sections of the media, to drive Labour into third place, was an unambiguous failure. Labour thus continues to exist as a bourgeois workers’ party - one which, though tied to the capitalist state, identifies itself, however weakly, as a party for the working class, and is identified by broad masses, however weakly, as a party for the working class.

In my 2009 article, ‘Making and unmaking Labour’, I wrote that Labour obtains and retains mass working class support, not as an instrument for socialism - only a small minority has ever seen it as this - but as an instrument for extracting concessions within the capitalist order and holding onto those concessions or mitigating capitalist attacks. Hence:

“… as long as all existing concessions have not been taken away, the bourgeois workers’ party still appears to very many workers as an instrument of defence against the bourgeoisie’s attacks, even if only to slow them down. It is, quite genuinely, such an instrument. New Labour in government has increased employment in the public sector, and has increased benefits to some of the poorest, even as it has continued Tory ‘reforms’ and the widening gap between rich and poor. For all Cameron’s touchy-feely talk, it is certain that a Tory government from 2010 will launch much harsher attacks on public sector workers and the unemployed. These circumstances support Labour members and the more politically conscious trade unionists hanging onto Labour Party unity and the hope of Labour governments.”[2]

In our view, as long as this continues, the Marxist left will need some policy towards the Labour Party and some intervention in it. And there are Marxists within the Labour Party - in very small numbers, it is true; but then the absolute numbers of Marxists outside are very small also. Our CPGB Theses on the Labour Party adopted in November 2010[3] aim to give a long-term orientation both to Marxists presently working in the Labour Party and to the future united party of the Marxist left - the Communist Party - we seek.

That orientation includes, in the first place, the idea that Marxists in the Labour Party should fight there for Marxist politics, not suppress such politics in the attempt to create a social democratic ‘broad left’. And it includes, secondly, the insistence that both they and Marxists in the trade unions should fight to break the system of bans and proscriptions and the bureaucratic structures through which the right exercises its control. By doing so it would be possible to turn the Labour Party into something it periodically pretends to be, but in reality has never been: a general united front of workers’ organisations. Under such circumstances we would argue that a future Communist Party should affiliate to Labour as an organised party (as distinct from secret or individual entry tactics).

We do not in the least pretend that success for this policy is on the immediate agenda. Unpredictable events apart, success would require both a serious, united Communist Party, and a political revolution in the trade unions; since in reality the Labour Party, as it is, is a means by which the trade union bureaucracy relates to and negotiates with the capitalist state. Witness, for example, Billy Hayes’s defence of the unions’ affiliation to Labour in a speech in March published on the Socialist Unity  blog.[4] It is for this reason that, however much they may grumble, when it comes to the crunch the union leaderships want to see an ‘electable’ Labour and vote to back rightwing leaders, anti-democratic structures, and so on.

The line of our theses is, as I have already said, a long-term orientation.

Still a bourgeois workers’ party?

However, this long-term orientation is only valid if the judgment that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party is valid. If that judgment is wrong and the nature of Labour has fundamentally changed - or if it is at a ‘tipping point’, in which it faces collapse of its ties to the working class - we would have to think again.

Comrade Vincent does not express his argument in these theoretical terms; he merely argues that the facts on the ground show that work in the Labour Party is a waste of time and a delusion, and that Marxists should not defend the affiliation of the trade unions to the Labour Party, but argue to break it. Rather, we should put all our efforts into anti-cuts candidates. The point was made most clearly in his March 8 article, ‘Striking on March 28 in not enough’:

“Until we all agree on the need for a united Marxist revolutionary party to provide a lead, I will settle for working class anti-cuts independent candidates. Let working class people therefore discuss and decide to take politics and elections back into their hands. Getting any elected would worry the established parties. Admittedly our showing has been abysmal in the past, but I think this time an election challenge will take off.”[5]

In a sense, his argument conflicts most directly with predictions which we in the CPGB majority have made in 2010 and since on the basis of the history of the Labour Party. We have argued that, with Labour thrown into opposition, it would take a degree of distance from some of the policies it had espoused in government; that there would be some leftist talk; and so on. For example, in November 2010 I wrote:

“It is obviously not possible to categorically assert that the similar claims made by the Socialist Party in England and Wales at present have a similar character. It is possible that the coalition will break up within a year of its formation and Labour get back into office; or that more acute economic crisis or other events will produce a ‘grand coalition’; and so on. But, assuming Labour remains in opposition, it is, I think, fairly predictable that (1) Labour’s rhetoric will move left; (2) its membership and political life in the constituencies and branches will increase; and (3) Labour activists and MPs will be found participating in grassroots campaigns against the Con-Dem cuts, and so on. If Labour remains in opposition and none of this happens by 2015 then - assuming I have not become unemployed - I will pay £50 or the equivalent in 2015 money to the SPEW fund drive. I think it is a pretty safe bet.”[6]

As things stand, I will admit that this prediction looks overstated (though I do not think that my money is yet in real danger). It follows that comrade Vincent’s questions pose a real issue.

This issue is not that the Labour Party has become an equivalent of the Democratic Party. That was the Blairites’ and Eurocommunists’ aim. However, as I argued in 2009, that aim had already failed in 2005 with the failure to make stable gains among the middle classes and the drying-up of major capitalist contributions to Labour.

But it might be the case that Labour is at risk of  collapse, due to a combination of factors. The first of these is the efforts of the Con-Dems, aided and abetted by Blairites, to force through an end to trade union funding of Labour in the guise of ‘party funding reform’.[7] The second is the illusion that the Con-Dems will be a “one-term government” (as Ed Miliband argued on March 31[8]), as long as Labour “holds its nerve” in aiming for the centre ground. Efforts to hold the Labour core vote may be paralysed by attempts to please the media.

The third is that to win a general election Labour will certainly need to revive its active membership. But the ability to mobilise members on the ground may be blocked by the top-down organisational structures and culture which were created to force through the shift to the right. Labour allows much less local diversity than the US Democratic Party (or the Tories or Liberals), because, unlike the straight bourgeois parties, it cannot rely on multi-millionaire donors to make the final decisions. Capitalist control of the Labour Party depends much more indirectly on party bureaucrats and MPs dictated to by the corrupt advertising-funded media and on secret lobbying groups like Progress.[9]

Hence, it might be the case that Labour is on the verge of collapse; and George Galloway’s victory in Bradford might be a sign that the collapse is about to begin. If so, we should expect to see in the May local elections, at a minimum, massive advances for the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru; for Respect and Tusc where they are standing; but also, and probably more strikingly and generally, for the UK Independence Party and the British National Party. The reason for this is that if the class vote for Labour is on the verge of collapse, voters will turn to any credible candidate who plausibly represents ‘none of the above’; and, though Galloway was credible in Bradford West, it is certainly not the case that there is a credible left alternative on a national scale. Hence we should expect in this event that right-populist nationalists will pick up large chunks of the vote.

How far do comrade Vincent’s eleven “questions” in his April 5 letter give credence to the view that working class support for Labour is on the verge of collapse? I will put them in a different order to comrade Vincent’s - one which I think brings together connected points.


“8. What about Labour winning a landslide victory in 1997? It could have proclaimed socialism overnight, but instead betrayed nearly all its main election promises and allowed the gap between rich and poor to widen, not narrow.”

Elsewhere comrade Vincent has accepted the point which we have made repeatedly, that Labour has never been a vehicle for socialism, but only a means of the union tops negotiating with the capitalist state over the ‘social wage’. So why does he now come up with the silly idea that the Blairites, who promised in advance to carry on with the Tories’ budget, maintain the anti-union laws, and so on, “could have proclaimed socialism”?

“10. Why did so-called socialists back warmonger Oona King (just because she was black and a woman?) over George Galloway - only to find most black people in Bethnal Green preferred a white man (in reality it was the policies they both stood for that determined their fate, but I put it like this because of the sheer ferocity of the Labour left attacks on Galloway for ‘causing the loss of a black, female MP from parliament’).

“11. What did the Labour left do to try to stop Galloway being expelled due to his anti-war stance?”

It is hardly news that Labour is committed to the interests of British imperialism and its overseas wars, since this has been a persistent characteristic of the party since 1914 at the latest. It should be noted, however, that Labourites were not alone in this policy: it was shared by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, which represents itself as Marxist, from a position (largely) outside Labour.

“7. The trade unions affiliated to Labour were the last to join the pensions fight led by the Public and Commercial Services union and the first to abandon it - yes or no? Please explain.”

Unsurprising. As I have said above, the dominance of the right in the Labour Party is at the end of the day because the union tops back the right. We have never suggested that there would be more than a rhetorical move to the left and some willingness of Labour members to participate in protest action. It would be ridiculous to imagine under present circumstances that the union leaders, whether affiliated to Labour or not, would seek anything other than a negotiated solution to the pensions dispute: the alternative is an immediate struggle for political power.

All of these points tell us nothing about whether the Labour Party is changing or has changed its character, since they merely remind us of things which have always been true of the Labour Party and the leadership of the affiliated unions.

“3. Why did the Labour left do nothing to halt the rise of Blair despite many on the left warning about him at the time?

“4. Why could the Labour left not ensure that John McDonnell at least made it onto the ballot paper (or, more revealingly, why did they not even support him) twice now?

“5. Why has there been no Labour left challenge anywhere near those of Tony Benn in 1981 and 1982?”

This set of points says merely that the Labour left is very weak. It has been very weak since the collapse of the ‘official’ Communist Party and the adherence of the Eurocommunists to the ex-‘soft left’ part of the Labour right (now well to the right of old Labour rightwingers like Roy Hattersley).

And, like the far left generally, the Labour left is highly splintered: for example, the Livingstoneites and Socialist Action have consistently opposed McDonnell candidacies. Outside the Labour Party examples of equivalent wrecking tactics have been provided by SPEW’s unprincipled split in the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Workers Party’s unprincipled split in Respect, and both SPEW’s and the SWP’s completely cynical exploitation of the ‘Sheridan crisis’ in the Scottish Socialist Party.

“9. What is the current membership level of the Labour Party and is it growing (if so at what rate) or is it falling again?”

As of 2011 Labour Party paying membership had grown to 193,000 (from 156,000 in 2009). Labour centre-leftist blogger Peter Kenyon expressed some doubt at the beginning of this year about whether the rise had been sustained.[10]

For the sake of comparison - the SWP in late 2011 claimed membership of around 7,100, of which only 38% (around 2,700) were paying.[11] SPEW claimed 2,000 in 2011.[12] The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain claimed just under 1,000 in 2010.[13] Peter Manson reports in last week’s paper that since Galloway’s victory in Bradford West Respect has seen a flood of membership applications ... taking its membership from under 700 to over 1,000. The rest of the left groups, CPGB included, are much smaller.

The comparatively trivial size of the left outside Labour should be understood as a warning to us that Labour is still a hell of a lot stronger than we are. Hence our point that, even if the far left unites in a serious party, it will still need a long-term policy towards the Labour Party.

However, it does not imply that the current Labour left has very much weight. Socialist Appeal reported in 2011 that the Labour-left Labour Representation Committee has 1,000 individual members: that would make it a medium to large-sized left group - if the LRC had the political coherence and ability of far-left groups outside Labour to mobilise members (it does not).[14] There is a also Labour left beyond the LRC ... it is just not very leftwing.

“2. What is the calibre of those joining the Labour Party today - active or passive?”

This is extraordinarily difficult to assess, precisely because the left is so weak overall both inside and outside Labour that we do not have much in the way of assessment from the ground either from within local Labour Parties or from the outside: ie, in relation to non-Labour comrades’ experiences of local Labour Party members on the ground.

“1. Labour Party conference no longer makes party policy or settles the election manifesto and the right has stitched up internal democracy. How will a tiny left get that back?”

As I have said already, the overthrow of this constitutional regime would require the trade unions to overthrow it. They could easily do so, but it would require them to be willing to accept a split of the right; and probably require a political revolution in the affiliated unions.

“6. Is it not the case that the much vaunted ‘link with the trade unions’ is only that of the union bureaucrats forcing their union to remain affiliated by not allowing their members any democratic chance to debate the link or amount of donations (the forthcoming GMB conference alone appears to be allowing this, but let us see if the debate actually happens)? Those looking to reform donations to political parties are live to this, which is why there are suggestions that trade union members opt in to the levy rather than having to opt out.”

‘Donations reform’ is a proposal aiming to destroy Labour Party funding for the benefit of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and for the benefit of the system of corruption of public affairs by dependence on capitalist funding. The capitalists hope to exploit union members’ disenchantment with Labour to this end. If it succeeds, Labour will certainly be at risk of collapse. But there is no reason to suppose that this would be a move to the left in British politics. Rather, it would be a move to the right, a further Americanisation.

That is linked to a more general point which I made in my 2009 articles. The political dynamics of the Labour Party merely collapsing, in the absence of a serious unified challenge from the left to replace it, would represent a further sharp step in the drift of British politics to the right, which has been ongoing since the 1980s.

Overall, however, comrade Vincent’s questions and the answers to them tell us very little, because too many of them are not questions about current political dynamics, but about either the past (the defeat of the Labour left in the 1980s-90s) or about eternal verities (that Labour is not a party which can ever be expected to bring in socialism, lead trade union struggles to victory, or oppose British imperialism).

On the other hand

On the other hand, there are a number of indicators that Labour, in spite of bureaucratic control in the interests of the right, in spite of its hideous record in government, and so on, remains a large ‘bourgeois workers’ party’.

In the first place, the bourgeoisie clearly thinks so. Indeed, the capitalist media declares that Ed Miliband’s slight tack to the left to win trade union backing in the leadership elections was a very bad thing and means that Labour cannot be trusted. Hence the media continue the smear campaign begun against Gordon Brown, albeit in a different form in relation to Ed Miliband. They want to replace him with an open Blairite. They want to see the links between Labour and the unions broken.

Secondly, while we have not seen large numbers of Labour councillors, etc, campaigning against cuts, the context of this is that grassroots anti-cuts campaigns have, in reality, not taken off. Reported meetings have been very largely a story of the ‘usual suspects’.

What has happened, instead, is that people have been turning to their trade unions to resist attacks. Both the number of disputes and the number of days lost through industrial action have risen, and not just because of the pensions dispute and large one-day strikes.

While Labour MPs have remained in majority Blairite, and in their large majority unwilling to talk left, Labour trade union leaders have been very much more willing to do so. They talk left, but do not put their money to any great extent where their mouths are: but that is no novelty.

As we saw above, Labour Party membership is substantially up in response to the formation of the Con-Dem government, though there are real and legitimate questions about the politics of the new members and the extent to which they are active, and about how far the increase will be sustained.

Bradford West is undoubtedly an important event. But it has not impacted significantly on national opinion polls. The April 10 YouGov poll in TheSun puts Labour at 40%, with the Conservatives on 36%, Lib Dems on 9%, and others on 15% - ‘others’, of course, includes the nationalist parties, the Ulster loyalists and the far right, as well as (probably a pretty limited part of that 15%) Respect, Tusc, etc.[15] Contrast Greece, where - unsurprisingly - polls have shown a real collapse in support for the Greek Socialist Party, Pasok, though some recovery is likely before the May 6 general election.[16]

This is not a matter of misplaced optimism. It is completely the opposite. What is required isrealistic recognition of the present weakness of the left, as opposed to the ‘official optimism’ which comes out of the SWP, Tusc and so on. Part of that is to recognise that, though it is perfectly possible that Labour will collapse, it does not seem to be on the immediate agenda.

That judgment is one which, it seems, we share with George Galloway. His article about his election victory in the Morning Star, ‘Bradford points the way’, does not resound with a call for a new party to replace Labour. Instead, he says:

“Hundreds are joining Respect, including people with great track records in the labour and progressive movements. We’re delighted by that. At the same time, we have always seen our job as not only advancing our party as a voice and instrument for working people and the poor, but also strengthening the whole left and, crucially, the capacity of the mass of people to take some control of their lives and end the years of one-sided war of the rich against the poor. Within parliament and without we will cooperate with any who are prepared to break with the austerity consensus.

“There are some in Labour’s ranks who rightly draw the conclusion that the age of Clinton-Blair triangulation is dead and that the politics of Labour must be based on the interests of working people. I’m with them, and against those who want to stick with the disastrous course set by Tony Blair and continued through to today.”[17]

We have very substantial political differences with Galloway. But this approach - fighting both outside the Labour Party and as far as possible inside it alongside what remains of its left - is in its fundamentals correct. Those who make a fetish of ‘inside Labour only’ condemned themselves to inaudibility for most of the period 1990-2010. But those who make a fetish of ‘outside Labour only’ also risk condemning themselves to inaudibility under present conditions.



1. ‘Labour Party blues’, July 23 2009; ‘Making and unmaking Labour’ July 30 2009.

2. Weekly Worker July 30 2009.

3. Draft: Weekly Worker October 21 2010; agreed version: Weekly Worker December 2 2010.

4. www.socialistunity.com/recent-changes-in-the-relationship-betwen-unions-and-the-labour-party/, March 16 2012.

5. Weekly Worker March 8.

6. ‘Dances with scabsWeekly Worker November 11 2010.

7. ‘Clegg proposes way to end “big money” political donations’ The Independent April 4; ‘Unions do have a hold on Labour, says former aide’ Daily Express April 4.

8. The Observer April 1.

9. A summary of the anonymous report on Progress can be found at www.leftfutures.org/2012/02/call-for-labour-inquiry-into-the-organisation-activities-of-party-within-a-party-progress.

10. http://musingsfrommedway.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/camerons-trap.html; http://petergkenyon.typepad.com/peterkenyon/2012/01/an-indelicate-question-labour-party-membership-stalled-locally-nationally.html.

11. P Manson, ‘No ambition, no visionWeekly Worker November 10 2011.

12. www.stokesocialistparty.org.uk/?p=822.

13. www.electoralcommission.org.uk/party-finance/database-of-registers/statements-of-accounts/soa/pdfs/soa_25-05-11_10-13-58.pdf.

14. www.socialist.net/lrc-2011.htm.

15. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk.

16. www.phantis.com/topic/opinion-polls.

17. Morning Star April 6.