When I read Michael Chessum’s piece in the New Statesman, I felt the immediate need to respond. Not because I was outraged, but because I think he has hit on a crucial debate about where the Labour left have been and where we go next. I’m sure that virtually every socialist in the party has wondered whether it’s worth sticking with the party in recent years. Who cannot have thought about what might lie on the other side as Labour MPs failed to oppose something as basic as the Workfare Bill? Looking further back, even more made the leap after Iraq, and while some have made the return journey since, party membership is ‘on notice’ for many of these returnees. As socialists, our loyalty to the Labour Party isn’t down to a kind of misplaced tribalism, as many of our critics would have it, but is contingent – based on our experience and a carefully considered strategic judgement of where we are of most use. It has to be up for debate, though, and as Michael rightly points out, the idea that socialists are best positioned in the Labour Party has been challenged again by the 2015 election – with a dramatic implosion of Labour’s support in Scotland and a steady chipping away of Labour’s traditional support in the former heartlands of the North East, North West and Wales. Alongside the Collins Review, which has sown the seeds for a potential break in the organic link between the trade unions and the party, we are clearly a further step down the line to a free-floating, Democratic-style party, despite the brief and fairly superficial optimism of Ed Miliband’s tenure and the accompanying (cautious) leftward shift on policy. So Michael is right to urge another review of our position and it is up to us, on the left of the party, to make the argument for staying.
Firstly, I think we have to be honest and analytical about how we have arrived in this position. Many analyses of the Labour left’s position treat it as an innocent victim of circumstances. That is understandable. Since New Labour’s inception, we have been faced with a seemingly unconquerable ‘machine’ – well-resourced, organised and ruthlessly efficient. However, New Labour’s conquering of the party apparatus, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the leadership didn’t happen by magic. It was preceded by a period of deep disillusionment and flight by the left, who immediately prior to the Kinnock-Blair purging of party democracy, were in their strongest position for many decades. What happened? This isn’t really the place to go into the detail of the Bennite movement in the party, but there seems to have been a fragility about it which we maybe haven’t explored enough. In any case, what is clear is that from that point in the late 1980s, the Labour left appeared like a rabbit caught in the headlights. While some continued to plug away at internal party battles and the democratisation of the party via CLPD and the Socialist Campaign Group, the majority despaired, and previously active Labour Party socialists became members in name only. Many others left at this point to join the Socialist Alliance, myself included – which hardly helped (I’m exercising self-criticism here). The point is, that at no point was there a united, collective, strategic opposition to Blairism in the party – and the New Labourites, never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, consolidated their power by dominating moribund CLP’s and winning selection and selection at a canter. It was like taking sweets from a baby.
So much for the history of it. What about now? Why have we got to this crisis? Well, twenty years on from that pivotal point between ‘Old Labour’ and ‘New Labour’, we still haven’t learnt our lesson. There are still socialists in the party – of that there is no doubt. We don’t know enough about why, but it is clear that many are still members in name only, clinging on to their party cards in the “hope” that something will change. They still get angry at the leadership, exasperated at the lack of democracy and now have more opportunity to voice that discontent via social media. But our numbers are smaller and the numbers of active socialists in the party are smaller still. Despair, once again, has set in – if it ever went away. The familiar story goes like this: we’ve been stitched up; those Blairites, they can’t be beaten; look at our leadership – how can we stick around and endorse that. What is missing is any sense that the left has contributed to this. Of course, it’s an attractive idea, to say that we’ve given it a good go and now it’s time to move on to other projects. Who can’t be seduced by a fresh start and greener grass – but that is based on the assumption that we have tried and failed. Have we? Really? Maybe a tiny activist core – but once again, there has been no sustained, strategic approach to coalition building within the party, to challenging the Blairites over selections and to shaking things up in our CLPs. Where that has happened, it has been sporadic and normally led by the unions – but many ordinary party members, socialists included, have sat back and let this happen around us. This is not to individualise blame – and neither is it about berating good people for “not doing enough”. Of course, it’s a natural reaction to withdraw when faced by such seemingly overwhelming odds, but we do need to take collective responsibility if we are going to turn this situation round.
But should we even bother? The ground is changing, isn’t it? Maybe we’re just clinging onto the wreckage. This is what Michael seems to be arguing. It is true that socialists tend to stick to tried and tested means and only realise far too late that the world has moved on. To me, there are three main arguments against leaving the Labour Party and starting again:
Firstly, Michael puts an awful lot of store by the prospects of a Unite split from the Labour Party. Agreed, that would change the landscape considerably, but there’s ample evidence that it won’t happen like that – and there’s an argument that a right-wing shift in the leadership of the party might nudge Unite and others in the direction of serious alliances with the party left at grassroots level. Our society appears to be in turmoil, with the old certainties disappearing quickly. That leads us to think that institutional change can and will come quickly too, but trade unions are by their nature not risk-takers, and the main unions will stick to Labour while there is a chance that they can influence the leadership and the policy of the party. If a Progressite were to win the leadership, that again might shift the situation considerably, but (a) I don’t think that will happen and (b) it won’t inevitably lead to a split – after all, the big unions stayed in during the Blair years and were in some cases the biggest cheerleaders. Even where the leadership has changed, and talks more of a left game, the organisation is fundamentally the same.
Secondly, he talks about the left turning outwards towards grassroots campaigning, and how that might reinvigorate those campaigns and the Labour left itself. Of course that is important. Only during the Bedroom Tax protests did we see large numbers of Labour Party members out on the streets. But that will only take us so far. We have to take the campaigning inside CLPs, not just to mobilise a sleeping membership, but to challenge the depoliticisation and anti-democratic nature of many local parties. This is some challenge, but it is something which has almost disappeared from the armoury of the Labour left during the last two decades. Where we have seen a tentative resurgence in campaigning CLPs, they have quite often managed to secure the selection of solid, left-wing candidates (witness the anti-austerity letter signed by 10 new Labour MPs). Again, I absolutely agree – without that ‘revolution from below’ in the party, we are just treading water, but with a well thought out and executed organising strategy within the party, “fading” away is not an inevitability. But we can’t expect to change the Labour Party without taking part in the Labour Party.
Thirdly, the elephant in the room. I’m talking about our good friend, the dysfunctional ‘outside’ left. I very much don’t mean that in a name-calling, derogatory way. I’ve been honest about the Labour left’s deficiencies, but I think it’s equally important to point out that the British left outside of the Labour Party has not offered a coherent, credible alternative to the Labour Party at any point in the last thirty years. From the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Labour Party, Respect right through to TUSC – not a single initiative has taken off in what have been incredibly favourable conditions for the building of an alternative workers party. Having tried my hand outside the party, I’m now almost convinced that they are not capable of building that alternative. That is what marks us out from Greece or Spain – we have, for historical reasons, been landed with a left that works in silos, which is often sectarian and obsessed with the minutiae of past battles and ideological purity. Not every part of it, of course, but enough of it to wreck every attempt to build ‘left unity’ (small case). I don’t say this with any joy, but I think it’s a reality that we are faced with. So despite our massive challenges in building a Labour left, they are dwarfed by the enormous task of pulling together a Syriza-like left in the UK. The phrase herding cats springs to mind. If all this history and experience can be broken, and something solid can be built and gain some purchase amongst the working class, again we are in different territory. Maybe, as Michael Chessum suggests, the prospect of the unions pitching into a new party could be the way in which the game changes. Again, I think that is misunderstanding the motivations of the larger unions. You can’t simply graft a social democratic union politics onto one of the various political projects that have started their lives as either the possessions of a Trotskyist political party or a chaotic bringing together of various shades of anarchism, communism, green and socialists. The unions aren’t going to go for that. What they would want is a party with parliamentary credibility, with basic social democratic credentials, with a working class base, with the potential to make policy which would create jobs, house people, protect the welfare state and workers’ rights. In other words, the Labour Party we are fighting for – not as an end in itself, but as a huge step on the road to a more socialistic society.
Of course Michael and others are right to raise this debate. It’s essential to the way we view our tasks ahead. But what is often missing is a sober analysis of where we’ve gone wrong as a left. If we’re honest, collectively we’ve done what we always criticise as futile: we’ve shouted at the telly a lot, but we haven’t organised – not seriously and strategically. It’s as if we’ve excluded the Party itself from our sound analysis that in society, power cedes nothing without a demand. We can no longer sit back. We have to get together and build a serious, organised, engaged and thinking Labour left, one that leaves behind some of the false walls that have divided us. That is what Red Labour (now 20,000 strong on Facebook and with 40 plus local groups) is all about. I think it would be a disaster to leave the Labour Party, but not as much of a disaster as waiting for something to change, like the proverbial boiling frog, slowly being cooked to death.
Previous published at Left Futures