Stay and fight: Why socialists should stick with Labour

clive

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

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See you, Jimmy: what the SLab collapse means for all of us.

jim-murphyLet’s face it. The overwhelming backdrop to the 2015 election wasn’t hope. It wasn’t even predominantly fear in the end, though that played a part. It was anger. And it was directed towards our party as much as towards a Coalition Government which had slashed and burnt its way through public services, privatised everything it could lay its hands on and showed a callous disregard for the vulnerable in our society. They were seen as the bad guys by many – probably a majority – but we definitely weren’t seen as the good guys, and by many of our former supporters, we were seen very much as part of the problem.

Now we can deflect blame for this. We can blame the naivety and selfishness of voters in large swathes of the South and Midlands in the betrayal of SNP switchers who have been suckered into supporting nationalism dressed up as social democracy. We can retreat to the comfort blanket of saying that we are fighting a losing battle against the twin forces of nationalism and individualism. Or we can quit this blame fest and try to understand our own failures. Why has this calamity (and let’s face it, we are in a crisis) happened? Why have we been overwhelmed in an explosion of anger towards the party we are members of?

Firstly, the anger towards the Labour Party is blowback from two decades of New Labourite politics. Particularly in Scotland, where the Scottish Labour Party was used as an incubator for the careers of many a Blairite politician. In so doing, the party machine also wrecked the internal life of the party north of the border, closing down democracy and evacuating the party of real, decent socialist and trade union activists. Scotland has blown first because it was the most extreme example, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this process hasn’t happened all over the UK. The election of Jim Murphy was the final straw, illustrating that the party hadn’t learnt the lessons of Better Together, and the scene was set for Thursday’s cataclysm.

Secondly, the anger is about Labour’s failure to challenge the austerity consensus. This obviously has a historic dimension to it. Blair’s governments entrenched the idea that redistribution and progressive taxation, aimed at the rich, was off the agenda. On this score, “One Nation Labour” continued in the same vein. For all the talk of tax avoidance and “everyone paying their fair share”, Ed Balls’ tightening noose around Labour’s economic policy and the disastrous decision to stick to Tory spending plans cemented the idea that they were all in the same club. It forced Labour into a cul-de-sac when it should have been shouting from the rooftops about the economic vandalism being perpetrated in the name of deficit reduction. It hasn’t just been the SNP who have benefitted from Labour’s cowardice on the economy, but the Greens – and even, in a bizarre, complex way, UKIP. Ed Miliband said that he was making a definite break from New Labour. In style, he did – but on questions of substance he really failed to. Where was the commitment to rail renationalisation, kicking the private sector out of the NHS altogether, or bringing schools back into local authority control? Until Labour rediscover this kind of radicalism, they will be vulnerable to a Scottish style implosion in the rest of the UK too.

Thirdly, what about us? Us socialists in the party? Surely it’s not our fault that our party was overtaken by careerist cuckoos and set the time bomb ticking? What could we have done? We tried our best, right? But look what they did to us we? We were powerless. Or so the story goes. Often, people ask why on earth we carry on in a party which is so wedded to neoliberalism? Wouldn’t two decades or more of failure to change the party indicate that it is a lost cause. Well, let’s go back to Scotland for a second. What on earth was going on while the Blairites were tearing down local democracy and imposing yes men and women? Where was the organisation, where was the united front with the unions to challenge the selection of those New Labour zealots in local parties? The answer is that too many people, good socialists went into hiding, too disillusioned to fight back or too divided to come together. A small band of hard core socialists were left to fight the good fight. It wasn’t enough – and we can see similar pattern all over the UK. If there’s any hope to be gleaned in these fairly dark days, is that the Labour left will learn those lessons, and come out of hiding to start the long task of rebuilding a party we can all be proud of. If that doesn’t happen, we can almost certainly say good bye to the Labour Party in its present form.

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Sleepwalking in the Labour Party

@zx_475@zy_285I know those to the left of me will snort, but I genuinely think there are plenty of good people left in the Labour Party. I’d go further than that. Many of those people sincerely believe in socialist values and a different way of organising society. Most of them were drawn to the party and joined because they believed in those values and because they wanted to turn the things they believed into action. Equally, most of them understand how illogical it is to be basing our policies on Tory spending plans and talking about “responsible capitalism” at a time when the country is in crisis because of austerity and the pillars of capitalism itself are coming tumbling down.

The problem is, however, that these good people seem to believe in magic. That could be the only explanation for the fact that people will voice these views over the dinner table, in pubs and (as Owen Jones has said repeatedly said, by shouting at the telly) and yet do precisely nothing to attempt to change the party into one they could be proud of; one that reflects their values, however imperfectly. Granted, we are slowly moving from a more deeply entrenched quietism to a more public discontent, but still people are not convinced of the need to take action, to take responsibility. What I’ve heard time and time again over what has been a magnificent few months (including the Bedroom Tax Protests, the Miners Gala and the People’s Assembly) is that people, and that includes ordinary Labour members, want a Party leadership that stands up for working people and their families with the same determination that the trade unions today (and the mining unions in the past) have stood up for their members. There is huge frustration at our party representatives who have failed in their basic duty – to represent their communities and the membership views.

Now, I understand that people are demoralised, that they have been defeated again and again by the right of our party. The right and centre of the party seem to have all the cards – the resources, the media, the patronage – while we have been patted on the head and told to smile and wave. The thing is, we’re not little children. Many of us are confident, forceful people who if they were treated like this by their employer, would fight back with a vengeance. So why do we voluntarily submit to being mere cheerleaders in a party that was supposed to be for us, that was set up with the express intention of representing us (working people, the trade unions and the wider communities they come from)?

Tony Blair cemented this idea of going above the heads of the members to appeal to the nation. It was not just anti-democratic, it was a tactic to silence the party membership. We are being served more of the same with One Nation Labour. It’s a ridiculous idea that a party formed by the unions could borrow the clothes of One Nation Toryism. It’s the old New Labour spin – but which of us were consulted? What role did the party members have in this? None at all – it was just a marketing gimmick – like a scene from the Thick of It – and now were stuck with a new branding;  a New Labour lite with a few Union Jack’s thrown in. Smile and wave, guys, smile and wave.

There has been much talk over the last decade about the alienation of the vast majority of working class people from the workings of an increasingly remote political class, operating via the machinations of professionals and with little reference to those people’s real lives. What we need to acknowledge is that this alienation, this disengagement has taken place within the Labour Party too. We have become bystanders in our own party and let the professionals take over – at a local as well as national level. For us, party politics has become a spectators sport. We’ve become too timid to criticise our representatives, because “they work very hard, you know” and “rocking the boat only helps the Tories, you know”. Where does this sort of deference, this quietism end? Well, we know don’t we, because we’ve already been there? Back with  Blair and New Labour.

I realise that I’m talking to a minority here, both in terms of the party membership and the wider left, but I just don’t think it’s an insignificant minority. We talk ourselves down, self-censor our distinct political perspective. There are good reasons for this. Our voices are drowned out on both sides. To the right of us, the right and centre of the party have tight control of the messages given out by the party. They officially tell our story. On the left, we are assailed by the righteous indignation of the outside left, who blame us for that story which we have little or no control over. This has reached its apogee in a relatively new narrative on the so called “revolutionary left” – that Labour socialists provide “left cover” for the austerity-friendly Labour. Of course, this narrative isn’t new at all – it was the tactic employed by the Communist Party during its “Class Against Class” period of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Only the rise of fascism ended this ultra leftist attitude to the Labour left. It wrongly conflates the party left with the leadership and the PLP – which are in most respects polar opposites. Nevertheless it is difficult not to sound apologetic about your membership of the party when being tarred in this way on a daily basis. However (and this is the crucial bit) we need to break out if this defeatism – unless we want to continue to live in this prison created by our political adversaries on both sides.

It’s clear that too many people on the left of the party are paper members only, cowed by defeats, beaten down by the hegemony of the right and the depoliticisation at a local party level – and finally convinced by the leadership who tell them to accept that there is no alternative. Of course, many good socialists have left and that has hit us hard, but for those of us still in the party, is it not time to question the practical usefulness of such membership? In other words, if you’re not in the party to “cause trouble” (i.e ask the questions that need to be asked and organise to win our positions in the party) – considering its trajectory for the last 15 years – what are you in it for?

Rather than moaning in public meetings and amongst comrades, we really need to take some responsibility for this party of ours. It’s time for a new kind of left in the party. One that understands the challenge of the likes of Progress and organises itself to take on those forces; one that tries to mobilise the thousands in the party who have stayed quiet in the face of the Blairite onslaught, and one that takes seriously the task of democratising the party again – even of it means upsetting a few people on the way. One that is less apologetic and more decisive. We either attempt to reclaim the party or we don’t. We either try to claim it for the members or we don’t. We’re either cheerleaders for One Nation Labour or were not, but lets not pretend we haven’t got a choice. We have, it’s just that we’ve been sleepwalking for too long.

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