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“There is no point in arriving without the passengers…”

LabourWith the declaration of the government that there will simply be no vote on the proposed third runway at Heathrow, the shaky position of the socialist Left in Labour is thrown into stark relief. Left opposition concerns the Labour leadership not at all, evidenced by the fact that the leadership is more likely to rely on the Tory opposition for the passage of unpopular measures than to open a genuine discussion with the Labour backbenches.

Opposition to R3 has been significant, including the Climate Camp sit-in in summer 2007 and several protests throughout 2008. There has also been a gathering pace of declarations even from within officialdom – from 52 Labour MPs and from Boris Johnson. Politicians local to the area in which Heathrow’s expansion is to take place have been holding public meetings and reporting a vociferous opposition.

Still the Labour leadership takes no note. If socialist MPs, councillors and activists can’t influence the policy of Labour, one wonders why we should continue to be part of Labour at all? Our situation very much seems to resemble the song by Stealers Wheel, “Clichés to the left of us, Lib-Dems to the right… .” What are the pros and cons of being a socialist and supporting the Labour Party?

On an electoral basis, the claim that it is the best of a bad selection is on very uncertain ground. Frankly I’d prefer to elect Evan Harris, of the Lib-Dems, over pretty much any member of the Labour Cabinet. I’ll certainly be choosing Caroline Lucas of the Greens over Peter Skinner in the upcoming European elections. Yet this decision not to vote Labour cannot be translated into a rule-of-thumb. It is only in certain areas where I would choose to advocate that.

Labour MPs with impeccable socialist credentials will always have my support: John McDonnell and the Labour Representation Committee being at the top of the list. It is true, however, that for the Left the professions of faith in Labour as the least-worst option are becoming increasingly untenable. Nevertheless, the connections of Labour’s socialists to the Labour Party are more than merely about elections, rightly so, but problematically this often tends towards a nostalgia and unrealism.

This can be seen in arguments between individuals on Labour’s Left over the future course of the Labour Representation Committee. Without any hope of reconquering Labour or transforming the structures of the Party that would allow Left activism to re-take the Party from the bureaucrats, there are members who insist that we remain with Labour come hell or high-water. Their only valid argument is that to leave would almost certainly deprive us of parliamentary representation.

How important that representation is can be seen in the performances of people like McDonnell, in his stunt with the mace. Holding parliament in contempt was an important symbol, which was read about and listened to all over the country last night and this morning.

On the other hand, New Labour is firmly in control of the Party and the prospect of continuing LRC parliamentary representation is not bright. Labour Party Conference has been hollowed out in two ways; first, it has been stripped of its powers and secondly, those powers have been transferred to National Policy Forums. The constituencies which are meant to take part in these have been hollowed out by the New Labour agenda – which has led to crashing Labour Party membership figures.

One by one, the Socialist Campaign Group and the LRC lose their parliamentarians – and these are not being replaced.

Even within the LRC there are those who can see this happening. The LRC, and its youth wing, the Socialist Youth Network, are open to members of any Party which does not stand candidates against Labour and to members of no party. This is a reflection of the number of solid activists who deserted Labour over the Iraq War, over trades union issues and over the multiple courses of action on which the government has decided to ignore its supporters.

This multi-polar perception of socialist activism is in-built to the Labour Representation Committee, since its major union affiliates have broken from the Labour Party proper. Later this month, the LRC will be launching with the NUJ, the FBU, RMT and other unions a co-ordinating group to improve communications and the potential for joint action. Labour verus TorySimilarly, it is this multi-polar perception which gave rise to the Convention of the Left in Manchester last year.

CotL brought together many strands of socialism within Labour, as well as inviting participants from outside of the Labour Party: Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Workers’ Party, CPB-Morning Star and the Greens, to name the major ones. The smaller Trotskyist sects also attended the conference, and a repeat performance is hopefully going to be organised for this year’s conference season, either to coincide with the TUC or Labour conference.

It was this multi-polar concept of socialism which drew me to the LRC, but it is also a weakness in one respect. In the LRC there are those more attached to and more engaged with the Labour milieu, and there are those more attached to and more engaged with a non-Labour milieu. The LRC is an important development, representing all that was ever good about the Socialist Campaign Group and little of what was bad, but it brings Labour socialists no closer to deciding whether or not to stay Labour.

The reason the LRC is so key to the discussion is that, whether or not one votes Lib-dem because they like the individual they vote for, it will be the institutions of activist socialism that will ultimately deliver for us the global change to capitalism which we want to see.

In the early 1980s, Paul Foot characterised Tony Benn’s movement as an engine driver who, seeing the end in sight, detaches the train from his engine and powers on ahead. By this, Foot meant to convey the view that the political swing to the Left by Labour was not being emulated on the ground; shop stewards were harder to find than in the 1970s and unions were less prone to organise work-ins or strikes over issues political rather than economic.

For Labour socialists, there is the danger that we reconquer the Party only to find we’ve left the working class on the platform. This would be to repeat the mistakes of Tony Benn et al, or worse still to repeat the mistakes of the Independent Labour Party. At any rate, I don’t think the Labour Left is yet strong enough with the unions and with its class to emerge on to the stage as a separate political entity. Continuation of multipolarity seems the best strategy for the present – but we should be under no illusions:

For better or worse, we have lost control of Labour, probably for good.

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  1. Duncan
    January 16, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Okay – deep breath!

    I agree with a lot of what you say. But, socialist that I am, furious with the government as I am, I’m a labourist. I start from there. This may sound a small point, but it is quite significant in many ways, because I don’t look at the political structures of British society today as if this were the start of history and ask, is the Labour Party the most appropriate place for me to devote my political time and effort? I look at the political structures of British society from the perspective of somebody inside the Labour Party, who has emerged from its traditions and its history, who recognises the mistakes in its past along with the achievements, and sees the current situation – that moment frozen in time – as merely a phase in the history of a movement; and one that is much more complex than it first appears.

    Because actually, were I to approach politics as that outsider, I think I would conclude that Labour was the place for me. Why? Because of people like us.

    This is potentially a paradox – particularly for those who wish to break from Labour. Labour is a home for socialists because it has socialists in it (and it has those socialists who are most influential and organised in it). And of course, the opposite would also be true; if the Labour Left began the tactical retreat that you spoke of in another thread, then Labour would cease to hold any attraction to the non-aligned socialist and the possibility of a left renaissance in the party would be lost.

    In other words, whichever way we jump on this question has the potential to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the Labour Left is active, vital, high profile and Labour – it will halt the sort of decline you hint at. If the Labour Left starts to talk about detaching itself – socialism in the Labour Party will, indeed decline.

    The Labour Party has always been a party with socialists in it. Political parties in Britain are coalitions of disparate interests. Of course we are aware that in Labour today those interests are at times in utter conflict. That is not a healthy position for the party, but I believe THAT is an aberration. Let me be clear – I don’t think that Labour essentially being a party of capital is an aberration; it is a capitalist-friendly social democratic party with socialists in it who – when the zeitgeist is with us – can kick it into the right direction on some issues. But Labour being a distinctly anti-socialist and anti-democratic party – which it at times has been during the New Labour era – is not normal in the history of the party.

    The best strategy for us is to present ourselves as a genuine alternative to New Labour, within the Party. We must not imagine that we could replace New Labour and sit atop the party as a self-contained unassailable clique as they have done; but we could drag the party back to progress and to achieving things and I believe we will. The loss of some MPs does not deflect me from the belief that we are stronger now than we were; and we WILL replace those who go. Stand for selection somewhere yourself! Let’s get organised!

    Any other thoughts you may be having a cul-de-sacs – and cul-de-sacs that many have turned down before. Tony Benn is right – there are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists. Let’s concentrate on making socialists – whether we find them inside or outside the party. And let’s get them IN the party and organise like mad.

  2. January 16, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    I disagree with your characterization of Party history, and while I agree that there are not enough socialists, I disagree that our future course of action is rendered unproblematic by the assertion that we should recruit them and lead them into the Labour Party.

    Labour has been more tolerant in previous decades, but even then there were embryonic signs that all was not well. Seventy years ago, members were permitted to be both part of the Communist Party and part of the Labour Party. As soon as the time was right, that tolerance was yanked away.

    Since then, witch hunts have been a periodical feature of the Party; the only subsequent abeyance was during the 1970s and 1980s when Trotskyists and other radical socialists were among the most active contingents in Labour and in the trades unions. Your conclusion to this would seem to be that we need to return Labour to those periods of abeyance.

    However, just as Labour is a product of its history, so it is not and never will be a stable entity. It is a process. Struggle within Labour will ebb and flow, and for as long as it is a capital-friendly social democratic party, the purges will always be a weapon to prevent a drift towards the Left.

    The reason being, of course, that for as long as Labour is prepared to cast itself both as the representative of a class and as a potential representative of capital, we reproduce the struggle of the nation in our own midst. Moreover, the Left in such a struggle will always prove to be the weaker because there will be significant elements of the Left (mirrors of significant elements of the class) who will not be comfortable with Labour.

    In the periods of tolerance, this section was reflected in a Communist Party whose membership ran into five figures and who could periodically get someone elected to parliament. Ultimately a conquest of the Labour Party will result in the abandonment of capital-friendly social democracy or in yet another defeat by the Left. There is no middle ground – and if there is, please point to it explicitly.

    Now, I agree that there are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists – and I would like to recruit more and get them united under Labour. However it is not just a matter of abstract argument, and getting enough CLP resolutions of NPF votes together. It is a matter of class struggle. Framed in those terms, people see the reactionary measures Labour put across.

    They are therefore (for as long as it continues) ever less inclined to vote for, much less become active in, Labour. And not for want of trying on the part of the Left. Our recruiting efforts during the John4Leader campaign were titanic – and although they got a bit of traction, they came nowhere close to giving us the absolute supremacy of numbers we need.

    It is not just a came of numbers; even numbers we recruit can be demoralised by the continual victory of our opponents. Thus, I think that indefinitely remaining with Labour is not an option; it condemns us to titanic efforts even to sustain our current station, much less to advance the conditions we need in order to actually change the Party constitution and make it more open, more susceptible to activism.

    As I have discussed before, I have no problem recruiting people to Labour – I have done so, and each time I have also talked about the Labour Representation Committee. I will continue to do that until our situation changes – and eventually it will change, because like the Labour Party, capitalism is not static, it is a process.

    Our discussion is therefore about the future, not because I’m coming new to the discussion or ignorant of our Party’s history, it’s because for that future I’ve seen no convincing analysis which secures the place of the LRC or its parliamentarians and then advances a plan whereby we take over the Party and adapt its policies to ours.

    That’s because no such analysis exists; either it must be produced or we must be working towards a situation whereby we can engineer a break on terms most favourable to Labour socialists, their councillors and their parliamentarians. Again, if there is an alternative, let’s hear it.

  3. Duncan
    January 17, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    I fear you set up a false choice. The implication is that any break – on the most favourable terms imaginable in my wildest dreams – would produce anything of the slightest value. The very best you could hope for in such circumstances is – in the future, under PR – some sort of European-style Left Party that, while unlikely to fair as well as some of its Scandinavian counterparts, could – theoretically – be locally significant or could even – on rare occasions – prove important for securing a coalition government and therefore have some small influence over policy.

    Even that scarcely realistic scenario – based on a million ‘ifs’ and counter-factuals – would represent a position of weakness compared with the Labour Left today, and a disaster compared with a potentially rejuvenated Labour Left tomorrow.

    My politics are different from yours, in some ways. We should perhaps not get back onto the issue of ‘entryism’ but while I want – very much – to get all the socialists into the Labour Party and organise like mad, I would much prefer them not to believe themselves to be entryists. I want socialists to join the Labour Party because it is the party of organised Labour, it is a party that self-defines as socialist, it is the party which has socialist representation in Parliament and elsewhere and because it is a mass party. I want them to join Labour, not to infiltrate it.

    As such, the suggestion that the ideal for me would be a tolerance of dual memberships and Trotskyism misses the point. I’ve no objection to people forming organisations – I’m in the LRC, I support Labour Against the War, Labour CND, the Campaign Group, etc, etc, they’re all groups or organisations and in the Labour Party – so I, of course, opposed and continue to oppose party witch-hunts. But I don’t witch-hunts because I think that sectarian attachment to the doctrines of some grouplet is a particularly useful thing to engage in. I think Militant did a lot of useful work in the YS and in community politics, but I think being Militant and holding the line undermined their usefulness. I think those comrades would have achieved more if they had sought to further break down sectarian divides rather than to be obsessed with them. I would level the same accusation at some of the current organisations. When I was in student politics, trying to organise the historical ancestors of the SYN, the barriers were – in pretty much equal measure – fighting the Blairite stranglehold, and trying to avoid half our potential members ever having to meet or talk to each other but still getting them to vote the right way. And, of course, nobody believed I wasn’t in one of these ‘entryist’ parties. The Socialist Organiser or AWL lot all thought I was Socialist Action. The people whom I was assured were Socialist Action (though nobody ever tried to recruit me, and I was always slightly dubious as to whether they really existed!) suspected I was a ‘Soggy’. If I wasn’t either, surely that meant I was some ‘Tanky’ Stalinist?

    So – no, I don’t want to encourage the ‘entryism’ of self-contained, self-defining, doctrinaire groups. I just don’t have the time or patience to bother with all that any more (“well, perhaps we can discuss whether the Soviet Union was a deformed workers’ state or state capitalist later, and for the time being let’s decide how we’re going to win this friggin’ vote tomorrow!!”)

    The language of defeat will demoralise people – but we’re not in a pattern of defeat at this time. For the first time since 1988 (which we could say was the end of Bennite hope) I sense hope again on the left (which is why I find this sort of debate so frustrating). Labour left-wingers are spoken to on the news. The John4Leader campaign contained many more reasons to be cheerful than to despair. We’re winning most of the arguments.

    What is the alternative strategy? If you’d prefer it in Marxian terms, it’s the dictatorship of the proletariat. If we’re looking for an easier sell, it’s a real Labour government. We’ve not been a million miles from them before. A Benn government was not an impossibility. If JMcD had got on the ballot paper last year, and the campaign had gone extremely well and Gordon Brown had made an arse of it… we might have had 2 years (at least) of a real Labour government. Some time in the future we might be in opposition and there might shifting sands in the party and John McDonnell… or you… whoever or whenver this could be… might rise to the leadership and the people might be sick to death of a shite Tory government and… Yes, it’s ‘ifs’, it’s counter-factuals, it’s best case scenarios. But compare them with the equivalent ‘ifs’, counterfactuals and best-case-scenarios attached to a ‘break’.

    I realise you’ll hate much of this – but I’d like to slug it out for a bit, because it’s terribly important.

  4. January 18, 2009 at 1:06 am

    I had hoped that the result of John McDonnell’s leadership campaign would have been a break with Labour and a switch to the Green Party.

    It’s not too late…

    I fear we’ll lose many pro-worker parliamentarians like John if a break isn’t made.

  5. January 18, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Duncan, I’m sorry but none of that is any answer whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong, put Tony Benn in charge of the party and call an election; I’ll vote for him, I’ll campaign for him – and I suspect most of the smaller socialist groups would do likewise. Those who wouldn’t I’ll discuss in a moment, because it is relevant to my conclusion above.

    None of what you have said indicates how we get from here to there. John McDonnell, as much as I hate to say this because I am very attached to the man, was never going to be elected Labour leader. The unions were against him, the PLP was against him and the popular vote was against him – to the tune of probably some eighty percent, on the basis of the polls I’ve seen.

    So, far from winning most of our arguments, I actually came up against a great number of people (especially through local Co-op networks etc) who were violently opposed to rejoining the Party, to which they had adhered their entire lives. The Iraq war, kicking the poor…there any number of reasons why this is so, and each one (as I outlined in my first reply to you) puts a nail into the coffin of Labour as a party of socialism.

    More importantly, we have no power to stop those nails. So far from winning our argument, we are in a permanent state of seige. If we follow our current course, ten years from now there will be no socialist MPs. John may lose his seat at the next election – and as soon as he does, you can bet your ass the Blairites will fight tooth and claw to have someone else selected to fight it next time. Even if John serves to the end of his life, there are no young socialists being selected as MPs.

    The Party bureaucracy and the Blairites rule the roost. I have said our choice is either to change it or leave, you have said the distinction is a false one but have offered no alternative: even if you persist (as I think you will) in saying our only option is to stay, how long before we have no parliamentarians, no councillors? Then what will our reason to stay be?

    Honestly, is there any point you can imagine at which you would choose to leave Labour? If not then we’re having two different discussions, because your attachment is dogmatic and mine is tactical, designed to serve my ideals – which should for every individual stand above Party.

  6. Duncan
    January 18, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    If I’m honest I can’t imagine a situation when I would leave Labour. Having stayed over Iraq and several other policies that ran counter to everything I believe in, I can’t in reality envisage something worse that would push me to leave in the future. And – further honesty – were such a prospect even vaguely in my thoughts, I wouldn’t admit to it on a public forum: I see little point in fighting a battle with the war-cry ‘we’re probably going to lose’.

    If the Labour Party severed the union link then I imagine I would once again start broaching the question within myself as to whether it was still the Labour Party.

    To dismiss that as dogma misses the reality by quite a large margin. Elsewhere you put it down to sentimental attachment – similarly I think this misses the mark, though there is perhaps more sentiment than dogma involved, at least. My membership of the Labour Party is NOT tactical, that is certain. I joined it in the early ’90s, and never had the slightest illusion that it was a party whose leadership had ideals close to my own. The early years of my membership underlined that increasingly with early fights over direct democracy and the role of conference, then Clause IV, then Labour in government. Perhaps it’s that context that leads me to believe we are building not retracting.

    Parliamentarians come and go. We do have socialist candidates selected in some seats. We’ll get more. We won’t if we decide it can’t be done.

    The reason to stay is that no democratic movement is about its leadership. The potential for progression does not lie in a party’s ability to choose a decent leader but in its heart, soul, history and intentions. The history of the Labour Party is one of heart, soul, noble intentions, disappointment and betrayal. There were good reasons why socialists might have thought Labour wasn’t for them in 1930 – far more so than now – but following that low point Labour elected one of its most left-wing leaderships and, later, under a more moderate leadership, had its period of government where it made most of its historic and important achievements, including creating a National Health Service. Some of course despaired – Labour took its turn to the left without the ILP, who knows what might have been achieved if the only split had been the right-wing national government clique?

    And I really mean it – I wouldn’t have thrown as much as I did into the John4Leader campaign; wouldn’t have felt so betrayed by those MPs who refused to allow us a contest – had I believed it utterly unwinnable. Of course it would have been an enormous uphill battle; of course it was the least likely outcome. But it was NOT impossible. And one campaign does not a Socialist Spring make: had John put up a good showing in the election, it moves things forward. The fact that we put together such a good campaign, recruited new people, broke into the news agenda – all of that moves things forward. Any talk of a break moves things back again.

    And you say some on the non-Labour left wouldn’t vote for a Benn-led or McDonnell-led Labour Party. You may be right, although compared with the numbers of people who WOULD who would never dream of voting for yet another ‘new workers party’ we are entering territory far more removed from reality than a bit of optimism about future internal contests.

    I’ll be blunt and honest – if I lived in Sweden I wouldn’t be in the Social Democrats, I’d be in the Left Party. I’m under no illusions that the Labour Party’s leadership is somehow more socialist than that of the Swedish social democrats. But neither sentiment nor dogma come close to describing the potent mixture of hope, determination and inheritance that exists in our labour movement. I’m sure I haven’t convinced you. I’m sure I won’t. But it does pose a problem for those who want to break, because I was asked to join the SLP – I was told it would be ‘the break'; same with Ken Coates’ one whose name even escapes me now; same with Respect, etc, etc. The SLP was probably the closest to something real – briefly – but it couldn’t reconcile all the little sectlets with being a party. But I didn’t believe any of them were ‘the break’. And those came at times when a break might have made sense – Clause IV or Iraq. The chances are any future attempt at such a thing will, once again, leave the Labour Left largely intact in Labour (just a little weakened) in order to create some fragile thing that will split and fail. As such I fear it is little more than self-indulgent masochism.

  7. January 18, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I think you have a very selective view of history. Labour today is in a different situation to the Labour wherein these splits you talk about occurred. The FBU and RMT have disaffiliated and the RMT even considered standing a slate of candidates at the last London election. How long has it been since that happened?

    The Labour Party is very lucky that we’re going to lose the next election – because another term in government would stretch links with the most radical unions (i.e. the ones that will actually fight) to breaking point. The RMT was expelled by Labour for endorsing other parties; with attacks upon the civil serve planned, how long til PCS did the same? Or the CWU over post office plans?

    Since 1979, we haven’t achieved more than fifty percent of the votes of unionised workers. And it’s not because they don’t believe in a politics. Union members have renewed their political funds on cue every ten years – indeed some have newly created funds, such as the NUT, which will not go to Labour. We are, empirically speaking, caught in a move away from Labour.

    If, in opposition, our leadership adopts the rather populist positions it took between 1994 and 1997, then perhaps that trend maybe halted. But halting that trend will also result in a diminished internal opposition to the leadership. Then, in 2015 or 2020, we’re right back in the same mess. And we’ll still have progressed no further for the people this is all about; workers, the elderly, the young, the disabled, the ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.

    If you can never envision a split, then I’m sorry but that is dogma. It is the same sort of attitude which led to the comment that “Socialism is what Labour does.” Well I’m sorry but that’s not the case – and you may say that our movement is not about our leadership, but our leadership is what we are propping up, directly or indirectly. I’m not happy about it and you have laid out no roadmap to change it.

  8. Duncan
    January 18, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    I don’t think I do have a selective view of history: I’m entirely cogniscent of Labour’s failings, both in the recent past and the distant past. That doesn’t alter the situation. You ask for a road-map. I’ll put forward some suggestions (will do so briefly here, but will put a big post about it up on Labour Left Forum later in the week so we can debate it in detail) – but if I had a clear, obstacle-free road-map we’d be doing it. Of course it isn’t easy – but it’s a damn site more promising than any of the dead ends outside.

    We need to sit down with those unions and union branches/regions that support the LRC, both inside and outside the party – and will talk to the ones who regularly advertise in the Morning Star as well. Through those discussions we create a ‘roadmap’ for counter-hegemony. As things stand every CLP in the country gets a free copy of Progress (it might even be every party member is it? I certainly still get them despite not being CLP Secretary for a long time now). They do this because the unions sponsor it; including unions that are affiliated to the LRC. As such we need to produce something similar (which is why I would have liked to have seen Briefing become an official LRC publication; I still think that should be revisited). And we need that publication to be part of the fabric of the Labour Party up and down this country. The LNMF stuff is also an essential part of this approach. But as well as building our own things and pushing them out there, we do actually need to engage in the other forums that exist. Because of the history you document there is a large part of Labour Party opinion these days which is broadly progressive, concerned about much that comes from the leadership but is not organised and is even rather scared of the left. These people are ripe for co-option. But they need to see as part of the thing they belong to, not as ‘other’. That’s why any students and young people amongst you need to grit your teeth and go to every Young Labour/Labour Students conference/event/council – full cogniscent of the horror that you will confront. We need to be delegates to conferences – national and regional – and be seen and heard there, however much we despair of the machinery in place. We should be a presence on ‘Labourhome’ – and dare I say it even ‘LabourList’ – reminding everybody that the Labour Party is more than they think it is.

    If you go on the Compass website there’s loads of them there slagging off Cruddas and Lawson et al. for their timidity and toadying – but they DON’T KNOW ABOUT US. They need to (and the John4Leader campaign was a good starting point for turning that around).

    I’m not the best person to say this, but some of this will have to involve building bridges. People on the so-called centre-left wouldn’t seize a hand of comradeship from me because they know my other hand is flicking v’s at them, but there are people who could do it, and on some issues will have to.

    In the end, there is a strategy there, and there are systems in place to pursue it; organisational links in place to pursue it; well-funded bodies who owe us a raft of favours in place to pursue it.

    But the slightest suggestion that ‘this is plan A’ and that strategy, that roadmap is blown out of the water.

  9. January 18, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Then the roadmap is already blown out of the water. Can you not see how preposterous is (and please believe me, I mean no insult) the idea of constricting the view of all, most or even many socialists to this Plan A?

    What if we fail? The problem with your argument is that it pre-creates its own victims should it fail. Blame will be attached to those who suggested alternatives. The solution will be more true believers and a repeat of history.

    Moreover, I don’t see why any plan requires the abandonment of our critical faculties in the hope that this plan works.

  10. January 18, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Having put my name forward for Keighley where a left MP is standing down and just endured the first pf many hustings for the seat – a simple suggestion. It really is not impossible for lefts to stand as I have and – worst case scenario – get a platform. Best case scenario – get elected.Worst scenario of all – utterly disengage.Whatever happens to me , win or lose, the labour left has made its presence felt. Believe me, people I spoke to were seriously delighted to se someone actually talking about politics. So let’s stop sitting in our armchairs and blogging and get out there……

  11. January 18, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Not to step on a good stereotype Susan, but many of are us “out there”. Come to my constituency and stand and see how far a Left platform gets you. The battle is not merely about standing for position within CLPs, though the platform to put the ideas across are important.

    This is one of the issues I have with allowing people to stand outside the constituency in which they live. They arrive to stand, and if they’re lucky a few good people will point them towards a pre-existent network. But all the hard work, of getting union branches to affiliate and send representatives, of getting workers to participate, is largely ignored.

    I’m sure, if you’re selected, you’ll do great work Susan. As I said to you last time I saw you, if you win, the Whips will sit down and cry. But if the point is to build a movement, its telling that ours can only determine where we have resonance to build on when one of our members takes a leap in the dark to stand for PPS.

    The network of CLPs has broken down to a great extent; that’s how far on the back foot we are. And while I appreciate the value of optimism, I think a realistic assessment of our position sits better.

  12. Duncan
    January 19, 2009 at 8:25 am

    I didn’t consider it an insult for a moment.

    Dave – I’m fairly confident that many – indeed most – socialists already are either signed up to what you’re calling my Plan A, or are removed from it because of a fear of a possible Plan B. That is not to denigrate the non-Labour left; indeed if we apply the term liberally then there is a reasonable number of them, though it must be remembered that many of the smaller organisations are VERY small and it is quite a small world, largely engaged in conversations with itself. For that reason and others, I welcome the Convention of the Left (though I think we need to make sure that it isn’t presented outside as the foundations for yet another new party; I appreciate that that isn’t what it is).

    You seem a little selective as to when to be tactical and when to be dogmatic. In other words nobody is suggesting the abandonment of critical faculties – I’m not the thought police! If you believe Labour can’t be saved, believe it by all means; I respectfully disagree. But I’m afraid that it’s simply the case that there is no possibility for the success of a ‘reclaiming’ strategy if it’s accompanied with a ‘and if you don’t let us reclaim you we’ll take our bat and ball home’.

    A couple of New Labour types have said to me, in the last few weeks, that if John McDonnell were to ever become Labour Party leader they’d leave the party. My reaction to their face, of course, is – well cheers for that, I’ve sat through your right-wing leaders and carried on campaigning throughout, but you’d leave as soon as a leader I wanted got elected, there’s solidarity for you (etc, etc.) But actually this is the key:

    Most people outside the party see us as ‘real Labour’ and much of the rest of the party mainstream as – in one way or another – careerist, compromising, soft, unprincipled, etc (with varying degrees of fairness!) Now, much good it does us, but it is still the case. Even inside the party that notion lurks under the surface. The people who spoke to me recently were embarrassed to admit they didn’t have our staying power; it was a source of some shame. Even the masters of bastardising the language to put themselves in the driving seat of history – the likes of Blair himself – can’t quite disguise it from their vocabulary – “we can’t do everything”, “some people are disappointed by the speed of change”, etc. Of course this missed the real cause of disappointment (and anger) quite substantially, but it continued to support the idea that there was somehow an authentic Labour voice, that Blair didn’t speak with it, and those who did were located much further to the left.

    Of course, one reason why the LRC occasions some hostility a little to our right – other than our fantastic policies and ability to smash all their arguments! – is precisely because the language and iconography of the LRC feeds from and into that notion. It’s the notion of Labour getting back to its roots; reconnecting with the grassroots and its founding principles; of ‘real Labour’ and ‘reclaiming’. I think its an effective tool – though we have to swerve to avoid the potholes of ‘nostalgic’, ‘old’ and ‘turning back the clock’.

    I understand why people might be frustrated by this. Take Luke Akehurst – much as I disagree profoundly with the man on most things!! – he inherits just as authentic a Labour tradition as I do. We may not like each other’s traditions, but they both have ‘roots’, both could fairly be described as ‘real Labour’.

    But this little weapon we have is far too potent a one to abandon. As well as those New Labour types who say they’d leave, there are others who cheer and grin when they hear a tub-thumping left-wing speech – they’d like to embrace it but they’re scared to; they sing the Red Flag with gusto; as Labour people they are suffering from ontological insecurity; they’ve been told so often that left=bad; left=losing elections that they believe it; but they also can’t escape left=passion; left=principle; left=Labour. Just little shifts in our presentation and our accessabililty could bring them our way.

    If the network of CLPs has broken down, then we damn well need to put it back up again. Because remember, that existing organisation has such potential. It might take us 50 years to build a network so potent. The Bevanites, when organising outside parliament, worked entirely through CLPs and it was very effective. We have a much stronger, more organised and developed extra-parliamentary organisation than they had; re-activate the activists and we are in business.

  13. January 19, 2009 at 11:27 am

    As I’ve been struggling to convey, re-activating the activists is not just about OUR attitude. It’s not just about raising the standard and saying, “Look, we’re still here!” For every person that we recruit, someone will be turned off us by the policies of our leadership.

    In the 1960s, there was a view amongst Party members that Wilson had betrayed them. Consider just how strong that view is now, not even among Party members but amongst the working class people we need to build into a cohesive movement. Consider how much more inimical to such a movement New Labour is compared to Wilson.

    If it ever happens that we look like we’re getting somewhere, how long do you think it’ll be before New Labour-style parliamentarians jump ship to the Lib-Dems or worse, to the Tories? The media will batter us and though we might control the manifesto, our election defeat will mark the high water point for socialism in Labour and low point for Labour in parliament.

    But in any case, I don’t want to repeat the 1940s welfare settlement. I don’t want to repeat the Bevanites. I want to abolish capitalism, remove the need for parliament and devolve the power of government to the shop floor and the street. The LRC is holding the umbrella that keeps the rain off those of us who want these things, in Labour – but even if the LRC was to reconquer the Party, there’s an enormous amount of its supporters who aren’t as radical as its leader.

    Central to the notion of the LRC within Labour is the dream of forming a parliamentary government. Well we saw how well that worked out for the activists of the 1980s when they took control of any number of councils, relying not merely on their radical members but on a great number of right-wing loyalists who, as it turned out, had more in common with the Heath Tories.

    In some respects this is tied up with this ‘real’ Labour notion you’ve been referring to. ‘Real’ Labour is parliamentarist and is seen as parliamentarist. Eventually, as in 1926 and 1931 (and 1984) that is what will divide its representatives from a portion of its activists and which will defeat it.

    But again, this comes down to fanciful thinking; with about a third of the CLPs in the country defunct, Conference powerless and the NPFs controlled by hackery, you’re still a long way from pointing out to me where the renaissance of this ‘real’ Labour is coming from. If you really believe slightly varying our presentation is going to bring over people like Luke Akehurst then I am scratching my head in disbelief.

    Moreover, Left=losing elections is about right. Our counter-hegemony will not be built on winning parliament, it will be built on using the shop floor to make parliament irrelevant – and that is anathema to any of these ‘ontologically challenged’ types.

  14. Duncan
    January 19, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    I entirely concur with you that the actions of the Labour leadership have an impact on our activists. Of course they do! That is why we have to guard against despondency.

    Have a butcher’s at Luke Akehurst’s blog entry for today. We don’t want to feed those sorts of fires – if for no other reason, talk of tactical retreats, etc. is not helpful.

    I certainly wasn’t suggesting that we could (or would want to) bring over somebody like Luke.

    But I don’t mind sharing a party with him. I want him to be marginalised in it for the next 25 years instead of me, but I’m relaxed with the concept (indeed with the necessity) of a broad church.

    I’ll give you a shout when I’ve put my thoughts on Labour Left Forum. I’m not ignoring your syndicalist stuff – will happily discuss it in a different context – essentially for now, I’ll just point out that parliamentary activity does not negate extra-parliamentary activity; something like the LRC is there really to pull the two together, which is what I think needs to happen. Parliament can play a part and only needs to be rendered irrelevant if it remains anti-democratic and anti-working class, which it doesn’t have to.

    While we’re talking about fanciful thinking, ‘none of this will matter after the revolution’ is not a great antidote to it.

  15. January 19, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Interesting disussion observed from the cowardly sidelines, as usual. My sense is that a time of action rather than (in addtion to?) words is on its way in the next few months and action will draw together rather than blog might draw apart.

    I feel old today, what with the knees, but aminvigorated somwewhat by clever, serious, committed youngsters up for the fight not amongst ourselves – that’s just the serious-playful developmental stuff – but on the stuff that matters. Like Dave in another post somewhere or other, I’m more optimistic than imbued rationality suggest I should be.

  16. January 19, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Parliament, as far as I am concerned, was created anti-democratic and, barring some event which would make it irrelevant anyway – i.e. the emergence of a dual power such as between the provision government and the soviets in Russia – will remain anti-democratic.

    The buildings may continue to stand, but everything in them needs to change – root and branch. The democratisation of the civil service, the abolition of the monarchy, the destruction of capital – and these things won’t be accomplished through parliament, they will be accomplished inspite of parliament – since in order to bend parliament to our will, all of these things would already have had to occur.

    In between times, parliament is a useful platform but to think that on the basis of capitalism a genuine anti-statist, socialist, anti-capitalist party will win a parliamentary victory is delusional. And this is not to say “wait for the revolution”, this is to say, it is by revolution that we will achieve these things and now is the time to build towards that end.

  17. Duncan
    January 19, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    Surely it is a little more complex than that. Even before universal suffrage, Parliament held a contradiction at its heart. It both protected privelage and challenged it; preserved power and undermined it; disenfranchised people and engaged them. If those contradictions are recognised there is a radical potential therein; for every ten times parliament obfuscates and shields state power from public criticism, one time the message gets through, or something is achieved – power devolved indeed, which you call for on an earlier comment, though – as a revolutionary – I tend to think power is more likely to be wrested than devolved. And of course the state need not always act anti-democratically and against the interests of the working class. It hasn’t always acted that way. I hate to think how I would have reacted to such a statement 15 years ago – probably told me to go forth and multiply and take my Ralph Miliband articles with me… But for all that you say you don’t want to repeat the actions of the ’45 government – neither do I, different times require different actions and there were some major significant mistakes made by that government even in the context of its own time – it did not behave solely in the interests of capital and privelage. There were actions of other Labour governments that weren’t too. Even, dare I say it, this one (which, in many ways, is an arch-capitalist government) – consolidating the contradiction of exacting capitalist policy from within a labourist and avowedly socialist party and movement (even if the socialism within it is in fact massively marginalised) means that policies that weaken capital will emerge: minimum wages or union recognitions, etc. For some, of course, that is an end itself – social democracy as we tend now to call it (despite the complications of the historical use of the term) – and social democrats now are considered to be on the centre-left or even the left of our Party (which, I’m sure, strengthens your position). The rest of us see social democracy as a tactic – a route to socialism.

    Lastly, I understand all the things you don’t want to see. But I can’t help coming back to the fact that a better Labour government is better than this one, and is better than a Tory one. So things we can do to improve a Labour government – even when we don’t get everything we want; even when the New Jerusalem is still a long way below the horizon – is worthwhile. So the strategy is at once ambitious and optimistic and rather prosaic and humble. We are fortunate that the latter is also the most realistic path to the former. But I suspect I’m not bringing you with me… I’ll do my Labour Left Forum post now and you can come and slag it off!

  18. January 19, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    I don’t see why Parliament should not remain as the representation of popular sovereignty in a socialist economy.

  19. Duncan
    January 19, 2009 at 11:29 pm
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