“There is no point in arriving without the passengers…”
With 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. Similarly, 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.