Home > General Politics, Sectariana > Our loyalty must be to our class…

Our loyalty must be to our class…

PCS Secretary Mark Serwotka raised in February 2008 the issue of an electoral alternative to New Labour. He said, “Our loyalty must be to our class, not to our party card.” This is a sentiment I echo entirely, and it’s one of the reasons I’m such a supporter of the Labour Representation Committee and John McDonnell in particular.

The LRC, more than any other Labour-orientated group since the demise of the Militant Tendency, has been willing to engage with groups to the Left of Labour. From the AWL to the Communist Party, the attendees at LRC and SYN meetings have been varied. My only regret is that it has not been more of a success, though I don’t intend to analyse why just now.

A new call has just been issued to the same effect as Mark Serwotka’s 2008 appeal by the AWL. The AWL have announced that they would like to see a new Socialist Alliance formation, by which to begin reclaiming the loyalties of the working class and by which to re-organise our activists and class for the fights that will inevitably come after a Tory election victory.

For those who don’t remember, the Socialist Alliance was originally a federally-structured body that tied together pretty much most of the existing groups on the Left – including the SWP and the SP. The Socialist Alliance was dealt a body blow by SP withdrawal following plenty of in-fighting between the SP and the SWP.

Since this call has been issued, and since I agree with it in principle, I thought it might be a useful exercise to look at how we should structure such an organisation, why structure matters and how we might get past the failures of the previous Socialist Alliance. The election of the BNP to European parliamentary seats lends this some urgency.

An inchoate militancy on the part of workers, shown at Lindsey and Visteon among other strikes and struggles, needs to find a Left voice quickly. If it does not, the seemingly populist demands of the fascists will win support instead. Offering a clear, militant alternative which has deep social roots will hopefully stop and reverse that process.

In fact, as some media sensationalism over the BNP has shown, it is probably the only thing that can stop fascism. 

A new Socialist Alliance should be a federal structure. Joining a new Party requires trust and frankly, as an individual who would consider joining such an endeavour, I don’t trust the SWP or the AWL or a couple of the other sects on the Left. Internal democracy is a vital component of any organisation and the concept seems to elude some socialist groups.

A federal structure, with a cap on how many national offices can be held by any one group, would offer some reassurances. A delegate-based conference system, reporting in from localities organised by electoral constituency and apportioned according to the number of members, would further strengthen the representation of even the smallest groups of activists.

I believe this system would also be best at  allowing independent individuals the chance to go to conference and put their arguments. It was on this issue which the Socialist Party broke up last time, after the SWP used the sheer weight of their numbers to pack meetings and vote down a federal structure, preferring instead a one-member-one-vote system.

Judging by the sentiments expressed at the time on behalf of the SWP, the purpose of this manoeuvre wasn’t out of a belief that it was the more democratic system. Instead OMOV was seen as being the key to subordinating the whole Socialist Alliance to the SWP, which has more members than the other group, and excluding some sections from running for office.

Bearing in mind that fragile coalitions of this nature attract people by virtue of not having an entrenched elite to dictate the course of events, such a move would shatter the popular appeal of a Socialist Alliance. And so it did. A short time later, the Socialist Alliance was wound up and the SWP ran off to launch RESPECT, which is also a dying – if not quite dead – duck.

Ultimately, any such coalition should aim to establish a new Party of the Left. I suspect it will be argued by some that we’ve passed the point at which an electoral coalition would come in useful as a springboard to a new party and that we need the new party now. These would no doubt be convenient arguments to proponents of RESPECT or CNWP.

I don’t mean to slander members of those organisations as opportunists; no doubt many of them genuinely feel it is time for a new Party and not one more electoral slate. On the other hand, there are a number of independent activists and Labour members who will have no truck with a Party until the minority parties demonstrate some maturity and democracy.

The only way an electoral coalition could be sanctioned would be if the people running for office weren’t simply paper candidates. They should be involved in their localities, and should be the consensus choice of the different activists and minority parties. They should also be the front of efforts at increasing unionisation, upping terms and conditions and waging other essential local struggles on transport, healthcare and housing.

Where these situations don’t exist, or where there aren’t enough activists to mount a sufficient campaign, supporters of a new Socialist Alliance should be allowed to endorse the local Labour candidate, or opt instead to campaign for an SA or other party candidate in a neighbouring constituency.

By such displays of good faith and good tactics, an organisation may win around local trades unionists and even Constituency Labour Parties. In the aftermath of a total wipeout for Labour at county level in England and severe local council defeats, CLPs must begin looking to ways of co-operating with other groups on the Left in their area.

I don’t for a moment buy into the end-of-Labour nonsense. However, the major advantage of Labour has always been its activist base – the average people prepared to spend nights campaigning, or traipsing to meetings to organise the next campaign. This activist base is declining in all but average age and our inability to escape the media narrative reflects that.

A key demand, therefore, of any new Socialist Alliance vis-a-vis Labour and the Trades Unions must be greater democracy at local level. Allowing scope for CLPs to nominate and campaign for the same candidate as a new Socialist Alliance, or allowing District Trades Councils to allocate money to a new SA will be key parts of building social weight towards a new Left Party.

By this advocacy for a new Left coalition, I utterly reject the notion that voting for minority parties allowed the BNP to get their MEPs elected this the European Parliamentary elections. As Phil at AVPS makes perfectly clear, many of the people who vote for minority parties would not otherwise automatically transfer their allegiance to Labour.

I voted for Labour in the county council elections, because I knew the candidate, but I did not vote for Labour in the European elections. My vote will go to the party I most agree with, or the candidate I most agree with. On both counts, Labour’s European Parliamentary campaign failed dismally. Election disaster has ensued and it’s time to move on.

Where we move on to must now been on the agenda of Left-groups within Labour, especially the LRC and Compass. Such groups must take cognisance of their potential allies, lest they become just as bigoted and sectarian as they believe the far Left to be.

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  1. June 9, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    Its interesting what you say, quoting Mark Serwotka, mentioning John McDonnell, taking an entryst-ish support for the Labour Party but abandoning some of its less progressive elements, particularly in Europe. And indeed as Serwotka has stated, our loyalty should be to our class. I see a comparison being made here with the basic message of the Parliamentary Labour Party: our loyalty should be with Brown and the Labour Party.

    I’d ask your opinion, is there a case for remaining loyal to Brown in order to remain loyal to the Labour Party – the party of the working class. Important it is, too, to remember that the party has not shifted from a working class party, but has been hijacked of this, its main root.

  2. June 9, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    There is a crucial difference between engaging with groups beyond Labour and formally joining any new Alliance – especially one which would work to elect candidates against Labour. The LRC can’t, and shouldn’t, do that. Instant expulsion from the LP would follow.
    I’m afraid the tiny vote for No2EU, well meant though it may have been, only reinforces my long-held view that our only hope is by working within the Labour Party electorally and engaging on the issues with as many as we can.Which means of course we can build informal alliances.The BNP victories are a wake-up call for all of us and we have to address why they did it. Labour’s abysmal results should galvanise us into working harder than ever for policy change

  3. June 9, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Good post

    ‘In the aftermath of a total wipeout for Labour at county level in England and severe local council defeats, CLPs must begin looking to ways of co-operating with other groups on the Left in their area’

    Yes, here’s a key sticking point, and the main challenge. It’ll be all too easy for CLPs to become EVEN MORE inward looking, and with the only looking it does being ‘upwards’ towards the PLP and its functionaries at region/NEC level, rather than around to the side for local alliances. It’s important not to underestimate just how politically moribund many CLPs have become, even those that are organisationally sound and even dynamic. The push for CLPs to be a key part of the ‘campaigning party’ has brought this about to a great extent.

    Given this, if the Labour party is not to be bypassed (and as I’ve said many times, it has no automatic right to be consulted/engaged) what it probably needs is a health dose of entryism from others in the Left. The key question now is whether the rest of the Left actually thinks that’s worth it (as it deemed it was in the late 70s/early 80s.

    I would argue that such is the remaining infrastructure it probably still is worth it, but in many areas that judgment call will be close, I accept.

    I’ll explore this more over at my place as and when blogging energies return. At the moment they are sorely lacking, and this may be reflected in a more pessimistic mood than usual about the future contribution Labour might make. As I think/write it through, the mood lay lift.

  4. Robert
    June 10, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Lets hope Labour remembers that a lot of it’s voters sat at home, and if Labour does not try to connect with these people then look out.

    We are now told that labour is looking at how MP’s are selected, but somebody said that the PM wants to keep some sort of final say, so what will change then.

    Bad news today the NHS is broke again, which means after Prince Charles gets his way of feeding people honey to get then fit, sticking needles in them to cure them, will now be free on the NHS and Brown tells them meet the cost, this is another problem for Labour it cannot say the NHS is safe with us it’s not

  5. June 10, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Carl, I suspect there are cases to be made for loyalty towards the Labour Party – but this is contingent upon several things. First of all, how active the local CLP is and whether or not they are democratic in procedure and willing to countenance the very tactics which made Labour great. Links to the trades unions, organising community meetings and generally standing up for the workers.

    If these contingencies don’t hold, then I think it would be hard to make a case for loyalty to Labour. Truthfully the only point to joining Labour was the relationship its activists built within the working class. Where there is no relationship, then an argument can be made that is simpler to construct an organisation free of an interfering, undemocratic leadership.

  6. June 10, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Susan,

    I think we see this in different ways. You see only “the Labour Party”, whereas I see different parts of the country where basically our only chance to grow some roots (not to mention hold on to electoral office and thereby do some extra good) is to look outside our own Party.

    This is not disloyalty. The Lib-Lab pact involved us agreeing not to stand candidates in certain wards, and in another party agreeing not to stand candidates in ours. More recently, we’ve backed people like Martin Bell. Electoral strategy, endorsed by groups of local activists rather than requiring the say-so of the Party heirarchy, is much more flexible way forward for the Party.

    I also suspect that given such flexibility and devolved power to constituencies, the minority parties and other groups would simply be absorbed by Labour. Which is as it should be, as we started out in the beginning with the Fabians, the SDF, the ILP and so forth.

  7. June 11, 2009 at 5:35 am

    But Compass seem better than the LRC in creating mainstream alliances with a range of organisations and then making a campaign out of it later. Where’s the similar example with your alliance? When was the last time you guys ran a widespread campaign that was high-profile enough to make a big change to Labour? Right now Compass have been running a high-profile campaign to oppose Royal Mail part-privatisation.

    So why aren’t we seeing those MPs openly and loudly saying they’re going to work with Compass to oppose this?

    Compass does have broad range critique – and it’s very similar to yours. You must have read their stuff by Jonathan Rutherford, who writes a lot of these think-pieces. He doesn’t sound dissimilar to John McDonnell.

    I take it your only focus is on local campaigns. I was hoping you’d mention national ones, but fair enough – both are important.

    You believe that you want to do stuff inspite of the press – but what you really mean is that you want your own alternative structures outside the corporate press. I’m assuming you don’t mean that you don’t need sites like Indymedia and the New Left campaign group you wanted to set up. In which case, you still need people who are good to simplifying and making points to reach a large group of people. Not everyone can be reached easily through local talking. And it is incredibly hard and time consuming. And even then – you’ll need personalities who can drive it forward and succinctly put what you advocate (but in a 100 words, not 1000).

  8. June 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I don’t see that Compass seem better than the LRC in creating mainstream alliances. And in the only example that I can think of where Compass was universally recognized to be at the forefront of an issue – the matter of a windfall tax on energy firms – the LRC was full-throated in support. Indeed, you published one of my articles on the subject on Lib-Con.

    As for Compass critiques, there’s much to get into there – and I’ll be happy to take Rutherford’s material to task. It’s not even the material, however; it’s the organisational schizophrenia which Compass demonstrates. It shows all the signs of being a populist Progress wannabe. For example, the all-member emails are just as apolitical and generic as the ones from the Labour Cabinet.

    When I say we need to do stuff inspite of the press, of course I want my own alternative structures. I’m also advocating the idea that success breeds success – and the Left for one reason or another hasn’t had a major success likely to grip the average joe in a long while. That is a recipe for organisation-building and a mass basis that transcends whatever few people read newspapers, and the fewer still who look into “alternative structures.”

    In the here and now, alternative structures should be used primarily for connecting activists. People already involved in politics at a grassroots level, rather than professionals, NGO staffers and think-tank employees. It is from these people that the most coherent and most effective strategy will emerge by virtue of the fact that they don’t have to talk about “the people” in the third-person. They are “the people” – or to be more precise, “the working class”.

    Within such a game-plan, of course personality will have its role – but if the tactics don’t interlock with the inchoate demands of our class, we’re going to get nowhere. And right now, Compass is talking a good show about talking a good show, in the form of the No Turning Back conference. Meanwhile, there are picket lines to be defended, local organisation to be rebuilt and causes to be fought.

    That’s something the merry-go-round of politico-wannabes who will inevitably grace such a conference never seems to understand, in fact seeming quite revolted when the unpalatable truth of class struggle is put before them. For mistake me not; this is a class struggle. We are victimised by virtue of our position as producers from whom increased surplus needs to be extracted, minorities all the more so because they are more intensively exploited, which is what gives the distinctively racialist tinge to politics at the moment.

  9. Robert
    June 12, 2009 at 9:15 am

    I’m a member of Compass and the LRC, compass has a better web site better forum if you like it allows people to discuss more, if the LRC had a better site to allow people to speak up I think Compass would find it difficult to have the same impact, sadly I suspect it’s all about costs.

    Compass had two major MP’s well one and the other was just an MP looking to promote himself Trickett, he spent months telling people how seriously bad the 42 days detention was, when offered a bag carrying roll by Brown he was off and voted for it, although Cruddas was not offered such an outstanding job he also decided to vote for it, both have in the main left Compass after a slaughtering.

    Came the welfare reforms Crudass did his left leaning mouth bit it’s wrong it’s bad it’s evil, then did not turn up to vote for it or against it.

    If your looking for a group which has left leaning MP’s then it’s the LRC if your looking to have a chat it’s compass, but both in the main are for lefties.

  10. Andrew
    June 12, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    John McDonnell seems to be saying its change or bust – and asking the left to put its head above the parapet, and declaring a new ‘candidates for change’ faction . . .

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/12/labour-change

  11. Bob
    June 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    A very good post David. Good analysis of the SA experience and its lessons. I presume by now you have seen the SWP “open letter”? It filled me with dread. Having gone through the SA experience, I don’t think the left could survive it again if the SWP play a leading role. The number of decent local activists lost forever from having witnessed the SWP’s anti-democratic shenanigans in the SA must add up to a pretty large number nationally.

  12. June 12, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Andrew, I think that John is right to say that it’s change or bust. I think our problems arrive when that truth reaches the bunch of Ostriches we have sitting in the PLP.

  13. June 13, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Good post Dave

    “A new Socialist Alliance should be a federal structure. Joining a new Party requires trust and frankly, as an individual who would consider joining such an endeavour, I don’t trust the SWP or the AWL or a couple of the other sects on the Left. Internal democracy is a vital component of any organisation and the concept seems to elude some socialist groups.”

    In an ideal world they should abandon democratic centralism. And the quote from Serwotka chimes with this as many of these Left groups have a loyalty only to their grouping. And a new party/alliance cannot function from the start with those conditions. That’s what killed off the SA (I was a member for 4 yrs…my sojourn from the LP), democratic centralism and adherence to the party destroyed the democracy and accountability. I am cynical about the open letter from the SWP.

  14. modernityblog
    June 14, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Be interesting to see how it goes, if it is the same old re-treads from yesteryear with their top-down ideas and fake smiles then eventually it will fail.

    On the other hand, if there is a high degree of pluralism and genuine desire for a focused community based Left alternative then good luck to it.

    That’s the only way the neo-fascists can really be defeated, at the grass roots.

  15. June 14, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    I agree completely, Modblog. I think most socialists – however twisted their party loyalties render them – agree.

    Harpy, I don’t think that democratic centralism, in itself, is a bad idea. Its application is a bit strange in some of the sects – but the idea of consensus decision-making, and never ruling anything out even after the majority have voted it down; these things appeal to me. They are the essence of democratic centralism. All too often it strikes me that groups call their organisation democratic centralist when their members take pride in using organisational discipline to stifle dissent.

  16. modernityblog
    June 14, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Dave, not wishing to be stroppy, but I can’t think of one successful party in the West, etc that has managed to make D.C work, really work.

    So it seems to me that part of the British Left’s problems (there are a lot) but part is the fact they have been wrapped up in 1917’s organisational models, and that concentration of power is not healthy, it goes to people’s heads, they often become petty and dictatorial.

    I am not sure that much has moved on from the time of As Soon As This Pub Closes http://www.marx.org/history/etol/critiques/sullivan/index.htm

    In my mind, you have to aim for a pluralistic organisation where differing views are accepted as a healthy part of political debate.

    Top down simply doesn’t work, cliques that run organisation often self perpetuate despite their mediocre skills.

    If you want an example, take a look at Newsnight and Martin Smith’s interview with Paxo. He was awful, and yet he’s the No.2/3 of the SWP? A six former with a GCSE in German history could have done better. Yet to the SWPers he’s a top notch leader!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00l5pcs/Newsnight_09_06_2009 16:30 (Watch out for the question as to whom was elected in Germany)

  17. June 14, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Re: the “democratic centralism” debate. It seems to me there has to be a dialectic, if you will, between the plurality of opinion and the agreement on action; it’s a fine balance. This isn’t just about organisational form, but also about the spirit with which we enter into collaboration. We have to be prepared to “count to ten” rather than engage in slanging matches about past disagreements.

  18. modernityblog
    June 14, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Charlie, not being rude, but it seems to me that the British Left has to base its views on evidence.

    It does not work. It concentrates power. Lord Acton?

    • June 15, 2009 at 3:09 am

      I was fence-sitting, as it happens, rather than defending an organisational model.

  1. June 13, 2009 at 10:13 am

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