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Has time run out for Labour socialists?

June 9, 2010 22 comments

I can’t express in words how utterly furious I am that John McDonnell has been forced to withdraw from the Labour leadership contest. After a few days of faux outrage over his comment that if he could, he’d go back to the 1980s and kill Thatcher, and Diane Abbott’s mealy-mouthed supporters saying they think he should be the one to withdraw, despite her pledge to do so if he got more nominations (which he had, at that point), John has rightly judged that her supporters won’t come to him, so he’ll have to give his to her.

Not good enough. Every campaign for the next five years – against library closures, against service cuts, against the attempt to further casualise the public sector – is going to be fought outside of Labour. Only historical revisionists and morons believe that the anti-poll tax campaign was a Labour campaign. And yet the Left has kept the life support switched on, firmly demanding that people exercise the great contradiction at the heart of our democracy: loyalty to a Party the leadership of which does not care about them.

Is it time to pull the plug? Since 1923, we’ve faced the same situation. Labour is elected with high hopes for its success, disappoints those hopes and is then swept from office, leaving the Conservatives to pick up where they left off. Since the end of the great depression, after the war, when the exhaustion of the capitalist system allowed for greater state controls (which had been utilised during the war anyway and rubbed off the red taint they previously had), the journey has been backwards – trying to find a way back before the post-war settlement.

This is the mission of the Conservative Party, and ‘big society‘ is just its latest cover. What has Labour’s leadership done? Nothing. We have been losing the battle, and all the while desperately clinging to what Labour has achieved – scarcely anything new without sacrificing something old. So, of the last three parliaments, we got the minimum wage and a long-overdue rise in benefits (for example) whilst Labour set course towards undermining teachers’ unions and education, through faster deregulation of schools.

Meanwhile, Labour socialists – an endangered breed that I’ll deal with in a moment – ask their comrades and friends to hang on in a party that has been swamped by vapid twits. Anyone who goes to all the events touted by the Fabians, has been to Oxford or hangs out online can’t fail to know who I’m talking about. The twits claiming the legacy of Nye Bevan whilst backing Ed Balls, for example, without seeing the incredible disparity between the politics of the two. Whatever Bevan’s deficiencies and later demoralisation, he was no Balls.

Bevan occupies, as one might notice, the strapline of this blog. His sentiment, that one should not stand in the middle of the road, that one should not be afraid to take a position has been my personal code all my life. It is far from the attitude of the Labour leadership and their coterie. It is a party rotten through and through, corrupt, full of patronage and seeking after patronage, unprincipled. It isn’t really socialist at all. In seeking after patronage, people learn to talk with a certain vocabulary, highly technocratic and bloodless. Totally removed from ordinary people.

Labour socialists of the Labour Representation Committee number somewhere below 1000 people – that’s less than one percent of the total party membership (excluding the trades unions). They are condemned by the Labour Right for being backwards. They are excoriated by those who exist as rootlessly as Labour’s London elite for being too provincial, too unwilling to work with other groups (whatever that means, as every Labour campaign I’ve ever seen has involved LRC members and parliamentarians). But they are the last remaining socialists in Labour.

The last election demonstrated that this clique will not exist forever. The Parliamentary group of the LRC was halved, to say nothing of the destruction wreaked about its bigger, less socialist sister, the Socialist Campaign Group. And even this doesn’t account for the wacky behaviour of a bunch of the members of these groups, like Michael Meacher, supposed Left veteran…who nominated Ed Miliband for leader, even though Ed had cleared the bar and with room to spare. So long as the fortunes of this group are tied to Labour, it exists within a contradiction – urging (critical) support for a leadership that will kick the poor when it’s opportune whilst claiming to represent them.

The leadership contest has demonstrated that no matter how well people like John McDonnell work, no matter how much support they gather, they’ll be outmanoeuvred by Labour’s Right, which can rely on the cowardice and (ironically) the uncooperative nature of Labour’s ‘soft’ Left. Harriet Harman and Ed Ball’s nominations for Diane Abbott play the diversity card but in reality are simply intended to prop her up into a slightly more credible candidate (still not very credible, from a political point of view) and force McDonnell out. All he has done is bow to the inevitable.

Abbott has the nominations – she’s on the ballot – but she’s not going to change the Party. Forgive my cynicism, but I’ve met too many soft Lefts. Despite her feminist credentials, she doesn’t have the detailed critique of the Party that is the remit of the LRC – and that would set free the feminist and radical energies that people were quick to impute to her. Indeed when she does her media appearances – the last I heard in-depth was on a Radio 4 discussion programme on Friday about two months ago – she can even be quite conservative. So good luck to her and her supporters – she’ll be better than the other four, but I don’t have any faith in her, and am rather sickened by how heavily she has stressed the fact that she’s black and female – like these are somehow politically relevant, except as tokenism.

John’s letter to Labour members, in which he announces his decision to stand down, acknowledges that despite enormous grassroots pressure – e.g. Tom Harris’ admission that he and other Labour MPs were deluged with letters and emails to demand McDonnell get on the ballot – the Labour bureaucracy and PLP were unmoved. His final appeal is to the strength of the Labour Left, that the fight against the cuts should be continued and that a Conservative government be denied the chance to have everything its own way.

With this, every socialist will agree – but I will not use my energies to electrify the zombified party that Labour has become, and I am one among many. Campaigns dominated by socialists will come together, and as last time, Labour’s leadership will do what it can to hinder them, so long as they aren’t tied to the apron strings of mother Parliament. They will face no backlash from their members, as the membership have nowhere else to turn. The odd constituency party might endorse the LRC, but even these constituencies can’t seem to get their MPs in line. And this is before the vast and reactionary weight of the trade union bureaucracy is employed by said leadership.

Are we simply to say that time has run out for socialism in the Labour Party? My anger at McDonnell’s withdrawl howls Khrushchev’s famous retort at the PLP and its groupies, “History is on our side. We will bury you!” And yet…

Marxism is not an exact science. Having shaken my socialist eight-ball, the answer comes back “Indeterminate”. This is the truth. The struggle for socialism in Labour is indeterminate. Socialism within Labour may be buried beneath the avalanche of bureaucratic indifference and then made irrelevant by the emergence of an organisation outside Labour that can combine within itself all the loose strings from every campaign the Left fights. The failure to do this after the poll tax campaigns, and after the anti-war campaigns has been the life-support of Labour’s Left.

These failures are contingent – failures of tactics, rather than of principle – and a success in this field will remove that last remaining leg. On the other hand, the failure of Labour’s Left to conquer the Labour Party (whilst a rather taller order than the first) is equally contingent, one of tactics and not of principle. Everything flows, and there will be more mass campaigns thrown up by the intrinsic processes of capitalism meeting the contradiction of the indestructible basic solidarities of the working class. These tactics will have longer to test themselves out until the impulse either to utterly change Labour or to leave it will move even the conservative behemoths of UNISON and Unite.

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