No truce with the Furies
Reading over the latest polling data, which puts Labour up three points on 32 percent, and the Conservatives down three on 41, I’ve taken to reading some Labour history. While it may be tempting to conclude that, upon getting a glance at some Labour and Conservative policies due to the party conference season, people prefer Labour, there are other points to be made. First of all, 32 percent of the voting intention share is still only a point above Labour’s second-lowest poll rating ever.
The Party may have come out of conference with a small bump in the polls thanks to a concerted effort on the part of its leadership, but this does not disguise numerous realities. On the ground, Labour activism is dissipating and exhausted. In areas that I know of across the country, the number of people turning out for campaign work is frighteningly low. Indeed, beyond electioneering there doesn’t seem to be much time for any genuine campaigns on local issues beyond populist school-or-hospital stuff.
Even if Labour is annihilated again at Westminster elections, that will not be the end of this particular story. Consideration needs to be given to what Labour is going to do next.
After Thatcher’s victory, despite the intervention of the Social Democratic split and the Falklands War, the Left of Labour utilized the elections on the 7th May 1981 and 6th May 1982 to pick up seats and use whatever power was handed to them to fight back against the stringent cuts of Thatcher’s government. Such a policy was hounded by silly decisions – at the apex of which stands for all time Derek Hatton’s race around Liverpool handing out redundancy notices.
That option will no longer be open to the Left. First of all, many of the cuts have already been carried through and in respect to local government services, central government can afford to tread water. Second, most of the activists who made a Labour swing to the left possible in different areas are now gone completely. Those muscles are atrophied. Thirdly a combination of devolution and centralisation has cut away many local government powers. Finally, Labour as a party doesn’t have the stomach for such a struggle.
What are we to do then should David Cameron get the majority he needs to become Prime Minister?
One Compass supporter with whom I’ve been conversing recently has suggested that extra-parliamentary action is and should ever remain out of Labour’s reach. By that standard, Labour reduces itself to impotence, surviving merely upon pointing out now and again the failures of the Conservatives in office. This is much what the Conservatives have been doing – somewhat hypocritically of course – since their chickens came home to roost back in the 1997 General Election.
However, I cannot reconcile such a decision even with the watered-down version of Clause IV. This government has not realised a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few. It has propagated cuts in wages, it has tip-toed around the very city executive bonuses which even the US Republicans are now speaking out against. It has allowed religions to set up their own little indoctrination pens on the site of former schools.
Can one even compare the record of this Labour government in power with the record of the Labour Party in its decade of defeat? Even the voice of the Labour leadership and the bought-and-paid-for careerists could be strident when it suited them on Black, Gay or Women’s Rights. The current climate, empty of real engagement on the part of average people, is itself corrupting. One only has to look at people like Andrew Dismore and Ken Livingstone to see that. A minimum wage can’t make up for the collapse of trade unionism.
It will require extra-Parliamentary strategies to change these things. It will require the renewal of the trade unions, the muscles of the working class. It will require a new political consciousness that can only be established by showing a clear route from where we are now to a victory which cannot but carry out a pre-ordained manifesto. In that, last the Labour Party has failed and will continue to fail while its manifesto is reliant upon bureaucrats, while its leadership is not accountable.
Anyone who believes that, with these things accomplished, we could then safely put ourselves once more on a path to parliamentary power is delusional. Labour electoral victory is but an excuse to put the breaks on for the leadership, lest excitement ruin their delicate plans. Dissatisfaction expressed through Conference would be ignored as it has been by every Labour Prime Minister. Eventually patience would run out and, disillusioned and scattered by the defeat of an anti-climax, people would look elsewhere.
All of that is of course from the point of view of one who takes to heart much of Trotsky’s rebuttal of Kautsky in “Terrorism and Communism”. In a superb passage Trotsky points out that in his era, parliaments – ill-equipped to represent people at the best of times – have categorically failed to live up to Kautsky’s posed choice: democracy or civil-war. The point of Soviets is not to merely reflect opinion, Soviets are the campaigning organisations of the working-class.
If one merely seeks to tread water, to follow the consensus – which, let it be clear, is not a matter of the free choice of a set number of free individuals all with suffrage – then Labour can live happily with a Tory government, and will outperform it at the next election or three elections later with whatever policy the context of the time allows. If the goal of Labour, as I think, is instead to work against consensus and to fight for the betterment of working people, then that is not a policy we can follow.
Instead we need to create organisation and a nexus of organisation in every locality, ranging from shop floors to the whole country and then beyond it. We need to be able to use these to halt Tory policy that may be detrimental to the people our Party was created to protect. Without the votes in Parliament, that will of necessity involve extra parliamentary activity. This is something we need to make peace with now – because on 32 percent, or 2 percent, we still have a mission to accomplish.