The Labour NEC Elections: Lessons for the Left
THE REMARKABLE achievement of the centre-left slate, the Grassroots Alliance, in gaining four of the six places in elections to the constituency section of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) will have been applauded by all but the most hardened sectarians in the socialist movement.
The Grassroots Alliance succeeded despite enjoying a fraction of the financial support given to the leadership-backed Members First slate, whose expenditure has been estimated by Alliance press co-ordinator Tim Pendry at between £80,000 and £150,000, compared with a £2,500 outlay by the Alliance. The origins of the vast sum of money are not yet entirely clear (although we know that some £30,000 came from the AEEU). But it enabled Members First to buy half-page adverts in the national press, to hire a telephone canvassing company to cold-call Labour Party members, and to mail the tens of thousands of lapsed party members who had been allowed to participate in the ballot in a blatant breach of party rules.
To compound this overwhelming financial advantage, Labour Party general secretary Tom Sawyer abused his official position to write letters to the press making personal attacks on the Grassroots Alliance candidates. And, in a last-minute attempt to stampede the party membership into backing Members First, Neil Kinnock was wheeled out to write an article for the Guardian denouncing the Alliance as a bunch of Trots and their dupes.
All in vain. Party members showed a commendable independence of mind and rejected these disgraceful manoeuvres by the leadership. Their response demonstrated the absurdity of the claim by certain ultra-lefts that the Labour Party has been "Blairised" from top to bottom. Even the two Members First candidates who did get elected to the NEC – Diana Jeuda and Michael Cashman – are not really paid-up Blairites and were undoubtedly perceived by the membership as being on the left of the party. The failure of the Blair "project" to get a grip in the consciousness of the Labour rank and file was revealed for all to see.
The Alliance’s good showing was a vindication of the decision to build a broad-based electoral bloc, which was backed by the the Network of Socialist Campaign Groups, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Labour Women’s Action Committee, Socialist Campaign Group News, Labour Left Briefing, Tribune, the Campaign for Socialism in Scotland, and Labour Reform. The latter organisation, some of whose members readily admit that they supported Blair over the abolition of Clause IV, was an important and necessary part of the coalition, even though its candidate Andy Howell, failed to get elected.
This broad coalition was not to the taste of some on the far left. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, for example, argued forcefully for a hard left slate on which, they hoped, two of their own supporters would feature prominently; and, after failing to get their way, they effectively boycotted the campaign. Even Socialist Outlook, which to its credit did participate in the campaign, was critical of the political composition of the slate.
These criticisms were based on a serious misconception of the political tactics appropriate to the Labour Party today. In the present situation, Briefing supporter Liz Davies was the furthest left you could go in putting together a credible anti-Blairite slate for the NEC. Standing a slate of hard left candidates, including a brace of Trotskyists, would not have been a practical political intervention but a mere propaganda exercise, and a very damaging one at that. The majority of the NEC constituency seats would almost certainly have gone to leadership-backed candidates, allowing Blair to claim that he had the solid support of the membership against his left-wing critics.
The Grassroots Alliance, by contrast, was able to tap into the widespread opposition to Blairite politics that exists within the party, and which goes far beyond the left, hard or soft, through to the Hattersleyite right and beyond. As Ken Livingstone pointed out when the result was announced, it was a vote by the membership to "keep the party Labour".
Indeed, at the heart of the Blairite project is the plan to destroy the Labour Party as a labour party. Blair’s aim is the recomposition of the centre of British politics, pulling Labour into a coalition, first with the Liberal Democrats and then possibly with pro-European Tories, leaving the organised working class in a politically marginalised position, as it is in the United States. Decisive steps along this road would include a deal with the Lib Dems over PR, state funding for political parties and cutting the institutional link with the trade unions.
It is around such issues that major struggles will emerge within the party in the next period. The result of the NEC elections shows the sort of broad alliances that the Labour left must build in order to defeat Blair’s plan to split the party from its working class base.