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Electoral Challenges to Labour: The Failure of Illusion

Jim Dye

THE LABOUR Party question has been the biggest cause of debate in What Next? since its launch. Those that once spoke of the "historic" formation of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), have more recently talked in the same terms about the few scattered Socialist Alliance groups. It would seem that hardly any lessons have been learned by these comrades in the intervening period.

Why, in a period of low class struggle, does most of the left seem preoccupied with electoral challenges to the Labour Party? The answer is to be found in just that a low level of struggle by the class, which has led to increasing impatience by much of the left. So, if the working class is not abandoning its traditional adherence to the Labour Party, then at least we can stand on the moral high ground this seems to be the argument. Indeed, moralistic lectures aimed at those socialists still fighting inside the Labour Party are increasingly common. Some organisations, such as the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), make half-hearted attempts to argue that the Labour Party is now simply a bourgeois party. Others, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), don't even bother with analysis, preferring simply to continue with opportunistic stunts. So whereas the SLP is now nothing more than a Stalin/Scargill appreciation society (would "we told you so" be too harsh here, comrades?) the Socialist Alliances have become miniature stages for the various sects to tout their increasingly unappealing wares.

So has the Labour Party changed its fundamental character? The short answer is no. From its inception it has never been a socialist party, but what it was, and remains, is a working-class formation with bourgeois ideology. So far as its ideology was based on workers' aspirations it took the form of labourism. This is not to say that there have been no significant changes. What Blair's project represents is an attempt to destroy labourism from the right, and in so doing destroy the basic trade union based structure of the Party, replacing it with a new liberal party. He has of course been successful in much of this, not least in the shift of ideology even further to the right. However, he has not broken the Party from the unions, nor has he got rid of Old Labour.

To understand what position socialists should therefore take on the Labour Party has always been more than a moralistic rejection of its politics. How can we understand Engels' strong support for the right-wing Independent Labour Party (ILP) against the "Marxist" Social Democratic Federation (SDF), if not as a recognition of the importance of a mass workers' party that could separate the class from thoroughly bourgeois parties like the Liberals. In this Engels did not reject the fight for socialist ideas, but he correctly saw it as being based on working around the mass organisations rather than building politically pure sects in the nature of the SDF. What is the practice of most of the British left today, if not sect building?

To fight against this sectarianism it is essential to have a strategic orientation to the Labour Party. This is not the same as saying that every socialist should be in it, however. That is purely a tactical consideration based upon very specific circumstances. It is therefore the case that deep entryists such as Ted Grant's Socialist Appeal are also mistaken in their own analysis. This is all the more so because of the changes within the class over the past few decades. The restructuring of capitalism in Britain has led to the destruction of many heavy industries, and of the union members they once contained (the miners etc). These were historically some of the most collectivist parts of the class, with strong identities towards labourism and the Labour Party. The growth of clerical occupations, and the proletarianisation of these sectors, has meant that overall the class is not weakened, but it has changed its character. It is the case that the new strength of white collar unions such as Unison and PCS has not been matched by an automatic organisational link to the Labour Party. However, even where these union members have a great deal of distrust of Blair, and scepticism towards the Labour Party, they have not broken from it, or from labourist ideology.

Strangely, most of the left involved in these electoral turns against Labour justify their line by completely separating the Party from the unions. To the extent that the unions are based directly upon the class struggle at the point of exploitation then there is a need to recognise a fundamental difference between them and the Labour Party. However, where they show a marked similarity is in the ideology of their respective leaderships. Of course, a Bickerstaffe or an Edmonds may huff and puff once in a while, but they are far from blowing the house down. In fact, in ideological terms there is little to separate the average union leader from those in the Labour Party. They are still very much two sides of the same coin, and both stand in opposition to working-class struggle. That is why those on the left who treat the Labour Party question simply in moralistic terms of right-wing ideology are mistaken. Blairism goes much further than that within the labour movement, and therefore has to be fought in a manner that unites the struggles against the union bureaucrats with those against the Labour leadership.

So does this mean that socialists should never stand against the Labour Party? Again, this is a tactical question dependent on concrete circumstances rather than moralist principle (listen to the sermons on the latter by the CPGB/Weekly Worker for how not to treat this issue). In the present period of low levels of industrial struggle, and a lack of a generalised movement against Blair, then it is unlikely that an electoral challenge would represent anything more than waving little red flags. Scotland is perhaps somewhat different, given the effect of nationalism and the occasionally left face of the Scottish National Party. However, even there the newly formed Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) remains small, and outside of Glasgow is largely marginalised, meaning that Scottish socialists must still in general terms orientate to the Labour Party as the continuing mass party of Scottish workers, even if they are at the same time SSP members.

Those on the left who do see electoral challenges around every corner, and particularly those in areas like London, are living in an idealist world of their own creation. To say, as the SWP have been doing, that workers are ready to break from the Labour Party because of their anger (a very SWP word) is clearly nonsense.

Compare the situation now to that in Liverpool during the 1991 Walton by-election, of which I have direct experience. Then the Liverpool Labour Broad Left claimed around a thousand members. Certainly there were 200-300 activists, including large numbers of shop stewards in the council unions (in London terms this equates to an organisation of some 15,000 with 3-4,000 activists somewhat different from the London Socialist Alliance electoral bloc, comrades!). At the time of the Mahmood campaign there was a mass strike of council workers against privatisation and redundancies, with many council workers canvassing for Mahmood because in her they correctly saw opposition to the right wing of the Labour Party who were supporting privatisation and cuts. This then was a mass movement, made up of the majority of local Labour Party activists and based on industrial struggle, and in those terms the campaign should have been supported.

Of course, whereas this campaign did break the active Labour Party membership from the Labour Party, it did not break them from reformism. Nor did it in the long term end the dominance of the Labour Party in Liverpool politics. Today the Broad Left is no more, and Militant, who dominated it, have been destroyed by their open party turn. Indeed, from a high point of around 600 members locally in 1984-5 during the struggle against rate capping, the various factions that are left probably amount to no more than 20-30 (the Merseyside Socialists, which includes Mahmood, have around a dozen).

It is clear from the Liverpool experience that even where a mass break from the Labour Party is possible, like the ILP in the 1930s, this will be short-lived unless those activists continue to orientate towards the party they have just been kicked out of, in order to be able to address the continued support for it by workers. The disastrous tactics pursued by Militant/Socialist Party after 1991 meant that far from this being a progressive break from the Party, it has turned out to be the opposite with most activists dropping out through demoralisation and failed expectations.

It now seems that some of the electoral challenges by organisations such as the London Socialist Alliance are unlikely to go ahead, following the departure of the SWP who do not want to upset Scargill. But that in itself shows the completely artificial nature of these movements that are based not on the class, but on the actions of a sect. Is it not time to rediscover Engels' perceptive writings on the British labour movement, and in the process the method of Marxism? In failing to do this, large sections of the left have shown again that they are incapable of breaking from a sectarian tradition began by the SDF in the last century.