This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Is Grassroots the Way Forward?

Jonathan Joseph

TO MAKE things clear from the start, the election of four Grassroots Alliance candidates to Labourís National Executive Committee (NEC) is a great result. What it shows above all else is that the membership of the party has not been "Blairised" and the leadership does not have absolute control over the minds of the membership. This is despite the fact that a considerable number of left-wing members have left the party. It also somewhat disproves the idea that all Labourís new recruits are paid-up Blairites. Those on the left who claim that Labour is a barren wasteland should seriously reconsider their opinions.

However, Bob Pittís praise for the Grassroots Alliance as the way forward also goes way over the top ("The Labour NEC Elections: Lessons for the Left", What Next? No.10). He draws the conclusion that the result of the NEC election points to the sort of broad alliances the Labour left should build in order to defeat Blairís "project" to break the party from its working class base. The problem with this view is that it conflates a whole number of issues.

For a start, what is an alliance? Who is it with, what is it for and what does it entail? These questions need to be seriously dealt with.

Unfortunately, this did not happen with the Grassroots campaign. The decision by the Socialist Campaign Group to form a bloc with Tribune and Labour Reform was not taken after open political debate in front of Campaign Group Supportersí Network members. It was put together through a series of elite meetings at the Red Fort restaurant involving Labour Reform, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the ex-left group around Socialist Action.

Bob criticises Socialist Outlook and the Alliance for Workersí Liberty (AWL) for questioning this. He is wrong. We all have every right to know how a particular slate is put together and on what politics it will organise. Even if we are happy with the political basis of the slate (as Bob is) this does not excuse the lack of discussion and debate in arriving at this point. In fact this method of backdoor manoeuvring is typical of the Campaign Group and should be vigorously fought against.

The Grassroots Alliance claims to be fighting for democracy. Yet the way it decided its slate and opposed open discussion shows it still has a lot to learn itself.

The purpose of the Alliance is still (deliberately) unclear. We need to ask questions like: What are the most important issues to raise in the Labour Party? How broad an alliance do we need to build to do this? The answer "as broad as possible" is never a correct one. Building or participating in alliances is a tactical issue related to the united front approach and must always be linked to political considerations like the nature of the demands and the base of support.

The Grassroots Alliance was called a centre/left slate because of the participation of the Labour Reform candidate Andy Howell. Labour Reform makes no secret of the fact that it is not on the left of the party. As Bob says, many of its supporters agreed with Blairís attack on Clause IV. Andy Howell, as a Birmingham councillor, has pushed through spending cuts.

When the Campaign Group decided to work with them last year over the Partnership into Power document which attacked internal democracy, it adopted Labour Reformís slogan that this was not a left or right but a class issue.

Yes, attacks on the democracy of the party are a class issue, but they are also an attack on the left, and denial of this is a surrender to the right. Blairís internal "modernisation" is aimed against the left and the unions and is a logical continuation of New Realist attacks and witch-hunts of the left that were started by Kinnock and Hattersley Ė the same Hattersley who many of the Grassroots motivators now look to as an ally.

Now I believe that we could have an alliance with Labour Reform around very clear party democracy issues. As a supporter of the united front approach I have no problem with this. But it should be limited to a clear issue where we can agree to work together and it should not involve an adaptation to their politics in the way, for example, that the "neither left nor right" and the "delay rather than reject" approach to the Partnership into Power document did.

Unfortunately this was not at all clear with the Grassroots campaign. The issue, let us remember, was not explicitly internal reforms, although this was obviously the main focus. The campaign was about elections to the NEC and this therefore requires a broader political focus. If a candidate is standing for the NEC we need to know what their political priorities are and what they are prepared to campaign for. Labour Reform were clearly not prepared to stand for left politics and the Campaign Group was quite happy to go along with this.

This happens all the time in the Labour Party, even on the far left. For example, during the Clause IV campaign, groups including Socialist Outlook and the AWL were prepared to argue for the "defence of the wording" without raising any concrete political demands which might give the wording some life. Even basic things like "defend the welfare state" or "renationalise the privatised utilities" were left out of the campaign lest they offended our potential "allies". And during the follow up "Socialist Policies for a Labour Government" campaign, the AWL actively opposed raising the demand for the repeal of the anti-union laws in case this upset poor old Mr Hattersley and his chums.

What happened in these cases was that the immediate issues became part of a longer-term project and the tactical alliances became strategic alliances. It was done in such a way that maintaining an alliance became more important than the politics on which it was founded. It became impossible to raise political issues without jeopardising the whole project. The various lefts became the "best builders of the campaign" and in doing so they forgot about being the best leaders.

The question now is: do we want the Grassroots Alliance to become a long term campaign? And if we do, what will be the political effect of the participation of the likes of Labour Reform?

It is argued that including Labour Reform broadens the appeal. This is not necessarily true. Andy Howell, the Labour Reform NEC candidate got just 30,305 votes, half that of the most left-wing candidate, Liz Davies. It is not clear, therefore, that the inclusion of Labour Reform will win the left a wider support.

And if that support is won by moving the politics rightwards and not raising important class issues, then we may attract some Hattersleyites, but we may also lose the confidence of good trade unionists and left-wingers who are looking for something more meaningful. A campaign might, for example, ditch the demand to repeal the anti-union laws in order to win over some right-wingers. But in doing so the campaign will undoubtedly lose the support of union militants who are looking to such a campaign to support them.

Also at stake is what kind of campaign is necessary to beat Blair. Bobís support for the Grassroots Alliance approach is support for a campaign which becomes overly concerned with internal Labour affairs and the kind of backstage manoeuvring seen in the setting up of the alliance.

What is needed is a campaign that looks beyond internal affairs and relates to the concerns of the class struggle. At the end of the day, Blair will not be defeated by internal manoeuvring, but through the working class being mobilised in struggle. That is why it is essential that we develop key demands that relate to the interests of the working class. These might include such things as the anti-union laws, minimum wage, full employment, welfare state, and nationalisation of privatised utilities.

These are not ultra-left demands, far from it. They are very basic demands that reflect the current low level of consciousness. But they will, nevertheless, challenge the whole basis of the Blairite consensus. And in doing so they begin a dynamic which will allow further and more radical demands to be raised.

By contrast, a Grassroots Alliance style approach which is stitched up in advance with minimum debate on political issues cannot provide the basis for such a strategy. As the name implies, it is a policy that is rooted to the ground, related to the particular moment but unable to provide any ongoing momentum. It is an approach dictated by the right wing of the alliance and tailored to suit their needs. Yes, we may well need alliances with these kinds of people if the particular issue requires it. But we donít need to turn this into a strategic alliance that carries over into everything that we do, and where keeping the alliance going becomes more important that the actual politics of the struggle.

So well done to the Grassroots Alliance. Their victory can give the Labour left new impetus. But in order to develop momentum we need to go beyond the limited political basis on which the alliance was formed and on which Bob, it would seem, wishes it to stay.