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The Independent Labour Network: Another Sectarian Dead End?

Martin Sullivan

AFTER MEPs Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr were expelled from the Labour Party early in 1998, they launched a new organisation, the Independent Labour Network (ILN). On the face of it, this seemed to be a positive initiative. The ILN stressed that it was "not a new political party" but rather "a network designed to help people continue the struggle for socialism both inside and outside the Labour Party".

This appeared to avoid the tactical ineptitude of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which had set itself up in direct political opposition to Labour, had issued an ultimatum to socialists in the Labour Party to abandon it and rally to the SLP, and had turned its back on those of us who want to continue the struggle inside the party that still holds the allegiance of the mass of class-conscious working people.

The ILN, by contrast, looked like a potentially useful attempt to develop a co-ordinated strategy against Blairism. It obviously intended in certain circumstances to support candidates standing on an independent socialist platform against Labour – Coates and Kerr had made it clear they themselves would contest the 1999 elections to the European parliament – but the initiators of the ILN appeared to be willing to combine this sort of independent work with an intervention inside the Labour Party. This, in my opinion, is exactly the kind of twin-track tactic that is necessary in a situation where many socialists are unwilling to abandon the fight inside the Labour Party, while many others are equally committed to building an alternative socialist party.

However, I was dissuaded from becoming involved in the Network by comrades who argued that, despite its founders’ denials, the ILN was an attempt to set up what was in effect a new party in competition with Labour, and that the Network’s appeal to Labour Party members to get involved was not motivated by a desire to pursue a co-ordinated strategy but was in reality a manoeuvre to pull socialists out of the Labour Party into this new socialist party. In other words, Coates and Kerr were trying to do just what Arthur Scargill had done, except that Scargill had been rather more honest about it.

Recent events suggest that these suspicions were spot on. A meeting in September to set up a London branch of the ILN was addressed by Hugh Kerr’s researcher, Pete Brown, who announced that the Network had applied to stand candidates in the Euro-elections in its own name. The irresponsibility of this is really quite staggering. First of all the ILN issues a public statement appealing to Labour Party members to join it, and then a few months later it turns around and announces that the new organisation which Labour members have joined will be standing candidates against the Labour Party! Any Labour member who had tried to set up a local branch of the ILN would be in a position where they could face disciplinary action. Some might argue that this was a conscious attempt to provoke the expulsion of ILN supporters from the Labour Party. Personally I take the charitable view and put it down to sectarian stupidity.

Certainly this was the dominant outlook at the London launch meeting. A suggestion was made that the ILN should retain its original aim of bringing together socialists inside and outside the Labour Party, that candidates should stand under a name other than that of the ILN, so as not to compromise Labour Party members involved in the Network, and that there was a need for a strategic orientation to struggles within the Labour Party, as it was only through a split in Labour that a new socialist party with real mass support could be built. But this went down like the proverbial lead balloon.

In such circles, anyone who proposes that a serious attitude should be taken towards developments in the Labour Party is dismissed as a right-wing deviant. At times this sort of sectarianism approaches the attitudes and formulations of Third Period Stalinism. Thus Pete Brown informed the meeting that Blair’s support for so-called "Third Way" politics amounted to a sort of proto-fascism!

The point has been made in What Next? before, but comrades who have been drawn to the ILN, the Socialist Alliances and other "recomposition" projects would benefit from a study of Trotsky’s advice to the Independent Labour Party (ILP) after it broke from Labour in 1932. Although he initially welcomed the ILP’s decision to split (he later changed his mind on this), Trotsky insisted that "while breaking from the Labour Party, it was necessary to turn immediately toward it". The Labour Party, he pointed out, consisted not only of the right-wing leadership but also of the mass of Labour members and supporters. He even argued for the ILP to carry out fraction work in the Labour Party in order to prepare the ground for entry, in anticipation of an internal rebellion against the Labour leadership.

Of course the situation today is not exactly the same as it was in the 1930s. For one thing, the Blairites of today make the Labour right wing of that period look like raving ultra-leftists. But the general principle – that those building a socialist organisation outside the Labour Party should not abstain from intervention in struggles which emerge inside the Labour Party – remains valid.

The problem Trotsky faced was that members of the ILP had been trained in a sentimental, non-Marxist socialist tradition, and consequently they responded to the pro-capitalist politics of the Labour leaders in an emotional rather than a Marxist manner. The activists who have been drawn to the ILN – judging by those present at the London launch meeting – are by contrast predominantly members or ex-members of various Trotskyist tendencies. It is one of history’s little ironies that these comrades seem to have adopted their own version of the ILP’s anti-Marxist emotionalism and appear incapable of applying Trotskyist political methods in developing a strategy towards the Labour Party. Unless there are some drastic changes on this front, the ILN looks set to end up like the SLP – as another sectarian dead end.