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Yes, it is: A Reply to Jonathan Joseph

Bob Pitt

IT IS GOOD of Jonathan Joseph to take the time to write a detailed reply to my short comment piece ("The Labour NEC Elections: Lessons for the Left") in What Next? No.10 on the success of the Grassroots Alliance in the Labour NEC elections. But I read his article ("Is Grassroots the Way Forward") with a mounting sense of irritation. To put it bluntly, he shows a complete inability to think the issues through, and his analysis lacks an elementary sense of political reality.

Jonathan graciously informs us that the outcome of the NEC elections was a great result, and he offers his congratulations to the Alliance on its success. He sounds like someone welcoming a victory for his local football team. Politics, however, is not a spectator sport, at least not for anyone claiming to be a socialist. The election of the four Alliance candidates, in the face of a vicious campaign of denunciation by Millbank, and an outlay of a hundred thousand pounds or so to promote the leadership-backed Members First slate, was not achieved by means of polite applause from sympathetic bystanders. It was the work of Labour Party activists, who distributed tens of thousands of leaflets to party members urging support for the Grassroots slate, and wrote letters to and placed articles in the press, national and local, in order to raise the profile of our candidates.

Without this grassroots campaign, the Blairite slate would undoubtedly have won. I think we are entitled to ask what Jonathan (or for that matter the majority of those associated with Workers Action) contributed to this campaign. The answer, I strongly suspect, is a big round zero. If anyone was guilty of remaining rooted to the ground, it was Jonathan and his comrades.

This is not some moralistic point. If you’re not actively involved in the task of building an opposition to Blairism within the Labour Party, then of course you can spout any old nonsense about how such a movement should be built, because you’re not committed to doing anything about it. The fact is that, despite their formally correct commitment to being in the Labour Party, Jonathan and his comrades aren’t really interested in influencing actual developments within it. They treat the party as a backdrop against which they pursue what they see as the real business of Marxist politics – distinguishing the political positions of their own small group from those of rival groups. Their interventions at Campaign Group Network conferences, for example, never involve putting forward any kind of practical proposals for taking the movement forward. Beneath the leftist rhetoric, what you have in reality is passive, pessimistic propagandism.

A central point in my comment piece was that standing a hard left slate that included a couple of supporters of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) would have been politically suicidal. The situation in the Labour Party, I argued, is such that a slate like that would have had no chance of defeating the leadership-sponsored candidates. What sort of slate does Jonathan think should have been put together? Would the presence of two Trotskyists on the slate have ensured defeat by Members First, or not? Would it have been possible to have constructed an effective hard/soft left slate, excluding Labour Reform, given that Tribune would have refused to support it? Jonathan doesn’t say. Probably he doesn’t really care. After all, he dismisses building tactical blocs within the party in order to defeat the Blairites as mere "internal manoeuvring".

Jonathan advises those of us who are engaged in struggles inside the Labour Party to look outwards: "At the end of the day, Blair will be defeated ... through the working class being mobilised in struggle." This, he tells us, requires raising demands concerning the minimum wage, full employment, the welfare state, etc.

Nobody on the left, of course, would deny the importance of such issues. Indeed, these were exactly the sort of points that Grassroots Alliance candidates like Liz Davies and Christine Shawcroft made in the course of the NEC election campaign. Nor would any of us disagree that the final defeat of Blairism depends on the emergence of major struggles outside the Labour Party. Unfortunately, such struggles have still not developed on any large scale. To dismiss a tactical approach to existing battles within the Labour Party as "manoeuvring", and counterpose to this an upsurge in the class struggle which is not yet underway, is no more than an excuse for abstaining from intervention in the Labour Party as it presently exists.

The current situation is that the Blairites’ drive to destroy the Labour Party as a labour party is causing considerable internal tensions. As Ken Livingstone has pointed out, unlike the Militant Tendency which tried to take over the party from the bottom up, the Millbank Tendency has set out to take over the party from the top down. They haven’t even bothered to try and convince the base of the party of the necessity of "the project", because they assumed that ordinary members were naturally in sympathy with Blairism and that opposition was restricted to the much-reviled activists.

Hence the adoption of One Member One Vote (OMOV), which Peter Mandelson announced had completely transformed the Labour Party. Alas, the membership turned out to have a mind of its own and in internal party elections failed to vote the way the leadership wanted. So now OMOV itself is under attack, in order to ensure that the members are unable to vote for candidates who are unacceptable to the leadership. But this only results in increased disaffection within the ranks of the party and produces further tensions.

Even before the emergence of major class battles in society at large, these tensions have the potential to erupt into a major internal crisis, over such issues as the blocking of Livingstone from standing for selection as Labour candidate for London Mayor. The role of the left in this situation is to intervene as the firmest, most articulate proponents of the fight to defend democracy and keep the party Labour.

Jonathan would of course agree that the destruction of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers’ party, and its transformation into a straightforward bourgeois party like the US Democrats, would be a political disaster for the workers’ movement. But he regards this issue primarily as a source of material for polemics against other tendencies on the far left – those who believe that complete victory for Blairism would provide favourable conditions for some "recomposition" initiative. He doesn’t show any real interest in trying to work out a practical defensive strategy which has the potential to inflict defeats on Blair in the real world.

Jonathan asserts that Partnership in Power was aimed primarily against the left. But this exaggerates the threat which the left, by itself, poses to Blairism. Millbank’s assault on party democracy, of which Partnership in Power was an integral part, is in fact an attack on all those who are believed to be opponents or potential opponents of "the project". Hence the possibility of building a broad political bloc to fight it.

The left cannot win such struggles on its own. We need to build alliances with all of those in the party who are opposed to the Blair project, even if only to some of its aspects. Jonathan refuses to bite the bullet on this. While accepting in principle the prospect of a limited alliance with Labour Reform on basic democratic issues, he then opposes it in practice.

He rejects the slogan that opposition to Partnership in Power was "not a left or right issue". But the very fact that Labour Reform, an organisation which is not part of the Labour left, found itself in an alliance with us on this issue, surely demonstrates the accuracy of that slogan. Jonathan also condemns those of us who supported conciliation with Labour Reform’s "delay rather than reject" response to Partnership in Power, even though this was the tactic the left itself usually adopted in right-wing constituency parties where a position of outright rejection couldn’t be won.

Jonathan’s theoretical acceptance of a united front with Labour Reform is thus so hedged about with conditions as to render it practically meaningless.

Jonathan claims that the relatively poor showing by Andy Howell, the Labour Reform candidate on the Grassroots Alliance slate, undermines the argument that a tactical bloc with the non-left broadened the Alliance’s appeal. This is a bit of a shallow argument. The participation of Labour Reform was crucial to winning the support of Tribune (not to mention the Guardian), and Labour Reform secretary Tim Pendry obviously played an important role as Alliance press co-ordinator. In addition, the formation of a broad slate was crucial in demolishing the Millbank argument that the Alliance was a product of a narrow, hard left layer in the party which was unrepresentative of ordinary members.

One final point. Jonathan accuses me of criticising Socialist Outlook and Workers’ Liberty for objecting to the supposedly undemocratic procedure by which the Grassroots Alliance slate was put together. In fact I didn’t even mention this issue. But since Jonathan has raised the question, I will deal with it now.

A special conference of the Campaign Group Network, or of the Grassroots Alliance itself, to discuss the political basis of the Alliance would have served no purpose other than to offer a forum for sectarians to condemn the bloc with Labour Reform. The AWL would probably have mobilised several dozen supporters (most of whom do nothing in the Labour Party) and might have succeeded in voting down support for the Alliance slate. What would be democratic about that? The result would have been to present a public spectacle of a divided anti-Blairite opposition and to provide Millbank with ammunition for its attacks on the Alliance. But then Jonathan would no doubt regard that as a small price to pay for an opportunity to make some desultory leftist propaganda on behalf of his own small group.