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Fighting "New" Labour: What Alliances Do Socialists Need?

Matthew Willgress

JULY’S "WINNING for Labour" conference pointed to the dynamics of development both on the left and in the labour movement as a whole. Far bigger than the Network of Socialist Campaign Groups conference in May, it provided a forum for Labour Party and trade union activists to discuss the issues facing the movement in the run up to the general election.

The conference’s backbone was the Campaign Group of MPs, but it was able to draw in much broader forces over such issues as pensions, party democracy and rejection of Lib-Labism. In this it showed some of the problems that Mandelson and Co’s "Project" faces – their plan to destroy the Party as a labour party brings them into conflict with sections of the movement way beyond the left. Against this, it is through an inclusive approach, without abandoning principled politics, that socialists in the Party, linking up with activists in the unions, will be able to move forward in the current period.

From the point of view of the left, the conference gave us some indications of the possibilities for political regroupment in the run up to the general election. This will involve tendencies like Labour Left Briefing, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), the Network, the Campaign Group of MPs and trade union left-wingers such as ASLEF General Secretary Mick Rix (significant because he has decamped from the anti-Labour SLP) and Geoff Martin, convenor of London UNISON and the left’s candidate for chair of the London Labour Party.

These forces, whilst still promoting the politics of the "hard left", are prepared to work with broader forces. They recognise that a Tory government would be a disaster for working people and they seek to promote alternative policies to New Labour which can connect with the Party’s grassroots. An active, organising approach around this kind of politics could make a big difference to the situation.

It will however, require a change of attitude among certain elements around the far left who tend to pursue their own agendas irrespective of the effect on the wider labour movement. This approach has the effect of isolating and disuniting opposition forces, and damaging the chances of winning victories against New Labour.

As I have said, any meaningful socialist intervention in the Labour Party at the current time will have to be capable of displaying tactical flexibility and making broad alliances – even if they will often have to be temporary and based on single issues or a limited programme. If the Party leadership continues to alienate broad layers of the labour movement it will be crucial for the left to link up with those situated politically between ourselves and the Party leadership. The Centre/Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA) has achieved some advances in this respect. How the process may develop is unclear, but by looking at the way Labour politics has evolved over the last few years we can find some clues.

Since Blair became leader there has been a process of realignment of sections of the Party who are opposed to the Project from the soft left, centre and beyond. There was the founding of Labour Reform and the resulting campaign together with CLPD against Partnership in Power, which was a precursor to the formation of the CLGA. Under the editorship of Mark Seddon, Tribune has been fierce in its criticisms of New Labour and has supported the CLGA. Chartist has become generally more critical since the election and has joined the CLGA. Events like "Winning for Labour" now involve these bodies.

Further clues were also given at "Winning for Labour" with the attendance of non-Campaign Group MPs such as Andrew Mackinlay, who has challenged the control freakery of New Labour by standing for chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and by the people who signed the "Winning for Labour" statement calling for a "rejection of 19th Century Liberalism out of whose failure the Labour Party was born". Though the signatories were by no means all left-wingers, this statement stood in direct opposition to the Project – Blair has stated his wish to reunite the Liberal and Labour traditions, while his political advisor Philip Gould believes that the formation of the Labour Party was a historical mistake.

These political developments, and the rising number of high profile critics of the government who are not traditionally associated with the left, may not yet amount to a movement with coherent aims or the ability to organise large numbers of Party members around its politics, but they give an indication of the kind of oppositional movement that may emerge within the Party in the future.

These forces have arisen to the left of New Labour as a reaction to events, but it could be that if the various political tendencies of the left and centre make a conscious effort to work together, as with the CLGA and "Winning for Labour", on areas of policy such as privatisation and pensions and on issues of Party democracy, centre/left cooperation could develop to a higher stage in the future, perhaps through a new grassroots network or bulletin.

Socialists (both Marxist and non-Marxist) should encourage such developments, seeking to utilise them to reach a broader audience than is currently possible. Of course, we still need to campaign for socialist solutions and class struggle politics. But a mass movement capable of changing the situation will emerge, not with fully worked out theories, flawless leaderships and a full programme, but out of the objective situation. The job of Marxism is to be able to try and help those involved in such movements to learn by their experiences the need for a clear perspective, and the left should seek to be the most determined, consistent, organised part of any broader movement.

Whilst some may consider being part of a current not promoting the full "socialist programme" as something of a heresy, the whole idea of centre/left co-operation raises itself because of the dynamics in the labour movement and society generally. If we stay outside, or whilst paying lip service to these ideas don’t put them into practice, then we will not win trust from grassroots Party members who identify with the broad "Old Labour" forces. Nor, if a movement of significance did emerge, would we be in the position to strengthen the influence of socialist ideas in that movement.

It is also wrong to suggest that making broad alliances on the issues we agree on is in any way giving up our own identity as socialists. But we can’t rally the forces needed to defeat Blairism around a full socialist programme at this stage. It is an illusion to suppose that a determined leadership can choose the tempo and course of the struggle for socialism outside of the living reality. Anyone can "call spirits from the vasty deep", but the question is "will they come when you do call them?"

They haven’t come yet and aren’t likely to miraculously appear from somewhere other than the forces that exist or are emerging within the labour movement (and outside, such as anti-GM protestors, but that will have to be discussed elsewhere). It is our job to look at where things are, to try and work out where they are going, and to move the situation forward from there.

Of course, a regroupment of a different section of the left is taking place in the opposite direction – through the launching of "Socialist Alliances" (SAs) with the apparent aim of mounting as many electoral challenges to Labour as possible. This section of the left shows no concern for an alliance with those who believe that the Labour Party remains the main arena of political struggle. Whilst the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) backed Ken Livingstone for London mayor, its constituent organisations pay little attention to the struggle against Blairism within the Labour Party (of which Livingstone’s independent candidacy was of course a direct result) or to Ken’s campaign for readmission to the Party.

No group involved with the Socialist Alliances was present at the main summer gatherings of opposition to New Labour, and this includes those groups who have attempted to straddle the Labour and anti-Labour left. They were conspicuous by their absence not only at "Winning for Labour" but also (with the exception of individuals) at the subsequent Readmit Ken public meeting.

While we are hardly talking about mass forces here, these groups contain a number of good comrades who could help forge links between the rank and file in the trade unions and Labour Party. It is important to talk with and involve these comrades, particularly those who are still in the Party and have been put in a difficult situation by the direction of their group’s politics.

Socialist Outlook, for example, is shifting further and further away from the Labour Party, and the pro-SA politics of the paper serve to isolate its supporters from the broad anti-Blairite forces within the Party. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a group which for many years based itself on the Labour left, seems to be moving in a similar direction to Outlook, albeit at a slower pace.

Although the AWL remains formally committed to work in the Labour Party, both of its publications, Action for Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty, continually urged their readers to vote for the LSA. In the early 1990s, when Kinnock was witch-hunting Militant in the aftermath of the Walton by-election, the AWL’s predecessor organisation argued that, while socialists should oppose the purge, "from Militant they should demand a statement pledging that it will not stand against Labour". Now, they advocate selling publications in the Labour Party with an editorial line of supporting anti-Labour candidates!

In addition to this, the AWL has put forward the tactically inept proposal that Labour MPs should be asked to sign a statement on policy drawn up by the SAs, and then have the SAs support them on that basis. There are a whole number of arguments against this initiative. If left MPs were to sign such a statement, it would not only assist the Tories in attacking Labour in these constituencies but also provide the New Labour bureaucracy with a pretext to get rid of the left MPs, on the grounds that they were allying with anti-Labour forces. What’s more, if MPs refused to sign the statement, this would be used by those elements within the SAs who want to stand against Campaign Group MPs such as John McDonnell or Diane Abbott – a policy which the AWL itself, quite rightly, opposes.

The key to the situation facing the left and the labour movement remains the role of the trade unions. Just as the trade unions played a crucial role in setting up a form of workers’ party in this country, they now play a crucial role in determining its future. For socialists, this must be a central question in all our work.

The situation we face was set out at "Winning For Labour" by John McDonnell in a well-received speech on the unions and the Labour Party. He noted how union leaders had been "remarkably acquiescent" in face of New Labour’s drift to the right and its adoption of deregulation and privatisation. Interestingly, he revealed that a number of trade union leaders who agreed to speak at "Winning for Labour" had pulled out at the last minute.

A week earlier, at the National Policy Forum, as the editorial in September’s Labour Left Briefing noted, most union delegations "toed the New Labour line and voted down amendments proposed by Grassroots Alliance supporters, even when these amendments were in line with their own unions’ official policies". When the RMT put forward an amendment rejecting the proposed semi-privatisation of the Tube, the UNISON and TGWU delegates blocked with the Party leadership to vote it down. If they had not done so, it would have been on the agenda at Party conference and the leadership might well have been defeated on this issue.

Though union leaders sometimes make critical speeches, they usually fail to back these up with action. This is a key reason for the continued control of the Party by New Labour, which in the last analysis is hostile to the whole idea of the union link and aims to transform the Party into one based directly on capital similar to the US Democrats.

The Labour Party was a step forward for working people, and the vehicle through which gains were made – gains that a globalised capitalism seeks to roll back. That is why the Party’s destruction is central to the realignment of British politics proposed by those who express most sharply the interests of the ruling class within the labour movement. Therefore, the defeat of the Project and the successful defence of the Party (which the unions in conjunction with constituency members could still achieve) would be a victory for the working class.

While the Labour Party remains linked with the unions at every level, this link is clearly a focal point in the fight against attempts to recompose British politics back to the 19th century. We must demand the accountability of unions’ representatives within Party structures and where appropriate stand for delegations to Party conference etc. Unfortunately, much of the far left never raises these issues. They are uninterested in an alliance of trade union and Labour Party opponents of the Project. In fact they advocate politics that weaken this struggle.

One proposal favoured by those elements of the far left who are building the SAs is straightforward union disaffiliation from the Labour Party. Another scheme is put forward by Alan Thornett in the Summer issue of Socialist Outlook, where he argues that unions’ political funds should be proportionately allocated to different parties on the basis of a vote of the membership. This, he claims, would be "far more democratic than the current system".

Disaffiliation is only being raised on a significant level in a few unions. And the supporters of this policy include not only those who are understandably indignant at the government’s right wing policies but also sectionalists, syndicalists, apolitical types and, of course, Tories and Liberal Democrats. A break from Labour, in the absence of a viable political alternative, would probably lead only to further demoralisation and depoliticisation within the unions. It would, of course, also actively help those ultra-Blairites who want a complete rupture of the union link.

As for Alan Thornett’s proposal, while it is democratic in an abstract sense, it is a diversion from the task of building a genuine mass alternative to New Labour. Clearly some comrades would see the prospect of a small amount of money to boost the Socialist Alliances as a key reason for supporting it. But in many unions far more money would go to the Tories than to the non-Labour left. It could also lead to a form of disaffiliation by stealth, which is the route favoured by the more pragmatic Blairites.

This article has concentrated on how to move forward within the existing labour movement, and on what I see as the failure of those around the Socialist Alliances to address these issues. But it is also key for the Labour left to turn outwards, supporting workers involved in industrial action, environmentalist campaigners, students opposing fees and all other progressive campaigns, in order to promote class politics.

There are undoubtedly opportunities arising for a reinvigorated activist movement. We need to take advantage of the increasing popular discontent with New Labour that has been demonstrated in the London mayoral election and the fuel crisis. By providing a political perspective for all those who oppose the pro-market dogma of New Labour and the injustices of the system in whose interests it governs, we can assist in the emergence of a mass movement and win new people to socialism.