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Is the Party Over? Some Thoughts

Harry Vince Coulter

This is the second part of a reply to Mike Phipps’ article "Is the Party Over?", which appeared in What Next? No.14.

SOME OF the key elements in the current situation appear to me to be:

  • Nationalism(s) and potentially regionalisms with a mass base, leftist-populist politics (and "socialist tinges").
  • A weak and fragmented left, unsure of its own ideology, unable to unify around single issues when they arise and without strong trade union allies.
  • An even weaker Tory Party (for the moment only) which has led elements of the ruling class to give backing to continued Blair-Labour government.
  • Britain is now a second rate industrial power, (although still a powerful financial/capitalist force) unable to so easily offer the kind of economic and welfare state concessions it gave in the first six decades of the 20th century.
  • The working class is more atomised and transient than in the pre-war years (more like the mid-19th century in terms of job and population movements but with the baggage of history and a still powerful mass movement which acts as both a brake and an opportunity).
  • There is a generation of young people which has never experienced victorious large scale industrial action or political engagement, nor believes in continual "social improvement".
  • The intelligentsia increasingly does not see history as a logical or progressive chain of events and therefore does not produce thinkers of calibre who are prepared to take the risk of allying themselves to the labour movement with the aim of creating new programmes.
  • Control of the state does not occupy the same position in the thinking of the working class. In particular the chain of thought: Labour Party – government – state power – nationalisation – popular ownership, does not have the same resonance as a method of sustainable reform.
  • The mass democracy that reasonably accessible local government used to promote has been eroded by centralisation, corruption scandals, drop-out of potential councillors and cynicism.

The Labour Party as a mass party is a historical given. It cannot be ungiven except by the spontaneous and unavoidable action of millions of people, but it may not be undone as the singular mass party all in one or two moves. I think we are witnessing a series of precursors to this, which leave the Labour Party still in a dominant and unique position. This does not mean that one can only work within the Labour Party or that non-mass parties are a waste of time. But in electoral terms, unless one has a local base of particular strength or is part of a heave which can elect at least a handful of MPs, then running against the Labour Party does not make sense. This is quite a separate matter from whether or not one wishes to build a party to supplant the Labour Party when possible. Every election must be fought as a current (tactical) event, not as an issue of principle.

Elections are eminently tactical. It has long been a mistake of British Marxist currents to see elections as platforms for propaganda. They are usually not a good vehicle for abstract ideas, in the presence of a mass reformist party which can actually form a government. Such a sectarian view stems more from Hyndman than from Marx, who supported all sorts of people when they were the best available option. Whether or not to construct an alternative party to the Labour Party is certainly a programmatic as well as a practical matter, but programmes are by their very nature bridges to the future via real events.

However, there will always be people who get fed up with the course or speed of history and decide to leave the Labour Party before the working class itself makes the break. There’s no blame in getting fed up with the pace of change or the latest anti-democratic victory of the new right, but such frustration in itself changes nothing. Usually this decision is dressed up in phrases like "the Labour Party has become totally capitalist" or "Blairism is worse than anything which went before". Even a cursory perusal of history would reveal this reasoning to be both untrue and ahistorical. Ramsay MacDonald was a class collaborator, even before his coalition days. Blair is neither as unique or new as people who want out of Labour politics make out. Blairism is the current form of adaptation to the needs of the capitalist class in Britain, which has been the central feature of all Labour leaderships. Hugh Gaitskell was every bit as right wing as Blair – it is the context that is different.

What was different then was the existence of Bevanism, strong trade unionism, an international Stalinist movement and a growing Trotskyist presence. Above all, the immediate post-war era was a different moment in global history, an upturn in the class struggle coinciding with the rebuilding of industrial Europe. The British working class could see the possibility of real gains, funded by the imperial surplus which British capitalism still had in hand. A new generation was entering onto the scene as an active player, culminating in the events of the late 1960s. Any reform programme for the new millennium must be different, taking into account the present contours and limits of the British economy, and will have to pose much more direct challenges to the economic and political structures of British capitalism. Such challenges cannot arise from positions of working class weakness, but the political balance of power can tip if there is an international crisis which collapses trade and depresses finance capital – not an unlikely prospect.

To speak, as Mike Phipps does, of "those who seek to maintain the Labour Party as an independent organisation committed to some sort of redistribution of wealth and power in society" is a bit woolly. Let’s leave aside the question of "independence" for the moment. For those who want to redistribute "wealth and power" the problem is often couched primarily in terms of form: state ownership, worker participation in management etc. However, the more difficult question is no longer that of the form but the content (substance/purpose/results) of ownership. In order to redistribute wealth one must first take into consideration the great changes in the material reality (amount, type, viability, utility) of that wealth. Renationalising the remaining coalmines would be all very well, but it would not be a return to the pre-strike situation so far as either the miners or the power industry is concerned. In any case, in view of the ecological effects of burning fossil fuels, should one advocate an increase in large scale use of coal in power-stations? Cost equations (in all their complexity) cannot be ruled out of our thinking simply on the grounds of ideology.

All of Trotsky’s injunctions about the effect of the world market on the Soviet economy and socialism in one country should never leave our thoughts. Nationalising the remaining shipyards won’t solve the problem of the global market and costs of production. Harland and Wolff in Belfast is now, I think, the largest remaining old-era yard still making ships. It receives a quite disproportionate state subsidy, given for political reasons, and it is about to go bust. There are lessons here. The railways require a complete capital overhaul and re-unification into a national utility, but they also have to be situated as the practical and functional alternative (maybe with coercion) to the eco-disastrous car culture. At the moment that cannot be achieved simply by a classic "renationalisation", without major rejigging of transport and work practices. Renationalisation would not solve these problems on its own. It was under the latter period of nationalised control (both Labour and Tory) that the railways were allowed to collapse into inefficiency and under-capitalisation. If money is to be put into railways (I think it should be, and in large amounts), then it must come from somewhere else. Where?

Certainly the left must begin by formulating its view on the big things, but in a material way and not in terms of old shibboleths. For instance, some speak of the Labour Party abandoning its historic commitment to "common ownership of the means of production". This was always a meaningless phrase and over the years people have seen its hollowness in practice.

Firstly, the main means of production is labour power – how can people own each other in common? Does this mean we should all work for the state? If the state owns everything, who owns the state? Such questions formed the core of socialist/philosophical debate in the 19th century and they were far from being worked through when state socialism in all its forms was thrust upon the world. They must be resurrected and placed on the agenda again. Obviously, putting an immediate end to the capitalist exploitation of workers, couched in real terms, should be most popular, but it is only an abstract idea and certainly the Labour Party has never stood for this. Most people don’t think at this level of abstraction in their dealings with politics.

Secondly, if one implies by the term "means of production" fixed capital, especially heavy industry, then one would have to spell out, after decades of apparent failure of state ownership of industry in various countries in various forms, how a new form of "common ownership" might be successful in Britain, with the diminished capital vested in the productive industries, when it previously failed in much better circumstances.

Thirdly, in the case of services and utilities, people have seen such a failure of management and investment, even with the near heroic lifetime commitment of people like NHS workers, that once again it will be necessary to know how these can be re-capitalised without wasting money – not to mention where the money will come from.

The banks present yet another problem: one state-ised bank, or many competing banks/building societies under state control? Or, as things are at the moment, how about no banks, just nationalise the large supermarkets etc and let them continue to run their own banks? Hence my point about abstract ideas and concrete realities. The times they are a-changing: different commanding heights; different economy.

What does the term "common" mean, in terms of ownership? The currently existing state, with a full spectrum Labour government? The same state with a Labour "more socialist" government? Some new forms of state ownership with novel forms of worker participation and management? More radical "stakeholder" type of semi-state structures with a form of social shareholding? Massive changes in state forms which require new laws and a new ethos in property rights? In order for the idea of "common ownership" to have a resonance within the working class as it is now constituted, and among those elements of the declassed population and lower middle classes who should be allied to the working class in politics, these and other basic questions must be addressed by the left.

"Common" might have had a specific meaning (non aristocratic) during the Enlightenment and a new resonance in the mid-19th century (non aristocratic and non industrial bourgeois). But these were times when modern classes were still in formation. It was utilised by reformism in Western Europe as a deliberately vague term in the early years of this century, and in a rather different way by the political classes of the USA and a party like the Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia. At the end of the 20th century, which has seen the failure of so many forms of state ownership and command economies, it no longer suffices as a political definition/proposition.

Equally, to talk of the left as people "committed to some sort of redistribution of wealth and power in society" is surely inadequate. Define redistribution: how, when, what, who does it, who gets it? Define wealth: what is it, how much is there? Most crucially, define power: the state, parliament, government, state influences, Labour Party, unions, popular forms?

Politics is not merely "a series of technical problems". But government, for the Labour leadership, by and large, always has been, since they have accepted capitalism as a given. Harold Wilson knew the difference between government and politics, so did Callaghan and now so does Blair. It is important not to confuse changes in programme with changes in circumstances. When Labour is in power and circumstances change and the programme does not, then circumstances win every time.

It is equally important not to conflate programme/manifesto commitments with politics as a whole. I do not see the depoliticising of political life occurring as Mike Phipps does, rather more the withdrawal of the working class from the Labour Party (and most other parties), which is altogether a different problem, a form of politics in its own right, and has not been brought about mainly by Blair and his "Third Way". Abstention is also a kind of politics, indicating a situation pregnant with unknown elements, which may not be entirely and automatically progressive.

I disagree that Paddy Ashdown (which now means Kennedy) is a "discredited" figure. Like it or not, sections of the working class chose the Liberal Democrats as the best electoral vehicle through which to get rid of the Tories in areas where Labour was unlikely to win. The Liberal Democrats are in coalition government with Labour in Scotland. The Liberals and their politics now have to be treated as a current issue. We must stop simply denouncing them and repeating the "Labour must govern alone" line. If the Labour Party is to regain any sort of hegemony in the working class it must draw back those who voted Liberal Democrat, those who voted nationalist, some of those who voted Tory and those who didn’t bother to vote. This process requires an engagement with every and any force/party which has working class support, whatever its class origin.

I remember well the election campaigns in 1974 when the Labour left was re-emerging after a long quiescence and Heath was being driven out. At that time the Liberal vote among the working class was stronger as well. This was, after all, how the Labour Party got formed in the first place – not by "Marxists" denouncing Lib-Lab politics from the sidelines (which they did and were in turn disowned by Engels) but by a process of testing and sifting. It is indeed baleful if the English working class has to go through another, similar process but if that has to be done it should be done well. Enough of simple denunciation.

In Scotland it will be necessary for the working class to test first a Lab-Lib government, in which the political strands are already being mixed, then probably to test a coalition involving the SNP. It may be necessary for the Scottish Labour Party to break away from the British Labour Party in the next five years or so if the pressure of nationalism increases, which would leave the Labour Party as an English-Welsh party, without going into what might happen in Wales. An English Labour Party might be thrown into minority status. Should it remain then as a permanent opposition? All this is speculative, but certainly drawn out of the elements which already exist in British politics.

As for Ashdown/Kennedy and Heseltine/Clarke (not to mention Patten and Mellor) being involved in "government business projects" – again not that new or that special. It happened under Wilson and Callaghan and is it any worse than members of the ruling class (Sainsbury et al) who happen to be members or supporters of the Labour Party playing a role in government? Wasn’t Maxwell a member of the PLP for years?

The most radical government Labour has yet produced was that of Attlee. The Labour leadership had already learned the craft of governance in Churchill’s majority Tory war cabinet. As Ralph Miliband commented, "it was also the war which was responsible for the setting in place of an elaborate system of State intervention and control", under Churchill let it be said. Bevan was the only person in Attlee’s cabinet not to have held high office under Churchill. Consider this comment about the Attlee period from Cooke, the biographer of Stafford Cripps (upper class, public school educated crypto-Marxist): "He had worked with men of other political beliefs than his own, he counted them among his personal friends." Plus ça change!

In the late 1940s there was a very active dynamic between a large rank and file, a trade unionism renewed by the war (one shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t just the Labour Party that was destroyed in the depression years of the 1930s), a left wing present at governmental level and the actual Attlee leadership on the other. But links to the ruling class and politics at least as right wing as Blair’s were very evident.

It interests me that, having spoken of an "ideological shift", Mike Phipps chooses essentially secondary questions to prove it. The style of Labour conferences has certainly changed since the ’80s, but this is only superficial. The truth of the matter is that the rank and file of the Labour Party, which used to be allowed to play at democracy at the old-style conferences, with all their fringe meetings, caucusing and rostrum speechifying, and which could sometimes overturn composites put forward by the leadership, never once succeeded in imposing whatever that policy resolution was on a Labour government – unless there was also a massive groundswell in the working class at large, such as the battle over In Place of Strife in the late 1960s, when the Labour conference represented, but did not create, the demand. It was the union block votes which made the difference. But they have been a double edged sword.

I remember being a delegate at the 1974 conference on the Common Market. The mood at that time was very anti-EEC. Callaghan was applauded by a maximum of 100 people after a pro-EEC speech and Wilson was received in total silence. Eric Heffer, who spoke against entry to the EEC, was cheered to the rafters. In the country as a whole, though, people were more confused, not moving one way or another and the unions were not mobilised. What then happened in the leadership of the Labour Party? Nothing. So much for the strength of a totally anti-leadership conference!

Labour Party democracy can only be effective for the left when the working class and its allies have the initiative in the class struggle as a whole. The endless grind of Thatcherism destroyed the confidence of large numbers of rank and file members of the Labour Party. This, of course, didn’t make party democracy less relevant, but it did make it less possible and this is part of the reason why Blairism emerged. Whatever the left wins can (and will) be taken back by the apparatus, if they get a chance, for that is their profession. It is much harder for the rank and file, which does not have the dubious honour of being part of the political caste, to win and hold positions over longish periods. Reform is mostly brought about by proximate crisis.

The industrial working class can no longer pass on solidarity, trade unionism, co-operativism and Labourism as a birthright, along with craft skills or lifetime jobs, from one generation to the next. It is much harder to build trade union strength and continuity in conditions of contract employment or worse. Added to this the housing and non-work living conditions of big enough sections of the working class are in relative decline (perhaps in some cases absolute decline, in post-war terms), and this after decades of state intervention, so the idea of yet more state intervention does not have the same resonance among these layers. They have never felt that the state was accessible, amenable, let alone controllable by the likes of them.

One might look at the alienation from the state (and work and social organisation) of millions of young people. Drugs are a major symptom in the de-socialization of the young; this stretches far beyond what we might call politics. Politics can only exist where there is at least basic self-consciousness and social self-organisation. The training and development of people able to become active players in the political process used to occur through growing up in the mass movement. That doesn’t happen in the same way any more. Think of, say, South Wales, where the coalfields and all the traditions they held have all but gone. None of these things have been brought about by the conscious actions of Blair alone – you would have to be a deranged conspiracy theorist to think that. Most of them were unleashed, in the broadest sense, even before Thatcher decided to speed things up. Let me restate it: Blair is the recipient of the power granted by a vacuum in confident mass action, not the creator of that vacuum. If anything I think Blair might actually be playing up the strength of Labour’s link with, and control over, the working class for his own ends. Blair has yet to take on and defeat any major sector of the class in struggle. If Blair really took on the working class directly I suspect his own seat would be the first casualty.

When the "Third Way" meets its demise, says Mike Phipps, "the years of attempted mass depoliticisation and `politics by experts’ could reap a populist and/or nationalist backlash". I’m not sure what is meant by "populist". Populism of the left is usually associated with the need to grant concessions to the masses whilst retaining political control, populism of the right with fascist/fundamentalist movements. As for nationalism, I would distinguish between Scottish and English nationalism, for a start. But I would also point out, though it might not be popular just now, that the Scottish people also have centuries of voluntary participation in British imperialism to their name and, like the English, they have to overcome this legacy in order to achieve freedom in their own right.

It could be a fruitless exercise trying to determine, in advance, how secure and permanent the "ideological shift" of Blairism will be. The government and the Labour apparatus (which might prove under pressure not to be the same thing) will shift with events. Their basic ideology is power. Blair has a hold on the Labour Party because he came to power on a wave of anti-Toryism and has yet to be defeated in struggle. The revolt over benefits for the disabled demonstrated that the "Third Way" is not itself seen as fundamental to the future of Labour politics, even by MPs who have to espouse the positive aspects of "Blairism" every day of the week.

If the "Third Way" goes too far in attacking the working class base of the Labour Party, then I expect some very big revolts to occur. How, then, to turn this possibility into ongoing organisational forms, without leftist dead-ending it? Utilising all the existing structures of the Labour Party, however truncated and neutered, for as long as possible, is essential, without spending too much of one’s time in useless meeting-eering. Also, learning to fight issue by issue and not trying to dump complete programmes on incomplete developments is an important lesson from the past. Thinking carefully about what is essential in each argument and whether a struggle can win mass support (even if only locally) will be crucial. This means not fighting on some things in order to fight on others, and knowing when to drop an issue and move on.

I do not expect a renewed organic link between the unions and a new Labour left to emerge in the immediate future. Union left wings in the past have been very much linked to the thinking of a deeply rooted political left which could lean on the strength of industrial workers. That is not the case at the moment, although there are undoubtedly sections such as rail workers, nurses, firemen and others who have never really been smashed and in which resides a certain degree of combativity. What would happen were they to pitch themselves, on a sectional basis, against Blair, remains to be seen. One thing that is not wanted in the next year or two is another "Winter of Discontent" which doesn’t have the strength to supplant Labourism and yet leads to a resurgence in Toryism. Even militant left-wingers have to have an eye on strategic thinking of this sort. When Blair is confronted it must be in a way that does not allow the Tories a run back to government – if that happens, discussions on the "Third Way" and so on really will have been academic.

Changes in the way that unions apportion their political funds could certainly put pressure on Blair, but maybe not directly in a financial way, since he appears to have other substantial sources of funding and might turn to state funding of parties. Perhaps the giving of money could be tied to concrete steps, in much the way that capitalism has been funding the Tory Party (and probably also the Labour Party) for so long, but this might be technically illegal. The problem with moves against the political fund in unions with a strong sectarian caucus is that the SWP, SLP, Socialist Party, Scottish Socialist Party etc might try to stop funds on a sectarian basis, or apply funds for their own ends – simply to score points against the Labour Party. The SNP might even pitch in with a bid among unions in Scotland. This would have a destructive effect and actually weaken the political leverage of trade unions and make rank and file trade unionists cynical about efforts to tie funding to policy within the Labour Party. One thing is for sure: the situation which has come about over roughly the past 20 years, where political funds have given trade unionists a diminishing return on the politics of the Labour Party, including the important area of who gets selected to run as MPs, should not be allowed to continue.

A related problem is that of actually finding suitable candidates with a trade union background, who have participated at local level in the LP and are reasonably well rooted in a given area, to go forward as PPCs. The centralisation of selection processes has been "rounded off" by Blair, but the practice of career candidates travelling up and down the country to "get a seat" and bureaucrats travelling to squash "wrong" decisions has been going on for much longer. It may well be the case that Blair is able to "cull" left wing candidates out of the selection process, but this could only happen across the whole country if the left is terribly weak and unable to fight back. Again, there is a long history of CLPs being disbanded, candidates removed from national lists, even legal action against local parties. The response has to be rooted in strength at local level.

This is not a period when trying to build a non-Labour left as front-runner in English (perhaps British) national politics is likely to bring quick results. Perhaps it is not even as good as the worst of the MacDonald years, when there was always the ILP with its 30,000 supporters and the CPGB with its industrial militants. Putting the left forward as possible candidates for government requires not a return to an old situation, but a historical breakthrough – and these don’t come in increments. But consider the depth of the problems that Britain faces and the inability of New Labour to solve them. Something will give. Consider also the position of the Labour apparatus itself, which despite all the boasting and arm-waving has been formed through 18 years of opposition and is deeply in hock to capitalist fly-by-nights who can just up and away. Despite the huge Labour majority in the Commons Blair faces a future which is inevitably unstable.

Scotland and Wales are great variables. The SNP (and the SSP in certain places) could take further seats in both Westminster and Edinburgh parliaments on the basis of what Labour does in Scotland, an entirely new problem. The Blairites could get it wrong and pay the price of losing a wedge of Westminster seats. Without a real party base Blairism (as distinct from Labourism) might not survive for long in Scotland. Northern Ireland, in a very different way, will also confront Blair with repeated crises over the next few years.

Europe is a venue no British party seems comfortable in, but it hasn’t gone away, you know! One of the areas the left should be striving to make its own is that of European working class unity against the EU mandarins and multis. Down with little-Englandism, up with the European left!

England itself is not the USA. There can be no return to a Liberal-Conservative polarity in politics, echoing the Democrats and Republicans, even if New Labour collapses. If the ruling class, the media and that vacillating middle ground which now constitutes so much of the English political scene sense that the Tories, under, say, Portillo could reconstruct themselves in the medium term, then Blair could be a gonner, even if Labour stays in office. The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party is tying itself to Blair as well, in both the Commons and Edinburgh, which might see them reduced to a rump again if Blair goes down. Such an outcome would almost certainly produce splits in the Liberal Democrats along left-right and Anglo-Scots lines. In any case, despite what I have said above about not simply denouncing them, where they have roots in working class areas, the ruling class itself is not about to put its money on a new version of the Liberal Party to replace Labour, however "neo-liberal" the neo-Labour leadership might want to become.

We are one or two steps away from a radical redrawing of the political map in Britain. The problem for the left – and here I mean the whole left, inside and outside the Labour Party, including those who are for the moment not active – is that it seems unable to devise activities, tactics and propositions which allow alternatives to emerge in outline. If the components of the left are always trying to score against each other first, then they don’t deserve to win. In a period like this the job of the left is to point the way to new approaches, even where it is unable to see them realised in practice. The left should not go "to the max" on every issue. That method only tires people and creates a string of losing scenarios. This is generally a long-haul situation, with the probability of explosions on surprise issues.

The right wing have been able (with some justification) to tar the left with the brush of "retro-politics". It’s time to put to bed the shibboleth of political "continuity" among the left. When it comes to creative politics consistency is the last resort of fools. Necessity, not consistency, is the mother of invention – and invention is the engine of history. It looks as if the SLP, SWP and SP are going to be obstacles to a renewal process, rather than components of it.

I wouldn’t put too much money either on Livingstone’s ability to head up a rank and file movement. He is basically a career politician, who certainly has some policies of his own, but with a sectarian strain; a surviving product of the old Trotskyist groupings who found his way through some sort of semi-detached deep entry into Labour politics; a more devious and successful Ted Knight or Derek Hatton. He has far from detached himself from the old mechanical ways of thinking, though. But the big thing for him is that he is now part of the political caste. He wants power again: if not Westminster then London. His power-base wasn’t strong enough for Blair to have to consider him for government first time round. That left him disgruntled, but he has shown no signs of wanting to work with other left-wingers on an ongoing basis. One should have supported him against Dobson, first within the LP and then in the election after he decided to run as an independent. But I urge great caution in characterising him politically. Support yes, illusions no.

I wouldn’t talk in terms like "rally the growing numbers increasingly alienated from the Labour Party" at a national level. Confidence grows with success, however modest and localised. New regroupments also need new generations, and as I have said above, one of the things most absent now is an ability to pass aspirations and lessons on from one generation to the next – and to show how to win, even small victories. Where are the young? The left does not have the youth of the working class, but neither does Blair – look at the absolutely dire state of whatever the New Labour youth movement is called now. I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on "traditional democratic channels" for young people. The events in the City; eco-warriors; internet sabos; various anti-racists and other semi-anarchic developments are things not only to watch. There’s a lot of creativity and energy there. It won’t go near the LP, except maybe to hack the web site. Consider a situation like the growth of ethnic cultures and politics within the British working class. So much energy and possibility is also being shown there. These are areas where the traditional political apparatus will find it harder to operate; but neither is there any guaranteed success for the left.

There is no way that such cultural/political diversity can be channelled into the dull and neutered meeting rooms of the Labour Party or the smaller but equally dull meeting rooms of left groups. The unions too are growing older and away from young people. This has created an environment where the real problems of young workers – unemployment, low pay, casualisation, repaying student loans, sexism, bullying, police harassment, racism, housing, negotiating around drugs, working as a single parent, etc – are not dealt with by the unions. This does not mean that there will not be opposition to what are going to be lifelong problems for this generation of non-unionised young workers. But that opposition will have to take sporadic and "direct action" forms, which the traditional union leaderships will oppose. How can the left, inside or outside the LP, but non-sectarian, take advantage of such situations?

I also believe the left must move again into areas where the trade unions worked before the war. The NHS does not provide sufficient (and state of the art) healthcare in many cases and crowds like BUPA and PPS are for the middle classes, we all know that. So there is a need for healthcare among workers which is not being fulfilled and will not be fulfilled simply by protests and slogans. What to do about it: simply sound off continually about the need for a real NHS, provided by a state which will only continue to fudge – or try also to put forward interim (but immediate) practical solutions? I go with the second.

Before the NHS was formed, when public hospitals were usually dire if you couldn’t pay, some unions funded their own schemes and hospitals, which were centres of excellence and accessible to union members who paid small levies. My own grandfather took part, within ASLEF, in the organisation of such hospitals for union members. My grandmother nearly died when she had to be taken to a hospital on the back of a horse-drawn coal-cart because they couldn’t afford an ambulance. This was pre-NHS. The labour movement called for an NHS and provided as it could in the interim. There was no absolute contradiction. In the absence of a real NHS and real state care for all, perhaps some degree of self-organisation of this sort, with the participation of medics, nurses and healthcare workers who want a really open health service, is not a retrograde step.

The NHS is not free. It is unlikely to be truly free to users again. Medicine and healthcare have changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Must there be a total hiatus as people fall between what the left might call a "real NHS" and what is happening to those in need as the existing NHS slides downwards? Why should BUPA and Co be allowed this space to make profits? Could there not be non-profit, mutualised versions of BUPA, run by the labour movement, which also call for a return to a fully functional NHS? In the event of a government which would give sufficient funds and concern to a rebuilt NHS such an interim system could be reincorporated, as it was under Bevan. Sometimes, perhaps, history must repeat itself.

Likewise with education. The truth is that in nearly all cases where schools in working class areas are successful there is some real parental involvement. And this includes raising extra funds, painting and building, classroom help, direct input into management and so on. This opens routes to self-organisation which may not touch on or be directly the consequence of political parties, and often contradicts the orthodoxy of the left, which has come to be based solely on calling for state provision and management. But the state is not, and cannot be, the single vehicle for the working class to improve itself in the area of education. Here again there are lessons from the pre-war history of the British workers’ movement which must be relearned.

The left must work with what is there, not what it would like to be there, or even with what has been left there as a product of the past. Above all, it must learn how people are helping themselves, or it will never be involved in social processes as they actually unfold. Out of such small developments will come the movements which can surpass New Labour and create social movements which do more than echo the past. The problem is nor what Blair will do but what the left should do. The alternative is a form of reactive politics which will probably render the left more and more irrelevant. It is not Blair we should concern with "the favourite policies of the left" but the left itself. The way to start formulating what to do next is not from assessing what someone else is doing. It was never on the permission of the right wing that left-wingers stayed in the Labour Party. At its foundation the Labour Representation Committee was overwhelmingly right wing. Haven’t we always thought of the LP as an alliance or federation?

Mike Phipps’ conclusion is correct: there is a need to resist subjectivist pressures to quit, which are usually in any case derived from latent sectarianism. But those who stay will need to think about the reasons for staying and the balance between what one does within (and expects from) the Labour Party and the avenues which are open outside it and do not contradict continued LP membership. My response, from a distance, to the question of whether to stay or go, is to say: the best course in the current situation is neither to stay nor to quit but, in a certain sense, both.