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Britain’s Party of Recomposition: Why Trotskyists Should Join Socialist Labour

Dave Osler

SOCIALIST LABOUR – and the parallel parties of recomposition internationally – will represent a political touchstone for revolutionary socialists over the next period. Trotskyists are faced with a choice between orienting towards real political developments in the living workers’ movement, or retreat into preconceived schemas that fail to grasp the changing class natures of both Social Democracy and the Communist Parties.

Surprisingly, given the British left’s propensity to spill gallons of ink at the drop of a polemical hat, there have been few full-length articles on either side of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) question. The three most sustained attempts have been Arthur Scargill’s "Future Strategy for the Left" discussion paper, Brian Heron’s "The Birth of Socialist Labour" in Capital & Class, and Bob Pitt’s "The Socialist Labour Party: Why Arthur Scargill is Wrong" in What Next?

Pitt finds a handy straw man in Scargill’s factual errors, his Communist Party-influenced political conceptions, and the "disgrace" of his "low political level". Sorry comrade, not good enough. Scargill has never laid claim to the mantle of theoretician. But then the British left would be a better place with a one or two more workers’ leaders of his calibre, and one or two less university philosophy professors, infinitely higher political level or not.

Heron is a Trotskyist, although his text makes political concessions to Communist Party-influenced forces in the SLP, notably the passages in which he waxes lyrical over the British Road to Socialism strategy. Nevertheless, he is fundamentally correct in his assertion – which encompasses Scargill’s understanding – that "the argument for Socialist Labour rests on the view that at the end of the twentieth century the British Labour Party is unravelling".

It is now common currency on the far left that the class character of the Labour Party is now at stake. Here the argument of Marxists who have quit Labour for the SLP stands or falls.

This process, incidentally, is part of a wider realignment of the entire UK political landscape. Defeat at the next election could even split the Tory party into pro- and anti-European wings. The latter would probably emerge as a dangerous authoritarian-nationalist formation, with significant backing from capital. New Labour is the specifically British reflection of world-wide trends in the Social Democracy, which is everywhere witnessing a transition from mass bourgeois workers’ parties into outright bourgeois parties.

As Pitt agrees: "Blair, Mandelson and company represent a qualitative change from the traditional Labour right." The key word here is qualitative. Pitt nowhere spells out the nature of that change, which has so far met with no serious resistance, and no indication that serious resistance will be forthcoming.

Just as the restorationist governments of the former deformed workers’ states are slowly but surely transforming planned property relations into capitalism, so the Blairites are slowly but successfully transforming Labour into an openly capitalist party. On any hard-headed assessment, Labour remains – at the present time – a bourgeois workers’ party. At issue is the key question of just how far along the Blairite trajectory it has moved, and whether it has yet passed the point of no return.

Pitt contends that "there remain some serious obstacles to the transformation of Labour into a continental-style social-democratic party, never mind into an equivalent of the US Democrats". He does not outline those obstacles in any depth. He then argues that Marxists should stay in the Labour Party to challenge the modernisers. This is, in effect, to claim that the thin surviving layer of a few hundred organised Trotskyists and hard leftists can stop the rot, by somehow galvanising an inchoate wider reformist left. The actual evidence of all recent inner-party battles suggests that he is profoundly mistaken on both points. Blair will win. Entryism will fail.

There is another crucial proposition not yet raised in the SLP debate. It is not only Social Democracy that is in transition, but also the remnants of the Third International, and the political forces influenced by that tradition. Today’s Communist parties can hardly be portrayed as transmission belts for the Kremlin bureaucracy, if only because the Kremlin bureaucracy simply is not there any more. The collapse of their central political reference point has left them as effectively free-floating elements in the class. Key elements of the Stalinist diaspora have clung to some notion of socialist advance, and are now more open than ever before to discussion, joint work and even common parties with Trotskyism. In many countries these layers have a mass electoral base. In Britain, they have instead a wide audience among vanguard workers. On the basis of their adherence to what they see as Marxism, the genuine Marxists are indeed their most logical allies in the labour movement.

The decay of the dominant forces inside the western European labour movement has given rise to a series of parties of recomposition, most of which incorporate important Trotskyist forces. The emergence of Rifondazione Comunista (RC), lzquierda Unida (IU) and the Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS) – openly referred to in SLP circles as "sister parties" – mark the most significant development in European working class politics since the upsurge of the late sixties. They represent a historic opportunity for Trotskyists to extend their all-too-weak basis in the class. So far, the SLP remains relatively limited in numbers.

Nevertheless, it has become in less than a year the second-largest grouping on the left, with a superior proletarian implantation than the largest, the Socialist Workers Party.

Significant future growth is assured. With recruiting sergeants of the calibre of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, the SLP can hardly fail. While membership figures have so far risen on an incremental basis, there is a real likelihood of segmental regroupment over the coming period.

Everyone who has frank political conversations with Labour Party members will know that a significant minority – from ward-member level right up to general secretaries and parliamentarians – are unhappy with the direction New Labour has taken.

The big question is: is Pitt right to believe that they can be rallied in opposition to the modernisation process, or is the SLP correct in the assessment that this can almost definitively be ruled out?

Let the facts speak for themselves. The Labour left has in the nineties proved singularly incapable of successfully mobilising the widespread latent support it mistakenly believes it enjoys, even on the negative programme of halting the latest outrages of the right. On issue after issue – one member one vote, Clause IV, the Road to the Manifesto – the Smith and Blair leaderships have forced through their positions with minimal opposition. If the Labour left cannot defend past gains, how will it be able – as Pitt would have it do – to "attack" Blair on full employment, a minimum wage, maintenance of universal benefits, taxing the rich, extending trade union rights and re-nationalisation?

Never mind the Transitional Programme – sadly, even traditional Tribunite left reformism now no longer has a widespread hearing in Labour’s ranks, as evidenced by the sales of its house journal. The best that optimists can point to is the high level of abstentions seen in some of the votes. This is of itself a clear indication that Labour’s rank and file is unwilling to fight to preserve the unstable class character of social democracy. As Pitt himself concedes: "The small vote in favour of retaining the commitment to common ownership demonstrated that socialist consciousness in the ranks of the party has been seriously eroded." Precisely so.

Anonymous Cassandras notwithstanding, there is currently huge pressure not to raise public criticism of the leadership in the run-up to the general election. In many cases, activists’ employment is dependent on the official labour movement patronage.

With the likelihood of an imminent Blair government, matters will come to a head when the party in office moves towards its now openly-avowed goal of breaking its already severely-diminished organic links to the trade unions.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), for instance, argues that then – and only then – could it be correct to advance the call for a new "real McCoy" refounded working class party, vastly superior to the "actually-existing socialism" of the SLP. But with what forces and on what political basis? Implicit in the AWL scenario is that only at that time will the big battalions of the major unions be prepared to participate in a new party project.

It seems far more likely that the GMB, TGWU et al, will passively accept the permanent Americanisation of British politics, and fall back into the kind of relationship seen between the AFL-CIO and Democrats in the US. After all, if Morris and Edmonds had the slightest intention of scuppering Labour’s modernisation, it was within their gift to have pulled the plug long ago.

Whatever criticisms can be put forward of the SLP’s current political positions – and revolutionaries would advance many – they remain well in advance of anything that a formation of the type likely to arise out of the AWL’s line would adopt.

The SLP has no need of being proclaimed. It exists and it fights. Meanwhile the Labour left is in the same position as a chess player, three forced moves away from forced mate. Of course revolutionaries could stay on until the inevitable bitter end. But time is a precious commodity in politics.

Let us suppose anyway that Trotskyists take Pitt’s advice and remain in the Labour Party. To what end their activities should be directed, his article sadly does not make clear.

What next, indeed. Does Pitt honestly foresee the transformation of New Labour – lock, stock and barrel – into a revolutionary party? A future departure by the modernisers, leaving the left with the apparatus of the official labour movement? Perhaps Pitt has in mind a future mass socialist split? Or does he simply advocate the bog-standard "fishing grounds" argument that Labour provides small groups of Trots with a steady flow of potential recruits? While Labour is rapidly gaining members, most of the new faces join on a Blairite prospectus.

All the above models have been put forward as strategic perspectives by sections of British Trotskyists in the past, with various degrees of justification. But to advance any one of them in 1997 – after the developments of the last decade – is to enter the realm of fantasy politics.

It is currently proving impossible even to build a cohesive reformist left current inside New Labour, even on the common ground of constitutional issues, let alone class-struggle questions. The little-vaunted Socialist Campaign Group Supporters Network is basically a flag of convenience for the two remaining entrist groups of any significance to operate under, and largely restricts itself to licking the envelopes for the annual NEC election mail shot. MPs in the group are too scared even to back a revamped "Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory" type of set-up. Nor has the alternative Socialist Action/Ken Livingstone/Morning Star lash-up fared any better.

In the height of the Bennite upsurge in the early eighties, United Secretariat supporters in the Labour Party focused their efforts on building a significant centrist current around Scargill and Tony Benn within the Social Democracy. That space no longer exists, and institutional reforms to the party machinery make it unlikely that it can ever be won back. However, the advent of the SLP marks the actualisation of that project.

Only Militant had some success from the entry tactic. The collapse of its perspective marked a partial setback, although by the same token, it was the springboard that enabled it to launch itself as a stand-alone organisation with pockets of significant proletarian backing.

What kind of party will the SLP become? By the time New Labour dumps the unions, possibly less than a year from now, the SLP is likely to have developed sufficient momentum to become an attraction to present Labour Party members.

First – and most importantly – it has already demonstrated its ability to win over existing labour movement activists and trade union militants. At last year’s TUC conference, over 200 delegates joined, including a trade union general secretary and one of the main leaders of the Liverpool dockers’ dispute. A number of Labour MPs are also likely to defect after the election. Second – and not unimportantly – it has also proved attractive to left-wing intellectuals, winning a number of radical lawyers, musicians, entertainers and journalists.

Within two or three years, the SLP is likely to find itself a party of perhaps 5,000-10,000 individual members and a wide-ranging periphery at least as large again, grouping together the most advanced workers as "the knuckleduster of the class". That membership will be made up of both reformists and revolutionaries, with the latter in a minority. Many of the revolutionaries are already advancing the ultraleft demand for the SLP to become a revolutionary party. Yet the bulk of new recruits have consciously rejected existing revolutionary organisations. The SLP project will succeed only to the degree that it acts as a focus of regroupment for the class-struggle left and not as a soft-option sect for the ideologically unclarified.

Meanwhile, many SLP leaders argue that it will eventually replace New Labour as a mass-membership party capable of winning a parliamentary majority in bourgeois elections. As the results from the two by-elections that the party has contested indicate, these hopes will not come to fruition. A much more likely scenario is that the SLP will follow in the footsteps of Europe’s other parties of recomposition.

In Germany, the PDS has not overtaken the SPD at the ballot box. In Spain, IU has not overtaken the PSOE. In Italy, RC has not overtaken the PDS. But under proportional representation systems, these parties have all achieved votes of 5-10% nationally – more in working class areas – and achieved an open parliamentary voice for socialist politics. With the likely introduction of PR by a Blair government, the SLP should achieve approximately the same impact.

Pitt’s sideswipe at PR, which he argues "would effectively destroy the possibility of Labour gaining office again other than as part of a bourgeois coalition government" is one hundred miles wide of the mark. Even under "first past the post", New Labour is right at this moment preparing a deal with the Liberal Democrats that would have precisely the effect Pitt fears. The existing utterly undemocratic electoral system is hardly a talisman against bourgeois coalitions, as the late seventies demonstrate.

In summary, a "party of recomposition" understanding is crucial for a correct orientation to the SLP, avoiding the twin dead-ends of sectarianism and overwrought Attlee nostalgia. The run-up to the UK general election will see a debate over electoral tactics inside the SLP. One slogan currently being canvassed by the leadership is "vote Socialist Labour or vote socialist". This is purposely ambiguous regarding both the Labour Party and other left forces such as Militant Labour and the Scottish Socialist Alliance.

Heron argues that "Socialist Labour’s initial core of support proposed that the new party would replace, not coagulate, previous organisational allegiances". But the recomposition process will eventually have to take in these elements. In the class struggle, knuckledusters are hardly enough.

Marxists should be seeking to maximise the vote for class-struggle candidates. Given the overwhelming need to remove the Tories from office, they should also call for a Labour vote where they are not standing. Initially, this debate may not be won inside the SLP, enabling Pitt to charge that the party "could well have the effect of handing a decisive number of seats to the Tories". If – somehow – New Labour does manage to throw the next election away, the blame will lie with one force and one force only: the modernisers.

For every Labour activist that joins the SLP, ten drop out of politics altogether in disgust at where Blair et al., are taking the party. Pitt’s unnamed fellow ward member in his seventies is not an isolated case. For every thousand Labour voters that back the SLP, tens of thousands of workers, students and unemployed people will stay at home because they – rightly or wrongly – see no difference between New Labour and Old Thatcherism.

Setting up the SLP was an act of political necessity, not an act of political cowardice. It won’t be Arthur Scargill’s epitaph that reads: "This was the man who ensured the fifth Tory victory." It might yet prove to be Tony Blair’s.