This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Socialists and the Labour Party: Stay and Prepare the Fight

Tony Dale

WE ARE at a watershed in British labour movement politics. In May Labour was elected with probably its most right-wing programme ever. At the same time the Blair leadership is involved in a project to transform Labour – to reduce fundamentally the power and role of the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and the trade unions. In this crucial period what attitude should socialists take to Labour?

Why do socialists look to Labour?
The aim of socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class, a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the majority. Therefore mass workers’ organisations must be central to the fight for socialism. Socialists’ attitude to Labour must be defined by the fact that it has been and remains the mass party of British workers.

Labour as a party has always been a contradictory phenomenon. Defined by its base it is a workers’ party. However, throughout its history it has consistently had pro-capitalist policies. In government, by not confronting capitalism, it has inevitably found itself confronting the working class. The Blairite project is aimed at resolving this contradiction by turning Labour from a workers’ party with a pro-capitalist programme into a bourgeois party along the lines of the Liberals or the US Democrats.

The claim that Labour is still a workers’ party is based on a number of factors. The vast majority of class-conscious workers still look to Labour as their party. The party is based on and linked to the trade unions. The party is also based on a mass working class membership via the CLPs. Individual party members are traditionally among the more advanced, politicised members of trade unions.

Labour will often be characterised as a workers’ party as a result of the link with the unions. This link is an important trait but it is not the only feature to define the party as a workers’ party. The nature of Labour’s mass membership and the relationship of trade union militants to the party are other factors to be considered.

The fact that Labour has been open to change is another important consideration for socialists. Up to the present the channels for fighting for reform of the party have been clear to all. The direction and policies of the party could be influenced through the input of CLPs and trade unions into Labour’s annual conference and the National Executive Committee (NEC) and by control of MPs through re-selection. The potential for fundamental change in the party was illustrated by the Bennite campaign for democracy and left wing policies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Learning from history, the Blairite project is seeking to close off the avenues for such potential change by eroding the internal channels of party democracy.

Possible conditions for a new party
It may become necessary in certain circumstances to launch an independent socialist party. Fundamental socialist change is needed in society, and transforming the Labour Party is not a precondition. The development of a revolutionary situation may not allow us the luxury of a slow, gradual transformation of the Labour Party. The left taking control of Labour is not an inevitable necessary stage on the road to socialism.

In 1997 Britain it is often difficult to imagine or remember that revolutionary situations develop at a speed and pace out of step with the annual cycle of Labour and trade union conferences. At various times the class struggle has developed at a pace which has resulted in the left wing of the workers’ movement separating off and forming an independent party. The Russian Revolution would not have happened if Lenin and Co had waited to win a majority in a united Russian Social Democracy. Rosa Luxemburg, who never underestimated the influence of reformist Social Democracy in the workers’ movement, ended up forming an independent party on the eve of the German revolutionary events of 1918.

In other circumstances it may be necessary to have an independent existence due to the complete lack of democracy inside the workers’ parties. In some countries Stalinist Communist Parties commanded mass support but the lack of internal democracy ruled out a serious reform perspective.

In today’s Labour Party the leadership could become so dictatorial and undemocratic that party membership would have few advantages and many disadvantages. There are circumstances when the preservation of a socialist voice in politics would mean a serious left would have to consider splitting and forming an independent political organisation. What if Blair moved to expel all the Campaign Group MPs or stopped them from standing at the next election? In this scenario splitting or standing independently from Labour would have to be a serious consideration.

Serious analysis, not dogmatic formulas
The Labour Party today remains the mass party of the British working class. Pro-capitalist policies alone do not stop Labour from being a workers’ party. A very undemocratic mass workers’ party could still maintain its appeal to serious socialists as long as it remained a mass workers’ party. A party not organisationally linked to the trade unions could still be a mass workers’ party if it was based on the support and membership of the workers’ movement.

Labour’s links with the unions, the composition of party membership, the level of democracy, the possibilities for changing the party, the preservation of a labour movement socialist voice – all these factors have to be considered in deciding the correct socialist attitude to Labour at any specific time.

All this seems to sow confusion where clarity is needed. But many on the far left look for a rigid dogmatism which can give today all the answers for tomorrow. A thorough assessment of tomorrow’s concrete situation will be required before judgement can be passed on the Labour Party of the future. All we can do today is give pointers for the future.

It is the sectarians who want to have absolutely clear answers. Our search is not for the easy simple answers but for the correct answers. The world and politics are more complex than many comrades would like.

1997: The Blair project threatens the future of Labour
The Blair project clearly threatens in the near future to completely transform Labour into a bourgeois "centre" party. At some point the number of changes introduced by the leadership could lead to a qualitative change in the character of the party. This raises big questions on the way forward for the future. However, the starting point today must be that Blair and Co have not as yet completed their project. They have not, at least yet, transformed the party into a "centre" party with little connection with organised labour.

It is undeniable that Labour has shifted significantly to the right in recent years. The cumulative effect of these changes has partially eroded Labour’s character as a workers’ party. However it remains a workers’ party; it remains the political wing of the workers’ movement.

In years gone by, Labour socialists could confidently sketch out a scenario for the left taking over the party. Now all that seems a long way away. Yesterday we were probably too optimistic and saw the possibility of the left taking over the party as relatively easy. Maybe today we are overly pessimistic and underestimate the possibilities for internal radical change.

Is this the right time to split?
Many Labour Party socialists must for the first time be seriously considering their long term future in the party. Already we are seeing a leakage as some good comrades leave the party in disgust with its present direction. However they leave more in a downtrodden spirit of demoralisation and defeat than with a spirit to boldly challenge Labourism. The reaction of individual socialists drifting out of the party is understandable but it does not add up to a worked out political strategy.

The Blairites have not won and their victory is not inevitable. There is no law or commandment which says the fight for the party is doomed. It would be crazy immediately prior to the decisive battles over Labour’s future to decide to throw in the towel and walk away. Now is not the time to split.

Even if the Blairites win the battle there is a very good chance it will not be a complete victory implementing all aspects of the Blair project. Trade union and CLP power may be weakened, internal party democracy could be eroded, but the Millbank Tendency could still fail to complete the transformation of Labour into a British version of the US Democrats. Judgement needs to be made at the time, when the outcome is clear.

Even if the Millbank Tendency’s complete victory were inevitable, it would be crucial now to stay and carry out the most vigorous fight to prepare the best ground for any future split. Even if this fight is doomed, it is better to go through the experience of this struggle with those militants fighting to save Labour. It is only by pursuing this fight to the end that we will prepare the proper foundations for any new independent socialist project.

Where are the socialists?
The growth of individual party membership was presented by the Blair leadership as the means to transform the party from Old Labour into New Labour. This view will be echoed by socialists outside the Labour Party who will also point to the changing nature of the party’s membership and the alleged collapse of the Labour Left. In arriving at this conclusion socialists and political analysts are fooled more by the soundbites from Millbank rather than reflecting on real facts.

The best guide to Labour’s membership is the annual elections for the National Executive Committee. Since 1994 the vote for the Socialist Campaign Group slate has been rising! In 1994 the Campaign Group candidates for the NEC each got on average 32,600 votes. In 1996 the Campaign Group slate received on average 42,000 votes. During this same period due to the growth in Labour’s membership the vote for the leadership’s favoured front bench candidates for the NEC also increased. David Blunkett, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlam and Jack Straw polled on average 65,700 in 1994, rising to an average of 81,500 in 1996. The proportions of the vote gained by the left and the leadership have stayed roughly the same. For every two votes going to a leadership-backed candidate one vote is cast for the left wing of the party.

The left continues to hold its ground among individual party members and is gaining new supporters. The "historic decline of the Labour Left" thesis, which is much talked about by the Blair leadership and by the left outside the party, is greatly exaggerated. The number of left-wing socialists inside the Labour Party is far in excess of the combined numbers of the claimed memberships of the many groups to the left of Labour.

The tasks today
The Blair government, after what could be a lengthy honeymoon period, is likely to increasingly run up against dissent from Labour’s traditional base. The Blairites understand that a revolt by significant sections of the labour movement is on the cards. This is the motivation for the present moves to permanently erode the power of the CLPs and the unions. Through the internal Partnership in Power proposals the Blairites hope to prevent any possibilities of the labour movement holding the Labour government to account.

At the present time we are in the middle of the crucial battle over the future of Labour. Now is not the time to abandon the fight for the Labour Party.