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The Revival of the Labour Left?

Tony Dale

IN THE last issue of What Next? I wrote an article on the attitude socialists should take to the Labour Party ("Socialists and the Labour Party: Stay and Prepare the Fight"). I stressed the importance of the decisions to be taken at the Labour Party conference, in particular the importance of Labourís National Executive Committee (NEC) elections as a barometer on the thinking of Labourís rank and file. In the aftermath of Labourís conference what assessment can be made of the state and future of the Labour Party?

The highlight of Labour conference was obviously Ken Livingstone defeating Mandelson for a seat on the NEC. Mandelson and friends have tried to put the spin that this result really does not matter. But if it did not matter then why did Mandelson stand? How did Mandelson misjudge the situation so badly as to give the Labour left such a public and morale boosting victory? Mandelson thought he would win easily, he believed his own hype: he believed he had created a New Labour Party composed of hundreds of thousands of model Blairites.

The NEC results shows the true reality: large sections of Labourís rank and file still support and have sympathy for the policies and principles of the left. There were 100,000 votes for Skinner, 80,000 votes for Livingstone, on average 58,500 votes for Socialist Campaign Group candidates, and all the Campaign Group candidatesí votes increased by between 30 per cent and over 50 per cent. Whether the socialist left can utilise this latent support to maximum effect is another question, but the fact remains there is a wide layer of support to start from.

Labourís conference, apart from the NEC election, was obviously a success for the Blairites. Throughout the rest of the week the leadership did not lose a single vote. Their main priority, Partnership in Power (PiP), was successfully passed. On other controversial issues such as Trident and tuition fees the leadership successfully steered their way through the week without any real danger. The first party conference after the election of a Labour government was always going to be a quiet affair. The much talked-about honeymoon period does exist. However even on this favourable terrain the leadership only avoided defeat on a number of issues by the good Old Labour method of relying on the union block vote.

The constant propaganda from Millbank Tower that Tony Blairís way is the only way forward has had an effect. There is a level of political disorientation among many activists in the party and the unions. Many believe they have to go along with Blair, Mandelson & Co because "they won us the election" and "there is no alternative". Often this leads to activists going along with policies which sharply conflict with their core beliefs and principles. They donít agree with what is happening but they will acquiesce. This disorientation has its left image with sections of the left abandoning the fight for the Labour Party because they believe the labour movementís party now belongs to Blair and Mandelson.

Just as many activists feel they have to go along with the leadership and are wary of pushing their own agendas, a similar spirit of acquiescence dominates the unionsí approach to the Blair government. Afraid of losing an open fight and concerned the link could be attacked, the unions want to shy away from a confrontation with Tony Blair even inside the party. UNISON, for example, voted for Partnership in Power and backed the leadership over Trident.

Despite the defeat over PiP the left have good reason to be optimistic. The NEC results show the left does have a mass base in the labour movement. The left is likely to attract support as the leadershipís authoritarian contempt for internal party democracy alienates wide layers of activists beyond the traditional hard left. Blairís government is now running into growing opposition to their monetarist-inspired and socially reactionary campaign against the benefit system. The centre of that opposition and the main battleground is to be found inside the Labour Party.

There are real possibilities of building broad alliances to fight for basic labour movement policies. In the fight over PiP the hard left were able to successfully build an alliance which included sections outside the Campaign Group orbit. The involvement of Tribune newspaper and Labour Reform in the opposition was a big step forward. The Labour left can utilise the opposition of Roy Hattersley and Barbara Castle to specific policies to help broaden the internal opposition to the Blair government. After the impressive rearguard fight put up against PiP and the success in the NEC elections the left is faced with the task of taking the fight into the post-PiP structures.

Next year MPs will be ineligible to stand in the elections for the Constituency Section of the NEC. The opposition to the leadership needs to be maximised by building a broad electoral bloc for these elections which will include the likes of Labour Reform and Tribune. The political basis of such a joint slate need only be a very basic statement of campaigning for the welfare state, full employment, democracy inside the party etc.

The present situation demands from the left a level of non-sectarian unity which runs counter to its recent history. The consequences of the present battles will be so great that the importance of the struggle will hopefully for once force the left to place the interests of the movement ahead of petty factionalism.

Over the last year the Labour left have necessarily concentrated on the internal battles over PiP. As a result policy issues tended to be downgraded in the list of priorities for Labour left activists. This needs to be rebalanced as the Blairite project will only be stopped when the left start to win the ideological battle against Labourís front bench. In the past, debates on policy have often been an opportunity for sections of the left to highlight their differences with the rest of the left. Today what is needed is a broad united front to campaign for the welfare state, a decent minimum wage, opposition to benefit cuts and other basic policies which can command widespread support in the movement.

At the present time the Labour left is probably in a stronger position than many of us could have hoped for at this stage in the life of the Blair government. The fight against Blairism is very much the key battle in the British labour movement at the present time. The centre of that fight is taking place in the Labour Party. In the media jokey comments about the Campaign Group of MPs being Her Majestyís Opposition are not far off the mark. The Blairites can at the end of the day use their control of the machine to bureaucratically attack the left, they can get rid of Clause IV, they can introduce PiP, but they cannot introduce an amendment to the Labour Party constitution which will make the class struggle disappear from Britain. The inevitable conflict as workers and those on benefit demand a better deal from the employers and the Blair government will win more supporters for the Labour left.

At the same time as being optimistic about the prospects for the left we should not underestimate the damage which has been done to the party by PiP and the increasingly anti-democratic methods used by the leadership. PiP represents a serious erosion of party democracy and accountability. The control by the centralised apparatus and the manipulation of the party structure threatens to wipe out any dissent or any criticism. The recent disciplinary action against members in Leeds and the Euro MPs does not augur well for the future. The tight control and vetting of candidates threatens anyone who is not a stooge and sycophant. There are articles in the press suggesting MPs will be suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party if they vote against benefit cuts.

The Labour Party could well be heading for a split with Blairite centralisation forcing the Labour left out of the party. The Campaign Group MPs could well be prevented from standing as Labour candidates in the next election. Such an action is likely to precipitate the emergence of a serious socialist electoral alternative.

Even if a split in the Labour Party seems more likely, what does that mean for tactics today? In such an historic juncture it is even more important to redouble our efforts for the present fight in the Labour Party. The left needs maximum unity in building the broadest alliances around the most basic issues. If successful we will prevent the Blair project from transforming Labour into a British version of the US Democrats; if we lose this historic battle and are forced out of the party we will have prepared the best ground for a new independent socialist party.

In the course of the present battles the Labour left has the opportunity to reinvent itself into a far more powerful force. Building broad united fronts around basic issues will be the key to success, but it is also vital we clarify some of the fundamental concepts that need to be at the core of our socialism. Against the practice of the Blairites and in the light of the events in Eastern Europe we need to make it clear that it is not possible to have real socialism without democracy. We need to create a political culture on the left which is committed to open democratic debate based on respect for political differences. The left in Britain has suffered for too long from having too many organisations and not enough organisation; the Labour left needs to become a broad inclusive alliance based on democratic accountable structures.