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Socialists and the Labour Party

I WOULD LIKE to contribute to the discussion on the Labour Party that has been taking place in What Next?, drawing on my experiences as a party member in North Wales.

After Clause IV was junked, a few people left the Labour Party, but more left as the party moved further rightwards with the approach of the general election. I thought that good comrades, leaving before an election that was going to produce the first Labour government for 18 years, were manifesting deep personal demoralisation or an ill-thought-out impatience. I used both time and energy persuading comrades not to lapse, or to rejoin. In the short period since then what has happened?

We have seen some awful political shifts towards Tory-type policy from the government. Power has been concentrated even more with the leadership. A style of government emerged that seemed self-confident to the point of arrogance, with the opinion polls bolstering the leadershipís view that it couldnít do any wrong. Supposedly more members have left, but not so much the old ones as the recent recruits. Two MEPs have been expelled, though it looked to me as if they had planned it. All of a sudden there is talk of electoral challenges to Labour, and all sorts of socialist stalwarts and would-be Marxists are writing the Labour Party off as finished.

As regards Annual Conference, a defeat for democracy certainly took place with the adoption of Partnership in Power. But the left has been on the retreat since Tony Benn failed to get elected as deputy leader in 1981. The trade unions that supported the left and the democratic reforms gradually moved behind new leaders as anger at the Labour governmentís betrayals in the late 1970s subsided. A number of huge defeats for the workersí movement has severely weakened it. The collapse of the USSR and what was commonly known as socialism has all but removed the idea from discussion as an alternative to capitalism.

On the other hand, after only six months of government the revolt over single-parent benefit cuts, which were rejected overwhelmingly by ordinary Labour Party members, seems to have forced a rethink on the government. The threatened attacks on the disabled, the "Welfare Reform" project, have also met with overwhelming resistance, as the great bulk of party members hold fast to traditional beliefs. What has become clear is that New Labour is not yet the force that it tells us it is.

Although ministers, Blair mostly, insist that New Labour won the election, hence "we will govern as New Labour", it seems to me that apart from the new voters that came over from the Tories, the old traditional voters, on the whole, voted for the Labour Party as they always did, and have not perceived that New Labour is another project. I base this belief on my experiences since 1 May. People stop me in Tesco, or in the street, who know me from the Poll Tax struggle, and tell me of others who are almost blind or lame and yet have lost a part of their benefit. I explain what to do to get full benefit, but what I notice is that, as life-long Labour voters, they canít grasp why the government is carrying out Tory policy. A resentment is building up.

Inside the party, it seems to me that few members accept Blairís philosophy, and even those who mouth the buzz-words donít really grasp what he is about. In our CLP we had an arch-moderate branch sending an emergency motion to the General Committee criticising "government backsliding" only six months into Blairís first term. It was lost, as "it is too early to judge" and it only concerns "a series of mistakes". But one of those who argued thus in November was moving a motion condemning the single-parent benefit cut by January. More moderate branches sent motions condemning such government deeds and, what is more, nobody spoke to defend them.

Blair, Harman and the like donít bother presenting arguments so much as slogans about "getting into the real world". We know what world they live in, but itís obvious that they are out of touch with Labour Party members and traditional Labour supporters. They must be drunk on their own PR hype, but what worries me is that those who are now leaving the party or are preparing to set up challenges from Socialist Alliances seems to be just as taken in by appearances. I wonít forecast inevitable successes, like some we know and love, but I merely want to remind comrades that Blairís alliance, which includes the whole middle ground of society and leaves out the elements on the periphery, is an entirely artificial construct that ignores basic class and other contradictions within the capitalist system.

Even if the modernisers have the Labour Party wholly under control at present - and this is obviously not so, as the benefit revolt illustrates Ė then we can still expect an upsurge of single-issue campaigns, riots and mayhem, which will find a reflection in the Labour Party. Remember how Mrs Thatcher seemed untouchable one day, only to be shunted onto the US lecture circuit the next.

To leave over the downgrading of Annual Conference is to exaggerate the power conference had before and the weight of the CLP delegates in decision-making, just as to leave over the abandonment of Clause IV was to exaggerate to significance of what had long been a mere symbol. It seems all the more bizarre to me to split now just as Labour has formed a government and just as political debate has broken out inside the party.

But why bother intervening in the Labour Party, some say, if socialism is no longer on the partyís agenda? Well, because it remains the party the bulk of the working class look to and are still loyal to. When it becomes a bourgeois party, class warriors will have to start again. But historical experience shows that since the rise of the Labour Party no rival parties set up in opposition to Labour, either left or right breakaways, have been able to challenge it successfully for its traditional support. If the great convulsions of the interwar years failed to provoke the establishment of a rival to seriously challenge Labour, how can one expect such a move now?

It all hinges on the introduction of Proportional Representation. We donít know what system will be adopted or the mechanics of it, but the Regional List system proposed for the 1999 Euro-Election is certainly one that ought to provoke more unrest and debate. Labour candidates, and their ranking, will be determined by NEC members and "key" people in the region concerned. The people who promoted One Member One Vote (OMOV) as the be-all and end-all of democracy now see membership decision-making through OMOV as only "superficially attractive". Accountability will end, whereas it could be maintained if Euro-CLPs were kept and candidates placed on top of the list in the respective constituency that selected them. As yet we donít know what percentage of the vote is the bottom limit, as if placed too high it could ensure that no small parties get represented. Deposits could also prohibit small parties of electoral alliances from standing. All of the above work against what are supposed to be the advantages of PR: the non-wastage of votes and the proportionality of elected representatives to the votes cast.

Presumably, the best that people who have fled from the Labour Party in the hope of creating a small, purer party can expect is the election to Westminster or Strasbourg of a couple of spokesmen. What role are they to play? Propaganda? The taking up of minority matters? Or do the protagonists hope they can be the make-weights on the scale when governments are formed, or, more modestly, when key votes occur? Either way, it is hardly the stuff of great social change. I remember former Labour MP Ron Brown responding to a question on BBC radio (after heíd been deselected), and he thought that as a very left wing backbencher he had been marginalised and had no real influence, but that had he stayed as a trade union militant he could have had much more. Watching the debate of the Gulf War on TV, I noted how people like Ron, Dave Nellist and others couldnít seem to get called to speak. Tony Benn, Eric Heffer Ė whoíd come from his deathbed to oppose the venture Ė and a few others spoke, but it was all cut and dried, to make it appear that opposition came only from the usual suspects. As Ron Brown said on the radio, the two front benches work together to cut out real dissent when they agree on the task in hand. So arenít comrades who have fled from the Labour Party to build a new electoral organisation suffering from parliamentary cretinism?

Iím afraid that before the working class recovers its strength and the will to struggle there canít be any alternative to the Labour Party, nor can we expect great things to come from the Labour Party. Changes in the party do not come because of a clause in the party rules or the power of conference, and certainly not through the will of left wing activists, but only through the actual class struggle. And the Labour Party cannot be sidelined through assorted activists running off to set up Socialist Alliances. Only great historical events can determine such a thing. To think otherwise is to lose all sense of proportion. One day the French Socialist Party looked dead, but a great movement of resistance to the cuts brought it back into government. And today we see an impressive movement of the unemployed in France, and the stirrings of a movement in Germany. The Labour Party will remain the centre of political focus for working class activists for the foreseeable future.

Mike Jones

Marxism and Bosnia

I WAS SURPRISED Ė but also, I am afraid, not surprised Ė at the tone of responses by Mike Jones ("Bosnia, World War I ...") and Al Richardson ("The Class Basis of Marxism") in What Next? No.6 to Joe Rassoolís critique of their approaches to the central issue in the conflict in Bosnia. This issue, for me, is the clear evidence of a programmatic, systematic, sustained policy of genocide ("ethnic cleansing") on the part of the Bosnian Serb authorities towards the Muslim population at the time of the massacre in Srebrenica.

Not to be able morally to identify a matter of this kind seems to me to be a kind of wilful blindness, of the kind analysed by George Orwell in his essay "Inside the Whale" concerning political abuse of language. It seems to me to be an attitude unworthy of socialists, having all too much in common with the bad socialism this century has been familiar with.

It struck me also that Mike Jones and Al Richardson cannot have much desire for serious discussion with any socialists coming from a Muslim background, if this is how they respond to Joe Rassool. Perhaps this does not upset them.

Actually I think their positions are racist. Mike Jones gave the game away. His praise for the policy of the German Communist Party (KPD) on the Jewish question in the 1930s and 1940s was offensive to me as a socialist and a Jew. Wasnít this the same KPD which, never deviating from Stalinís orders, sided with the Nazis in the Red Referendum in Prussia against the Social Democrats in 1931, and endorsed the Stalin-Hitler Pact in 1939?

The dirty compromises of Stalinism were fatal above all for Europeís Jews, and the policy and practice of the KPD was central to this shameful, bitter history. Iím afraid that not only is Mike Jonesís attitude an unambiguous endorsement of Stalinism, it is also an endorsement of Europeís genocide ("ethnic cleansing") carried out against its Jews: the direct precursor to the current ongoing horrors in the Middle East. Jones should be ashamed.

As for Richardsonís misogynistic diatribe, the least said the better. The socialist who cannot see a racist massacre when it takes place would do better to attend to her (or his) gardening.

Paul Trewhela