England and Wales: Reconquer the Labour Party or build a new left party?

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By Phil Hearse

July 12, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance -- A supporter of the Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain (CPB), under the pseudonym "Michael Ford", has written the most substantial rebuttal of the proposal to found a new left party in Britain – “Left Unity’s Modest Flutter”, posted on the Left Unity site.

Weighing in at more than 9000 words Ford’s article assesses almost every conceivable objection, from the weighty to the absurd. By analysing his critique in depth we can be more precise about what the case for a new party actually is and on what basis it can be built.

Ford’s key argument is that the "main organisations of the working class" – by which he means the trade unions Unite, Unison and the GMB – are waging a campaign to win back the Labour Party from Blairite neoliberalism. This campaign is counterposed to the idea of building a broad left, socialist, party on the basis of the hundreds of thousands mobilised in the struggles against austerity, in the trade unions, the mass campaigns and the movements of the oppressed.

Since this document was drafted we have been given, in the row with Unite over candidate selection in the seat of Falkirk, a spectacular view of how the Labour Party leadership will respond to even the slightest attempt to weaken the iron grip of the party bureaucracy over the selection of candidates (and anything else significant for that matter). We return to this central question below, but first let’s look at some of Ford’s subsidiary arguments.

Your space is already taken…what about TUSC and Respect?

According to Ford “… there is no explicit recognition of the fact that several such Left electoral parties already exist in Britain today – Respect, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and the Socialist Labour Party on the electoral side of things; with Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland, as well as a variety of other far left parties, and not forgetting the Green Party which many people would certainly regard as ‘left’. So this is not a call for an occupation of presently empty territory.”

In fact Respect and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) disqualify themselves from any serious attempt to occupy the space to the left of Labour by their functioning as wholly owned subsidiaries under one-man management. Arthur Scargill evicted any potential critics from the SLP in the mid-1990s and Respect is subject to the whim of George Galloway and his latest foot-in-mouth pronouncements. Neither has the capacity to embrace pluralist vision of socialism or become broad left parties and occupy the space to the left of Labour.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) cannot as presently constituted occupy the space to the left of Labour because it doesn’t have the ambition to; it is not a party but an electoral bloc in which the main forces are the Socialist Party (CWI) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). Left Unity has yet to decide its position on elections, but it is probable there is a big majority in favour of participating in elections and in that case it is quite likely that Left Unity will be involved in some sort of electoral agreement with the TUSC.

However, a significant obstacle as far as the European elections are concerned is likely to be the TUSC decision, sanctioned by the RMT, the CPB/Morning Star and the Socialist Party, to re-run a “No to EU” campaign. In a situation where one of the main aspects of xenophobic reactionary mobilisation in Britain is knuckle-headed anti-Europeanism and little Englandism, this is a disaster.

A “No to EU” campaign will have its voice confused with and overwhelmed by the far-right UK Independence Party. Left opposition to the capitalist EU, and the fight for a democratic social Europe, cannot be posed in these terms and be electorally effective. It is a pity that the Socialist Party has been prepared to go along with it. (How a "left" No to EU can chime in with xenophobic buffoonery was last week demonstrated by Dennis Skinner’s pathetic performance in the Commons, merely acting as an echo chamber for the Tory right).

But are the TUSC potential partners in creating a pluralistic left party? To be honest you would have to say that it would require a period of more-or-less rapid political development before that was likely, but of course it should not be ruled out. For some of the forces involved therein the issues of feminism, pluralism and individual membership are likely to be obstacles. In the spirit of unity however it is not a matter of raising insuperable barriers but of political debate within the framework of joint action and campaigning.

As far as the Green Party is concerned this organisation certainly doesn’t occupy the political space Left Unity wants to occupy because of its politics. The Greens are no answer to the crisis of working-class representation, despite the many socialists and progressives who operate within it. They are deliberately not a left-wing or socialist party.

As far as Scotland is concerned it is my personal view that the new left party should not try to build in opposition to the existing Scottish Socialist Party and that comrades in Scotland who sympathise with Left Unity should join the SSP.

Overall none of the other left-wing forces mentioned by Michael Ford are attempting to occupy the same space as Left Unity, none are trying to build a broad left party to the left of the Labour Party (in England and Wales).

Reclaiming Labour?

Michael Ford’s fundamental argument on the Labour Party is that, although it’s difficult, the most realistic strategy for socialists is to back the trade unions leaderships’ campaign to win Labour away from New Labourism. This campaign according to Ford is being waged by the leaderships of Unite, Unison and the GMB.

He argues that the major obstruction to socialist advance and defence of progressive gains is the low level of struggle and the defeats the labour movement has suffered, which are the social base of New Labour. He says there is no chance of breaking out of that other than prolonged work of reconstituting the labour movement and promoting progressive policies and unity within it. In this the trade union-Labour Party nexus is vital. He says:

The key element is the orientation towards the labour movement, which is to say towards the working class and its organisations, rather than a form of substitutionism which, while acknowledging the role of the working-class in the abstract, avoids engagement with it in practice and instead exalts the role of individual progressives.

(Just in parenthesis, it is frankly just not true that the kind of people in Left Unity, often with decades of experience in the unions, community campaigns, women’s organisations and socialist politics acknowledge the working class in abstract and avoid engagement in practice. Neither do they on the evidence I have seen ‘exalt the role of individual progressives’ – rather the opposite.)

Ford continues:

Under circumstances of a stronger and developing working-class movement, can [the Labour Party] be turned into an instrument of deeper social advance – not a revolutionary party but one which can contribute towards opening up the way to socialism? The only honest answer at the moment is – who can say for sure? The main working-class organisations have set it as their task to try to accomplish that transformation after the disastrous New Labour episode – the first, and successful, step, being to work for the election of the best of the possible leaders on offer, Ed Miliband. Since then, some progress has been made away from the worst positions of New Labour but it has undeniably been uneven and incomplete – pretending New Labour is dead is as wrong as pretending nothing has changed since 2010 (the Left Party position in effect). No-one can assert that it is likely that a 2015 Labour government will master the economic crisis in the interests of ordinary people, although it could certainly be an arena of struggle over its direction which could bring benefits in itself in terms of strengthening the movement, and could create circumstances for the working-class to recover a measure of confidence. That is the task that the major organisations of the class (Unite, Unison, GMB etc) have democratically set themselves and the chances of them now abandoning it in favour of a new Left Party are zero. (My emphasis, PH)

History is often unkind to political perspectives, but this approach suffered chronic damage within a few weeks of these lines being written. Highly symbolically Labour leader Ed Miliband chose June 22 – the day of the Peoples’ Assembly – to disabuse everybody of the notion that Labour would restore any of the Tory cuts. In your dreams leftists! To talk about Ed Miliband having an “uneven and incomplete” break with New Labour is obvious wishful thinking. A few days later when George Osborne revealed his spending plans for 2015 and beyond (cuts and even more cuts) it was no wonder that shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ blustering performance in the House of Commons cut no ice at all – he had fundamentally nothing to say.

But most dramatic of course is the ongoing row between the Unite and the Labour leadership over candidate selection in Falkirk. Clearly, Len McCluskey, to who Ford is very close politically, really wanted to use the trade union recruit mechanism to influence the selection of candidates, in a situation let us not forget, where the party leadership before the last election imposed an iron grip and virtually appointed its own chosen right wing candidates from the centre.

In response to this attempt, Ed Miliband demonstrated the "unevenness" and "incompleteness" of his break with Blairism by suspending the union join mechanism, reporting Unite to the police, suspending Karie Murphy, the Unite-backed candidate in Falkirk, and Stephen Deans, the chair of Falkirk Labour Party branch, from the party and launching a witch hunt against McCluskey and Unite. The Labour leadership and the dominant right wing will absolutely not allow any significant shift to the left: and they have complete control over the bureaucratic apparatus to impose their will.

Ed Miliband as “the least worst choice available” and the person to lead the labour movement away from New Labour has been the dampest of squibs. Not only has that train left the station but the station itself has been closed down. On a raft of political issues including civil liberties, immigration and foreign policy, Miliband is right slap bang in the middle of New Labourism. From the point of view of representing the working class and promoting progressive advance, Labour is a political corpse.

Ford claims the “major organisations of the class (Unite, Unison, GMB)” have set themselves the task of reclaiming the Labour Party away from New Labourism is questionable on two fronts – a) are they really trying to do that? b) is there any hope of success?

This is not a matter of reading statements by union leaders, but of looking at their real strategies and how they approach the industrial struggle. Unite’s Len McCluskey is serious about trying to push the Labour leadership leftwards, has attempted to use the union’s weight to get left candidates and has given limited support to industrial action; but for Dave Prentis of Unison and Paul Kenny of GMB this is mainly a matter of protest gestures.

Worse, the union tops -- other than the teaching unions (partially) and the Public and Commercial Services Union’s Mark Serwotka -- wound down the 2011-12 wave of strike actions over pensions and other cuts. In other words the union leaderships have precisely undermined the mass strike movement which is the type of action that will remoralise the labour movement and rebuild it. Their futile strategy works like this: they think the only possibility of any defence of members’ conditions and the welfare state is the re-election of a Labour Party government pushed to the left. They absolutely do not believe in mass industrial action as the key to defeating austerity, indeed they believe it may harm Labour’s electoral chances. But once the Labour leadership declares "no deal" on reversing cuts and restoring the welfare state the union tops are left empty handed.

You have to make an historical judgement of what has happened to the Labour Party. It is now 30 years since Neil Kinnock became Labour leader and initiated the witch hunt against the Militant tendency and others on the left. Thirty years of moving right and championing finance capital and US imperialism as well as dumping the welfare state, including 13 years of vicious right-wing government. Of course Labour never was a socialist party, but the prospects in any foreseeable future of it regenerating as even a party of mild welfarism must be counted as practically zero.

Category malfunction: Allowable and non-allowable parties

Michael Ford is obsessed with political parties that he thinks ought not to exist and whose very presence on the political scene is disruptive – into which category he scathingly condemns most of the European left to the left of social democracy, including parties like Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany and even the France's Left Front.

There is little recognition in what he writes that these parties represent a significant step forward that is able to represent – in a partial, uneven and contradictory way – the interests of the working class and the oppressed against the politics of austerity and destitution that neoliberalism represents. Sectarian rejection of these formations is a political disaster and a sign of mechanical and schematic thinking. Assessing the social and political impact of these broad left parties using a pre-existing template (especially one inherited from the 1930s) fails to see the positive role that a break with neoliberalism in the political domain has on the morale and the combativity of the working class and the oppressed.

This is the weakness of critiques of Left Unity that say, well of course it is struggle that will defeat austerity and neoliberalism, and not the building of political parties. The new left parties, whatever their weaknesses, disrupt the monopoly of mainstream political discourse enjoyed by the neoliberals and the bourgeoisie. Of course the direct class struggle is the key part of it, but those fighting neoliberalism and the system need to be given political voice capable of getting a wide hearing.

As far as Left Unity is concerned, Michael Ford considers that its program is merely "normal" social democracy. He is disdainful of new critiques of Leninism being put forward by some in Left Unity: real Leninism, to which he himself appears committed, is what was (and is?) on display in the "international communist movement". For Michael Ford Leninism is, really speaking … Stalinism.

So for Ford the allowable parties are the significant parties supported by the working class and the properly "Leninist": which in Britain conveniently fits into the Labour Party and the CPB/Morning Star. In assessing the possibilities of Labour eventually being returned from the undead to a vehicle of social progress he adds the significant codicil that it’s unlikely “on its own”. This of course harks back to The British Road to Socialism, the program of the Communist Party since the early 1950s, which posited the transition to socialism starting with a parliamentary victory of a left Labour government supported by Communist MPs.

Given Ford’s major strategic idea, the left reconquest of the Labour Party in alliance with sections of the trade union leaderships, other parties are unnecessary, inconvenient and maybe even sabotage the kind of unity that is needed. They must also be decried with as much tendentious rubbish as possible. Which is where the accusation of social democracy comes in.

According to Ford, “the political ‘centre of gravity’ of the new left party will be – opposition to austerity, support for welfare; opposition to racism, support for equality; democratic, pluralist, green etc”. In fact the founding program of Left Unity is likely to go well beyond this. In any case this list of ambitions in modern conditions could never possibly be achieved without significant inroads into the power and wealth of capital.

There is absolutely no chance of the Left Party being anything other than a socialist, anti-capitalist party. But there is also no chance of a left party being successfully established without it being a pluralist arena where different conceptions of socialism can exist. The role of central planning, cooperatives, private companies and the market are all likely to be hotly contested. The party will have to be broad enough to encompass the many thousands of people hostile to neoliberal capitalism, who want alternatives based on equality and social justice, but who are not yet ready to give their affiliation to a particular brand of socialism, or even call their radicalism "socialist" at all. This is particularly applicable to young people whose political formation has taken place in an epoch where socialism appeared off the political map.

Most of all, quite unlike social-democratic parties a new left party based on modern socialism has to be open to the aspirations and movements of the specially oppressed, in particular to feminism.

Conditions of foundation

In the middle of a lot of debate, one of the gratifying things about Left Unity is that people are just getting out there and setting it up, involving a lot of diversity and different political backgrounds, but also people who have never been involved in a party-type organisation before and are new to politics.

By basing itself on the anti-austerity activists, rank and file trade unionists, campaigners for women’s rights and the disabled, as well as radicalised youth and students, Left Unity is "ignoring or bypassing" the leaden schemas of the past on how a new left party could emerge. In the past some of us thought a new left party would require a split in the Labour Party; or dramatic advances in the class struggle in which the working class and its allies scored massive gains; or the emergence of a militant trade union leadership prepared to give direction to the formation of a new party.

Any of those scenarios would of course be a tremendous advance of what we have now. But the conditions that demand we fight for a new party cannot be of our own choosing and design. We are compelled to fight for a new party from the bottom up. It takes some leap of the imagination to believe that this is a less realistic option that fighting to "reclaim" Labour.