by Chris Ford
Over two-hundred people attended the conference of the Labour Representation Committee held under the title of ‘The Future of the Left’. On the one hand the LRC conference took some very positive steps and on the other we had a full display of many of the negative traits of the traditional left.
In the debate on the storm raging in the global economy the motion from the Scottish based Campaign for Socialism was passed, in some ways reiterating last years policy that the “Left has not been able to win mass support for an alternative strategy” and “the LRC acknowledges that we need to construct the widest possible coalition of the Left, from within and beyond the Labour Party”.
The resolution from Lambeth & Southwark LRC bemoaned the lack of nationalisation, whilst rightly pointing out that the “The economic catastrophe provides the socialist left with both a challenge and a historic opportunity. We should not limit ourselves to measures designed to provide a softer landing to those affected by the economic crisis only for the system to be handed back when times improve to the rich and privileged elite in whose interests it has always operated.” They called for a campaign as large as the Stop the War movement around traditional left demands for extensive “democratic public ownership” and “a major programme of public works”.
These state-socialist conceptions were echoed by the resolution from the Trotskyist Socialist Appeal who said we must respond with the “the demand to nationalise the entire banking system, including the insurance companies”, along with other areas of the economy. Who are we placing this demand on?… well, the current capitalist New Labour government, who are expected to ensure that “industry should then be placed under democratic workers’ control and management”. Interestingly in the conference debate Socialist Appeal, when challenged what they meant by ‘workers’ self-management’, replied that they had not mentioned it. So they propose a version of ‘workers’ management’ in which workers do not manage by and for themselves…
This old slogan is an oxymoron: the idea Gordon Brown will place the banks under state control and in turn the state under the control of workers – which is the only way to understand nationalisation under workers’ control – is of course a complete impossibility. As a slogan to mobilise around it is in fact elitist and de-mobilising for it does not involve workers’ self-organisation or participation but the centrality of the state and a benign government from above. It is worth remembering when Socialist Appeal, then Militant Tendency, ran Liverpool City council in the mid-1980s they had every opportunity to introduce ‘workers control’ in the local state – they failed to do so, preferring to be the act as Marxist Managers of the City.
The comrades of Socialist Appeal in their resolution to place industry “under workers’ control and management” reveal a great deal of ambiguity and contradiction in the amalgam of state-ownership, workers’ control and workers’ management – which the International Communists consider to be three different things.
The motion from the International Communists, which was passed, can certainly assist in ironing out these ambiguities. Furthermore it commits the LRC to a definition of social ownership which rejects statist conceptions and supports workers’ self-management. The passing of the motion on social ownership and workers’ self-management is important in two regards – firstly it is the first time in three decades a body of the British labour movement has adopted such a policy, secondly it commits the LRC to develop these ideas through with its affiliates, LEAP and other organisations.
Whilst the motion was opposed by the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers Liberty and Stalinist New Communist Party, numerous delegates, including many who would disagree with us on other questions, expressed to our comrades a great deal of sympathy for these ideas and the motion. Genuine communists should welcome this LRC decision as an important step in the revival of the movement for workers’ control and self-management in our movement.
The other main debate was on workers’ representation, which became focused on a convoluted motion from the AWL with similarities to one submitted the previous year. Whilst at their own conference the AWL had decided they should learn the lessons of last year and seek allies before submitting a motion this year, in true sect fashion they paid no regard to these decisions. The whole was posed between the tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee positions of ‘reclaim the Labour Party’ and ‘create another Labour Party’. Simply recreating a model which has been a proven failure is hardly an alternative. This reduces the whole question of working class representation to standing in elections, further recreating the disastrous division of our movement into a political and industrial wing.
The appalling chairing contributed to the arid debate, with only AWL speakers being called in support of their motion and the Labour Party loyalists repeating that there was no alternative. The debate revealed a real lack of critical thinking on the part of the latter, with some comrades simply repeating fixed positions in a ritualistic manner with no regard to the fact their views are completely at odds with the outlook and experience of most members of the labour movement. At one point the CWU delegate ridiculously threatened that if the motion was passed they would break from the LRC and take their money with them. They were reminded the CWU have never made that threat to the Labour Party! In contrast the RMT and FBU have never behaved in such an undemocratic manner over the policy of the LRC.
Many of the LRC Labourite wing are fully aware that the capitalist Labour Party is beyond reclamation, and we need to create something else. Their opposition to electoral stunts however is being used as a crutch for intellectual sloth and actually working-out and creating that alternative. Even worse the debate revealed a real retrogression and isolationist trend amongst some of the Labour left, Jon Rogers arguing against the LRC being a bridge between the left in the Labour Party and those in the wider movement. For this trend the LRC is not so much a body to represent organised labour but a Labour Party left body which would be a sect.
The AWL motion was defeated and no doubt this may reinforce their own sectarian trajectory. Nevertheless the next RMT conference on January could possibly be an important arena of debate and should be built for with a view to addressing the real issue – the need for the re-composition of the labour movement as whole. This will be the perspective the communists elected to the National Committee will be arguing in the coming year.