“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in…”***
by David Broder
The bitter chill of winter is never more harshly felt than at a labour movement conference with grandiose ambitions but limited prospects. This was much in evidence at the Labour Representation Committee last weekend, which marked a step back from any meaningful idea of renewing working-class representation.
Of course, the joke that the left is so keen on unity that it has sprouted a dozen competing unity projects is no longer particularly funny. But this problem is political, not merely organisational. For even worse than factionalism is simple retreat into the Labour Party.
On the left many are caught like a rabbit in the headlights faced with the incoming Conservative government. After ten years of efforts such as the Socialist Alliance, Respect and Socialist Labour Party, all of which sought to position themselves as social democratic in order to fill space vacated by New Labour, there is now great panic and confusion.
While in previous years a sizeable minority at LRC had stepped away from backing Labour, with John McDonnell MP scathingly critical of any notion of ‘reclaiming’ the party, even organisations supposedly well to his left look set to call for a vote for Labour in 2010. Much fuss was made over the destruction of union controls over the party such as took place at the Bournemouth conference of 2007, but such concerns have now been abandoned. This is matched with a considerable softening of rhetoric in criticisms of Labour, for example this post at the Socialist Unity blog with a video glorifying the party’s history (below).
The fear of the likely programme of the Cameron government is well-founded, and for sure it will be even ‘worse’ than Gordon Brown’s administration: but to therefore throw our weight behind the latter out of some short-term electoral calculation (the result is in fact a foregone conclusion) would be suicide. It would totally endorse the consensus that there is no alternative to cuts and that there is nothing to be done about capitalist crisis.
The weakness of the labour movement in general is such that there is no prospect of a left upsurge in Labour akin to that following Thatcher’s 1979 coming-to-power. And when and where there are signs of life in our movement, there is no reason why we should try and push them into the funnel of the Labour Party.
Of course, a left organisation’s call for a vote for this or that candidate is less important in terms of its actual impact on voters and turnout than its ability to affect the attitudes of larger organisations, for example over the question of whether we think a union should back Labour, selected candidates, some other initiative, or no-one.
Indeed, the most politically substantial comment of the day came from Communication Workers Union member Pete Firmin, who argued against union disaffiliation from the Labour Party. He commented that there was a lack of democracy within unions which existed above and beyond their pro-Labour stance, for example the same London Division of the CWU which had supported a vote to cut ties with Labour in the recent consultative ballot in the capital (resulting in a 96% vote for disaffiliation) had also backed the deal which brought an end to months of post strikes even without specific progress made.
It is indeed correct to point out that the left focuses exclusively on the right-wing turn of the Labour Party without examining many unions’ endorsement of ‘social partnership’ and the links between the two. However, he did not explain why it was therefore better that the unions should continue to plough resources into a party which does nothing to support their members: indeed, if anything, the reality of unions sharing Labour’s failings is an argument against the hope that they should ‘stay and fight’ or more stridently ‘stand up for themselves’ against the party leadership. The CWU ought to allow its membership to have the casting vote on whether to continue with affiliation.
‘Labourism’, whereby trade unions subcontract part of their efforts to a parliamentary wing which manages capitalism with a nod to workers’ interests, is not limited to support for the existing Labour Party. The RMT’s No2EU initiative, for example, maintains the same statism, lack of democracy and abstraction from ‘trade disputes’ as the classic social democratic formulas. A number of people writing for The Commune have argued against the idea of a Labour Party Mark II, recreating all the problems of old. As against this, the latest issue of our paper carries two articles arguing for open local conferences to discuss working-class political representation, a policy endorsed by RMT conference and an obvious focus for non-affiliated or newly disaffiliated unions, but which has not been fulfilled.
But even where there is no better alternative on offer we should also argue against the left’s drift towards a ‘default’ Labour vote. This does not necessarily imply a loud ‘boycott’ or ‘don’t vote’ campaign, but our analysis should point beyond the immediate questions of 2010 and all the talk of tactical voting and least-worst options, and instead look to a more serious and long term project of building a working-class political voice.
*** From So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams, best known as author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On this world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in…”