a letter to The Commune by Bill Butlin
The impending public expenditure cuts look like being a key issue for trade unionists at the next general election. The Labour Party and the Tories both maintain that cuts are unavoidable and that no alternative exists to their implementation.
In an interview with Andrew Marr at the beginning of January the Tory leader was gung ho on this issue. He maintained that the cuts identified as necessary by New Labour were not stringent enough. Clearly any pretence by Cameron that he represents the acceptable One Nation face of the Conservative Party, and one that has left Thatcherism behind, is challenged by this professed policy objective. An objective that will not only see public expenditure cuts but further privatisations and a parallel attack on public sector trade unionism.
This attack on trade unionism could well see further attacks on the right to strike in the public sector and an attempt to break the strength of workplace trade unionism. The public sector remains a bastion of shop steward resistance. The attempt to attack terms and conditions in this sector will see the annual pay rise either diminished or becoming a relic of the past as the Tories attempt to cut the cost of labour power in this sector.
In the face of this Tory attack the clear lead from socialists is that workers need to rely on your own strength to beat back this attack. And that we need to organise sooner rather than later in order to do this
However there remains the difficult question of how socialists should vote in the next general election. The two traditional responses to this by the left both seem inadequate.
The first of these is the ultra left view, long held by the more exotic sects in the labour movement, maintaining that there is no difference between the Labour and Tory party and that workers should support neither one at election time. The other advises a Labour vote on the grounds that the Labour Party may be bastards, but at least they are ‘our bastards’ and part of the workers’ movement.
Both of these arguments seem to me to ignore the important changes that have taken place in the Labour Party in recent years. These have moved it further to the right and have arguably made it no longer a traditional social democratic party. The abandonment of Clause Four and the retention of the Tory anti union laws, which are now New Labour anti union laws, are obvious examples of the way neo-liberal ideology has infected this party.
In the face of this, how can we explain the fact that some extremely class conscious workers will be calling for a Labour vote at the next election? Part of this has to be that they realise the extent of the attacks the Tories will be planning after the next election. Another reason is that hatred of the Tories remains strong in the workers’ movement. Another is the belief that the workers’ movement has more influence with a Labour government.
These however are not the only reasons. The call for a Labour vote also represents an implied criticism of the sectarianism of the so called ‘revolutionary’ left and its failure to build any political alternative to New Labour.
The Commune should listen very carefully to what this layer of workers is saying and give them a platform in our paper and forums. We should do this on the clear understanding that the answer to the current attack on the public sector remains in the hands of the working class itself and not the Labour Party. This understanding needs to point to the other side of the debate as well: that is, to the complete political bankruptcy of neo-liberal New Labour and the attack on public expenditure that both Brown and Darling are now planning.
17 thoughts on “time to vote labour?”
Interesting. I think it says something about the state of the far left that we’ve not been able to build a working class alternative to Labour after almost 13 years of Blair and Brown.
Many of us welcomed the open letter from the SWP after the European elections but it wasn’t followed up with anything concrete.
Whether or not we vote Labour at the next general election we’ll still need to build a political alternative to reformism.
I would of course agree that we should “take seriously” the arguments of those who do vote Labour, and that we should engage with them in our discussions (at work, at demos, online, at meetings, etc.)… but we should also stand steadfast against the argument.
One thing that comes out in the kind of arguments Bill uses brought to mind an argument Barry had made on a previous post.
Those left groups who call for a Labour vote are ‘with the masses’ only on the basis of anti-Toryism… as a simple-least worst choice, and not because of the union link, nor grand schemas about the “bourgeois workers’ party”, a revival of social-democracy, or anything like that.
The call for a Labour vote is little but a simple least-worst choice. The call for a Labour vote is not, as some of its proponents claim, in any way an example of relating to reformism (reforms towards what?!) or a united-front type critical support for the leaders of working-class organisations. For a start there is no communist pole of attraction to be able to ground such a dynamic.
Of course, to lots of people it makes sense to vote for the least-worst mainstream party, or the party which will attack us least. For identical reasons one might use this argument to justify a vote for the Democrats against the Republicans (or, in lots of constituencies, the Lib Dems to keep out the Tories).
Bill disparagingly refers to “ultra-lefts” (hate the term! maybe we should reclaim it…) who argue that “there is no difference between the Labour and Tory party and that workers should support neither one at election time”. I do not agree with either that view or his opposition to it. On the contrary, I say that there are many differences between the Labour and Tory party… and that workers should support neither one at election time, because of the wider similarities which also exist.
The fact that two parties/sides in some political conflict are “different” does not necessarily imply a tactical orientation to one over the other. Different parties implies different tactics only if what is different about them is greater in extent than what they have in common, and if there is some dynamic for change which makes tactical intervention worthwhile. Both might be totally incorrigible opponents of ours. The Lib Dems are “different” from the Tories, just as Labour are, but that does not imply that we have to support them.
For that matter, at election time we should also argue that unions should disaffiliate. It is a good time to raise the point, since the Labour manifesto and record in office will be much-discussed. Socialist Worker, which will perhaps call for some variant of vote Labour, has recently said unions should stop giving a “blank cheque” to Labour. Meaning – they should put strings on it. You cannot be for disaffiliation and a Labour vote (the former would undermine the latter, the latter undermines the argument for the former…) so SW sits on the fence on disaffiliation.
I can’t help thinking it’s a bit early in the year for an argument on the election- but it’s good that my letter has provoked some sort of discussion. I have just been reading the new book by Istvan Mezarous The Historical Actuality of the Socialist Offensive: Alternatives to Parliamentarism . This is basically a reprint of some chapters from Beyond Capital together with a new introductory chapter that is well worth reading. In the first chapter a speech by Tony Blair is quoted in which he said ‘The Labour Party is the Party of Modern Business and industry in Britain’. For Mezarous this represented ‘the final phase of the total betrayal of everything belonging to the old Social Democratic tradition that can be betrayed’. The Labour party has changed, so while David is clearly right in saying differences exist between the main parties. But they are clearly not the old differences. Consequently, the mere repetition of the old arguments on why to vote or not to vote Labour is clearly going to be good enough.
Sorry my las post should end ‘is clearly not going to be good enough’
Bill has certainly rehashed some very old dogma on why workers should vote for the Labour party as the lesser evil. He makes these old arguments indirectly putting his views in the mouths of what he describes as class conscious workers(anti Tory) who will be aware of the extent of proposed Tory cuts and conscious that the cuts of new labour will be less deep. workers will vote for Labour Austerity rather then Tory austerity and we must listen to them(follow them in voting Labour?) This approach lacks an independent working class or communist standpoint.
workers who vote for the labour party in the forthcoming election cannot be described as class conscious or not in any meaningful sense. There is some very old tactics for different historical circumstances behind this comment. The labour party is not a party that fools the workers by claiming to fight for the working class or parliamentary socialism. As Bill states its an open neo liberal bourgeois party, a party of modern business. The Labour party is not a party that wages the class war and never was.
Besides his argument assumes that Labour Cuts will be significantly different. with the election in mind, Gordon Brown is more upbeat with talk of easing the working class pain over a longer period, although Mervin King and Labour leaders such as Alistair Darling want him to be more honest and disclose the prospect of a shorter sharper period of pain. Either way the working class will be expected to pay for the capitalist crisis. Any difference in tactics does not make the labour Party a class party for class conscious workers. The cuts are not Tory attacks! This is the ideology of social democracy. New Labour is not social democractic.Nor is the grass roots of the Labour party or whats remains after all the pro capitalist labour Governments.
A vote for labour will be a vote for a capitalist solution to the crisis.Will the postal workers who face job losses and harsher working conditions imposed by new Labour vote labour? will class conscious public sector workers who have already faced privatisation regrading and job cuts imposed by new labour and face more of the same no matter which Bourgeois party is voted into office vote labour? How many class conscious workers think that trade unions have more influence with government? This ideology of influence on labour government has served to prevent a fight back. Trade unions are still shackled so much for influence.
we should side with the masses and the fight against capitalist austerity. for communists it is possible to be close to the masses and the class struggle without sticking close to new Labour. As the communist manifesto proclaimed the communists are more far sighted in terms of the line of march. we should not base ourselves on illusions or feed illusions of a lesser evil.
The dreary dogmatic trotskyist tradition of voting labour applied tactics from the early 1920’s to fundamentally different hitorical conditions, although the tactic was probably flawed from the outset. Certainly outstanding Revolutionaries such as John Maclean and sylvia Panhurst were against it. They knew British capitalism and the labour movement far better than Lenin.
But Having said that, Lenin was correct to state that it was not the size of the party or the number of voters which was decisive, but the question does the politics of the party serve the interests of the masses. “The British Labour party is a thoughly bourgeois party because although it is made up of workers it is led by reactionaries and the worst kind of rectionaries at that,who act in the spirit of the bourgeoisie” Was lenin an ultra left when he made these comments?
Barry seems to be developing his arguments against another Bill Butlin when he states
‘He makes these old arguments indirectly putting his views in the mouths of what he describes as class conscious workers’
This misrepresents my view that are clearly stated at the end of the article which reads
‘We should do this on the clear understanding that the answer to the current attack on the public sector remains in the hands of the working class itself and not the Labour Party. This understanding needs to point to the other side of the debate as well: that is, to the complete political bankruptcy of neo-liberal New Labour and the attack on public expenditure that both Brown and Darling are now planning’.
Soft on Social Democracy? I don’t think so.
Barry -No, Lenin wasn’t an ultra-left. The Labour Party is “a thoroughly bourgeois party”, indeed at times it can put itself to the right of the Conservatives.
I think the reason Lenin argued for the tactic of electoral support is that the LP is based on the labour movement.
NOTE: This doesn’t mean that this tactic should be applied at every election.
An interesting and revealing aspect of Barry’s letter is its absolute concentration on the election as an issue and its utter fixation with developing a correct ‘line’ to peddle on how workers should vote.
We should not be surprised by this parliamentary obsession, as it is also a feature of the current Trotskyist movement, an obsession which seems to perpetually dominate its current discourse. A discourse that Barry is reflecting. So he states ‘workers who vote for the Labour party in the forthcoming election cannot be described as class conscious or not in any meaningful sense’.
Thus for him how a worker votes during the next election is an absolute acid test of her class consciousness. This is a very election centric view of the world.
It naturally follows from this view that a class conscious worker who votes Labour on the basis of merely realising that Cameron represents the continuity of Thatcherism and not its antipode, is written off by him as someone who possesses no class consciousness. But what if this worker is also a shop steward fighting against public expenditure cuts made by a Tory local authority or someone who will face years of unemployment because of these cuts.
Some class conscious workers realise that Cameron will take Thatcher’s attacks on unions further with more stringent attacks on the right to strike. If a worker votes Labour realising this- does it really mean they are backward numbskulls and that they have no class consciousness?
Is Barry really maintaining that these workers are in need of a lecture from him and his Anarchist friends on what really constitutes the correct position at election time and why the way they vote is such a central and defining issue?
My letter which was focused on opposition to the cuts maintained several times that the task of fighting these cuts was the task of the working class itself. And yet Barry ignores this aspect of the letter completely. For him the cross on the ballot paper at election time is a far more interesting debating issue.
Nothing at all new here- and par for the lefts parliamentary obsessed course I’m afraid.
That’s why he remains completely myopic on the central point of my letter. This was that the fight against public expenditure cuts, not the election, will be the defining issue in the years ahead for many workers.
So let’s use the period before the election to build the opposition to the attacks that will surely follow. Let’s do this as opposed to concentrating exclusively on where workers put their cross. After all the real power of capital is concentrated outside of parliament – and that’s where the real fight against the Tory or Labour cuts will take place.
Well, it is not just an issue of individual votes. The readership of individual left papers etc. is never such that it could influence the outcome by grandiose calls to vote Labour with no illusions (who believes/realises they have illusions?).
The who to vote for question is also an issue about whether unions should continue affiliation to the Labour Party, and joint with that, their political independence from Labour. My latest CWU newsletter, amid all the coverage of the post strike and a cartoon of Mandelson, has an editorial by Billy Hayes extolling the virtues of paying even more money to Labour because it’s the only way to have a “voice” in the corridors of power.
I also think that this kind of thing:
“Is Barry really maintaining that these workers are in need of a lecture from him and his Anarchist friends on what really constitutes the correct position at election time and why the way they vote is such a central and defining issue?”
… is really ‘not on’. The ad absurdum idea of ‘lecturing’ people has no basis in what Barry has written, and the reference to ‘his Anarchist friends’ is just baiting. We should be able to debate in a comradely and respectful manner, there is no need for that kind of thing.
Yes Bill does have a talent for baiting. I am not rising to the bait.
i will restrict myself to his narrow Labourite anti Tory values. He values “class conscious” workers who realise that Cameron represents a continuety with Thatcherism not its antipode and will carry out more stringent attacks on the right to strike and make even further cuts.
Bill is just reflecting Labourite views that the Labour party or new Labour is the lesser evil. Let us remind ourselves that Blair and Brown were politically sons of Thatcher and represented and represent a continuation of Thacherism. The legal shackles on the right to strike remain in place. neo liberalism is still the ideology.
A Labour or a Tory Government will put in place more cuts. Local authority cuts in jobs and services are not just Tory council cuts despite Bills labourite bias. My employer the local council was labour and is now Liberal democrat. Different council, same cuts.
my job and wage is currently under threat so obviously I do not need an anti Tory lecture. And who raised the issue of Voting labour? Baiting or conviction?
I have now re-read my criticism of Barry’s arguments in the light of the observations in David’s post. I can therefore now confirm that I now regard my reference to ‘Barry and his Anarchist friends’ as a completely inappropriate remark. Please accept my sincere apologies for this political faux pas.
Is not the role of a propaganda outfit for more transformative left wing ideas such as The Commune precisely to provide a space to advocate alternatives to the parliamentary binary of Tory vs Labour?
I really can’t see the point of what Bill is trying to argue; that The Commune should obediently fall in line and endorse a Labour vote?
Yes, it is a real issue that the far left is disconnected from the mass of working classes and it is always right to bring this up. But, I can’t see how it follows from this that the logic of lesser evilism amongst the working class should imply a blind tail chasing exercise by The Commune. What’s next: a strategy of radical entryism into Labour and promoting revolution from the inside!
I appreciate Bill’s latest comment, since I think the flipside of us not using terms like ‘liberarian communist’ to identify us is that we also don’t use words like anarchist in a pejorative sense.
“Yes Bill does have a talent for baiting. I am not rising to the bait.”
… but, frankly, this is also baiting, and we can do without it. I also share Bill’s confusion surrounding the representation of the letter by Barry as arguments for “why workers should vote for the Labour party as the lesser evil”. The letter does not say we should vote Labour. It says we should listen to people who do and engage with them: which is fine, isn’t it?
I dont know what Bill himself thinks of the arguments he lists that Labour voting workers might make?
The question of The Commune not being a libertarian communist/socialist organisation is not a negotiating compromise that we dont use the term anarchist pejoritively. It is a fact of the democratic decision making of our network – we were never founded as such a body and have never decided we were exclusive to such a tradition. Indeed it was reiterated at our last aggregate as reiteration of the pluralism of our communist network.
I do agree we should not use anarchism as an abusive term, similarly the term ultra-left should not be used as a term of abuse but as is it is meant as a politicla category in the original meaning of the term. It is a big problem on the left how language and categories have been eroded of their actuall meaning which hinders the achievement of clarity and theoretical renewal.
“The question of The Commune not being a libertarian communist/socialist organisation is not a negotiating compromise that we dont use the term anarchist pejoritively. It is a fact of the democratic decision making of our network”
Did I say it was a “negotiating compromise”? No. I said it was the “flipside” of the position you refer to. i.e. it is the other side of the coin. We are not, on the basis of the same decision, avowedly “non-anarchist” (you might say) anymore than we are “libertarian communist”. There is no implicit connection between something being the “flipside” of something and it being a “compromise” in relation to it.
Yesterday’s RTW conference was excellent.
Will this be another Party/Sect front like the Unemployed Workers Charter, or the previous Right to Work campaign by the SWP?
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