the left and new labour in opposition

by Dave Spencer

After a recent “public consultation” meeting of our local NHS I was approached by an old right-wing Labour councillor.  “Have you considered re-joining the Labour Party?” he asked. “We need people like you to re-build the Party, get us back to our roots.”  He went on about the ‘good old days’ – the 1980s – when we had “great discussions” and we could get 150 delegates to a District Labour Party meeting.  Now they cannot get a quorum for meetings and the new members are just careerists.

I was a bit taken aback.  I didn’t like to remind him that I had been expelled along with 125 others in 1992 for objecting to the rigging of ballots for the shortlist for MP, or that I and others had been told on a number of occasions that we had no chance of promotion or another job working for Coventry City Council if we continued as left activists.  I remember seeing good comrades turn round and leave a meeting when they saw Bob Ainsworth (later Labour MP for Coventry North East and Minister for War) sitting in the corner with his tape recorder and note pad ready to get evidence – for what purpose one can only imagine.  That is how it works in the Labour Party – threats or bribery to gain power or keep power. I remember one leading councillor telling me that everyone has their price and that I was pitching mine too high. He said, “It’s amazing what you can get people to vote for if you just offer them a couple of tickets to the Queen’s garden party!”

The serious point is that now New Labour is in opposition it has to re-create itself to re-gain power in 2015.  Already the contenders for the Labour Party leadership are distancing themselves from Blair and Brown and the legacy of 13 years.  Local councillors and MPs are beginning to speak out against the coming cuts in jobs and services in order to pose as the leaders of any protest movements – putting on a left face.  They will of course swing the Trade Union bureaucrats behind them.  It is sickening to see this performance since we know that if New Labour had won the election they would be implementing savage cuts – as their comrades in Spain and elsewhere will be doing.  And furthermore the “great discussions” we had in the 1980s were about the left’s opposition to local Labour Councils carrying through Thatcher’s cuts.

Why would anybody with red blood coursing through their veins join the Labour Party?  But apparently some on the left are.  The usual left argument is the quote from The Communist Manifesto article 2:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The Labour Party is no longer a mass party of the working class.  In the 1950s my uncle was a shop steward at Armstrong Whitworth, the secretary of his AEU branch and treasurer of the local Ward Labour Party.  There was a connection between workplace, Trade Union and community Labour Party.  Many workers in a housing estate worked together at the local factory.  There were ways in which workers could raise factory disputes, community issues and get things done through the Union and the Labour Party. In every street there would be a member who would collect subs for the Party, give out leaflets and canvass so that the Party would know who were supporters and who were not.  There would be none of this left group nonsense of giving out a leaflet a week before the election and expecting people to vote for you. The Labour Party was an organic part of the community.  But this type of mass organisation no longer exists.

Another argument for joining the Labour Party is — with a campaign or project in mind.  For example I first joined the Labour Party in the late 50s when CND had a campaign to join the Labour Party to change its policy to “Ban the Bomb”.  We won the vote at the Labour Party conference of 1960 but the LP leadership had no intention of carrying the policy out when in government.  In that same year 1960 the LP set up the Young Socialists’ organisation to attract youth after they lost the election in 1959.  I was a delegate from Coventry East to the first Conference. Immediately the left groups (Healyites, Cliffites and Grantites) who were all in the LP at the time had the project of winning over the YS to their politics. By 1964 Keep Left, the paper of the SLL (Healyites) had gained a majority on the YS National Committee and we were promptly expelled from the LP, leaving the dead hand of Militant in charge. In the 1980s there was the Benn for Deputy Campaign, and the project of democratising  the party and local government with the de-selection of MPs and councillors by the left. In 1981 I became an LP County Councillor for Coventry South East on the West Midlands Region which was closed down with the other metropolitan councils (apart from the GLC) by Thatcher in 1986. There is no doubt that during this period there was a mass influx of people into the Labour Party.  We could indeed get 150 delegates to our District Labour Party meetings. The astonishing thing is that the left at this time was not really organised. There were groups like Militant and Labour Briefing but the majority of activists were independent. In particular Militant refused to join Broad Lefts and would vote for the right wing rather than for left comrades they thought they could not influence. Eventually the local government left was defeated along with the Miners’ Strike by a combination of Thatcher and Kinnock.

What could possibly be the project or campaign in the Labour Party now? There is no way to influence LP policy via the Conference. There is no Young Socialist organisation.  There is no way to de-select MPs or councillors – decisions come from the bureaucrats above not from local parties. And local government has no real power or independence any more since the Thatcher years.  There has to be some sort of way in which the working class can express itself and organise within the Labour Party in order for there to be a mass influx of new members.  Why be just used as leafleting fodder for the right wing?  Personally I cannot see any scope for setting up a left campaign or project within the Labour Party.

The fact that a number of independent socialists are joining the Labour Party is a result of the failure over 13 years of the UK left groups to form a broad united workers’ movement as an alternative to New Labour.  We have had the SLP, the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect – all of which have collapsed or been sabotaged, depending how you look at it.  There must be lessons learned before we go ahead with any new organisation.  The key has to be building from below any opposition to the coalition’s cuts in jobs and services; building active local groups in a democratic and united manner.  Any national body should be a network of these local groups.

What we do not want are vanguardist elites or parties who think they know all the answers trying to take over and close us down if we do not agree with them – like the SWP did to the Socialist Alliance.  In these local Save Our Jobs and Services groups we will no doubt come across members of the Labour Party as well as of the left groups.  Provided they behave in an open and democratic manner, they should of course be welcomed.

7 thoughts on “the left and new labour in opposition

  1. Come on Dave, the LP may not be a mass Workers Party in the way that the SPD was at the beginning of the last century, but it is the closest we have to one in Britain. Certainly, its massive compared to all the left sects that ridiculously pose as alternatives. I’d refer you to the 75 votes recived by the AWL’s cnadidate in the General Election.

    And the truth is as both of us know that the kind of activism you refer to of the 1980’s and 1950’s, has not at all been typical of the LP throughout its history. Indeed, during the 1960’s part of the Cliffite argument against joining the Party was precisely the same as that you put forward now. They produced detailed studies showing that CLP membership was all on paper, and so on. When I joined in 1974, the LP was even more moribund than it is now. My own CLP was ruled over by a former Stalinist who applied all the same kinds of tactics (minus the violence) that Stalinist parties have used in the past to maintain control. Yet, the upsurge of the 80’s developed DESPITE all of that precisely because Marxists in particular were able to do what they are supposed to do, engage with the reality rather than just complain about it, and mobilise the wokers who they persuaded to join, to engage in political class struggle. The option is to do what the left has largely done in relation to the LP, and what you appear to want to do now, stay on the sidelines, maintain its purity, and whinge at the vicissitudes of life in Capitalist society, and the problems of mobilising a largely backward working class.

    I made similar points locally to some local LP activists who bemoaned their personal treatment, and had deided to leave and stand in the elections. They were wipe out, and will undoubtedly end up simply giving up on politics, unable to have any influence on anything. I pointed out to them what I’ll point out to you. In the late 1920’s and early 30’s, the Stalinists did not simply sit in meetings with tape recorders, but with clubs ready to beat the Trotskyists over the head if they spoke up out of turn. Yet Trotsky argued for revolutionaries to stay in the CP, because it still had links with a mass of workers. Even when that became untenable, it was not long before he argued for joining the SP’s for the same reason. The revolutionary forces then were much larger than they are today, and the potential for creating some new large revolutionary Party greater too (though in reality not great then either).

    The attitude of the Left to the LP is really just an extension of its sectarian attitude to the working-class itself – probably because so much of the left itself is dominated by petit-bouregois elements – as I pointed out in my blog a while ago Why The Sectarian Left Really Hate The Labour Party. The reality is, as I predicted some months ago, much of the Left will now collapse back into the LP. Some of the larger groups like the SWP might be able to grow on the back of an Economistic, syndicalist politics as worker militancy grows over the coming period, but it will be as much of a dead end as it was in the past. The rest will, like the history of the WRP, degenerate into ever more loony sects. But, those sections of the Left that simply collapse into the LP will most likely continue their sectarian politics, seeing it once more as just a tactic to “build the Party” as happened with the entrist tactic in the past. Real Marxists trying to build the Workers Party can do without that experiecne all over again.


  2. On the Manifesto quote, what people always seem to ignore is the bit that follows it:

    “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

    Note how the bearded ones tell us that these three goals are those of all proletarian parties. The corrolary of course being that a party which doesn’t hold to them is not a “working-class” party of any description.

    I reccomend looking up comrade Macnair of the CPGB’s articles on Labour, it’s nature as a “bourgeois workers party” and what this means for those attempting to build an alternative. Needless to say, coalitions like the TUSC which merely ape old labour are NOT the answer.


  3. The problem here is that you forget that Marx and Engels were both Historical Materialists and Dialecticians. The importance being that the task of ” formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat” has to be understood both in its historical context of where the class is at the particular moment in time, and understood as a process i.e. it is not a completed task.

    That is why Marx and Engels with their comrades joined the German Democrats which was a bouregois party, and certainly did not have the above task as its goal. What it did have was contact with the mass of workers, and was the party that those workers looked to. That was why they decided to work within it. Either it would be possible to win such a Party to such a goa, or – more likely – it would result in at least the forces for such a Party being gathered together within the process, so that a separate Party became possible. A look at Engels writings to the Americans at the end of his life on creating a Workers Party echoes precisely that point. He argues that that was exactly why he and Marx joined the Democrats even though it was a bouregois Party, and reiterates the quote from the Manifesto to back it up.

    And for today’s sectarians who feel they can ignore the worekrs and their Party with all its inadequacies he makes the point above that I have made about their fate – they will degeernate into increasingly irrelevant sects.

    ““…What the Germans ought to do is to act up to their own theory –if they understand it, as we did in 1845 and 1848–to go in for any real general working-class movement, accept its faktische starting points as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original programme; they ought, in the words of The Communist Manifesto, to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present. But above all give the movement time to consolidate, do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people’s throats things which at present they cannot properly understand, but which they soon will learn. A million or two of workingmen’s votes next November for a bona fide workingmen’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform.”

    “…But anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the workingmen’s party–no matter what platform–I should consider a great mistake…”

    Preface To The American edition Of The Condition Of teh Working Class

    See Also: Marxists & The Workers Party


  4. Comrades
    The problem is not the size of the Labour Party but what it has become. Can an organisation which has no democracy to speak of and can parachute in the assorted reactionary friends of its leaders in as MPs be of any use to the working class? For instance Tristam Hunt thrown in as MP in Stoke on Trent because he’s a mate of Peter Mandelson or Shaun Woodward scion of the Sainsbury family, a multi-milionaire and newly departed TORY MP shoved into St Helens by diktat. Members of the Labour Party can’t even put motions to a conference anymore because it no longer exists in any meaningful sense and has been replaced by what is essentially a rally for the ledership.
    Worse has an organisation who’s chief economic operator (Gordon Brown) was most heavily influenced by his friendship with Sir Ronald Cohen, the founding figure of private equity in Britain, got anything to do with workers or the left? Other than the usual methods of deceit and repression of course. “Private equity” is one of the most parasitic and virulently anti-working class sectors of capital why are its representatives advising a “workers’ party”?
    Does a party which perpetrated one of the largest and most audacious acts of extortion and theft in history – paying monstrous amounts of taxpayers money (mostly from the working class as the capitalists and their hangers on don’t pay tax if they can help it) directly to finance capital to bail out the banks have anything at all to do with organising the working class in its own interest? Even after this the rotten outfit then set up Lord Myners, a hedge fund millionaire to run the banks it had to take over as an alternative to collapse. Brown’s “Labour” Government was then happy to pay over £1.5bn in bonuses to RBS bankers responsible for creating the most bankrupt bank in all history. This means that the entire budget of a major city local government has been paid out to a few investment bankers who even a slightly courageous bourgeois Government would have had locked up for fraud and incompetence.
    There are some other factors like the collapse of social democracy on a world scale, but I see no reason to touch the Labour Party with even the shitty end of a long pole, it evidently belongs to the capitalist class and has plumbed the depths of corruption and is deeply repressive with it. Much of the working class understands this, why should try to deny the truth to help the careerists of the Labour Party.


  5. “Much of the working class understands this,”.

    Really? So why then did millions of them vote for the Labour Party, whereas only 75 voted for the AWL? Why did only a handful more vote for the other sects? What you are giving us is just a rehash of all that Ultra-Leftism that lenin had to argue against so long ago. It is an Ultra-Leftism which basically says, we understand this, and transposes that into a fantasy that the working class shares that understanding when the reality is that it clearly does not. If the working class really did share your understanding why did the majority who didn’t vote Labour not only not vote for a Left alternative, but on the contrary voted for parties to the RIGHT of Labour, parties who evenly more openly are tied to all those bourgeois interests you cite???

    What I find even more disturbing is that for someone who I assume considers themselves a Marxist, that your whole concern here is Parliamentarist. You seem obsessed not by who the actual members of the labour party are at a rank and file level, and the possibility of working with them, but who the MP’s are, and so on. Even your comments about Conference resolutions appear to be in the same vein, confusing the importance of passing resolutions with the importance of actually building a mass base of support for the ideas contained within those resolutions.

    None of your points answer the question of why for example marx and Engels beleived it was possible to work in a bourgeois party with those same connections to the bourgeoisie and so on. Nor does it answer the point that despite far worse restrictions on democracy than anything that exists in the LP Trotsky argued for staying in the CP’s, for the same reason of sticking with the workers. In fact, in a similar situation to that now, Engels advised the British Marxists to leave the “Marxist” sects of his day, and the ILP, even though he recognised that they had some good elements at their rank and file, and to go straight to the mass of workers. Where were those workers? Organised in the bourgeois Liberal Clubs.


  6. Problem with this is that the working class is no longer in the Labour Party which is dominated largely by the same social group as is found in the Tory Party. As someone said about the last Labour Government – the Labour Party is the party of big business and the Tories are the party of small business. The more class conscious elements of the working class either vote Labour because of fear of the Tories as in the last election or increasingly refuses to vote for anyone. In these parts of course the left has proven that if it produces a credible organisation then workers will vote for it and join it. In 2003 the SSP achieved 120,000 votes including 30,000 votes in Glasgow.
    In organising in the Labour Party there are two problems:
    1) There is no longer the space for reforms etc that used to come even from controlling local councils, now reformism means administering the cuts. The capitalist class is no longer inclined to allow more resources to the working class rather they want to remove as much as possible. To fight this you have to be a revolutionary, to pose an alternative to capitalism rather than either a reformist or a revolutionary pretending to be some strange kind of reformist.
    2) The Labour Party for its recent history as the party of big business, ridiculous wars etc. is rightly loathed by the more political and active layers – people simply will not join such an outfit – it has already started to organise and carry out savage cuts in councils it controls. Both as a politics and as an organisation it is in terminal decline.


  7. Well Arthur tell us, who are the members of the LP at rank and file level? In Coventry the Party is run by a bunch of gangsters and they can’t even get a quorum to a meeting at District Party level. Even the right wing we used to fight in the 1980s tell me they are appalled at the people who have joined, mainly careerists. The Left was expelled long ago.

    Secondly, what is your project in the Labour Party? How is the Left to organise? We organised to pass a Ban the Bomb resolution through Conference and we won. But the Wilson governments ignored Conference resolutions. And nowadays the democratic process for passing resolutions has been stopped. We organised in the Young Socialists and won majorities. The YS has been closed down. We fought for the Benn for Deputy Campaign and for de-selection and re-selection of MPs and councillors. I became a Left Councillor as a result. But all that has been stopped and candidates get selected and approved from above. So how do you make your influence felt? You join the LP now as a leftwinger and they’re immediately on their guard. They try to bribe you or threaten you, one way or the other.

    Quite frankly I’ve heard your theories many times before. In the ISG in the 1990s, the mantra was Vote Labour, then when the workers’ expectations are dashed, the masses will join the LP and take over. Well they didn’t and the Left in the LP was impotent thoughout 13 years. Why should it be any different now? I concede that in certain geographic areas it may be possible for the LP to grow. I also concede that the comrades in Labour Briefing and the LRC behave in an open and democratic manner unlike the sects. That means we can work together. However the ISG approach was — join the LP and sit and wait for things to happen. And nothing did happen! You have to have a serious active national project with a clear focus. I don’t see how Mandelson will allow that.

    Dave S


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