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.