"But we recognize that the great size of the Labour Party is also due to the fact that it is the creation of a school of thought beyond which the majority of the British working class has not yet emerged, though great changes are at work in the mind of the people which will presently alter this state of affairs....” Sylvia Pankhurst.
It is inevitable that with Labour in opposition that the arguments for revolutionary socialists to “go into the Labour Party” will get louder and more vociferous. Indeed our group has passed a motion to re-establish a Labour Party fraction and for branches to Reconnoiter for signs of socialist life inside the local CLPs. Others on the serious thinking part of the left will no doubt come to similar conclusions. However I do not think this half-in-half-out fishing for contacts and allies in the Labour Party is enough. The Labour Party is the only mass political organisation of the working class we must be serious about fighting for Marxist socialist ideas to be the hegemonic idea amongst the Labour parties base.
The Lessons of the Election.
One aspect of the election that has been little commented on is the number of votes the Labour Party received. In most of the big metropolitan constituencies the Labour vote rose substantially from 2001 and 2005. In Leeds, Sheffield, Leicester, Manchester and some London Boroughs the number (though not the proportion) of Votes cast for Labour was up by almost a third. The Labour vote declined massively in the suburbs and rural areas but in the cities much of the working class vote turned out. From my own anecdotal experience, amongst my young workmates large numbers who had never taken an interest in politics before went out to vote for the first time. They naturally voted Labour because it is ‘the working class party’ and the Tories are a party for the rich.
One of the most puzzling aspects of this election for the pundits of the bourgeoisie press (along with the resilience of the Labour vote) has been the non-appearance of the Clegg Factor on polling day. The explanation now being given is the recovery of ‘class alignment’, in short the lack of a social base for the Lib Dems told as people voted according to social class. This is also one of the reasons for the failure of the BNP to capitalize on the situation at this election.
The other most pressing question for Marxists is the abysmal failure of ‘left of Labour’ candidates in the broadest sense. The appalling low vote in general for TUSC was predictable considering how small and lackluster their campaign was. However our failure in Camberwell and Peckham, the AGS’s poor results in Leeds, Respects results in Hall Green were not down to piss poor paper campaigns. They had boots on the ground and leaflets in the letter box. I do not think this reflects a general rejection of socialist ideas amongst working class voters. Instead it is down to the utter failure of the left to imbed itself as an organic part of the working class.
The tasks we face.
We must face facts, at the moment our group does not have any real weight or influence in the organisd working class. We have some influence in the RMT in London and some influential trade unionst’s, but support we gain in the unions is often down to being very good trade unionist’s not necessarily down to support for our politics.
The general milieu of the british left we are active in is more akin to a subculture then a force within the working class. We pick up members and contacts here or there because of the strength of our ideas but in general only those who are already in the left tribe. This is the problem the socialist Alliance or any other Left unity project will have. At best it can unite the forces of the left give it some energy and profile. However without the mass involvement of the trade union movement the left will find it hard to build any base within the class.
Another problem we face if we are looking for any left of Labour re-groupment is the effects of the slow disintegration of the Socialist Workers Party. The expulsion / resignation of its leadership the SWP cannot be accounted for to the members since Rees’s debased version of Cliffite politics is still the politics of the new SWP leadership. To avoid awkward questions the SWP has gone into full headless chicken mode. Build LMHR, build UAF, build Right to Work, get Martin and Weyman arrested and ask questions later. Alongside this it has become increasingly sectarian to wall itself of from those on the left who would pose those awkward questions to its exhausted and confused membership. A most obvious effect of this disintegration is it helps the rise of the Socialist Party and to a lesser extent the CPB. These are hardly dynamic forces that we can unite with in any sustainable way beyond the work we already do jointly.
Things can and will change quickly. It’s fair to assume the recent minor increase in militant union activity will continue and even intensify. Syndicalist upsurges in rank and file trade union militancy may greet the looming cuts and the renewal of the economic crisis. Events in Europe may well have an effect on the militancy of the British working class as it did after 1792, 1917 and 1968. One thing that we can bet on is that the current economic and political crisis will make hundreds of thousands if not millions of workers question the logic of capitalism for the first time in 25 years. The problem is the revolutionary left largely speaks to itself and is in no position to educate, organize or mobilize these workers whilst it is walled off in its left ghetto. Our task is to reach the mass of class conscious workers and argue the case for a workers government, socialism and revolution. There is only one political organization that has this reach and this is the Labour Party.
Marxists and The Labour Party.
When ever a Marxist advocates support for or work in Labour they tend to justify themselves with reference to the writings of Lenin and the concept of a ‘bourgeois workers Party’. We tend to push the importance of the link with the trade unions and sprinkle what we say with quotes from Left Wing Communism. However I think Lenin’s point about the Labour Party in Left Wing Communism has often been missed. It was not the trade union link that was the decisive factor for Lenin to advocating communists work within the Labour Party, it was the fact that in the consciousness of the mass of the workers the Labour Party was their party. He writes:
“At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them. If I come out as a Communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson (The Labour leader- DK) and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner, not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of bourgeois "democracy"), but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Henderson's will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Henderson's and the Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.”
In short I think what was true in 1920 is true in 2010. The strength of the workers movement in Britain is its sense of tribal class loyalty to its organizations; the unions and the Labour Party. Unfortunately this consciousness has not gone beyond voting Labour as the workers party to keep the Tories out and the politics of the Daily Mirror.
In a way I think SCSTF was groping towards the strategy outlined by Lenin in the quote above. However I do not think we can really convince or reach the mass of working class Labour voters unless we discontinue the one foot in, one foot out position we hold. We should seek to form the nucleus of a new revolutionary left inside the Labour Party, We can not do this unless we are serious, committed and methodical in our Labour Party work.
If we look at the history of how small revolutionary groups in Britain have managed to win some support and a base in the working class, it is most often through the fight for control of Labour Party units. The young CPGB in the early 20s fought for and won control of a large number of Labour Party branches and organized the National Left Wing movement to unite this Marxist left in the Labour Party. The abandonment of the NLWM due to Stalinist third period policies was one of the most disastrous decisions ever made on the British left. The SLL in the 50s and the Militant in the 70s both expanded from small groups to being (possibly) the largest and most influential Trotskyist groups in the world at the time because of they won control of the Labour Party Young Socialists. This gave them a position to argue for their bastardised brand of Marxism to a massively expanded number of young workers. Our own group never had as much influence as when it was the Socialist Organisor in the Labour Party. Of course we were eventually expelled from the Labour Party, the LPYS was shut down on several occasions due to Trotskyist ‘infiltration’ and branches where closed down. But these struggles actually illustrate to left wing Labour party members and supporters what the leadership represents’. As Lenin said:
“If the Henderson's and the Snowdens reject a bloc with us on these terms, we shall gain still more, for we shall at once have shown the masses (note that, even in the purely Menshevik and completely opportunist Independent Labour Party, the rank and file are in favour of Soviets) that the Hendersons prefer their close relations with the capitalists to the unity of all the workers. We shall immediately gain in the eyes- of the masses”
Even if we are expelled on mass from branches you might retain a base of supporters on which to build. As a much more recent example: The Alliance for Green Socialism (AGS) was formed by the expelled Roundhay branch LP. The AGS still has hundreds of members, got possibly the largest vote of any independent socialist group at this election and has a base area of working class support because of its recent history as a left wing Labour Party branch.
I am not advocating we subsume our selves into Labour routinism, or fore-fit our independence of action. We would remain as a Cannonite propaganda group educating, agitating and organising in the unions, on campuses and in campaigns. We would not make a fetish of entryism or hide our politics. Neither should we just turn up on our own at CLP meetings to sell our paper and make a few contacts.
We should put out a call for all revolutionary socialists serious about working class politics outside the Labour party to enter the Labour party with us openly as revolutionaries. We should ally with any forces already in the party who really do want to fight for socialist politics in the labour movment. Where possible we should try with other leftists to win the leadership of LP branches, Labour Student societies etc. If we do gain control of branches we would put out socialist propaganda on the doorstep, select working class socialist candidates and get active links with local trade union branches. We could then use the LP as a organising centre for campaigning against the fascists, against cuts and for no borders.
All of this may be far beyond us or the left in general. Perhaps the leadership is too firmly in control even down to branch level but I cannot see any alternative to this In the near future.