Standing against Labour?

Submitted by Janine on 19 October, 1998 - 1:41

A contribution to the AWL’s discussion on the Labour Party, by Janine Booth

The retreat from class politics

Amongst many workers, there is great disillusionment with New Labour, a real sense of utter betrayal. Whilst this is welcome and justified anger, it often leads to anti-political conclusions. Workers may feel that their union should pull out of the Labour Party altogether, echoing the right-wing view that unions should be politically neutral, ‘lobbying’ all parties.

Similarly, organised and active socialists in the unions have proposed Labour Party disaffiliation without proposing alternative political representation; and have taken an ambivalent (or even hostile) attitude to calls for the union to fight within the Labour Party.

Labour Party members critical of the Blairites may oppose particular policies or the general drift away from socialism, but do not necessarily get a grip of the centrality of class.

The left has retreated from class politics over the last 20 years. Some, for example, have adopted a ‘red-green’ label that suggests not that environmental destruction is a product of capitalism that must be fought with working-class socialism, but that green issues are an equal partner with class politics.

Over the last few decades, various left groups have abandoned the fight in the Labour Party. They did not try to get the unions to fight to turn the Labour Party round, nor to found a new party, but left in a sectarian sulk, leaving the working class still attached to the Labour Party, still led by Blair.

This issue is not just a question of where we stand in relation to the Labour Party, but where the working class stands, where organised labour stands. We should avoid falling into the sectarian trap of positioning ourselves ‘correctly’ whilst leaving the labour movement where it is.

This does not mean that we have to wait for the entire, bureaucratic, lumbering structures of the trade union movement to take up the fight for working-class representation. After all, the Miners Federation was two decades late in joining the Labour Party.

The Labour Party was established by the trade unions, and today’s New Labour is the historical continuation of that. Blair and Mandelson have taken the Party a long way down the road of cutting the link to the unions and transforming the Party into a straightforward bosses’ party. But they have not yet succeeded completely.

Before the General Election and after

Until May 1997, the central task facing the workers’ movement in Britain was to get rid of the Tory Government and elect a Labour Government: to break the political logjam and the dead-weight of defeat, and to reassert class politics.

After the General Election, with New Labour in government - ruling to the orders of big business and, post-Partnership in Power, increasingly cut off from democratic accountability to the labour movement - conditions are different. But the main issue is the same: the centrality of class, the need for a workers’ government and working-class representation.

Up to and including the 1997 General Election, there was no alternative to voting Labour in every constituency that better put working-class political representation on the agenda. All ‘left’ candidatures against Labour were a distraction from the key task for the working class: kicking out the Tories.

There are now conditions in which supporting candidates against Labour is a way forward in reasserting working-class representation.

Conclusions

1. We should contemplate supporting socialist candidates against New Labour, carefully considering the conditions under which we do this. There are several pitfalls to avoid:

  • Some potential candidates (eg. single-issue or anarchist-influenced activists), although good activists fighting on working-class issues and far to the left of Blair, actually embody to some extent the retreat from class politics.
  • It would be a mistake simply to hitch up with socialists who have previously stood against Labour in sectarian adventures and have not changed their sectarian orientation.
  • If candidates do not have any base in, accountability to or relationship with the working class, their candidature contradicts the central issue: fighting for working-class representation.

2. It should go without saying that we continue to support those Labour MPs/councillors/candidates who have in any tangible way stood up for working-class interests.

3. Supporting candidates against New Labour must not become a substitute for fighting within the Labour Party. Indeed, the two should be linked - for example, left Labour candidates selected by wards / CLPs and ousted by Millbank should stand against the imposed candidate, on a platform of both working-class political demands and Labour Party democracy.

4. There should be a renewed emphasis on organising to demand that the unions fight for workers’ interests. This includes a militant political and industrial fight; and a fight within the structures of the Party (eg. unions should sponsor CLPs/MPs who will support workers’ demands; union representatives on Labour Party committees should vote and act in line with union policies etc.).

5. We also need to educate labour movement activists about labour representation. The retreat from class politics, the premature abandonment of the fight in the Labour Party, and the syndicalist approach of many trade unionists all point to the need to do this.

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