The Socialist Party is in a bit of a pickle.
In 1991, most of what had been the Militant tendency left the Labour Party, reconstituting itself firstly as Militant Labour and then as the Socialist Party (SP). And to justify their exit, they argued that the party had changed fundamentally, transforming from what Lenin called a “bourgeois workers’ party” (which socialists should try to intervene in) into a straightforward “bourgeois party”.
This idea of Labour’s irretrievable degeneration has functioned as something like an origin myth for the SP, serving not only to explain past history, but also to justify present practice. It used this perspective as a way of marking it out as different from other socialist groups, including Workers’ Liberty. Don’t waste your time pushing for socialist politics in Labour, they argued. Come and build the new workers’ party.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, therefore, must be really awkward for them. For years, opposition to austerity and anger at social injustice has been bubbling away in British society, but it never quite broke through into party politics. Now it has, spectacularly, and in the one place that the SP has spent decades telling people it wouldn’t.
Consequently, the SP’s attitude to the Corbyn Labour Party has been contradictory. Their newspaper has welcomed the creation of Momentum, and in many areas SP members have attended Momentum meetings. In my own area much of what the SP has done in the Momentum group has been constructive. But because they can’t bring themselves to junk the idea that Labour itself is off-limits, they end up taking positions that cut against the logic of the tasks at hand.
For example, SP members have (rightly) argued that Momentum should oppose Labour councils implementing cuts. One very obvious way of trying to win that struggle would be for socialists to kick up a fuss in their constituency Labour parties, to use the local party structures to put pressure on councillors. But the SP won’t do that, since to be a member of a local Party would mean joining Labour, which is not ideologically kosher.
Similarly, the SP calls for right-wing Labour MPs to be deselected. But how can you deselect a Labour MP unless you’re in the Party? And on a broader level, how you can be serious about bolstering the Labour left against the Labour right if you refuse to actually join the organisation?
The SP argues against unions like the RMT re-affiliating to the Labour Party. They say the Corbyn leadership might be toppled by the right, and therefore the unions shouldn’t commit themselves to a party that might revert to Blairism.
But the unions abstaining from internal Labour Party struggles makes the victory of the right more likely! The SP line is like refusing to help a friend in a fistfight on the grounds that he might lose, but wishing him well from the sidelines.
However, there are indications that the SP is quietly preparing the ground for a return to Labour. We know that at least some SP members have taken out membership cards. There is muffled talk of “investigatory work”. The Socialist has already made attempts to salvage the old “Labour is dead” theory from its disgrace by claiming that Corbyn’s Labour represents “in effect, the formation of a new party.”
There is no shame in having been wrong, so long as the error is honestly accounted for and rectified. If the Socialist Party has now come round to the idea that perhaps the Labour Party has some life in it, then good.
But it should carry out Labour work properly and whole-heartedly, and stop muddying the political water with bizarre, confused positions designed to cover up their own mistakes.