The result of the Richmond Park by-election has encouraged more calls for Labour to enter a “Progressive Alliance” to oppose “hard Brexit” and the resurgent populist right. Memories must be short, as only last year the Lib Dems were an integral part of a government attacking migrants, the disabled and the poor.
It’s not just an alliance with the Lib Dems that should be opposed. The idea of a “progressive alliance” per se should be also opposed. Labour for all its faults is a mass working-class party. A party that is both structurally and organically part of the broader labour movement. The current fight in the Labour Party and throughout its history is for it to represent independent working-class politics; for Labour to break with the ideology and organisation of capitalist politics. Against this idea of a workers’ party as part of the labour movement, there has always been another conception of Labour as a “progressive” party which should ally itself with other “progressive” parties regardless of their class character.
These proposed or actual alliances have had different names at different times, but they all amount to subordinating Labour politically to the politics of “allies”‘ among the ruling class. In the mid 1930s, after a period of sectarian ultra-leftism, Stalinist Communist Parties around the world followed the Kremlin’s direction and started pushing the Popular Front. In the UK the theory was that, to counter fascism, parties like the Labour Party should form a common front, not only with the CP but also bourgeois parties. The programme that would be adopted wasn’t socialism, but one that even Liberal parties and elements of the bourgeoisie would be happy with. The CP even advocated uniting with anti-fascist Tories.
The CP had an increasing influence within the Labour Party. Figures like Stafford Cripps and organisations like the Socialist League pushed the Popular Front line. This particularly intensified after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. However the Labour Party had moved leftward in the period in the same period after being ejected from government in 1931. Invitations to unite with the Liberals and anti-appeasement Tories like Winston Churchill were rightly opposed. The Labour leadership ended up opposing the Communist Party from the left!
At Labour Conference Herbert Morrison pointed out that the CP would admonish him for sharing a platform with a fellow socialist like Trotsky, yet actively pushed him to share a platform with a Tory aristocrat like the Duchess of Athol because she was anti-Franco.
Labour conference opposed adopting a Popular Front strategy on several occasions in the 30s. Trotskyists, who were also active in Labour at the time, responded to the rise of fascism by advocating a United Front of all working-class parties. Rightly they argued the Popular Front disarmed the labour movement in the face of fascist aggression and put faith in bourgeois liberalism to hold the line against fascism and right-wing authoritarianism.
The idea of an alliance revived in the 80s as the left, Labour and the unions received a series of hammer-blow defeats at the hands of the Thatcher government. Under this pressure, some began promoting the idea of Labour forming an alliance with other anti-Thatcher parties. These ideas were widespread on the soft left of the Labour party. It was given some seeming intellectual heft by the magazine Marxism Today and the Eurocommunist wing of the CP.
As early as 1978 Eric Hobsbawm wrote ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’, arguing the working class no longer had the social or industrial power to be the key to any kind of socialist strategy. Implicit in this was the idea that alliances with other class forces were needed to achieve any kind of social progress at all. Stuart Hall contributed an article to Marxism Today in 1979 called ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ arguing rightly that Thatcherism represented a new ideological formation that the left needed to recognise.
Again implicit was the idea that to fight Thatcherism a unity of all anti-Thatcherite forces was needed. By the mid 80s the Labour leadership adopted some of this language as leftish sounding ideological cover for the party moving rightwards. Marxism Today even talked about a coalition with the SDP, the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists. This explicitly meant adapting to the politics of parties who supported some of Thatcher’s attacks on the unions and opposed the miners strike.
We are in a different situation today from the 1930s or even the 1980s. The Green Party are not Churchillian Tories or the wreckers who split from Labour to form the SDP. Social-democratic Greens like Caroline Lucas are often allies on issues like workers rights and migrants rights. The left of the Greens support most strikes although there are also elements within the Greens more hostile to the labour movement. The other putative elements in the “progressive alliance”, like the nationalists and the Lib Dems by their very nature hostile to working class self assertiveness.
To defeat the shift to the right we need Labour to mobilise working-class people to fightback, be linking up with workers in struggle and offering a clear alternative to continuing austerity and growing inequality. A Progressive Alliance will shackle Labour to the politics of the status quo and parties that oppose working-class self-assertion.