Debate & discussion: "Reclaim Labour" or "new party"? Both or neither!

Submitted by Anon on 6 March, 2004 - 8:25

Many activists are debating whether we should "reclaim the Labour Party", or instead "build a new party". I will argue that the real choice is different. Either we do both - "reclaim the Labour Party", to the extent that such a thing is possible, and "build a new party" - or we do neither.
Suppose, to start off, that the continuing trade-union base of the Labour Party, and the poor electoral results of groups like the Socialist Alliance, convince us that we must "reclaim the Labour Party".

Today's New Labour Party has a "party within a party" of some thousands of spin-merchants, advisers, and political assistants entrenched at the top of it. Even if Tony Blair is ousted from the Labour leadership in the coming months, that same "party within a party" can continue to dominate, with Gordon Brown to front it up instead. To defeat it we will need a counter-party.

The accumulated efforts of leftists scattered around the trade-union movement, and linked in loose networks, will not suffice. We also need political coherence, strategy, organisation - a counter-party.

Our counter-party needs to recruit fresh, young, dynamic activists, as the Blair-Brown party does. The Blair-Brown party draws them in from student unions, universities, NGOs, the civil service, and business, through the pull of careerism. A socialist counter-party has to draw people from the streets and the picket lines, through the pull of a visible and plausible programme of activity to change the world.

The counter-party must not limit itself to what it can glean from trade-union and Labour Party branch meetings where attendance is often small and ageing. The Blair-Brown party does not limit itself that way.

To inspire and recruit the young activists who can stir up the trade unions, the counter-party must be active and visible on the streets, not just a loyal opposition burrowing away in committees and branch meetings.

Given the vast disillusion of the working-class electorate, and especially the young working-class electorate, the counter-party cannot renounce judicious use of the electoral arena to reach out and publicise its ideas.

"Reclaiming the Labour Party" is not a matter of waiting for a pendulum which has swung right since 1994 to swing left again, or for the labour movement to return to its "normal" condition.

The go-with-the-grain course of bureaucratised trade unions in a capitalist parliamentary democracy is not to sustain a workers' party independent politically or even organisationally from the bourgeois parties. It is to haggle and deal with the big bourgeois political parties, or factions or personalities within them, as they haggle and deal with the employers. That is what even feistier trade union leaders will do - unless they are spurred on by a politically-alert rank and file movement in the trade unions, which in turn requires a "counter-party" to initiate, organise and educate it.

The British Labour Party did not emerge through just through an organic ripening of trade unionism. The motor was the political efforts of the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation.

Trade unions in continental Europe got their links with socialistic parties not at all through their own organic growth, but from the fact that those parties set up the trade unions.

So, if we are to make a purposeful effort to "reclaim the Labour Party" - as distinct from a lacklustre pottering-along excused by the vague hope of reclaiming vast forces somehow, some day - we have to "build a new party" in order to do it.

Labour at its best has only ever been a bourgeois workers' party. Our "new party" must fight to claim the Labour Party for working-class politics. We will win only a fraction, larger or smaller, of the Labour structure, not the whole. Against any large struggle to "reclaim", the Blair-Brown party can and will organise a split like the SDP split of 1982, and much bigger.

The fraction of the Labour Party "reclaimed" or "claimed" by the efforts of a "counter-party" fighting in the trade unions will be, in effect, a new broad workers' party, led politically by that tighter "counter-party".

Suppose we start from the other end - concluding from the openly anti-working-class record of the Labour government, the shortage of openings for redress or even effective protest within today's restructured Labour Party, and the widespread working-class disillusion with it, that we must "build a new party".

The questions there are how? where? with whom?

In Britain, where the trade unions are still very broad organisations, and relatively open to political activity, no group can call itself a real workers' party - as distinct from a pioneer force striving to build a party, like the AWL - unless it has won over a large section of the trade union movement.

And, in particular, of the trade unions now affiliated to Labour. With a few exceptions, the unaffiliated unions are less political, less leftwing, and more limited to better-off white-collar workers.

The activities that make up the rational core of "reclaiming the Labour Party" - calling union reps in Labour structures to account, fighting for working-class policies in Labour conferences and forums, trying to pull other unions round those policies, targeting union support to those Labour MPs and candidates loyal to the working class, and so on - are also obvious priorities for any group of socialists wanting to win over the unions politically from their present disgruntled but passive Labourism.

That is in large part what the RMT did in the run-up to Labour expelling it. RMT members had one of the highest rates of paying the political levy to the Labour Party of any trade union. The RMT withdrew its sponsorship from anti-union Labour MPs, set up a new RMT parliamentary group of left-wing Labour MPs, and led a fight to get the Iraq war debated properly at 2003 Labour conference.

How would we just leapfrog over those phases of struggle in other unions? And where would we land if we did?

One way to leapfrog is to get a left-wing disaffiliationist group elected to the union leadership on the industrial issues, and then use the position won on the industrial issues to leapfrog on the political issue. There is also an element of that in the RMT story.

But then either that left-wing disaffiliationist group has a definite political strategy - in which case it will want a patient campaign to convince the mass membership of that political strategy, and to pull other unions along too - or it is leading the union into no more than a bastard syndicalism (the view that says trade unions are sufficient for working-class politics, without a party).

The alternative way is the one the Socialist Party is now proposing in Unison's political fund ballot - to try to use the widespread, but as yet politically passive, disillusion of the union membership to push a plebiscitary abolition of the political fund over the heads of the branches, committees, and conferences of the union.

That leapfrog would not land us in a new workers' party. It would put us on a slope leading down towards the political condition of the currently unaffiliated unions, where even the most left-wing of them, the PCS, has a parliamentary group with reserved vice-chair positions for Tories and Lib-Dems.

To "build a new party" which is really a party, with a serious trade-union base, we have to go through a struggle of the "reclaim the Labour Party" type.

To do either properly - "build a new party", or fight to "reclaim the Labour Party" - we must also do the other.

If we try to do one alone, we will do neither. Efforts to "reclaim the Labour Party" without "building a new party" lead only to the activists being "reclaimed" by the Labour Party, as can be seen from the demoralised condition of the Labour left.

Efforts to "build a new party" without trying to "reclaim the Labour Party" can lead only to sectarian pretence (a small group claiming that its own recruitment efforts will be enough to revive working-class politics) or flaccid ecumenism (the idea that an effective party can be built by lassooing together diverse grouplets on a some bland common platform, and shelving tough issues that go beyond that platform).

Some people believe that the Scottish Socialist Party proves me wrong, and that an effective new party can be built by a shorter cut. I will discuss that argument in another article.

Martin Thomas

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.