Labour, the left and the General Election

Submitted by AWL on 23 June, 2015 - 5:51 Author: Duncan Morrison

It is good that Harry Glass, in his article “The left and the general election” (Solidarity 366) opened the discussion about the left’s role in the general election. However, I think the focus of his fire on some occasions is wrong.

He argues that “the dismal vote attained by candidates to the left of Labour suggests their approach is flawed.” But then goes on to outline a few places where the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’s (TUSC) “dismal” votes were sufficient to stop Labour winning the seat. Logically, had TUSC received less dismal votes then in Harry’s view their approach wouldn’t have been flawed — but it would have further electorally harmed Labour.

Trotsky, when discussing the ILP standing candidates against Labour, wrote: “It would have been foolish for the ILP to have sacrificed its political programme in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the LP to monopolise the platform as the Communist Party did. We do not know our strength until we test it. There is always a risk of splitting, and of losing deposits, but such risks must be taken: otherwise we boycott ourselves.”

Workers’ Liberty used this quote to support standing candidates against Labour in a pamphlet we published in April 2004 (after the launch of Respect and when the Socialist Alliance was in the process of ceasing to exist!) It is clear that TUSC is in no way analogous to the ILP in 1930s. However, our condemnation of them must be that their programme was wholly inadequate, not that they took votes from Labour. They didn’t call for a workers’ government. They appeared as left reformists and didn’t even put all the Socialist Party’s (the main force behind TUSC) programme, as unsatisfactory as that would still be. In an election poisoned by xenophobia and nationalism they did nothing to raise the issue of migrant rights.

Surely, the biggest responsibility for the election result rests on the cowardly Labour leadership who ran such a vapid campaign, a campaign which persuaded less than 20% of the electorate to vote for it. The leaders of the unions, most of whom on paper have better policies than the Labour manifesto, did not use their remaining weight within the party to push for the policies of their unions, also shoulder a huge amount of responsibility.

However, the left does bear a big responsibility for the awful results in the election. The failure to build a sufficiently large organisation implanted in the working class which could stand independent working class candidates against Labour has allowed petty-bourgeois alternatives, nationalists and right-wing populists to pick up the widespread disgust in our class at the Westminster political machine. Worse than the return of the Tories is that the agenda for the political alternative to them, currently, is set by forces to their right, the left could have and should have done something about that. Building such an organisation does not mean that we would or should eschew work in the Labour Party, or work in the affiliated unions to affect events within the Labour Party. That argument still needs to be won with the left at large.

Whilst in the 2015 election we were faced with no alternative but to call for a Labour vote in most if not all constituencies, we must consider whether the focus on a Labour victory was the most effective way of raising our politics and building the forces of revolutionary socialism. When you consider less than 20% of the electorate voted for a Labour victory and that large numbers of our class and radical young people, who are probably more open to our ideas, chose to vote for various petty-bourgeois options, might not we have persuaded more people had we focussed on our propaganda for a workers’ government, whilst patiently explaining that necessary forces for this remain, largely impotently, wedded to the Labour Party and this required voting Labour and working within it?

It may be that Corbyn’s candidacy for Labour leader might mark a sea-change within the Labour Party. We must do everything we can to ensure that it does. Nonetheless, we must recognise that Corbyn is only on the ballot paper via largesse of right wing MPs such as Frank Field, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy.

More importantly the leadership election and the election for Labour’s candidate for London Mayor is the beginning of the implementation of the Collins report — not due to be implemented until 2016 — as both are being carried out without an electoral college. This seems to have happened entirely without comment from the left or the unions, let alone any opposition!

The structural reforms of the Collins report make it more difficult for unions to express a collective working-class voice in the party. They build on and extend the Blairite reforms to the Party which effectively concrete over the channels for democratic control of the Party and left any life in the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) similar to isolated rock pools, unable to link up with life in other CLPs.

The trajectory remains for the Labour Party to cease to be a bourgeois-workers party. This isn’t unchallengeable but we must recognise it. We must also consider seriously the most effective tactics to challenge this.

I would suggest that unless we are able to use the Corbyn campaign to affect a sea-change, we will need to revisit the issue of standing candidates against Labour and focus our propaganda around our concept of a workers’ government.


Submitted by david kirk on Thu, 25/06/2015 - 16:25

Duncan Morrison misses so much out of his account of the dynamics in and around the Labour Party.

- Ed Miliband for all of his faults did at least seem to offer the chance of a Labour government that would tax the rich a bit, take on private landlords, attack zero hour contracts, bedroom tax etc. Its hard to quantify but the sense of shock and anger that effected our movement after may the 7th is partly because these had a resonance and this future seemed ripped away. I think the 40,000 people who joined the Labour party in the month after the defeat reflects this.

- Corbyn didn’t get on the ballot paper just due to largesse of individual MPs he got on the ballot paper due to massive amounts of pressure from the membership and beyond. If the left had got its act together earlier and got someone standing two or three weeks earlier they may have got more nominations from those "soft left" and Trade Union group MPs who Andy Burnham scooped up early on.

- The new intake of MPs is not blairite. Only one of these is supporting Liz Kendall and quite a few are supporting Corbyn.This includes 7 of the 10 new MPs who signed a letter against Austerity. There is now a new small but energetic cohort of left MPs who call themselves socialist and are grounded in Union activism.

- The Corbyn campaign is having such a energising effect not because his politics are unique or hes a particularly inspiring figure. Its because its promoting these politics in a mass party linked to the working class that has pretensions and sometimes the ability forming a government.
That’s the key link between our intervention in the labour party and our propganda for a workers governement.
A better TUSC with our politics might persuade more people to become socialists, but it doesn’t raise for anyone those concrete questions of how a working class government can come into being

Submitted by Duncan on Thu, 25/06/2015 - 18:30

Only one of Dave's comments address any of the central points I made in my letter. Does he disagree with them or just want to ignore them?

However, I will address his points:

Where was the resonance of Miliband's programme? Not with the electorate, not with the left, maybe with Dave. Incidentally, the Lib Dems got a 10,000 membership surge, is that because of the resonance of their programme?

So Frank Field, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan were forced to nominate Corbyn by a left wing surge. I don't think so. In my constituency a full members meeting voted to nominate Jeremy Corbyn, our new intake 'left' MP ignored the constituency and nominated Cooper.

I am not in favour of 'a better TUSC' with our politics, I am in favour of socialist propaganda candidates who raise a workers' government and the issue of working class political representation. Are you Dave?

Submitted by david kirk on Fri, 26/06/2015 - 16:16

"I am not in favour of 'a better TUSC' with our politics, I am in favour of socialist propaganda candidates who raise a workers' government and the issue of working class political representation. Are you Dave?"
In the abstract or specifically now?
As Trotsky and Lenin identified this is tactical question based on the balance of forces and the ability of Socialists to operate in the Labour Party without boycotting themselves. In England and Wales at least Labour remains a party linked to organised Labour were there is the potential to push forward socialist politics and a programme for a workers government to a mass audience. These days its perfectly possible to argue for socialism inside the labour party with out getting witch hunted. Compared to the 80s/90s the Labour party is more open.

An honest acounting of Socialist Propaganda Candidates in this country since universal sufferage shows a pretty sorry state. Most who did well (The CP, The ILP, Militant Labour, SSP) stood on a labourist programme and not as a propaganda candidate. Getting a two digit vote for the full communist programme is not great propaganda. it undersells the potential reach of these ideas as most politically conscious working class people voted for a mass party linked to the unions that might form a government.

The WIL/RCP during the war years and the Socialist Alliance in 2000-2003 are exceptions. Propaganda candidates who reached much wider then TUSC or more recent better efforts by the far left. However in the end the low votes was a demobalising rather then mobalising factor for the RCP after 1945 and for the Socialist Alliance after 2001.

Abroad there are some good examples. the CWI in Ireland and Seattle. Lutte Ouvrier in France. However you cant simply replicate those efforts here.

Never say never, and time might come soon were the Labour Party splits entirely with the unions. But for now its not the time to walk away from the fights in the Labour Party over these key questions.

Submitted by Duncan on Fri, 26/06/2015 - 16:56

Workers' Liberty analysed that the links that allowed the unions and the CLPs to control the party were 'concreted over', that any life in the CLPs would be similar to that in 'rock pools' unable to connect with other rock pools. I think that was correct. Do you? Since we made the analysis we have had the Collins report and that has begun to be implemented, that is making the LP less of a bourgeois workers party and more of a straight-forward bourgeois policy. If that is so when you say 'at least Labour remains a party linked to organised Labour were there is the potential to push forward socialist politics and a programme for a workers government to a mass audience.' is largely wrong.

Propaganda candidates will not initially get big or even respectable votes that will take time, as it did in France, Ireland and the USA. But we don't just measure their value by the votes, but by building the revolutionary organisation that is necessary.

No one is suggesting walking away from fights in the Labour Party. We can walk and fart at the same time! However, I was at my ward meeting last night, there were 10 people, no political discussion to speak of. Someone suggested you joined the Party to get exclusive access to councillors. One of the councillors said that if you wanted a career in Labour, it would look good on your CV if you did some campaigning for the Party. Draw your own conclusions...

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.