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Where now for the Labour Party? Following election defeats and facing environmental and economic crises, many articles are asking what direction Labour should take under its new leader.
On the eve of the leadership result, Neal Lawson, director of the Compass lobby group, wrote an article on Open Democracy in which he argued for what he called a new approach.
Labour must pursue new "alliances" and "build capacity", he said. It must unite a range of "countervailing forces" that will "transform our country as it comes out of the corona-crisis".
Much of his argument sounds reasonable at first. But at its core, it is based on an unexamined assumption: that the working class is a spent force. He envisages "alliances" that do not mention – and even directly exclude - working-class participation.
Neal Lawson's article is not unique. It is common, even amongst the Labour left, to underestimate the extent to which workers' struggle can shape politics. It is hardly surprising given the defeats that the workers' movement has endured for over 30 years.
But working-class defeat is not eternal or inevitable. To my mind, the working class is still the "countervailing force" with the greatest potential to secure the population's future during the coming period of crisis. Alliance with this force will assist Labour to lift living standards, fight inequality and challenge right-wing populism. It is worth taking some time to challenge the assumptions that lead Lawson to dismiss the potential of the working class.
The argument in Lawson's article starts with an appraisal of the current situation.
"Labour's new leader will operate in the context of unfolding and manifest crises. The pandemic now, but a financial and economic crisis that will follow, the crisis of inequality after that, and then of housing, care and climate, before a new pandemic hits".
I would say that this is a fairly accurate estimation of the challenges ahead. I'd only add that these current crises compound the effects of 30-plus years of neoliberalism and 10-plus years of post 2008 austerity.
But Lawson's appraisal of the political forces available to challenge this situation is based on assumptions I do not share. He says the left is fundamentally weak and left lacks, "a coherent agent of change (the working class)".
This inaccurate statement almost implies, without evidence or argument, that the working class has no role in politics. The working class has not gone away; as long as we exist we will be an agent of struggle and change. We might lack political coherence. But Lawson makes no recommendations for sharpening the working class as a political force. Much easier to write us off, in a tone that almost cheers on our demise.
He suggests that working-class based parties are a thing of the past: "globalisation, financialisation and individualisation have left parties of labour weak everywhere". This one-sided account does not take account of how the workers' movement internationally has responded to globalisation; how recent workers' organising, in China for example, indicates that the cause of labour is still the hope of the world. His statement carries finality; his perspective is that what is weak now will be weak for all time.
With such sweeping and unsubstantiated statements, it seems simple for Lawson to dismiss working-class potential. He takes the last 30 years of defeat, a low-ebb in the class struggle, as an irreversible fact. But class struggle cannot be stamped out of a society built on exploitation. Even in the midst of defeat, there are always pockets of struggle. We have seen unofficial walkouts for safety in the during the Covid-19 crisis. Struggles will become more and more necessary when recession begins to bite.
Labour's "new approach", says Lawson, must not "triangulate" between Corbynism and Blairism, "between two old and tired poles". He groups Corbynism and Labour's orientation to the working class together in almost the same breath. By implication, the working class, like Corbynism and Blairism, is one of the "old and tired poles" that Labour must now turn away from.
His vision for the "new approach" is as follows:
"The core of a new approach is contained in one word – capacity. Can Labour's new leader see him or herself as the capacity builder of the countervailing forces to really transform our country as it comes out of the corona-crisis?
"These forces are: vision, policy, narratives and alliances across politics, business and civil society."
Firstly, this is vacuous nonsense. What does it even mean? "Vision", "policy" and "narratives" are not forces. They are just buzzwords borrowed directly from Blairism. Secondly, "alliances across politics". Does this mean that the left should ally with the right and neuter itself? Again, this is not a "force", just a prescription for ineffectiveness.
Thirdly, "alliances across….business". His starting assumption that class struggle is dead leads him to argue that Labour will be best served by allying with employers and business - the very forces of oppression and exploitation. He invokes the concept of "civil society" as though he is describing a classless entity, where bosses and workers can live in harmony.
In reality, this alliance would squeeze the working class out of organised politics. From everything Lawson has said about the fate of parties of labour, he would probably say that's no bad thing.
The absence of class struggle from his vision means that his proposals are largely irrelevant for the struggles of the coming period. The perspective underpinning this article is that Labour has the luxury of leaving behind its traditional working-class base, looking elsewhere for a potential saviour.
The next few years are going to see attacks so severe that Labour does not have that luxury. The working class will have to act to defend itself. There will be job cuts on a mass scale. Workers will have to strike and occupy – and will be so much better aided if they have political expression in the form of the Labour Party. In the absence of workers' struggle, how does the Labour Party in Opposition imagine it can resist the effects of economic crisis? If Labour is not able to mount such opposition, how can it hope to revive its electoral fortunes?
In every sphere of life – from housing, to climate, to workers' rights and migrants' rights – there is going to have to be a storm of extra parliamentary struggle to secure basic rights and living standards. Labour can either see itself as an ally of such struggles, emboldening them, amplifying them, challenging to govern in the interests of workers and communities, or it can consign itself to irrelevance in opposition.
Take the example he uses in the article. He says:
"The new leader's immediate focus should be the capacity of the Shadow Cabinet, the PLP, party members and councils. Can they unlock all that team potential and empower them?".
It is interesting that he lists councils as a potential force with "team potential" - which sounds like a piece of David Brent-style management jargon. In reality, Labour-run councils, like so many other areas of "civil society", are not going to be friendly terrain. They are going to have to become sites of class struggle.
When this year is over, it's a pretty sure bet that a Tory Government will continue to cut Local Authority funding. Stripped to the bone since 2010, Labour-run councils will have to fight for services and funding alongside the communities they represent, or watch vital services go to the wall.
The article couches its arguments in the language of pluralism. I have no problem with pluralism. As someone only recently readmitted to the Party following explusion for membership of Workers' Liberty, I believe Labour should readmit all the socialists that were expelled as part of the anti-Corbyn purge.
But let's not allow the concept of Labour being "plural externally", as the article puts it, to marginalise the centrality of working-class struggle in the coming period. In an attempt to keep business on board, let's not abandon workers who are fighting to save their jobs, services and communities.
The article says alliance is necessary to "beat the Tories and the hard right" and to "govern effectively in such turbulent times". But Labour is, sadly, several years away from government. In the immediate term, the best weapon that Labour has for beating the Tories is not a "new alliance" but the "old and tired pole" of the working class.
Old and tired some of us may be, defeated and disorganised our whole class may be - but not irrelevant. In fact, to nurture every germ of working-class struggle will be Labour's best hope if it means to challenge the right effectively in the "turbulent times" ahead.