Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Why Labour?

Elsewhere on the net I have written a report on the LRC conference which I thought was a great success. The purpose of this short article is not to back-track on that in anyway, but to engage with some of the issues raised in the debate on 'motion 10' at the conference, and also respond to some remarks made elsewhere on the left regions of the web about the debate. I ought to point out first that I rather enjoyed the debate and I don't think it's ever a bad thing to have a debate and a controversial vote. I disagreed with Motion 10 - for the reasons I'll explain - and I disagreed with some of the points in the debate (on both sides) but that doesn't mean that I didn't welcome the discussion.

Briefly, on saturday, the debate was - as the motion seemed to suggest - about occasional local scenarios, where organised labour / socialists in an area might be presented with a right-wing Labour candidate and a decent socialist alternative - should they (and should the LRC) support the alternative? While I can't deny that at times in the past I have been tempted by just that situation, I agreed with the argument that won the day: that the LRC would eat itself were it to support - or even support the concept of supporting - anti-Labour candidates in elections. We have a real fight to get socialists elected into representative bodies in the UK and there isn't an easy route or a short-cut. Everybody at the LRC conference could stand as independent candidates around the country; we'd have a lot of fun, and we'd lose a lot of elections and waste a lot of money in deposits that could be better spent elsewhere. No, we have to take the difficult path: we have socialists in council chambers up and down the country and in parliament; we have people getting selected as PPCs; it's hard but it can be done. Standing as the New Socialist (Marxist-Leninist) Communist (Provisional) Party (Fourth International) Group is no answer to that struggle. It would be easier to get selected as a candidate, but harder to get more than a derisory vote. I apologise for the parliamentary focus of this - but then that was the focus of the motion in question.

But actually, the real debate wasn't about that difficult, occasional, local choice - it was about the breaking point. It was about moving on from Labour. One of the speakers in the debate made that point when they argued that those who opposed the motion had a 'shaky' view of history, suggesting that - had the original LRC responded in the way we did - the Labour Party would never have been formed and unions would be bound to the Liberal Party. Leaving aside the history for a moment, the clear implication is that this is an 1899/1900 moment, when 'a new party' might be formed, seperate from Labour. In other words, Workers' Liberty were echoing the calls for a 'New Workers' Party' (even though the loudest of those calls have tended to come from that organisations sectarian opponents).

Personally, I disagree with two contributors to debates on saturday (two people whom I agreed with on pretty much every other point) when they expressed feelings of despair in relation to the Labour Party today. Perhaps I am a hopeless optimist, but - as a historian of the labour movement - I am a long way from despair. Indeed I am more hopeful about the centre of gravity in Labour making a decisive leftward movement today than I have been for a very long time. I think the growth of the LRC represents something that actually hasn't been previously seen in our history. The closest match would be the extra-parliamentary Bevanite organisation of the 1950s (and we can and should learn some lessons from that) - but the LRC is a much more activist-led venture and is increasingly becoming much more organised. It is so much more interesting and exciting than previous groups that have been so centred around parliament.

The John McDonnell leadership campaign should not be seen as a cause for despair but a cause for hope. We could muster nothing of the kind in 1994. I recall comrades from Workers' Liberty telling me off (!!) for campaigning for a Ken Livingstone candidacy because it would split the left vote for John Prescott! Such paucity of ambition is completely alien to the Labour Left today.

We are not only winning the battle of ideas - we have won. The battle of spin, the struggle against neo-liberal and 'third way' hegemony in the media is another battle which will be much harder, but all the interesting ideas are coming from the left, along with all the common sense.

I am absolutely in favour of working in common cause with people outside the Labour tent when we can work together. But I make no apologies for saying, in the long run, my aim is to return a Labour government and to ensure that that government enacts socialist policies and redistributes wealth and power. That does not just require unity in terms of not tearing lumps out of each other - it requires unity of purpose.

I commend all the organisers of the conference at the weekend (especially those who I've just mildly criticised!) and I also commend everybody who spoke in the debates. I think we conducted ourselves in a good spirit and we shouldn't be afraid of debate.

I have some other things to say about communication and getting our message out, but I think I should probably wait until the bullets stop flying from this one!!


Miller 2.0 said...

It's funny you say that really, because I see myself as a big inheritor of Bevanite politics, as do most of us who stayed on the tribune side after the split on the left in the 1980s. In my view, the LRC is much more an inheritor of Bennism than Bevanism, which had some particular rightish lines (nukes, the importance of compromise in general, maintaining the impression of moderation) which most LRC members would choke on.

Furtehr, Bevanism might have had extra-parliamentary roots, but Bevan ended up being kicked out of the party for carrying out a popular-frontism a lot less pronounced than that in which the LRC engages. His passionate speeches against revolutionary politics are something which I find completely missing from the LRC approach, which for some reason (once again, much like Bennism) finds it important to keep the sects on board, while the rest of us wonder why...

Duncan Hall said...

Extra-parliamentary Bevanism in the 1950s was characterised in a number of ways but perhaps the most obvious one was opposition to nuclear weapons; the roots of CND very much feed from the same fertile soil of radical politics - when Bevan 'converted' to multi-lateralism at the end of the decade, it was generally seen as the end of Bevanism (and was viewed as a great betrayal by those outside parliament - and some of those inside).

But actually Bevanism had parliamentary roots - one way in which it differs from the LRC - although it did build on the 1930s Socialist League (essentially the ILPers who stayed). It was the Socialist League who supported some popular frontism (and Bevan and Cripps paid the price) but this was before the period I was referring to.

In the 1950s the accusation from the leadership was that Bevanism outside parliament was overrun with communist entryists. It was not, though the CLPs did have communist members (as did TUs) and they worked together perfectly well on many issues, which is the right thing to do.

I think sectarian politics is a dead end and a waste of energy, talent and passion (not to mention intellect). But saying 'we're the real left, and we don't want Trotskyists, Leninists, Fourth Internationalers, anarchists, etc. in our club is exactly that: sectarian politics. I have no problems disagreeing with people who I share an organisation with: both John Hutton and I are Labour Party members after all! Tony Benn's line has often been that there are too many socialist parties and not enough socialists - and I agree. I can't blame anybody with a socialist perspective for having been attracted to any one of these various groups over the last ten or twenty years. If I had come across Tony Cliff before I came across Tony Benn I don't know what sort of decisions I might have made as a teenager. Yes, I think some of these groups indulge in things that are a waste of time: mainly arguing over the precise nature of the former soviet union and whether they should try and form (another) new workers' party. But I also think that there is a lot of excellent work, real energy, passion and commitment and activism on the so-called 'ultra left' (and even some good ideas, sometimes!) Just because somebody sells a red-topped newspaper doesn't make them a bad Labour member, indeed I'd rather have a few 'trots' (absurd word) in my CLP than an equivalent number of Mandelsons and Huttons - wouldn't you?

susan said...

Until a few years ago I was probably as much prey to Labourist sectarianism as anyone.In recent years the depths to which New Labour has stooped forced me to revise that view.
Tony Benn ALWAYS makes the case for joining Labour but that didn't stop him being the star attraction at the Convention Of The Left and engaging in a friendly way with groups on the far left and maybe even beyond that! You don't win friends ( or arguments) by staying in the comfort zone.
I profoundly disagreed like Duncan with the AWL motion but that didn't stop me having a comradely pint with a couple of their members afterwards.
The biggest hostility I have encountered politically is, ironically, from fellow mebers of the Labour Party. Sad but true. As thibgs stand, Labour is not a broad church - we can carrry on ( and must) trying to make it so but there is nothing wrong with making our voices heard at other congregations.......debate, as Duncan says, is good.

Duncan Hall said...

I agree entirely re: the Convention of the Left, Susan. Indeed I was busy working on similar ideas back in the late 1990s!