Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Labour Party is Dead, Long Live the Labour Party

The local elections, and London Mayoral elections were devastating for the New Labour project. The coming by-election in Crewe & Nantwich, previously held by the right-wing Labour MP Gwynedd Dunwoody is likely to be just as bad in two weeks time. A once solid Labour seat, based on the industrial working class, in and around Crewe, that worked at Rolls Royce, and Crewe Works Railway Engineering, has largely disappeared along with a lot more of Britain's industry. The Pottery industry, and the Coal and Steel industry of Crewe's neighbour Stoke, and source of employment for many in and around Crewe, has disappeared entirely in respect of coal and steel, and is virtually extinct as far as Pottery is concerned too. Dunwoody had a personal following, which, probably, accounted for continuing support from the workers of the area, and is probably one reason why her daughter is tipped to contest the seat, but the 7,000 majority looks vulnerable given Labour's current position.

The elections should be a wake-up call for the Left, which is sleep-walking to disaster. The ridiculous, almost Third Period, adventurism of the Left in pretending that there is, in any way, the material basis for some alternative workers party, to Labour, was demonstrated, for the ridiculous fantasy it is, even more starkly than Labour's defeat. The Left List in London received less than 1% of the vote. Its main candidate, Lyndsey German for Mayor, did no better, polling just a quarter of the vote that went to the BNP. The message is clear, if workers are moving towards anyone as an alternative workers Party, it is not one to the Left, but to the Right.

The message was clear here in Stoke. In 1983, when I was a City Councillor, Labour held 57 of the 60 seats. At one point Labour held all 60. But they lost their majority some years ago. For a while Independents - who were a rag tag of all sorts of discontents from disguised Tories, to disgruntled ex-Labour Councillors, to BNP members - who came to power on the basis of a series of terrible Labour mistakes, arrogance, and a prolonged, virulent campaign against Labour by the local newspaper, the Evening Sentinel, that criticised everything the Council did good or bad - not that the Council didn't give them plenty of ammunition to use - ran the Council, to the general consent of all that they hadn't a clue what they were doing. Labour should have stayed well away, and been a party of radical opposition rebuilding its credibility at the grass roots. But, the local LP has always been, in the eyes of its leading lights, all about controlling the Council - not surprising given so many years as almost a one party state. For a brief period in the late 70's and early 80's some of us changed that and turned it outwards to campaigning and community action, but it was a perspective shared by only a few, and, such a perpsective, can only work if a determined group lead it forward and inspire the rank and file members. The Left in general has disdained such an approach as routinism. They were always more concerned with political point scoring against the Right than actually getting involved in the day to day existence of ordinary working class communities and dealing with their mundane problems. They favoured the more attractive "real politics".

Even now that view of politics as something which only happens in the rarefied atmosphere of Party Conference, and CLP debate dominates the perpsective of the Left. Worse still is the top-down approach of encouraging not an attitude of self-reliance and self-activity amongst the rank and file of the Trade Unions and LP, and indeed of the working class as a whole, but a reliance on the same TRade UNion leadership and burueucracy that shares the same outlook as the Lp leaders, just with a slightly pinker tinge, as this appeal from comrades of the AWL does here. It is, on the part of those that should know better comparable with the Comintern's continued sowing of illusions in the Anglo-Russian Committee.
But the chickens are coming home to roost for that approach. Not only did the Left in the LP alienate ordinary Party members by that approach, in the process they isolated themselves from the class. When the Right turned on them they had nowhere to go, but into a land of fantasy where if only the workers were given adequate leadership they would flock to the doors; in fact the same fantasy the Trotskyist left has been in for nearly 80 years. But, workers need to know you are really on their side before they will consider giving you their support. Their confidence has to be won not taken for granted. These last election demonstrated that in spades.

John McDonnell's approach was somehwat, though not much, better, when he appeared on weekend TV and said that he was drawing up a Programme based around defending workers interests for the Party to mobilise around, but his approach that he was going to put this to Brown, he must have known was pissing in the wind. By all means use that approach if you are going to say openly here is a programme to support the workers join us or be damned, as part of building a fight inside the LP, but if that is the intention donce mince words say it openly. And of course that is exactly what is required whether it loses labour the next election or not, because on the present course the only prospect is defeat anyway. Of course, McDonnell's Programme was wholly inadequate semi-Stalnist, and statist stuff about imposing price controls and so on, but the Programme should be open to debate - and comrades you don't need to be able to send resolutoins to Conference to hold such debates, in fact menaingfully they are better conducted outside the limited opportunity of a few hours at a Conference anyway.

In the same measure that Labour went backwards, in Stoke, the BNP continued to move forward, becoming now the fourth largest Party. Opposition to the BNP has often been on very skaky ground, indeed often an apolitical opposition. It has focused on the argument, for instance, that the BNP are not effective Councillors, they don't go to meetings, don't speak at meetings, don't deal with problems. In some instances that may have been true, but it was always open to the question, or comment, "Well God help us when they do then!"

In fact, in response to the BNP's gain of 3 seats from 6 to 9 (they have all three Councillors in one ward) Stoke Central MP, Mark Fisher, commented that the BNP had been 'good local candidates who've worked harder than Labour'." The local Anti-fascist group Secretary in the internal discussion criticised Mark for his use of the word "good", a point that Mark has accepted was not well chosen, but agreed that, "Of course, the point that Mark is making is perfectly valid: that the BNP have worked harder as community politicians than the Labour Party."

In the late 70's early 80's, I remember being in a Party that was totally corrupt, where meetings took place often just twice a year, where the only discussion was about how much money had been taken at Bingo at the local Community Centre, where it was virtually impossible for anyone to join - whether you were a Leftist or not - and seeing that Party transformed through new blood coming into the party, not because the LP had turned Left, but because a group of us went out and got stuck into community issues in workers districts, spoke to people on the doorsteps week in week out, and persuaded them to come and shake things up. In short time we had a functioning active organisation, and Labour votes soared, communities were covered in Labour posters, and community organisations like Tenants and Residents Associations were established, and so on.

The BNP seem to have learned that lesson. The Provos and other political groups also seem to have learned it, but the Left still want to do "real politics", is still more concerned about not being able to hold sterile debates at CLP meetings, and Conferences. Both the LP and the Left need to learn and learn quickly from these events. Nor is the option of the Left trying to do this kind of Community work through some kind of alternative workers party a viable option. The Left is too weak. Those of us that did it 20 years ago got burned out, and we were only able to do it, because we were able to use the lever of the LP Branch to mobilise other active - not necessarily very Left - members of the Branch to shoulder some of the burden.

The reaction of the LP establishment in Stoke was pretty abysmal if not altogether surprising. Labour shares power in an unholy alliance on the Council with the Independents, Tories and Liberals. It went from 23 seats to just 16. Labour's establishment seemed more concerned about what effect this would have within their Popular Front in terms of how many Chairs of Committees they would have! At a time when the election showed that workers have failed to turn up to vote Labour as they find it increasingly difficult to discern them from the Tories, the Council's elected Labour Mayor, Mark Merdith, called for "a period of conciliation and progress on the Council, rather than political sparring and point scoring."

He said that many of the Councillors had lost their seats because they had taken difficult decisions, such as the Council's decision to close many of the City's failing schools. But what this amounts to is saying that they lost seats for the entirely deserved reason that instead of standing on the side of the workers whose Party they are, they stood instead with the Tories, and Liberals. Instead of learning the lesson of that, and realising that the LP, as the Party of the working class, should be taking hard decisions in the other direction, hard because it means standing up against the capitalist class, and against Brown's Government, all they could offer was more of the same! Outgoing Council Leader, and former MEP, Mike Tappin, commented that the decisions that cost him his seat were the right decisions for the City!!!! Tappin, is an educated man, he was County Councillor in the same ward and at the same time that I was a City Councillor, he's a college lecturer. So how come he can come up with such drivel. What is this City if it isn't the people that live in it? And the vast majority of those people are workers, the workers that the LP is supposed to represent. So no Mike, the workers of the City, and, therefore, the City itself has told you clearly these were not the right decisions! You should have been acting in support of the workers, and you didn't. That was the only thing required of you and you failed. That's why you paid the price, that's why the BNP is growing in strength.

The message it seems to me is clear. New Labour has disappeared up its own arse. Its very premise, the only reason that ordinary LP members tolerated it, was because it was winning, and after a period of so long out of office, for a Party based on electoralism, that was a powerful incentive. But not only is New Labour now not winning, but it has led Labour to the worst defeats in 40 years, as far back as the period of Harold Wilson and his attacks on the working class through In Place of Strife. There is no reason for ordinary LP members to tolerate New Labour toryism any longer, indeed if Labour is to have any chance of winning the next election by getting back its core working class support, more importantly if the BNP are to be prevented from entrenching themselves as a major alternative worker's party - in that very basic sense of being a party to which workers turn for answers to their problems - then New Labour has to be ditched, and ordinary rank and file members have to begin by turning out into the Community, have to become a Party of radical opposition, including, and especially to Labour Councils themselves where they attack workers interests, and thereby rejuvenate the Party at its grass roots level, providing the new fresh forces the Labour Movement needs to take the battle forward.

But that will not happen without determined militants organising and leading that kind of activity. That means the forces of Marxism of all shades, essentially who, currently, in the main, stand in splendid isolation outside the Party. Only those forces have the kind of skills, the dedication, and basic Programme required to engage in such a campaign. The opportunity is their for the Left to take, or once again to squander.

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