We have received the following letter from an LP activist, written as a
personal contribution to the ongoing discussion now taking place in the
local Labour and trade union movement, on the issues being raised by the
Rotherham by-election due to take place on November 29th. In view of
its length we are unable to publish it in its full form in the December
issue of Socialist Appeal so we are making the complete text available
online now in advance of publication.The author welcomes any comments on his letter.
We have received the following letter from an LP activist, written as a personal contribution to the ongoing discussion now taking place in the local Labour and trade union movement, on the issues being raised by the Rotherham by-election due to take place on November 29th. In view of its length we are unable to publish it in its full form in the December issue of Socialist Appeal so we are making the complete text available online now in advance of publication.The author welcomes any comments on his letter.
The by-election in Rotherham Central that will take place on 29 November was caused by the resignation of its Labour Member of Parliament Denis MacShane after the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee recently found that he had submitted 19 false invoices "plainly intended to deceive" the parliamentary expenses authority, an issue dating back to 2009 and part of the wider parliamentary expenses scandal . MacShane accepted the Chiltern Hundreds (i.e.resigned in plain English) on 5 November 2012, formally vacating his seat and a by-election for the seat was set for the 29th November.
There is good reason to expect that the Rotherham by-election will be the dirtiest campaign ever, in Rotherham history and that is saying a lot. The reason that for that is that there is not one viable candidate in this election who has a programme that is capable of dealing with the ongoing crisis of capitalism, none have a solution or even an achievable reform. This means that they are all reduced to blackening the name of their opponents or ridiculing their proposals. It should be pointed out that while Rotherham, in the wake of the child grooming scandal, is often perceived as having a sizable Muslim Asian population, which does seems to be the main reason why Respect have targeted the seat for so much effort since the by-election was announced. However, the available figures for the Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (RMBC) actually show that while 92.5% who live in the borough, which the constituency forms only one part, identify themselves as ‘White British’ only around 3% identify their origins as being in Islamic countries, slightly above the percentage who identify themselves as of Irish or Eastern European origin, in terms of religion in 2001, 2.6% of Rotherham’s population belonged to minority non Christian religions compared to 6% nationally, with practicing Muslims 2.2% of the total RMBC population.
With Labour securing important wins and big swings in Corby, Manchester Central and Cardiff South on 15th November holding Rotherham Central which has an impregnable 10,000 Labour majority on 29th November would seem assured. However, Labour’s NEC then set up a 5 member panel to determine the short list of candidates who it regarded as ‘safe’ to put to the local Rotherham party for selection to fight the by-election. This panel decided by 3-2 to reject the popular Rotherham town Councillor, Mahroof Hussain, who the preferred candidate of local party members, on the, frankly quite incredible, grounds that the child sex grooming case involved Pakistani Muslims and had affected not only Rochdale but Rotherham also! While I personally hold no brief for Hussain it is absolutely appalling reason to block his candidacy, because of his ethnicity, a rumoured decision which if true borders on outright racism, as such the blame for the scenes of chaos that followed this decision can only be laid directly at the door of the NEC. The panel then went on to reject another popular candidate, the well known socialist Richard Burgon, who was on the parliamentary A list and had the support of all the 9 unions with links to Rotherham. As a result the NEC panel then presented the local party with an all women short list of just 2 persons, Sarah Champion the chief executive of local children’s hospice Bluebell Wood and Sophy Gardner who is a former RAF Wing Commander, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was also in charge of RAF transport and refuelling assets during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Afghanistan operations 2001-2, for which she was awarded the MBE. She’s an advocate for Labour Friends of the Forces, and runs her own communications strategy consultancy.
At the CLP selection meeting on 13th November attended by at least 120-130 local members, understandably all hell broke loose. There was such disgust at the party’s tactics that up to a hundred members, some reports, which gave the total attendance as 173 said over 140, walked out. The rump of the meeting that was left then selected one of the two candidates, Sarah Champion the chief executive of a children’s hospice rather than a former wing commander who had served in Afghanistan, by 13 votes to 11. Sarah Champion has no discernible record of Labour party activism and only joined a Trades Union, two weeks ago! The local Labour Party leadership, given its record of imposing candidates on ward parties among other things has no real justification for claiming the high moral ground when pointing the finger at the NEC over the issues of democracy and accountability.
This enforced resignation of McShane, the latest in a series of scandals involving Labour’s public representatives has caused a good deal of dismay and alienation among the local working class, though most of these Parliamentary expenses scandals have actually involved Tories, but as most people expect them to be ‘on the fiddle’ they haven’t really registered much disgust in the same manner with most working people who do though expect their representatives to behave in a scrupulously honest manner particularly with regard to the public purse. The main question that has emerged locally at this point is, how do we stop this sort of thing from happening again? Certainly one clear alternative has emerged to the previous method of the local Labour Party in the constituency selecting a candidate from the ranks of the professions of journalism and law. Who then see their Parliamentary mandate as being one of making capitalism work and who then expects to be handsomely rewarded for that role with a salary far beyond the wage of a skilled worker. This has come from the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate Ralph Dyson.
Local teacher Ralph Dyson, who had just been appointed school rep was part of a successful strike against 25 job losses at Rawmarsh Community School last year and is now joint divisional secretary of Rotherham National Union of Teachers (NUT) has pledged to stand as TUSC candidate under the slogan “a workers’ MP on a workers’ wage.”He is a principled class militant from a mining family which went through the 1984-85 miners’ strike actively picketing and selling his artwork for the sacked miners. Comrade Ralph has also urged unions to fight back against 750 threatened job losses at Rotherham Hospital and the closure of Maltby Colliery, where 500 jobs face being axed. There are many good reasons to support Comrade Ralph as part of the urgent need for mass resistance to the current ruling class offensive, and for an alternative programme of left-wing policies to help inspire and direct such resistance, with the Con-Dem government having only made around 15% of their cuts so far and a further£50 million budget cut proposed in Rotherham by 2015.
Is standing or supporting a separate candidate from the one of official labour movement the best way of politically resisting the attacks on the working class of the Tories and their Liberal allies? It is my contention that the comrades of TUSC have made a serious miscalculation in attempting to bypass the structures of the labour movement and in appealing over those structures heads directly to the voters of Rotherham Central. In making this contribution I have no other intention or motives other than to help clarify the issues at stake and to hopefully draw the correct conclusions for the benefit of the whole Labour Movement. It should also be stated that my real issue with TUSC here is not so much ‘What they stand for’ rather it is their standing for this election, particularly given their rather slender base of support locally. The working class of Britain have over the course of more than a century built up a very powerful political party which has delivered a number of very important reforms to the capitalist system from which the working class have gained huge benefits, health care and education free at the point of demand for example. This has meant that the Labour party has a tremendous ‘capital’ of trust and support in the hearts and minds of working class people, they will not lightly abandon the Labour party, especially while under attack as they are at this moment in time from the capitalist system in crisis, while any realistic hopes of its acting in defence of working people remains.
One of the first points I noticed about the TUSC campaign that seemed to me might be the cause of this mistaken approach is their failure to understand the very nature of the Labour Party itself. It seems quite clear that they now regard the Labour Party as an avowedly capitalist party which has no hope of reform or regeneration, rather like the US Democrats or the UK Liberal Party of the 19th century both of which are or were clearly capitalist parties that tried to portray themselves as the defenders of the interests of labour, mostly by championing some minor urgent reforms in a demagogic way for electoral reasons. Here it seems to me they are confusing a workers organisation led by pro capitalist politicians with a capitalist political party that draws occasional electoral support from sections of the working class often on a demagogic basis. It occurs to me that if they are unable to distinguish between a situation where the labour movement has yet to form a political party, Britain in the 19th century or the USA now, with the situation in Britain today where we have a large and authoritative, if dominated (as it always has been) by pro capitalist elements Labour Party then they will be in for a series of bitter disappointments.
Another very worrying aspect seems to be their misunderstanding of the role of the Labour Party in the past, instead of a sober analysis of its actual role in the past struggles we find its past actions and outlooks prettified to an almost unrecognisable level. It might come as news to TUSC for example that the Labour party leadership never supported the great miners’ strike of 1984/5 or the general strike of 1926 there was no ‘golden age’ when Labour didn’t fall well short of the aspirations of the working class. The PLP have always needed to be dragged into adopting even the most grudging support for workers struggles, so it is no real surprise that they are less than enthusiastic about the struggles presently being waged against austerity.
The position of TUSC on the Labour Party reminds me somewhat of a broken clock that tells the time correctly only twice a day, midnight, when the prospects of the Labour party acting in defence of the working class are at their darkest and midday when they are at their brightest, no other shades of light and dark enter their analysis. This is of course to overlook the very real role the Labour Party plays in capitalist society and the constant state of flux it is in as a result of the pressures of the class struggle brings to bear on it, in short the attempt to paint the Labour Party in a black or white manner fails the test of analysing or explaining it in anything even approaching a dialectical manner. Instead of an honest appraisal of Labour’s past record and current potential in a dialectical manner, TUSC seem to have fallen into the trap of recreating the methodology of the ultra left sects of yesteryear that used to infest the fringes of the labour movement.
Even if we were to accept their premise, which is the Labour Party is now no longer a viable political vehicle for the working class to defend itself from capitalism and a new workers party is now needed, would this current campaign really be the best way to achieve this? Obviously I and the overwhelming bulk of the working class do not share this premise that the Labour Party has degenerated beyond any hope of redemption but if we are wrong on this we do stand to be convinced by the comrades at TUSC. How could they convince us? Not by words alone, but by deeds as well, irrefutable practical proof of the utter impossibility of utilising the structures and the offices of the Labour Party in the real life pursuit of the aims of the working class in struggle against the capitalist system, that’s how it can be proved. Where have they conducted this struggle and when?
TUSC has its origins as an independent political force in the struggles that some supporters of Militant newspaper waged in the Labour Party in the 1980s. In that origin lay most of TUSC’s original strength, after they left the Labour Party they managed to win a few council seats on the back of that struggle principally because their candidate were, by many working people, seen to have been good class fighters within the Labour Party against the capitalists and the right wing. But now those days are in the dim and distant past most working people do not associate TUSC with the struggles of socialists in the Labour Party in the here and now and TUSC activists are increasingly developing a shrill sectarian tone with regard to Labour, often it is they, not capitalism or the Tories who are seen by TUSC as the ‘main’ enemy which alienates many Labour supporters.
The British Labour Party while far from unique internationally is in a minority of sole political representatives of their national labour movements, in many other countries we have two or even in some cases three different workers parties, often support for these different parties see saws between them as the workers finding that in one party they are unable to pursue their struggles to their satisfactory conclusion turn to the other party only at a later stage to find that the second party proved no better in practice than the first, before then returning to the first one yet again. At this stage of the class struggle in Britain all the political efforts of the working class coming under the same political umbrella is quite an element of modest progress saving a good deal of repetition of effort and the to and throwing of having two or more parties that essentially stand on the same platform would needlessly create. It is quite instructive to study how those ‘new’ parties in these countries came to be, particularly for the light they throw on the TUSC project and in particular why, in spite of the good intentions and hard work of the participants I do not personally believe it will succeed. In almost every case where a ‘new’ workers party has been formed, it was because the ‘old’ one was acting as a fetter or bottle neck on an unfolding struggle and usually its leading layers, who had adapted to the prevailing capitalist climate, were then proved to be an impediment to that struggle being advanced. The question this raises is, who was this proved to and how?
As is clear from a study of the origins of all of these ‘new’ parties the answers to that question is that they must be proved to the mass of workers or a sizable section of the working class within the existing mass political organisation of the working class. It is one thing for a small advanced section of the workers to have a concept ‘proved’ on paper for them; it is quite another thing to demonstrate this concept in actual real life fact to the complete satisfaction of the bulk of the working class. If we actually to take the trouble to study the history of the international labour movement we actually find that there is not a single example of a ‘new’ workers party that was founded outside the existing labour movement political party. Every single ‘new’ party, from the Russian Bolsheviks to Greece’s Syriza, and every other ‘new’ workers party you can think of were all formed in the womb of the previously existing workers party.
Often it is stated that if you join the Labour Party hoping to change it then in fact it will be the Labour Party who changes you. The example of several prominent Labour figures who in their youth briefly flirted with radical ideas and posturing does seem to add credence to that assertion. However on closer examination we actually find that most of these individuals were not products of the working class itself, which while not of decisive significance would of armed them at least with a degree of class consciousness and none of these characters actually undertook a serious systematic study of the ideas or methods of scientific socialism (Marxism) nor did they profess to understand the history or the traditions of the labour movement. For every activist these two skills, for want of a better term, are an indispensible guide to action, a map and compass, without the aid of which it is all too easy to get hopelessly lost, especially in the complex and ever changing circumstances of the class struggle. If you construct a preconceived schema that lacks the correction of real life, which is in my opinion a danger of the TUSC project at this stage, you run the grave danger of becoming hopelessly adrift from the real processes at work in the labour movement, particularly when these processes take a sudden turn at a juncture in the class struggle.
The preceding period of the world economic boom from 1992 to 2008 saw the internal life of the Labour party ossify as worker activist had fallen away in droves, demoralised by the preceding period of the defeats of the labour movement from the end of the miner’s great strike in 1985 onwards were replaced by place seeking careerists. On the back of the finance boom many polished careerist Blarite drones filled almost every place in the Labour Party where they began to exert an influence on policy far beyond any electoral support from the voters they could ever have gained if they had not been endorsed by the Labour Party. That situation is beginning to change as the recession continues unabated and no prospect of an economic recovery is even on the distant horizon.
At the Labour Party conference this year we saw the beginnings of a new mood among activists when more than 200 delegates lobbied the composite committee and face down the apparatus’s attempt to remit the resolutions from the constituencies on NHS, forcing them into a humiliating climb down that saw that motion pass unopposed as the right wing feared a defeat on the conference floor that might open a Pandora’s box of opposition. At this stage the opposition in the Labour Party is at low ebb but on the basis of coming events it will grow. TUSC has cut itself off from being involved in this process and as the struggle now beginning to take place in the Labour party to attempt to get the councillors and MPs to take effective action in defence of the working class. If TUSC continue to do badly at the polls such as their recent result in Manchester Central and support for Labour continues to grow it will likely lose in the next period even those activists it has now, who might well vote with their feet by entering the arena of struggle in Labour to further fan the flames of struggle against the right wing.
If we borrow from the ideas Karl Marx explained here with regard to social systems we find that no new formation can take shape before the conscious and material conditions for that new formation have matured in the existing formation, its time and place have to be right if you will. It has to represent the new material aspirations of a sizable section of the working class, or prove beyond any doubt that their old representative will not represent their interests to the very people who it seeks to represent in real life , no new formation will drop ready made from a clear blue sky, it has to emerge in a struggle with in the womb of the existing formation when all the potential for the old formation has been exhausted and proved to have been so in a struggle of living forces. It is no more possible for socialists to form a new party of the working class by renting an office and publishing a newspaper to distribute, behaving in an exemplary principled way and recruiting new comrades in ones and twos and hoping that this example will spread than it was possible for the utopian socialists to build a new society by buying a plot of land and working it in a exemplary principled manner, recruiting new comrades in ones and twos and hoping this example would spread. Just because I maintain that the standing of a TUSC candidate will not have the effect that the comrades believe it will does that mean that ‘ I am not even going to bother’ ?
Is TUSC the only ‘Alternative’? It is important to state that while the Labour Party is not perfect, and that’s a massive understatement, it is the only political party the working class in Britain presently posses, no amount of wishful thinking will create a perfect party, we have to use what we actually have. In which case maybe we should seriously try reclaiming our political party as well as our trade unions from the careerists and carpetbaggers who have hijacked them. What is needed is a real fight inside the party over perhaps a long period of time, to reintroduce and return the basic principles of socialism to the head of the agenda in the Labour Party’s priorities and to clean the careerists and carpet baggers out of the party’s structures. Before anyone wades in here to tell me just how utterly impossible they think that idea is, think about this for a moment, if it were really true that the working class lacked the fighting ability and strength to overcome the careerists and so were unable to regain control of their own party and transform it into a fighting organisation of their own interests and aspirations, how on earth would they ever be able to summon the fighting capabilities to transform society? Surely that is a far greater and difficult task than deselecting a number of MPs and making the rest of the party’s representatives follow conference decisions.
Jim Reeves Doncaster North CLP (Personal Capacity)