Towards the end of last year we witnessed the collapse of another attempt to create a party to the left of Labour. The RESPECT party, which was founded in 2004, was the latest effort to establish an electoral alternative to Labour. It succeeded in winning an MP, George Galloway, as well as a few dozen councillors up and down the country. At the time, this was heralded as a great breakthrough. However, the whole project soon went pear-shaped.
RESPECT finally split in two: RESPECT RENEWAL and RESPECT. The first faction comprises MP George Galloway and his supporters while the second is made up of representatives of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Relations reached a new low when one faction changed the locks to the party’s headquarters in east London to stop their rivals getting in. The division is believed to centre on arguments around candidate selection and internal democracy. Subsequently, both groups claiming to represent the Real Respect held their conferences at the same time in different London venues, with roughly 350 attending each.
Whatever their initial show of enthusiasm, it is clear the split will serve to eventually demoralise those involved. As we predicted, the project was doomed to failure long before the formal split. All attempts to form new left parties from scratch have ended in failure whether it was the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance, Socialist Party-Campaign for a New Workers Party, Scottish Socialist Party, etc, etc.
All hoped they would be able to capitalise on the disillusionment with New Labour, but all failed miserably. Despite the bitterness expressed by workers in the failings of the New Labour government, they have not turned to any of the so-called leftwing alternatives on offer. In times of disappointment, workers who previously voted Labour tend to abstain from voting. That is the real picture. In other words, the working class at this stage does not see any alternative.
Whether we like it or not, the Labour Party cannot be removed from the political scheme by the actions of sectarian groups or such like. The attempt to form a New Workers’ Party has fallen flat on its face. There isn’t the support to muster a single resolution calling for such a party on any national trade union agenda.
"Ah! But you can’t change the Labour Party!" is the refrain. We have heard this argument repeated millions of times over the last 100 years. In that time, depending on the class struggle, the Labour Party has swung to the left and to the right. The reason for the domination of the right wing today is because the Labour Party has emptied out over the last 20 years. But this will change as the class struggle inevitably develops.
How many times have we heard "you can’t change this or that trade union" that was under the control of the right wing? Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of PCS, spoke at one of the RESPECT conferences saying a party to the left of Labour had to be created. However, it was not so long ago that his union was under the control of the extreme right wing. Now the PCS is under the control of the left – that took more than 30 years to achieve! It would have been wrong to have set up a new union, just as it is wrong and utopian to think you can set up some left alternative to Labour as the solution to the problems of the working class. If only it was so simple!
The point is the Labour Party was set up by the trade unions and financed by them. They are affiliated to the party. That is sufficient to define the Labour Party as a party based on the working class. If the trade unions wanted to, they could clear out the right wing. However, they supported Brown for leader instead of backing John McDonnell, who stood on policies the same as those passed at the union conferences. They have, in effect, capitulated to the right wing. That is where the problem lies.
Only under pressure from below will the trade union leaders take up the struggle or be replaced by those who are prepared to fight. It was the radicalisation of the unions in the early 1970s that pushed the Labour Party to the left. Similar events will do so again and open up the struggle for real socialist policies. Events, events, events will transform the situation and the balance of forces within the Labour movement.
In the meantime, all efforts to create RESPECT or RESPECT RENEWAL will come to nothing. Those who do not learn from history will be doomed to repeat it. There are no short cuts. Our task must be to prepare for the great events that will impend and the inevitable shift to the left within the mass organisations, both in the trade unions and the Labour Party.