Having successfully denied John McDonnell the necessary number of MPs’ nominations, the Gordon Brown camp think they have sown up the Labour Party leadership election good and proper. Being the reformist politicians that they are, they cannot see further than tomorrow. The manoeuvre to keep the left candidate John McDonnell off the ballot for Labour leader will not stop the process of radicalisation taking place within the labour and trade union movement in this country. There will be ups and downs, successes and defeats, but the left of the party will make a comeback. The actions and policies of Brown will produce greater discontent in the future as it becomes abundantly clear to all that Brown is no different to Blair.
Tens of thousands of trade unionists and Labour Party members are deeply angered by this North Korean-style non-election of "one member, no vote". Brown, despite any new image he will attempt to portray, will continue with the deeply unpopular Blairite policies of the past. He has already given assurances to this effect to the Confederation of British Industry. In the coming period his support will fall below even that of Tony Blair.
The call by John McDonnell for his tens of thousands of supporters in the labour and trade union movement to continue the fight for left policies is absolutely correct. While John’s failure to get on the ballot is a temporary set-back, it is the result of a frightened Establishment desperate to keep alternative left-wing policies off the agenda, fearing that they will become a point of reference for millions of workers. The deep discontent with the New Labour leadership is not going away, and will intensify in the next period. The more Brown continues with pro-capitalist policies, the more the opposition will grow inside and outside of the labour movement. John has put down a clear marker for a future left-wing challenge, when things go inevitably pear shaped for Brown and his entourage. In quoting Joe Hill, "Don’t mourn, organize!" John has served to point the correct way forward.
As always, there are sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement who are rubbing their hands in glee at the failure of John to get on the ballot – as proof that the Labour Party can never be changed. "See, the left can’t even get on the ballot, let alone change the party. They are wasting their time", comes the usual defeatist refrain. One such grouping is the so-called Socialist Party, which urges all and sundry to abandon the Labour Party as a lost cause.
When John McDonnell announced his intention to stand, this group was forced to say they would give him critical support, but with very grave qualifications. These "qualifications" were that he would never get on the ballot paper or win the election and his campaign was completely hopeless from the very start! They said John and his supporters should come to their senses and leave the Labour Party and join them. With "critical support" and friends like these, who needs enemies!
The SP even urged the trade unions to follow Tony Blair’s advice and break their links with Labour. It never entered their heads that this was playing into the hands of the Blairites who want to break the trade union link in order to inoculate the party against any left turn that will take place in the trade unions in the future! Basically what they are saying is that the present Labour Party is no good, and should be cast aside and replaced by a new Labour Party. Some of their leading lights had a letter to this effect published in The Guardian newspaper recently. We quote it in full:
"The coronation of Gordon Brown leaves a major question facing John McDonnell and his supporters. How can millions of ex-Labour voters disillusioned by the Iraq war, the acceleration of privatisation and the growing gap between the rich and the rest now have a political voice? Britain doesn’t have a genuine debate any more on domestic or foreign policy; for millions of people it doesn’t seem like we even have three separate parties any more. New Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats act more like three wings of the same party, vying for a middle ground that is essentially defined by being pro-big-business.
"So, do those on the dwindling Labour left carry on like prisoners within the New Labour machine – occasionally smuggling notes out through the bars? Or do they, like many of us, come to the decision that we have to start again and build a new, independent party that can gain the trust and support of millions of people in this country. Already we have wide support for that discussion, with more than 2,500 sponsors, including 45 on trade union executive committees. We urge John and his supporters to draw the political and organisational conclusions – leave New Labour to the millionaires and join the socialists fighting for an independent political voice for the millions of working people.
Cllr Dave Nellist, Campaign for a New Workers’ Party
Dave Church, Former Labour leader, Walsall council
Roger Bannister, Member, Unison NE"
What these comrades are saying is that the working class has been pushed back over 100 years and has to start politically all over again literally from scratch. Despite being an enormously pessimistic view, it is fundamentally wrong. Despite the bankruptcy of the Labour leadership, the British working class does not throw away its organizations like a man changing his shirt. These organisations have been painfully built up over generations and will not be abandoned at the drop of a hat. The working class is not stupid and understands it is far easier to change an existing mass organisation, however bureaucratised, than to create a new one. Such have been the lessons of history ‑ for those who are prepared to learn ‑ of the last 100 years and more.
The newly established Campaign for a New Workers’ Party is doomed to fail, as other similar adventures have failed in the past. More than twelve months ago they launched this campaign with a founding conference and a petition to gather support for their new initiative. To date, as their letter proclaims, they have collected a paltry 2,500 signatures (not so long ago the leaders of the Socialist Party were claiming 5,000 members alone!), of which 45 are members of trade union executives. After a decade of Blairism, where the Labour vote has fallen by over 5 million, they are holding up some 2,500 signatures as the alternative… hardly the groundswell needed for a new workers’ party! In fact, it shows how little support there is for this idea despite all the disappointment with New Labour. Out of 10,000 seats up for election in the local elections, the SP managed to stand a mere 14 candidates (all of whom lost). Despite bragging about their great campaign, they lost one of their councillors in Coventry to Labour (where Labour picked up four seats), reducing the number of SP councillors NATIONALLY to five. Again, hardly the mass basis on which to launch a new mass workers’ party.
Despite having 45 signatories from trade union executives, not one of these represent the policy of their union. They all signed in an individual capacity. Despite setting up the campaign over a year ago, not a single resolution has appeared on the agenda of any trade union conference backing the campaign. Nothing appeared on the conference agenda of the RMT or the FBU, which are unions that have disaffiliated from the Labour Party over the last 4 or 5 years. This shows the real mood in the trade unions, especially when the rank and file could see the challenge of John McDonnell. It makes more sense to be inside the Labour Party where the union can influence events, than simply staying outside. In passing it should be noted that both the FBU and the RMT have chosen John as their voice in parliament and openly backed his campaign for leader of the Labour Party.
The task of Marxists is to learn from history, and learn above all from past mistakes. For the SP, however, the lessons of history seem to be a closed book. Since the Labour Party was founded over 100 years ago, all those left-wing groups who tried to set themselves up as an alternative to Labour ended up on the scrap heap of history. The Labour Party was fundamentally created by the trade unions to represent the interests of organized Labour in Parliament. In effect, despite its reformist leadership and programme, it was the political voice of the British trade unions. This represented a big step forward which provided a class alternative to the Tories and Liberals. In reality, however, it was still tied to the coat-tails of the Liberal Party. Nevertheless, despite the limitations, a mass alternative was created based on the trade unions. This was a profound reality that was to decisively colour working class politics right up to the present day.
However, from the word go, sectarians had problems with the Labour Party as they did with the trade unions. They were looking for something pure and spotless. And if the reality did not fit with their ideal, then to hell with the reality. While the Marxist Socialist Democratic Federation at first joined in founding the Labour Party in 1900, within a year it had broken away because the party failed to adopt socialism as its public aim. It was like the flea turning its back on the elephant. The SDF exists today in the form of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a tiny, impotent sect which still proclaims itself as the "only" socialist party around. How pure! How sterile! Ironically, on the basis of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Labour Party adopted a socialist constitution. In other words, it was events and the class struggle which influenced the Labour Party.
The British Communist Party was formed in 1920 with about 4,000 members with the aim of creating a mass revolutionary party in Britain. Behind the Communist Party stood the prestige of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International. If ever there was a possibility of creating a mass Marxist alternative to Labour, then it was then. However, the CP also had a sectarian attitude towards the Labour Party, which was sharply criticized by Lenin. It is not possible to simply brush the Labour Party aside. Lenin argued for the CP to seek affiliation to the Labour Party and fight alongside the reformist workers in order to influence them. Its failure to secure affiliation condemned it to a rump compared to its counterparts on the continent, which emerged out of huge splits within the old social democratic parties. It never achieved mass support, with only two MPs at its height. Today, it is an insignificant force.
The left-wing Independent Labour Party split from the Labour Party in 1932 with 100,000 supporters. This is clearly far larger than the 2,500 signatures for today’s new workers’ party, but it did not prevent the ILP from collapsing within a few years. Most of its members moved back into the Labour Party and the ILP subsequently completely disappeared.
Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce. The tragedies of the pre-war period have been repeated as a huge farce since then. Tiny leftwing groups left the Labour Party in the 1960s and set themselves up as "revolutionary parties" of two men and a dog. Such were the Workers Revolutionary Party and the Socialist Workers Party. They have suffered split after split, creating new revolutionary parties by the dozen, all claiming to be the leadership of the working class.
In 1992-3, the majority of the old Militant Tendency left the Labour Party to form Militant Labour and then the Socialist Party. In Scotland they set up Scottish Militant Labour, which evolved into the Socialist Alliance, then the Scottish Socialist Party, which split to form Solidarity. All this was done in the name of stopping the rise of Scottish nationalism! All these mutations have suffered dramatic decline in membership and influence. Today, both Solidarity and the SSP have lost their six SMPs and now boast only one councillor each in the whole of Scotland. Despite suffering this implosion, these tiny remnants are busy attacking one another. No wonder the RMT rapidly withdrew its affiliation to the SSP.
In 1994, after Tony Blair ditched Clause 4, the party’s commitment to socialism, Arthur Scargill decided to walk out and form the Socialist Labour Party. At least Scargill was well-known as a class fighter, but this did not save this adventure. Despite the initial flurry of activity, it sank like a stone, another failure to be added to the wreckage of organizations under the sway of sectarian and ultra-left ideas.
The Socialist Party has gone the same way. The weaker it gets, the more shrill is its boast of "successes", which is clearly a desperate attempt to keep the dwindling party faithful on board. Ted Grant, the political leader of Militant, said at the time of this adventure that the attempt to set up an alternative to Labour would be a detour "over a cliff". That has now come about with the destruction of Militant, especially in its heartlands of Scotland and Merseyside.
The attempt by the SWP around Respect is guaranteed to end in the same way. Its only MP, George Galloway, will no doubt end up in the Labour Party at some stage as the Respect Party hits the buffers, in the same way that Ken Livingstone did before him. Its demise is inevitable, despite its opportunistic attempt to cultivate the Muslim vote.
The sectarians have one thing in common: a complete lack of confidence in the working class. They swear by the working class in every sentence, but in reality have no faith in it. If you have confidence in the working class, as Socialist Appeal does, in its ability to change society, then why not have confidence in its ability to change its own organizations? Surely this is the key question. If the workers cannot change their traditional organizations (despite the bureaucracy, undemocratic rules, etc), what chances do they have in changing society? After all, changing the Labour Party or the trade unions is a far, far easier task than overthrowing the capitalist system. In fact, the workers WILL change their organizations as part of the struggle to change society. It cannot be any other way.
But the Labour Party is "bourgeois" shout the sectarians. It is no different than the Tories, they say. Clearly the Blairite, and now Brownite, leadership of the party is bourgeois. The sects, however, make the false assumption that the leadership is the same as the base of the party, which it is not. The reason why the Blairites (and the bourgeois) want to break the trade union links with the party is because it is through this link that the pressures of the working class are brought to bear more sharply. The radicalized unions will lead inevitably to a radicalised Labour Party. That is what happened after 1970 and 1979.
To say the Labour Party cannot be changed is to take an undialectical view of the mass organizations. When the class struggle is at a low ebb the mass organizations empty out and the leaders come under pressure from the ruling class resulting in a shift to the right. Conversely, when the struggle heats up and there is mounting pressure from below, the mass organizations tend to shift to the left. Blairism was a product of this low ebb within the Labour and trade union movement. Now the unions, under the pressure of the ranks, are beginning to move to the left and this will be reflected at a certain point in the Labour Party. Even now there is a groundswell of opposition within the ranks of the Labour Party to the leadership’s policies, as is reflected at Labour Party conference. Here resolutions have been passed with big majorities against privatization, PFI, anti-union laws, pensions, etc.
As Trotsky explained: "Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is a direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it… Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class." (Centrism, Sectarianism and the Fourth International p. 5,)
The danger of sectarianism is that it demoralizes those caught up in its web. Its aim is to deliberately separate off the more advanced workers from the mass of their fellow workers. At times, certain sections of workers through frustration run ahead of their class. This is dangerous as they can become isolated and demoralized by this, seeking to blame the rest of the workers for their lack of action. Eventually, they can become cynical and act as a barrier themselves when the class as a whole begins to move. We have seen this so often in the past.
In 1956, the radicalized dockers were urged by the sectarians to leave the "scab" right-wing Transport and General Workers Union (which they said could never be changed) and form a new union. This they did. They set up the Blue Union, which split the dockers and for the first time allowed non-unionism to spread on the docks. It played into the hands of the employers and the right-wing leaders. Eventually the TGWU moved to the left (surprise, surprise!) which placed the Blue Union on the right. It eventually dissolved in the mid-1960s. In 1970, the workers of Pilkington were urged by the sects to leave the right-wing GMB (which could never be changed) and form their own union, which they did. This union collapsed and the militant members were victimized. Subsequently the GMB shifted to the left.
For the sects, these lessons are sealed away. They urge workers to repeat the mistakes of the past. Such adventures will end in disaster. Our task as Marxists is not to operate in our own sectarian world, but to take reality as it is and seek to change it. In this we are guided by the experience of the past. In the words of George Santayana: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
When the working class moves it will inevitably turn towards its traditional organizations. That has been the historical experience of the last 200 years in Britain, and elsewhere for that matter. If Marxism is the memory of the working class, then our role is to warn against sectarian adventures and educate the new generation of workers and youth in how the working class moves and changes.
In defending our approach towards the mass organisations the Socialist Appeal is in good company. One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels wrote the basic document of our movement on which we stand today, the Communist Manifesto, in which they explained:
"In what relations do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement."