The Socialist Unity Network

Can the Labour Party be Reclaimed?

Andy Newman

After the last General Election Tony Benn  proclaimed that the experiment of the Socialist Alliance had been a failure, despite the fact that we had a smattering of good results and had raised our profile sufficiently to be confident we would do better in the future. What was Benn expecting, that we would overtake the Lib Dems in our first national elections?? We all hope that on June 10th RESPECT gets a good vote, we hope it gets a much better vote than early indications are suggesting. However, even the most wildly optimistic projections must recognise that on election day more class conscious workers will put a cross by New Labour than RESPECT. For those on the Labour left whose only measure of success is electoral victory, we will have been seen to fail again.


It is therefore necessary to have a balanced assessment of whether socialists are better off working within or without the Labour Party, and what prospects for success exist for the "Reclaim labour" project. This is an important question for those socialists who would like to see a broad left party that does not require ideological uniformity, and has a link with the unions. Could the Labour party be reformed to play such a role?


In Britain those who wish to "Reclaim Labour" are able to count on a few talented left MPs, such as Alan Simpson and Jeremy Corbyn, the Campaign Group, and trade union leaders such as Derek Simpson of the AEU and Andy Gilchrist of the FBU. Outside of the Labour Party the "Reclaim Labour" position is supported by the Communist Party through the Morning Star. The very fact that the "Reclaim Labour" current exists and that the presence of left wing leaders at the heads of the major unions is a factor in the internal politics of the Labour party disproves those who argue that the Labour Party has somehow been recently transformed into an uncomplicatedly pro-business party like the  Democratic Party in America. What is more the identification with the Labour party from its 100000 members and its millions of voters is still because many of them see it, to some degree, as a working class party. Tony Blair is seen by many as a cuckoo in the nest, not the personification of a structural change in the party.


It would undoubtedly be an advance for the left if the Labour party could be won to some very limited social democratic positions such as opposition to PFI and Privatisation, renationalisation of the railways, reform of the trade union laws, a program of council house building and distancing British foreign policy from Washington. However even these very limited gains are, it seems, unrealisable in the foreseeable future. Within the Parliamentary Labour party there is no credible leadership candidate for the left, and the Campaign Group may end up supporting Robin Cook against Gordon Brown, as the lesser of two evils. Within the ward and constituency parties there is no organised left current, as can be seen by the acceptance without a murmur when Mark Seddon was blocked from a parliamentary candidacy. What is more the advocates of "Reclaim Labour" must recognise that they will never again have their ranks swelled by other left wingers joining the party. Even if we could be persuaded to join, even if we could stomach it, to a much greater extent than previously the Labour party would not accept many of us into membership. Even if allowed to join we would be blocked from influential positions. If anything the internal regime in the Labour party has become more authoritarian since the witch-hunt of the Militant and other socialists in the 1980s.


What is more the limited ambitions of "Reclaim Labour" are themselves a problem. When there has been previous advance for the left in the Labour party. Whether through Stafford Cripp's Socialist League in the 1930s,  Nye Bevan's supporters on the 1950s or Tony Benn in the 1980s, there has always been a vision of using the Labour party to secure fundamental social change in the interests of working people and our families. That is completely absent today, and the Labour left has so little impact on the mainstream political agenda that unless you happen to read the Morning Star or attend union conferences you would not necessarily know that this current existed.


Now of course any political organisation as old as the Labour Party has accumulated traditions and structures that cannot readily be changed. One of the appealing aspects of the Socialist Alliance was that it allowed socialists to work alongside one another, whether they came from Marxist or social democratic traditions. After 100 years of experience I think we can safely say that the Labour Party can never play the role of a class struggle party, and therefore that is immediately an obstacle to the "Reclaim labour" project becoming a vehicle for left unity. The Labour party is already strategically delimited to reforming capitalism by the parliamentary road, and even within the Labour left there is little talk of a socialist transformation of society - it is hard to see why the Marxist left would find joining the Labour Party attractive. 


Most ward parties no longer have enough active members to meet and are being merged. The degree to which local councils have their finances tightly controlled from Whitehall means that most Labour councillors are quite demoralised as they juggle between  excessive council tax increases or making cuts in services. In the absence of any strategy for even modest local reforms the motivation for being an active Labour Party member is increasingly attenuated. The calibre of Labour candidates for borough and county councils has clearly deteriorated. Without a clear strategy for the left, even those councillors who have come from a socialist tradition are, in practice, indistinguishable from the right. For example in Swindon 2 or 3 Labour councillors are former members of the WRP, but you would never know it. It is hard to see how Labour can pull out of this decline - even if they elect a new leader unsullied by the whole Iraq affair. Tony Blair's unqualified support for George Bush in the "war on Terror" has cost Labour dearly - this may or may not have an immediate effect on the elections, but many members who actively campaigned for Labour in 1997 are now unwilling to even vote for them. It is interesting that there has even been a measurable fall in opinion poll support for Ken Livingstone since he rejoined the Labour Party - even though he personally opposed the war!


Within the unions, there is an increasing schism between the neo-liberal policies of the Labour Government and the interests of workers, particularly in the public sector. In this way a gap has opened between the RMT and Labour that has grown organically out of the RMT's attempts to use its political influence to further its members' interests. Similar processes are at work in other unions, especially the FBU. It should be noted that this situation has not arisen because there is necessarily any desire for a new party to the left of Labour from either the union officials or the membership, but rather due to a structural antagonism between the unions as defence organisation for workers' interests and New Labour's embrace of unrestrained laissez faire capitalism. It is clear that this antagonism undermines the strength and effectiveness of the "reclaim Labour" union leaders, as can be seen particularly with Gilchrist, who has more-or-less conceded defeat over the issue, and was only saved by the  bell at conference (conveniently early). Where unions do remain affiliated it is increasingly difficult to find branch members prepared to attend as delegates to CLPs, as such delegates also need to be individual members of the Labour party, and there is anecdotal evidence that even where union delegates do attend CLP meetings they meet a frosty reception if they argue for their union's polices over such issues as PFI.


The Communist Party, the most traditionally steadfast advocates of working to boost the labour left flirted with the idea of joining RESPECT in its early stages. Significantly this was being advocated by Rob Griffiths (general secretary) and John Haylett (editor of Morning Star). Indeed one of the traditional components of their programme the "British Road to Socialism" was that the CP would make limited electoral interventions to stand candidates against Labour right wingers. The derisory recent electoral results of the CP, especially in Scotland ( where they achieved only one hundredth of the SSP vote) indicate that their current trajectory is towards irrelevance unless they embrace a unity project away from the Labour Party. Indeed membership of a unity project that is mature enough to not stand against Labour left-wingers is arguably compatible with the "British Road."


So where does this leave existing Labour activists? Undoubtedly the handful of socialist MPs in Westminster have made a difference, and these hard won gains for the movement should not be abandoned lightly. Arguably Galloway should have worked harder to avoid being expelled - for example, comparing last year's Labour conference to a Nuremburg rally was counter-productive. As we have seen with Dave Nellist, it is hard for even a very popular MP with support in his constituency party to retain their seat after they have been deselected, and are no longer the official Labour candidate.


Labour councillors are in a much less influential position than MPs. The powers of councils are much diminished and even if the left controlled the chamber it would be hard to make progress without provoking direct confrontation with the law of the land, including financial surcharges. Socialist councillors may have no qualms about that if they are prepared to take the fight outside the council chamber and into the unions. But the left is never likely to hold such a majority of Labour councillors again. There is no merit in individual socialists sitting as Labour councillors and being associated with cuts in services and increases in council tax.


It is therefore very unlikely that the "Reclaim Labour" argument will gain momentum, and the Labour left is unlikely to be the beneficiary of increasing opposition to neo-liberalism and globalisation. The Labour party has closed its doors to the left but they cannot prevent left-wing social-democratic ideas growing - our challenge therefore is to create a home for the "labour left" to organise outside the Labour Party. So whatever happens on June 10th there is still a need for a socialist unity project. We all hope that RESPECT is sufficiently successful to allow us to build upon it to fulfil that role.


May 2004


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism