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Why Vote Labour

Rob Griffiths, General Secretary of the Communist Party (CPB)

The following speech was made at a debate in Swindon with Andy Newman, Socialist Unity parliamentary candidate.


I haven't approached this meeting in anything like the confrontational frame of mind that I did a debate a year or two ago with Liz Davies, then representing the Socialist Alliance. I did feel that evening that her heart wasn't quite in it by the way, and she resigned from the Socialist Alliance shortly afterwards. I am not sure whether the power of my arguments played any role in that, but it was a very good debate. And this may be significant for the future, it was a debate that despite the differences of opinion, and there was plenty of time for points from the floor as well, it was carried out in a comradely spirit that would not have been possible ten or twenty or thirty years before hand. And I think that is to be welcomed, and I may come back to that towards the end of my contribution.

The question I start off asking myself is what result would we most like to either go to bed with or wake up with on May the 6th? I suspect that there are some aspects to the ideal result, or the ideal result that is remotely possible, that we might agree on.

Certainly I would not be overwhelmed with grief if I were to discover after the vote had been counted, that the voters had punished Tony Blair over Iraq, and I think for quite a long time the media were underestimating that. It was only a couple of months ago that they were saying that Iraq was not going to be an issue; that we were all moving on from Iraq. And now it is back with a bang, including the wider questions that it touches upon. So the voters are going to punish Blair, and anyone who is involved in the Labour movement or in political activity near the ground level has known for some time that there are at least a million people who normally could have been persuaded to vote Labour, but will not be voting Labour on May 5th. I suspect we may discover it is more than that. That will not come as a surprise, and I for one, and I don't think the Communist party either, will not be unhappy that people have expressed themselves in that way.

Myself, and our party, would be delighted if Tony Blair loses his seat, if Gordon Brown loses his seat, if Jack Straw loses his seat, if Geoff Hoon loses his seat, if Prescott loses his seat: the main organisers and instigators of the monstrous criminal war on Iraq. And by the way that is not a position we have taken in previous elections, but that certainly is the position we support and therefore we support progressive anti-war candidates who are standing against those members of the cabinet who have to take responsibility for the war crimes that have occurred. Although of course as has been confirmed again today some of them have to take responsibility despite the fact that they clearly knew very little about what was going on, and were not part of any decision making process. [Transcriber's note: Earlier that day the Attorney general's original legal opinion that the war was probably illegal had been released, and had not been disclosed to the cabinet] A good vote for left candidates? I don't think anyone would be disappointed to see left candidates, instead of getting their usual 0.5% or 0.9%, or 1.2% of the vote, get something that is significantly greater than that. And certainly the lowest possible vote for fascist candidates. I am sure in the general discussion later we will be in broad agreement about this.

But do we positively want to see a Tory government as a result of the election? I doubt it very much. I know there have always been one or two extra-terrestrial left-wing groups who somehow imagine that a Tory victory will rouse the working class to revolution and speed forth the glorious day. But history has never demonstrated the truth of those kinds of beliefs.

Is there anybody on the left who would positively want to see a Lib Dem government after May 5th? Well, some credit has to be paid to the Lib Dems for some of the positions they have taken. They have not joined the race to the gutter on the question of immigration and asylum seekers, and I would be the first to give them credit for that. Shirley Williams gave a speech the other day, and it has been on the television a couple of times, and if you closed your eyes and forgot about the last twenty years, it was a speech that a fairly left wing Labour representative might have a few years ago or even today. Certainly on questions of civil liberties, war and peace, racism, asylum seekers, internationalism and the third world. However I think it would be extending the generosity a little bit far to think that waking up to a Lib Dem government would represent a great step forward, in opening up possibilities for the left in Britain.

There is only one other possibility, or practical possibility: a Labour government, as being preferable to the election of a Tory government or a Lib Dem government. Although of course there is a great deal to be said for the Labour government being elected with a small majority, small enough to make it dependant on a whole number of left and anti-war MPs, many of them in the Labour party, some of them in one or two other parties. And that could open up some possibilities, because if the awkward squad has grown in size in the parliamentary Labour party, and I am not placing any great faith in their ability to overturn Blair, or lead us forward to a new dawn, but there is no doubt about it that as well as the 20 or 25 MPs who take a fairly consistent left wing and internationalist position on questions in the house of commons, there is now a much bigger group as many as 100 or 120 others who are rebelling more and more against the Labour whip. And again without being uncritical, nevertheless, if these rebels and potential rebels were in a much stronger position after the general election, I would argue that would be a positive outcome of the general election.

Now by a process of elimination, I have ended up putting forward the proposition that a Labour government would be the best possible outcome, of the practical possibilities, at the next general election. I understand that there is a response to that, and one that I have to suppress from myself as well by the way, of does it really matter, does it make any difference? Well firstly of course there is the negative reason that there is nothing to be gained from the alternative. Secondly, I think that for us on the left, for the progressive movement, for the labour movement after May 5th, to be in the position to continue the battles that we have been fighting on a whole range of questions against a New Labour government, I would argue that that is a historically more advanced position than going back to the straightforward Old Labour versus Tory political battle. I would far rather, from the viewpoint of the Labour movement and the progressive movement , be able to continue to campaign against a New Labour government, after May 5th, than any other situation. Because a Labour defeat would have the most likely consequence of letting New Labour off the hook: there would have to be a few human sacrifices. If Labour were defeated of course Blair would go. Tony wouldn't have longer than a day to live I suspect. One or two others may be thrown to the wolves. But I think we all know what the most likely scenario is, Brown would replace Blair, and there will be the most tremendous impulse for unity within the Labour movement. In those conditions of defeat and adversity we must all unite behind Gordon Brown. And anybody, certainly anybody in the Labour party, or in an affiliated trade union, attempting to argue against that would be under the most enormous pressure. I think there would be a very powerful impulse for unity around Brown. Yet as we know, Brown would not represent any significant advance, any advance worth thinking about, over Blair. He has been as guilty, been as culpable as Blair for all of the reactionary policies, and been directly responsible for some, such as PFI. He has been a quartermaster for the war, raising money for all of Blair's military adventures. And yet that would be the most likely result - they wouldn't throw Brown out as well. There wouldn't be a new left wing leader of the Labour party. The most likely scenario is the one I have just outlined. And the left in the parliamentary Labour Party and the trade union leaders would not be in a position - some of them wouldn't even want to be in a position - to fight for any other leader. It would be Gordon Brown. And so we would be back to a position of 20 or 30 years ago. I would far rather have a New Labour government in our sights after May 5th, and continue the battle so that much of the criticism of them, and much of the campaigning against them, comes from the left. I think the perspective of the left versus a New Labour government is a more historically advanced position than going back to the old right wing Labour versus the Tories.

So, on those grounds, not particularly positive ones I know, I think a Labour win is preferable, it is necessary. But that raises another problem. And the problem is of course that there will not be a Labour victory on May 5th, (and I won't be cracking open the champagne if there is one), unless millions of people go out and vote Labour. Now of course that is not a problem if you think the result is completely irrelevant and it makes no difference to us on the left, to the labour movement and the progressive movement. It is not a problem if you are only looking at the general election, and the whole struggle around it form the point of view of a single issue, or a single constituency, or a small number of constituencies, or a single party. If those are your overriding concerns then you don't have to worry about how there is going to be a Labour government, because effectively you are not worried about whether there is going to be one at all. But we are in a position, certainly in the Communist Party. We are still in the position with fairly significant influence in a whole number of unions, in the peace movement, in the pensioners' movement, and so on, linked with a daily paper. We are in the position where our friends and allies on the left ask us where do you stand, what do you want to see after May 5th? And we put our position that we want to see a Labour government. And it is no good supporting the ends if you are not prepared to stand by the means. And therefore we have to say in most cases we urge people to vote Labour, because that is the only way that we are going to have a labour government.  We could duck out of it: we could say that a Labour government is the best option, but we are not going to make any type of call, we are not going to recommend it, and we are not going to argue for it. I think that would be political cowardice on our part. So we are not going to do that, and we are calling for a Labour vote, because a Labour victory is the least, worst position to be in after the general election.

Having said that there are a whole number of exceptions. We are calling for votes for alternative candidates against the chief war criminals; we are calling for votes obviously for Communist candidates. If there were any danger of a fascist winning a seat we would support whichever anti-racist candidate, from which ever organisation, is best placed to keep the fascist out.  And we have also said to Party organisations, if you believe there is an overriding case for supporting a particular candidate in your area, against a particularly right wing, pro-war New labour candidate, then put the case, and if the party agrees then that is what we will do. So we have tried to have some flexibility while maintaining that position - not a popular one in some sections of the left - I understand that, but we have put forward this position because honestly in our assessment we would rather see a Labour government, rather than any other type of government that is possible, on May 5th.

But the critical reason is not even the result, because we have no pretence to having any decisive influence on what will happen. We can issue all the calls we like, but it is unlikely to have any fundamental impact, but our friends and allies will of course take notice, and be impressed or otherwise. They may follow the lead or otherwise, but what is critical for us and for the whole movement is what happens after May 5th. And that is where we continue to argue that within the Labour party and within the affiliated unions, there has to be greater unity on the left, there needs to be a clearer direction, there needs to be a sharper struggle against the policies, the personnel of the leadership associated with New Labour. And we will continue to support that struggle. One can criticise and one can say you are wasting your time, come and join the Communist Party, or some may say come and join Respect. But we don't see any purpose in doing that - many of them will continue to fight until they draw their own conclusions, if they draw that conclusion, that their time may be better spent elsewhere. As far as we are concerned we will do all we can to support those in the Labour Party, and do everything we can to give unity and to help to give clarity to that fight within the Labour party and the affiliated trade unions against New Labour. There is also the important area as well of the left outside the Labour party. We will certainly be committed after May 5th to contributing as much as we can, not to the point where we will attack those in the Labour party who continue to work for left policies and socialist polices in the Labour party - we will be in solidarity with them. We won't join in any attack on those, but we will work with others on the left to try to build as much unity as we can in the left outside the Labour party. That has got an important role to play after May 5th. And we would argue to both sets, we have good friends in the Labour party, we have good friends and allies outside the Labour Party, and we think, by and large, while we will continue to debate our differences of course, we believe it is futile to attack one another and say you shouldn't be over there you should be over here. We will be arguing that the left outside the Labour party should be showing as much solidarity as they can with the left inside the Labour party, and we will be arguing with our friends inside the Labour Party that they should be as much joint work, and common work and unity as possible with those outside the Labour party. We are not going to squeeze every significant part of the left in Britain into a single organisation, or into a single electoral strategy. And I think we are as well recognising that and arguing for mutual respect, for mutual support as far  as that can be achieved - more difficult to achieve electorally than elsewhere. But certainly arguing for more unity and more working together across those two streams of the left in Britain. And that needs to be done in our view around concrete initiates, practical things that can be done. Trade Unions can take initiatives, political parties,  publications of the left and so on. So we will be arguing for that, we will also be putting forward a proposal that we have started to issue to trade unions conferences and so on, to ask the left to consider that whatever organisation you are in, and whatever electoral strategy you are pursuing, the reality is that there is a considerable area of agreement between us on a whole number of individual issues and policy questions. So we have put together what we have called a "left wing programme", not as the definitive end result of some process, but we have said, look, as far as we can see there is an enormous amount of agreement across most of the left on these kind of issues, this kind of analysis, these type of policies. Where that doesn't exist, including where it doesn't exist around Communist Party policies, we have left it out.   And we are urging all our friends and allies and others on the left to read that programme and respond to it. If you think it is rubbish then of course, throw it in the bin, and you might tell us. But we are saying what we do need is a real discussion, in a spirit of unity, to see how much agreement can be reached around a left-wing programme. To give some real shape, and direction and unity to all of the left, inside and outside the Labour party in Britain.

And finally, what we of course need to continue to do, and do it with renewed energy after May 5th, as well as doing what we can to unite the left, is also to draw in all of those other forces that can be drawn into progressive battles, the battles that we are going to have to fight against this New Labour government.

I am involved in the general election campaign for Pontypridd where I am standing, and I have to tell you that we had a huge hustings meeting on Monday night organised by the churches, and a lot of young people there involved in the make Poverty History campaign, and all the rest of it, and there was a terrific response to anti-imperialist (and I don't use those words) and left wing ideas, and policies and analysis. A tremendous response. And of course the Greens, and the left wing of Plaid Cymru and there is not much of a left wing in the Labour party in Pontypridd, but across a whole number of organisations there is a great deal of agreement on what we should be fighting for, and how we need to come together in order to do it. We need to do it, of course on the question of peace and war, we need to do it to over the question of the rights of the Palestinian people, (the anti-apartheid struggle of the next decade, and really there should be  that level of activity and solidarity in Britain over the Palestinian question as we managed to build up around Apartheid) - we may need to do it over the question of the European Constitution and the Euro, unless our friends in France deliver a No vote, we need to do it over pensions,  benefits. There is going to be an attack on incapacity allowance claimants, it is there in black and white in the Labour party manifesto. The whole discussion about public ownership, privatisation, whether it is pensions, local government, the railways; there is the question of genuine equal pay for women, manufacturing jobs, and all sort of questions that I have left out and I will probably be criticised for later on. We have got all these issues and campaigns and battles, and I really do think we are reaching the juncture where if we are going to turn a Labour victory into a more historically advanced position - we will only be able to do it if we can make the big political battles over the next four of five years, into battles between the left and the New Labour government. Instead of allowing the battles to be between the government and the countryside alliance, the fox hunters and the petrol protestors: the right versus the new Labour government. We cannot let that situation happen. We have to ensure the struggle is between a more united left, and the Labour government.


April 2005


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