The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Red granite and black diorite, with labradorite crystals

A voice from Lenin's Tomb takes issue with my recent dissing of the fledgling British left political formation, Respect.

Here are what I think are the main points:
I can't really account in my mind for your attack on the Respect Coalition, and since the only reasons you give in your blog are those of other authors, I suppose I'll have to deal with those.

"All the attempts to build a new alternative to the Labour Party, as history has shown, will come to nothing. Various attempts, of an ultra-left or opportunist variety (they are head and tail of the same coin), all ended in shipwreck. The different sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement have been attempting to build the revolutionary alternative to Labour for decades and achieved nothing." (Rob Sewell).

I suppose 'history' shows us a lot of things, but I wonder if Sewell is serious in suggesting that the Labour Party could never be supplanted by another political force. Is 'history' that unyeilding? Have sweeping changes much more radical than this never occurred? Did not the foundation of the Labour Party itself involve precisely a split with the political giant of the 19th Century?
Indeed it did, but in the first place there was rather more than one MP, a couple of trade union leaders, a film director, a liberal journalist, a Muslim antiwar activist and a few socialist sects behind the Labour Representation Committee. In the second place - as the very name of the LRC reminds us - it was based on the painful discovery that the wage-earning class had independent interests of its own, interests which weren't to be subsumed, and couldn't be satisfied, within a coalition of progressive forces. The foundation of the Labour Party was a break, as you correctly say, with Liberalism, the political giant of the nineteenth century. However inadequate and partial that break was, it meant that the British working class was standing on its own feet and charting its own course for the first time since Chartism.

What does Respect represent, politically? A step back to the very 'unity coalition' that the LRC stepped away from: back to radical liberalism with trade union support, and away from the independent representation of labour.
And by the same token, if 'sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement' have so far achieved nothing, isn't it perhaps time to start achieving something? Isn't that what the SSP has been doing? Isn't that the idea behind trying to unite the radical, Green, reformist and revolutionary left? If Sewell will insist that George Galloway is an opportunist or ultra-leftist, will he honestly say the same of Salma Yaqoob or George Monbiot? And why is it essential at every point for him to imply that noone could ever wish to form an alternative to the Labour Party for any but the most mercenary or fanatical reasons? Given the present conduct and performance of the Labour Party, could not a reasonable case be made for a new alternative?
Given the conduct and performance of the Labour Party for its entire existence, a reasonable case could be made for a new alternative at any point in the past hundred years. The question is how that can be done, and whether it can be done by posing as a mass electoral alternative to Labour. The websites where you'll find the writings of Rob Sewell and Bob Pitt contain some useful information and analysis on these points.

The SSP has achieved much, though not as much as it thinks. But Respect is doing something different. The SSP, whatever else may be said about it, stands openly and proudly for a democratic socialist transformation of society. Respect doesn't. That's why it could get the support of the honestly non-socialist liberal George Monbiot - who has, incidentally, resigned because Respect plans to stand against the (actually more radical) Greens, and he couldn't see a principled difference between Respect and the Greens. If you're going to stand against Labour, for heaven's sake at least stand on your own programme and measure the support for it, popularise it, get into arguments, try to change minds and stir things up a bit. That's what the SSP does. Don't trim your programme - don't argue against what you believe in - for the sake of imagined temporary popularity.
The Labour Party as presently constituted neither has the desire nor the ability to attract the kind of membership capable of pushing it in a different direction. And the direction it is headed in at the moment is so transparent, it requires wilfull blindness to miss it. At the last Labour conference, the membership backed the leadership on every key question, never failing to back it by less than two to one, usually by three to one. They clapped and cheered as every vile shibboleth of the right was paraded in New Labour clothing (well, naked then).

So, why the need to forever cling to this party? Well, Sewell would answer:

"On the contrary, forces are already gathering within the trade unions to take back the Labour Party for the working class. In the coming period, the edifice of Blairism will come crashing down. The Labour Party will take a sharp turn to the left as in the 1970s (after decades of rightwing domination) as the unions press for working class policies."

Such self-delusion is hard to digest, let alone reckon with. The Labour Party would rather lose a key union sponsor than move to the left! They would rather see the RMT take their money and support to the SSP and the Respect Coalition! They would rather force unpopular policies through parliament and cut huge swathes off their vote than move to the left! (Recall also, comrades, that Labour's "left turn" during the 1970s resulted in the 'social contract', monetarism, public spending cuts, the rise of fascism, and the election of Margaret Thatcher. All hail Labour's "left turn"!)
This is an astonishing statement. On your own account, a third or a quarter of even the heavily filtered Party conference votes against the leadership on key questions. And, to take up an aspect that you miss, the present Labour government has had more and bigger rebellions in its own ranks than any government for the past century and a half:

This government has seen the biggest MPs’ revolts since the mid-19th century. Two Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, are far more rebellious than any others, but by September 2003 thirty MPs had voted against the government on over half the contentious issues in parliament.

To compare: the 1964-66 Labour government had no parliamentary revolts at all in its first session. The 1945 government had only ten. The 1997 Blair government had 16. This 2001 Blair government had 76 in its first session, and had had 141 by the end of 2003.

And all this tells us that Labour will never again move to the left?

But even if it did move to the left, you 'remind' us, that would only help the right - the shift to the left in the 70s 'resulted in' the victory of the right in the Labour Party, and then by the Tories! No, my Leninist friend, that was how the shift to the left - first in society, then in the unions and the Labour Party - was fought and defeated. That the left's own weaknesses were part of the reason for their defeat is incontestable, but that's another matter. You might as well say that the founding of the Communist Party, an independent party to the left of Labour, in the 1920s resulted in the formation of the National Government and the rise of the Blackshirts.

The rest of the post deals with Bob Pitt's weary argument that we've seen it all before, and deals with it by saying that this time it's different.

That's what they say, every fucking time.


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