Thursday November 08 2012

Socialism 2012: Labour: for a ‘civil war’

Is TUSC the new Labour Party? Mark Fischer reports from a Socialism 2012 session on Labour

TUSC set to replace Labour?: unlikely

At one point in the ‘Is the Labour Party a vehicle for socialism?’ session, Clive Heemskerk, the deputy editor of the SPEW monthly Socialism Today, outlined a fighting programme for the Labour left that had CPGBers in the packed audience nodding along in agreement. In his debate with the media-friendly left Wunderkind, Owen Jones, comrade Heemskerk conceded that it was “theoretically possible” to “reclaim” Labour, but only if:


  1.  “the Labour party were restructured from top to bottom”;
  2.  “all those who were expelled or had left in the past were readmitted”;
  3.  “the parliamentary party and council Labour groups were made to re-apply for membership of the Labour Party in front of reconstituted committees of workers, trade union delegates and anti-cuts community activists”.

If they had to answer the question, ‘What did you do in the war against cuts?’, some of them might get through, he thought.

However, a “tiny detail” implied in all this, he sadly observed, is that “you need a war, a civil war, an enormous battle inside the Labour Party” and “where are the forces going to come from” for that?

In many ways, this absolutely correct observation went to the heart of the matter and exposed the similar squeamish flaws in both platform arguments in the debate.

Comrade Heemskerk made the telling point against Owen Jones that non-affiliated unions such as RMT, NUT, PCS - amongst the most militant in the country and organising today more forces than those deployed in creating the original Labour Representation Committee in 1900 - were left out of the equation. “You can’t convince them to join the Labour Party to change it,” he stated, but not only that: “You’re not prepared to organise a campaign in those unions to affiliate to the Labour Party ... in effect you are demobilising perhaps the most militant section of your army for this battle.”

A good criticism, and one not simply confined to comrade Jones. The general lack of an appetite on the left of the party for a potentially fractious and difficult affiliation campaign in non-Labour unions was illustrated in the debate around one point in a Communist Students motion to the January 2011 AGM of the LRC. The idea that “the LRC will campaign for all trade unions to affiliate to the Labour Party” was actually contested by LRC activists in the PCS (a union within which SPEW is more than influential, of course), who were also members of PCS Labour Left! In that meeting, Barnet trades council secretary Austin Harney unconsciously revealed the timid rationale for this when he suggested he “would be lynched” if he proposed affiliation to Labour in his union.

Interestingly, in a pre-debate exchange with Clive in Socialism Today, comrade Jones actually showed he had little stomach for this required “civil war” in his party. When comrade Heemskerk asked him if in his view activists in non-affiliated unions should launch a campaign for affiliation, he said: “The only way that would happen is if the affiliated unions showed it’s possible to transform the Labour Party and how it works. There’s no point going round leafleting NUT or PCS conference, saying, ‘Brothers and sisters, pass a motion for affiliation to the Labour Party’. Of course I wouldn’t” (October, p17).

On the other side of the argument, SPEW essentially theorised its current extra-Labour practice that was actually forced on it by the expulsion from the party of what was then Militant Tendency in the 1980s. Its profound political disorientation was neatly illustrated by comrade Heemskerk when he responsed to a comment by comrade Jones. Picking up on a point made by the CPGB’s John Bridge in a contribution from the floor, Owen had emphasised the dangers of simply abandoning the fight against even firmly entrenched rightwing bureaucracies in the workers’ movement: “Why not apply the same logic to trade unions?” he asked. Why not simply walk out of them? Tellingly, he gave the example of the PCS as was, which for years was under the control of a reactionary clique. Comrades - including those in the forerunner of SPEW itself - could have thrown up their hands and just bailed out: “Thank god that didn’t happen,” comrade Jones correctly observed.

In Clive’s riposte he positively cited as “absolutely correct” the decision of striking miners in South Africa to leave the National Union of Mineworkers and form a rival organisation and, even more worryingly, claimed that this was the “music of the future in relation to Britain as well”. These comments from a leading Socialist Party comrade underline that, whatever its purported merits in the past, the organisation is now characterised by a worrying disorientation.

Elements of SPEW’s former incarnation as the profoundly Labour-loyal Militant do remain, however. This made for the rather odd spectacle of Owen Jones - the Labour member - talking his party down in contrast to some of comrade Heemskerk’s upbeat assessments of moments from its history.

Remember, comrade Jones told the assembled SPEW comrades, “the Labour leadership has never supported a strike in this country - it didn’t support the General Strike, it didn’t support the miners’ strike; there’s nothing new about that position”. Surprisingly, this correct observation drew some heckles from sections of the audience.

Similarly, comrade Heemskerk talked up the Labour Party democracy of the past, when local branches and even national conference were “effectively parliaments of the workers’ movement”. Now, he added sadly, “conference doesn’t decide party policy”. But when did it? As Owen correctly noted, “Historically, the trade unions have not used their potential power at conference, preferring backroom deals” with the Labour bureaucracy.

Clive spoke of the “ideological basis” of the party reflecting - although inadequately - the needs of the working class to protect itself from the logic of capitalism and that this process had “culminated in clause four” in 1918. Owen quite rightly located its adoption more as a “response to bubbling ferment” of this period - particularly after the Russian Revolution of the year before.

So an interesting debate with some effective blows landed on both sides. Overall, however, whatever our other criticisms, comrade Jones displayed a far more realistic perspective when he used the example of trade union representatives on the party’s national executive committee “often voting with the leadership”. “This is the point,” he emphasised. “Often the struggle isn’t simply within the Labour Party to shift it: it’s a struggle to democratise our trade unions, to use their potential power.” In other words, the pivotal struggle to democratise the core of the workers’ movement - both the trade unions and the Labour Party.

This is the serious strategic game plan, not the notion that SPEW’s Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition represents “an embryo” or an “outline” of the answer, as comrade Heemskerk put it. At one stage in the debate, he compared the “remote possibility” of Labour moving in a positive direction to the hopeless optimism of some fans of smaller football clubs. He was and would remain a loyal supporter of Southend United, he told comrades. But when it comes to success in Europe, say, he would back Manchester United any time, rather than his beloved Blues. It actually took CPGB comrades in the room some moments to realise that in this analogy the Labour Party was Southend United and Tusc was Man U.

No, comrade, that really doesn’t work at all ...

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