The left in Britain is in crisis. Recent years have seen the tensions caused by this crisis tear through the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect. Other projects have been even less successful.
Within the Labour Party orbit, all left organisations are facing tensions between the Party and the movement — often to be found diametrically opposed. Even the amorphous quasi-left Compass grouping has divided recently.
Those of us who are in the LRC should take no pleasure from any of these developments — our own organisation is divided on its orientation to the Labour Party. There are those who seem to want the LRC to become a more democratic version of CLPD — obsessing about the National Policy Forum or who is elected to positions of powerlessness within the Party.
Organisationally, those in the LRC still in “reclaim” mode only see the internal Labour Party spectrum. They correctly identify nothing to our left, and so believe the LRC must look to our right seeing Compass, and to a lesser extent the minor groupings such as Campaing for Labour Party Democracy and Save the Labour Party, as those to whom we must align.
It appears these Labourites view New Labour as little different from the swings to the right under Gaitskell, Callaghan or Kinnock. To do so underestimates the fundamental shift that New Labour has achieved. Once the battle in Labour was between social democracy and democratic socialism (and could be accommodated within its “broad church”); now it is between neo-liberalism and a declining band of social democrats and democratic socialists.
Even social democracy is irreconcilable with neo-liberalism, as the New Labour record proves. Inequality has increased, social mobility reduced, the number of homeless families has doubled — and in the past two years more children and pensioners have slipped into poverty. Whatever the faults of previous Labour governments, none can boast this legacy of harm.
Banding these social democrats and democratic socialists together is also a difficult task — especially when the complication of Party loyalty is added. Compass has recently discovered this too as, for all its critiques of New Labour, it still orientates towards the Party hierarchy (and therefore neo-liberalism) before it engages with the left. More critical activists will inevitably begin to splinter away from Compass as its internal tensions increase.
Those in the LRC who see the Labour Party as dead, or are agnostic about its prospects, realise that what’s left in Labour is not enough to “reclaim” it and therefore look to the trade union and social movements to build coalitions — and recognise these people will ignore pleas to (re)join Labour at the present time.
T R Threlfall wrote: “it is only a waste of time to advise the working classes to attend and make the caucus what they want it to be. The fact is they distrust it — they regard it as a middle class machine; they have neither the time nor the inclination to compete with the wire-pullers who work it, and they have a decided objection to being made the puppets of anyone”. Looking back at the decline in Labour Party membership and Labour voters in the last ten years, one cannot disagree with the analysis.
Except Threlfall wasn’t talking about New Labour, he was writing in 1894, as socialists and trade unionists debated the merits of working within the Liberal Party. Threlfall was the leader of the Labour Electoral Association (LEA) — which worked within the Liberal Party to turn it to the working class. However, the LEA also backed independents such as Keir Hardie who won West Ham South in 1892.
The left needs to set itself free from its organisational straitjackets, whatever they may be, and get back to first principles: we are socialists first, and Party members second. In so doing we need to learn from the experiences of the LEA and our predecessor LRC — which did not convince the largest union, then the Miners’ Federation, to break away from the Liberals until 1909.
There are several unions, with political funds, now unaffiliated to the Labour Party and looking at their political role. The Convention of the Left in Manchester this September attempts to bring together all the elements of the British left in an open, participatory, and pluralist forum. If somehow these two openings can be co-ordinated then there is the potential for something new to emerge.
As Chris Ford argued in the last issue, “socialist sectarianism” is not the answer. Instead, we must build openly “to crystallize socialists and trade unionists in a new alignment”. Like our predecessors that may initially take the form of a left co-ordinating committee backing a slate of approved candidates standing on different platforms before it crystallises into something that will provide an alternative to the neo-liberal parties.
Yet our biggest task is to work creatively to re-engage the millions who have given up politics, who no longer vote, and must be re-engaged if any project is to succeed. These include all those public sector workers, students, pensioners, carers, environmentalists, peace campaigners and others who have been disillusioned by New Labour.
• Convention of the Left, Mancheter, 20-25 September.