We pose the questions in the form of a dialogue.
Q. What is the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists?
A. It is an attempt to maximise the socialist presence in the general election.
A. By running an election campaign wherever we have people, whether or not we have a socialist candidate.
Q. That sounds like a whimsical or “Irish” joke, an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
A. It is neither a joke nor an oxymoron, but an attempt to grapple with the contradictions.
Socialists are organisationally weak. There is no broader left coalition, even on the small scale of the Socialist Alliance of 2001, in which we can take part.
The scattering of “left” election candidates this time round is both weak in numbers and (with exceptions) weak politically, or simply worthless and unworthy of support. There is no chance of it even registering a minority vote sufficiently focused and coherent to become a worthwhile political fact.
Anyway, even if all “left” candidates were to win, the resultant bloc of MPs would not be numerous enough to form a government, still less a strong workers’ government, even in the most minimal sense of a government intent on carrying through reforms in the interests of the working class and mobilising extra-parliamentary working-class support for that purpose.
Faced with what the Tories are likely to do if they win the 6 May general election, the working class and labour movement desperately need a potentially government-forming presence in the general election.
Q. And so?
A. And so we run an election campaign on the basis of fighting within the unions and the working class to call the New Labour leaders to account, to pressure them, to replace them...
Q. For the sake of the argument, I will go along with you for now. Let me get it straight: an election campaign without candidates? But that is an impossibility. It is not an “election campaign” unless we support a candidate who is on the ballot! AWL does not have candidates, except one, Jill Mountford, in Camberwell and Peckham. So we advocate that voters spoil their ballot papers, or don’t vote — a sort of anarchist-abstentionist election campaign?
A. No. We urge people to vote.
Q. But we haven’t got candidates! And there are not enough “left” candidates, even leaving aside problems of the politics of the thin scattering of “left” candidates who are standing.
A. We advocate a Labour vote — everywhere, wherever there is not a socialist candidate we think worthy of support.
Q. A Labour vote? You mean a New Labour vote! Don’t falsify the picture of reality here.
A. Yes, a vote for the New Labour candidate. I have no intention of falsifying the realities we face.
Q. But this gets more and more absurd — Alice Through The Looking Glass stuff! We solve the difficulty that there is no adequate socialist presence in the general election, and therefore no possible socialist government, by backing the re-election of the New Labour gang — of the neo-Thatcherite government that has run Britain for the last 13 years! That we have spent 13 years criticising and denouncing! And even before 1997 we denounced the Labour right wing, and the soft left that let the right wing take over.
Q. But, just as an “election campaign” isn’t an election campaign unless we have candidates (or campaign for abstention), an election campaign to promote a governmental alternative to the Tories is impossible — unless we have a governmental alternative to the Tories and to Tory-style policies! And we don’t. Plainly we don’t. So you want to pretend? You want to play the political equivalent of fantasy football? You want to make New Labour candidates “honorary” working-class or socialist candidates for the purposes of the general election?
A. No fantasy. We want to ground socialist politics more firmly in the reality we have to grapple with. The New Labour candidates will be backed in the general election, and heavily financed by, the trade unions — by the organised working class.
Q. But the New Labour government has been backed by the unions for 13 years! We’ve railed against that for 13 years. So you think that now, for the duration of the general election campaign, we should tacitly back New Labour politics? And after the election, go on backing neo-Thatcherite policies?
A. No, the opposite. Nobody said anything about socialists backing New Labour policies! That would indeed be absurd, a form of political suicide.
The purpose of SCSTF is to be more effective, to get more grip, in campaigning in the general election against New Labour policies. We tell the people whom we urge to vote Labour also to prepare to fight a new Brown government, and advocate the politics that will make that fight possible.
Q. But this gets more and more fantastic and self-contradictory!
A. The contradictions are in the reality which the working class, and therefore AWL and all working-class socialists, face. What seems to you to be nonsense, self-contradictory, oxymoronic, is in fact an attempt to make sense — to carve out a socialist line of action in the general election that deals with this contradictory reality.
Q. Explain, please!
A. What are the concrete realities which the labour movement and the working class face in the general election?
In a few weeks’ time the British people will elect a government to run the country during the worst economic crisis for many decades.
For the first time in many years, in the election, there are major differences of policy between the two main political parties, Labour and Tories — the parties one of which, alone or in coalition with the Lib-Dems, will run British society for the next four or five years.
Those differences are being played out in the debate about how soon, in how short a time, the national debt — massively increased by the cost of what the British government did to stop the banking system collapsing a year ago — should be reduced.
The difference between Tory and Labour timescales here implies a big difference in immediate social consequences. Definite big cuts within the next year are different from unspecified big cuts promised to the international financiers. A Tory government will attempt to smash up the public service unions to push through the intensive cuts they wish to make. It may even extend the anti-union laws, the Thatcher laws which the New Labour government has scandalously left untouched and unrepealed.
Q. But Labour is cutting, and will cut! It announced in last week’s Budget plans for cuts over the coming several years bigger than Thatcher’s in the 1980s.
A. Yes, indeed, but even so, the social consequence, for working-class people, of the difference in tempo is massive. A Tory government committed to, and with a fresh electoral mandate for, big immediate cuts is different from a New Labour government willing to placate the global financial markets longer-term.
Once in power, the Tories will behave as Tories — people who are tied directly to the capitalists and who serve them without even the minimal restraint New Labour has because of its ties to the labour movement.
Q. So you mean we should back New Labour and New Labour cuts as a lesser evil?
A. Nothing of the sort. We should fight the New Labour public service cuts, and urge the labour movement to fight them, every inch, every pound and every penny of the way. We should demand that they cut military spending and place the weight of any cuts they say are “unavoidable” because of global conditions on the rich, by taxes.
Q. But your basic idea in the election is that we should support the lesser evil? I thought AWL rejected the idea that we should choose bourgeois lesser evils, and said instead that we should always establish a “Third Camp” position.
A. No, we do not advocate support for the Labour Party in the spirit of supporting the lesser evil. The basic reason for voting Labour is because of its ties with the trade unions, and thus the possibility of combining a Labour vote with leverage to get the organised working class to assert itself politically.
The “Third Camp” is a catchphrase meaning “independent working-class politics”. It means striving to make the organised working class an independent force in politics. To do that we have to start with the organised working class as it is, and connect with the immediate issues facing the organised working class as it is.
Q. In fact you want people to back working-class policies, the policies in the SCSTF platform — but not to express them politically by voting against New Labour?
A. In most constituencies, voting against New Labour means voting Tory, Lib-Dem, UKIP, BNP, or some sort of nationalist. Do you want that?
Q. Of course I don’t!
A. We want people to be able to commit themselves to socialist, class-struggle politics, without having to do what will not make sense to a lot of working-class people and to most labour movement activists — that is, abstain at the election.
Make no mistake about it, labour movement people know what the governmental options in the election are. And they care about the outcome. Elections concentrate people’s minds. The choices and the realities loom more starkly than at other times. In the election campaign proper there will be a polarisation.
Q. You are being anachronistic here. Much of the old working-class reflex loyalty to the Labour Party has been eroded. That is one of the stark realities we face. You are in denial, comrade!
A. No, I’m not! I know that one of the terrible things in this election is that many working-class people will vote fascist or UKIP, or abstain, because they feel betrayed by New Labour.
Even so, labour movement activists, not all of them but most of them, will vote Labour and advocate a Labour vote. The SCSTF is an opportunity to advocate socialist politics — against a new Brown government, too — within such labour movement loyalties and gritted-teeth opting for the Labour Party.
It is a way to advocate those socialist politics without the encumbrance that the politics are presented as part of a package that includes — no, whose centrepiece is — either a token vote for nondescript socialistic candidates, or abstention.
Most labour movement activists know what the alternatives in the election are. Socialists should not, faced with the Tories now, repeat the idiocies of many of the left in the 1979 general election, when most of them were blissfully unaware of the threat which the Thatcherites posed to the labour movement. On behalf of the SWP — then a far more serious organisation than its descendant is today, after a decade of alliance with Islamic clerical fascists — Duncan Hallas said that they were “not getting excited about the election” and had plenty of other activities to keep their members busy.
Q. What you are saying would rule out socialist candidates in any election. You claim that the best way to ease the acceptance of class-struggle politics, in any likely election, would be to uncouple those politics from any difficult choice as to how to vote in the election. That reduces the role of socialists to making passive propaganda. It rules out organisational initiative.
A. It depends. In principle we are always in favour of socialist candidates standing — if we can do it properly, that is, do it so effectively that it has real political meaning. We will run the most effective candidacy we can against Harriet Harman in the Peckham and Camberwell constituency. The effect on the overall outcome of the general election would not necessarily be our main concern. We are advocates of socialism, not, to use Trotsky’s words, “the inspectors-general of history”.
Q. “It depends” — on what?
A. It is a question of concrete assessment. Will standing candidates augment the effective forces of socialism, or won’t it?
As Lenin never tired of repeating, the truth is always concrete. In May 2010, most of the nominally socialist candidates in the general election are candidates of small sectarian groups — the SWP, the Communist Party of Britain [CPB], the SP — whose central purpose is to build support for those groups.
The AWL has a candidate in Camberwell and Peckham. We will support other socialist candidates if they are worthy of support.
By no stretch of the imagination is the thin and scattered range of socialist candidates an alternative to New Labour and to the unions (most of the unions) which back it. It is surely not an alternative to the Tories or a Tory-Labour coalition.
And as socialist propaganda candidates per se, most of those candidates are not remotely adequate. In some respects — and this needs to be said and understood — the politics they advocate are reactionary even compared to Brown and New Labour.
Q. The SWP and the SP, and four or so candidates from outside their immediate orbits, are standing as a coalition. That should be supported as a move for left unity.
A. We are, in general, in favour of left unity. But the “Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition” is not left unity: it is a half-hearted electoral bloc, not much more than people huddling together for the animal warmth! The SP tried to get a new coalition with the CPB, to follow up their No2EU alliance for the June 2009 Euro-election; drafted a platform combining SP and CPB wording, but then saw the CPB walk out and the new “coalition” reduced to the SP alone.
The SWP then made a temporary arrangement-of-convenience to run its few election candidates under the TUSC banner.
TUSC has no life as a movement, and is unlikely to continue after the election except perhaps as a signboard kept in reserve by the SP.
Even if TUSC were a sort of “left unity”, it would be a unity pointedly excluding the AWL. How could we build on that?
Our sort of left unity would be based on open democratic structures and a critical debate about socialist ideas.
Q. Whatever criticisms one makes of them, the SWP and SP are a left, socialist, bloc, a left pole of attraction against New Labour. We should focus on supporting them.
A. Are they? Think about that. They are would-be socialists. Of course. But much of their politics are inadequate, wrong, or plain reactionary, and we denounce those politics. Then they are magicked into being a roughly adequate left pole of attraction against New Labour — just by standing in an election? Really?
There is more than a touch of what Marxists have long called “parliamentary cretinism”, or “electoral cretinism”, in such a view, don’t you think? “Electoral cretinism”, combined with making a fetish of electoral opposition to New Labour, on no matter what vaguely leftish basis.
Q. You say some of their politics are reactionary even compared to Brown! Come on! You are the sectarian here. They are socialists!
A. Again, the truth is always concrete. Socialists, or even remotely adequate working-class advocates, are defined by their politics and by what they do, not by how they label themselves, or by their headline slogans at the moment of the election.
The CPB’s daily paper, the Morning Star — continuation of the long-ago Stalinist Daily Worker — supports the Stalino-Thatcherite government of China, for god’s sake!
The SWP has spent the last decade as an advocate and sometime practitioner of alliances with Islamic clerical fascists. To the white-working-class chauvinism of the BNP it has counterposed not working-class unity — not a call for workers, black and white, of all religions and none, British-born and migrant, to unite and fight — but the inverted chauvinism of vicarious Islamic communalism (“the best fighters for Muslims”).
The Socialist Party is the rump of the old Militant organisation (in private, the Revolutionary Socialist League), which in the 1980s led the Liverpool labour movement into fiasco and political collapse after choosing to do a deal with the Tory government rather than bring that labour movement into battle alongside the miners during their 1984-5 strike.
In the Euro-election nine months ago, they campaigned under the slogan “No2EU” with a platform condemning “the so-called freedom of movement of labour” within the EU.
The SP does not even call for a fallback Labour vote in that big majority of constituencies where it and its allies are not standing.
Q. But... they are “reactionary” even compared to Brown? Come on!
A. The Blair-Brown government has accommodated to the power of China. But it has not, like the Morning Star, advocated working-class support for the Beijing government that pinions the working class in an iron dictatorship for super-exploitation by capitalists.
One of the crimes of the New Labour government has been to encourage and expand “faith” schools, including Islamic faith schools. That is a damn sight less than the SWP’s militant alliance with Islamic clerical fascists.
The CPB — and the Socialist Party, and the SWP, though these days implicitly and not boldly — advocate the breaking up of the European Union and Europe’s return to the system of walled-off nation states that led to two world wars in the 20th century. (See www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=10974).
Q. No, they don’t! The SWP and the SP advocate the Socialist United States of Europe!
A. Yes, they do! The Socialist United States of Europe is not an immediate alternative to the EU. For that to be the case, we would have to have built adequate revolutionary socialist mass parties throughout Europe, able to carry through a socialist revolution.
The alternative to the EU now and in the assayable future is reversion to the old walled-off nation states, not the Socialist United States of Europe.
In the agitation of the SWP and the SP, the “Socialist United States of Europe” functions only as deceptive camouflage for the poisonous nationalist at the core of anti-EU campaigning. In real politics, the anti-EU “left” boosts and rationalises the worse nationalism.
Right now the anti-EU message has again, as it had in the 1960s and 70s, a subtext of hostility to immigrants. The SWP and SP don’t want that subtext? Indeed not. Nonetheless, that is what their anti-EU nonsense feeds.
Q. Opposition to the EU is not central to their electioneering!
A. No, not for now. But it is only nine months since the SP and CPB campaigned in the Euro-election under the banner “No2EU”, and they have not renounced or disavowed that.
The point of any election campaign for the CPB, the SP, and the SWP is to recruit people to their organisations. It is to nourish and amplify what they can do after the election — based on the policies which they have in the months and years before the election.
And, meeting up with BNP or UKIP sympathisers in their election campaigning, what will the activists of the SWP and the SP say? They will say what their organisations have taught them: “No to EU”.
Is that the way to fight British chauvinism, and oppose the hostility to immigrants which today is heavily focused on East European immigrants able to come here because of EU integration? No, it is now, as it was in the 1970s, a way to duck the burning issues.
But let me continue enumerating the dominant facts of the reality which the working class — and socialists who base themselves on the working class — face in the general election.
The labour movement — or the core of it, the main unions which are politically active — is backing and financing the Labour Party in the election. Even the RMT, expelled from the Labour Party in 2004, and the FBU, which disaffiliated, are focusing their efforts on support for those Labour MPs who back them in Parliament.
There is no credible working-class or socialist electoral alternative to the Labour Party. The Labour Party, linked to the unions, is, despite the terrible policies of the New Labour government, the main representation of the labour movement in the general election.
Q. Generalities! Much has changed since Blair took the Labour leadership in 1994.
A. Yes, indeed, yes! The old Labour Party has been gutted by the New Labour gang of Blair and Brown, its democratic structures closed down. That is of tremendous importance.
It means, among other things, that the scope and sense of socialist activity within the local Labour Parties is very small or non-existent.
Nevertheless, the Labour/ union ties remain, although modified considerably. The unions — for practical purposes, unfortunately, that means the union leaders — can still exert great influence, in some ways even controlling influence, within the Labour Party, if they choose to. We advocate, now as in the past, that they should exert that influence to impose union policies against the Blair-Brown gang.
The stupid “trade-unionist-hunt” campaign in the Tory press, focused on alleged union attempts to control selection of Labour parliamentary candidates and so on, does indicate a truth: that the unions retain great weight, or potential weight, in the Labour Party structures.
The tragedy of New Labour is in large part not a matter of the labour movement being helpless in face of the Labour Party, but of the political acquiescence of the trade union leaders.
Q. You want to turn your face to the tired old Labour loyalists in the rump Labour Party branches, rather than to radical-minded trade unionists and young people disgusted with New Labour.
A. No. Here too you are missing the point. Our chief aim is to talk to those trade unionists and young people who are disgusted with New Labour, but also know the Tories for what they are, and do not want to be cornered into abstention in the general election. We want to offer them a way to move from passive disgust into active organising.
Nevertheless, though it should not for a moment be exaggerated, there are still in the Labour Party, even in the Parliamentary Labour Party, people whose gut instincts, if not their politics, in relation to the labour movement and the working class, are radically different from the dominant gut instincts of the Tories. We should rely on that, or on them, not at all, but they are there, and can be a factor in the period ahead, if socialists organise adequately.
And a fundamental fact of the situation for working-class socialists is that in the 13 years of neo-Thatcherite New Labour government, no remotely adequate or plausible left alternative to New Labour of any size — electorally, or in any other field — has been created. The SWP’s defection to an alliance with George Galloway and Islamic clerical fascism killed the Socialist Alliance of 2000-2 and whatever potential it might have developed. The electioneering now of the SWP cannot be separated from that record.
Q. Are you finished?
A. For now!
Q. You are glossing up every residual possibility within New Labour, and pessimistically talking down the prospects for a socialist alternative to New Labour.
A. I am being neither pessimistic nor optimistic. I am describing the reality and advocating a socialist response to it. We have to start from reality. The rest is fantasy, delusion, wishful thinking.
Fantasy politics is, inescapably, passive politics. You manipulated images and concepts in your head instead of actively working to change reality. To change reality you have to face it, define it, and seek the possibilities, however limited, for action within it.
The idea that the AWL is small, and unable to push the SWP and the SP into even a small beginning like the Socialist Alliance of 2000-1, but by good fortune they have — without us and against us — now constructed an electoral pole on which an adequate socialist and working-class political alternative to New Labour can be built... that would be the worst form of passive fantasy, wishful thinking, “make-believe” politics.
Nothing could be more debilitating to the work of building an adequate socialist and working-class alternative to the Brown gang than to pretend that the would-be socialist organisations whom we have to spend much time combatting, criticising, and denouncing are transmuted into something else, and rendered roughly adequate, by the fact of standing against New Labour in a few constituencies.
Q. You are defeatist about the possibilities of changing the SWP/ SP left.
A. No, neither defeatist nor victory-is-around-the-corner-ist, but facing up to the real situation we are in. Here you are substituting kiddy-town cod psychology for politics!
There could be no greater form of real defeatism now than passive acceptance of victory for the Tories, who may form a militantly class-struggle government against the working class like Thatcher’s. Indifference to the character of the next government is a variant of defeatism.
Q. But what if Labour wins the election? The Brown gang will make cuts in public services, too. Won’t SCSTF inescapably soften opposition to those cuts?
A. The opposite, in fact! The SCSTF formulates and argues for a specific set of political positions, and tries to group working-class and labour movement people around them and around commitment to fight for them against either Cameron or Brown, whichever of them wins the General Election.
It is an active election campaign against Tories and fascists, for a Labour vote — and for socialist policies and against cuts. It does, without candidates, what a socialist campaign with candidates in many constituencies would do — propagate working-class policies and try to organise people around them, whoever wins the general election.
Q. Just propaganda?
A. With small forces, anything we do is “just propaganda”. If we were to pretend to ourselves and tell others that the would-be socialist candidates are a worthwhile pole of attraction against the New Labour, that too would be propaganda — fatuous propaganda, awash with wishful thinking.
But there is no absolute gap between propaganda and agitation here. We also, in the election campaign, agitate for immediate working-class concerns, against both the present and any future Brown government.
Think of the alternative to an SCSTF approach: advocate abstention, like the SP, or flaccidly advocate a fallback Labour vote, like the SWP. We say: back Brown, and fight him, and prepare to fight him if he wins.
We use the heightened interest in politics which a general election creates to advocate specific policies — a roughly adequate class-struggle platform — against both Cameron and a new Brown government.
Even without SCSTF, AWL would advocate a Labour vote where there were no adequate socialist candidates. It is a hundred times better to do that in the SCSTF way than in the passive SWP way.
Q. It all seems terribly self-contradictory to me.
A. The reality is complex and contradictory: a Tory threat when the only governmental alternative is New Labour. The SCSTF cuts a line of working-class socialist action in the general election through that contradictions.
The more people we reach with our propaganda and agitation, the better and bigger the organised opposition to a new Brown government.
Q. But isn’t a turn to SCSTF politically a right turn for AWL?
A. Not at all. Our politics do not change. What we advocate is what we have been advocating. We criticise Brown and the New Labour neo-Thatcherites no less than we have been doing for many years. Unlike the SWP we won’t just say, passively, vote Labour in most constituencies.
It is not a right turn or a left turn. It is a turn towards the labour movement and the trade-union rank and file.
Q. How can backing New Labour in the general election be anything but a right turn?
A. Our politics do not change. What we say about New Labour and Blair and Brown is not going to change. Our support for Brown in the election is, to adapt an old expression, the sort of support which the rope gives to the hanged man.
Q. Much of the discussion in Solidarity in the last months has been about what would happen in the event of a Labour defeat, which seemed certain. Now, to go by the polls, it is not certain at all.
A. No, it isn’t certain any more. Labour may win the general election. Obviously that has massive implications for what happens in the Labour Party and between the unions and the Labour Party. It has no implications for the SCSTF. We support an election campaign based on agitation and propaganda that is equally pointed whoever wins the general election.
Q. We’ll see.
A. One last word: the precedent for the SCSTF is the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory which a bloc of socialists mounted in the 1979 general election as a response to a broadly similar situation to the one we face now — threatening Tories and an outgoing Labour government to which we were very hostile.
As far as one can judge, the scope for the SCSTF is much less than there was for the SCLV. At that time there was a mass Labour Party and lively rank-and-file Labour, and Labour Party conference, opposition to the outgoing Labour government. We tapped into that.
Recognising the differences and what they might mean, socialists can nevertheless support an SCSTF election activity that will be more, perhaps a great deal more, than AWL could otherwise do.
Much depends on rousing AWL and other socialists to energetic action in the next few weeks, and on AWL’s ability to reach out to labour movement people, in the first place trade unionists perplexed by the dilemma posed to them by the New Labour and Tory alternatives on offer in the May election.
Q. What do you propose, practically?
A. Draw up lists of people to approach to endorse the basic statement of SCSTF. Those lists may include Labour Party people if they can be reached, but in no sense should they be limited to Labour Party people.
Go to trade unionists, Trades Council members, single-issue campaign activists, environmentalists, and even members and supporters of the SWP and SP, and ask them to sign the statement.
Argue with them. Explain what we are trying to do. Tell them about the SCLV precedent. Impress on them the need to prepare now to fight on class-struggle politics — SCSTF politics — whoever wins the general election.
Approach individual labour movement activists, and ask them to help actively in the election campaign.
In each area, organise some kind of gathering of SCSTF supporters to plan election work.
Go on the streets and organise an election campaign. Run stalls. Talk to people, given them leaflets. Use a loudhailer. Act exactly as if SCSTF had its own candidate, especially in arguing for SCSTF political positions. Tell people: vote Labour and prepare to fight.
Get unions or campaigns to organise hustings for the election candidates, and intervene as SCSTF.
Go to other election campaign meetings — TUSC meetings, for example — and explain what SCSTF is.
Write on as many blogs and e-lists as you can about the SCSTF.
Set up an SCSTF meeting in your area for after 6 May, and start advertising it now. That meeting will bring together the activists and the contacts from the campaign, and plan for the fight back necessary against the new government.