The AWL’s national committee thought we should argue for a critical vote for Diane Abbott in the Labour leadership contest. But not everyone agrees.
“We should propagandise for a spoilt ballot”
No-one in the AWL is claiming Abbott to be a decent or even passable candidate. We recognise her candidacy was in some way a buffer to stop a serious class-fighter like John McDonnell getting on the ballot. But we over-estimate any advantages in using her candidacy as a propaganda tool; and she doesn’t talk about the things we use as reasons to support her.
One of the main arguments in her favour in Vote Abbott but organise the left is that she is nominally on the correct side of a few key questions, such as Trident, education, Iraq, foundation hospitals and immigration. In parliament she has voted “correctly” on some of these issues. Two problems: firstly, I’m not sure whether voting in parliament is a good enough acid-test of left-wing credentials. Secondly, no political explanation for her voting against such things appears anywhere in her campaign.
We can intervene in these debates positively without having to lend support to a candidate.
When Abbott talks about the graduate tax as something “worth considering” she is wrong. When she says she doesn’t want to move the party to the left, she is wrong. It is nonsense to advise affiliated workers and members to “express their hostility to the new Labour line” by voting for rubbish over four kinds of stinking rubbish.
We have also claimed that a higher vote for Abbott will “boost the will and confidence of the broader left”(!) This is not a trade union general secretary election; Abbott is not the next Serwotka, not only because she has no politics to sell out in the first place, but because she has had nothing to do with the unions whatsoever.
There is no point in boosting the vote of a candidate who is very clearly not left-wing and who doesn’t mention any of the things that we are using as a reason/excuse to vote for her. I’m having a lot of trouble working out why we are backing a candidate solely because they say that nuclear weapons and racism are bad things.
We should propagandise for a spoilt ballot, arguing that whilst Abbott had voted against the war she has nothing to offer the labour movement beyond empty rhetoric and posturing.
Whatever the result of the contest, Constituency Labour Parties and union branches need to put pressure on the party machinery for greater democracy in its structures and policy procedures and be just as harsh on the right-wingers as the fake-left charlatans like Abbott.
“A tick-list of policies is not enough”
The AWL’s decision appears to be premised on the idea that Diane Abbott is a “standard-issue Labour left MP”, or perhaps “similar to John McDonnell but not as good”. That might have been true over the years of, say, Jeremy Corbyn, or Alan Simpson, or Alice Mahon, or John Cryer, or others. We would be absolutely right to back someone like this. But I would argue that Diane Abbott is not of this order at all. She is something different: not left, but fake left.
• is held in contempt in her own constituency (‘’standard-issue’’ Labour left MPs are usually well-liked)
• sent her son to a private school
• hosts a TV programme with Michael Portillo and is close friends with other Tories eg. Jonathan Aitken
•supported the privatisation of London Underground’s East London Line.
Diane Abbott is known as much for these things as for being any kind of left-winger. Even the extent to which she is seen as a left-winger is problematic. It relies on a definition of “left” that is based on single issues (supplemented by being black and female), not on siding with workers. Even those who perceive her as left-wing do not particularly associate her with trade unions or workers’ struggles, as she does not associate herself with them.
Our list of her leftiness — “She will be the one candidate who was against the Iraq invasion and is for trade union rights, for migrant rights, for expanded council housing, for taxing the rich, for scrapping British nuclear weapons, for fighting cuts, against privatisation, for free higher education” — could also apply to George Galloway. Diane Abbott is not the same as George Galloway, but this shows that a tick-list of policies is not enough to justify endorsing her. Sometimes, a candidate has other things on his/her record that cancel out a list of okay policies.
Moreover, she is not as left-wing, or rebellious, as you might imagine. In the last Parliament, Diane Abbott voted against the government in 68 votes out of 871 she attended (7.8%); John McDonnell did so in 205 votes out of 824 (24.9%). (Kate Hoey rebelled 153 times, more than twice as often as Abbott; and even Frank Field had a higher percentage rebellion, at 10.8%.)
The article (‘Vote Abbot but organise the left’... web reference above) argues that: “A critical vote for Diane Abbott will not cut across getting a hearing for our ideas.” I think that a critical vote for Diane Abbott would cut across us getting a hearing for our ideas from those people who see her for what she is. I am also not convinced that voting Abbott will “boost the broader left” as this assumes. If the left backs her and she gets a decent vote, then that may boost the perception of the strength of the left — but at the cost of politically endorsing Abbott as representative of the left, and therefore redefining what it is to be ‘’left’’ in a negative direction. So you can be “left” — indeed a representative, a champion of the left — while supporting privatisation, sending your son to private school, hobnobbing with Tories and sitting out workers’ struggles?! Is that a definition of “left” that we want to boost?!
Finally, the decision to support Diane Abbott does not appear to even consider the role she has played in this leadership election, where her candidacy scuppered John McDonnell’s chances of getting on the ballot paper.
When socialists decide who to back in an election, we need to consider not just that candidate’s formal policies, but whether supporting his/her candidature would advance the cause of socialism and working-class representation. With Diane Abbott, I just don’t see how it does. She is not a credible socialist candidate, and socialists do ourselves no credit by supporting her.
“Our position on the Labour Party is hinged on the union link”
I think the article Vote Abbott but organise the left overlooks a lot of Abbott’s politics and record. Putting aside whether you would vote for her or not, it is soft on her. It does not mention her role in various privatisation projects, her lack of role in her constituency, her lack of open support for even the most high profile strikes, sending her kid to a private school.
Second. I find several of the conlusions politically confused. For example “If we have to choose, then advocating and explaining our own ideas comes before helping to boost the broader left. In this case, a critical vote for Diane Abbott will not cut across getting a hearing for our ideas.” I agree with the first part, therefore to me the second part is wrong. We’re not making clear political points about what the Labour Party should be, by advocating a vote for Abbott we would be capitulating to the idea floating around the broad left about having a “more diverse, open, different” Labour Party: and that is not an argument based in class struggle and the labour movement, it is an argument based in soft left opportunistic and popularist politics.
Third. Our position on the Labour Party is hinged on the union link. Our argument in supporting McDonnell is not about making a slightly more politically left Labour Party, it is about making the arguments for rebuilding the union link and having leadership accountable to the labour movement. Abbott’s connection with the labour movement is weak. A vote for her does not strengthen the union link, make those arguments clear or strengthen the labour movement.
It appears to me that there are other ways to express opposition to the New Labour machine than capitulating to a soft left candidate that does not actually clearly oppose it or pose the question of accountability to the labour movement as an alternative. One of those may well be spoilt ballots but I’m not convinced on such a policy.
Finally, there is a big big difference between the policy of “least worst” candidates in trade unions to in the Labour Party. One is the labour movement, the other is becoming progressively being divorced from the labour movement.
“We will appear either faint-hearted or hypocritical”
If we are serious about standing for “working class political representation” we will not advance our credibility by backing a candidate for the Labour Party leadership who would appear not only not to have any ties to the movement but also to act in a way which bolsters the ruling class. Sending your child to private school seems to me to do exactly that.
The battle over state education has intensified with the attempt by Gove to smash local authority links with schools, implement “free” schools and coerce or bribe schools into becoming academies. Within a few years, if he succeeds, for-profit companies are likely to have made major inroads into state provision of education. The Labour Party will be unable to challenge this model (let alone argue for a comprehensive system) with any of the five candidates at its helm. They all believe in selective education. Those who have sent their children to private school will be the least credible in arguing against extending private provision more widely.
In my view we will not earn ourselves a hearing by endorsing Abbott “critically”. We will appear either faint-hearted or hypocritical. On this occasion I think we should say what we indeed believe, that none of those on the ballot endorses or advances socialist politics or working-class political representation, and this is the deciding factor in the new political circumstances which pertain after the election.
There seems to me to be an increasingly obvious but as yet undebated crisis of political representation in the country (sparked perhaps by the parliamentary expenses scandal, echoed on the left by the criticism of the high pay and costly perks of some union leaders, evident in the succession of low turnouts and given an edge by the growth in the numbers voting for far-right/fascist candidates). If this is so, should we not be using the Labour Party leadership-contest to make clear how unrepresentative these candidates are of Labour Party “core voters” and the working-class as a whole? Isn’t it our analysis of what political representation means which we should be concerned to advance openly now? I do not think this can be honestly done while lining up behind any of the five MPs on the leadership ballot. What might seem attractive tactically risks, in my view, cutting against our strategic better interests.