- Defeated amendments
Discussion on the amendments:
- "Why conference should reject the amendments"
- "My amendments to the Perspective discussion: explanation and response"
- "Comments on the 'motivation' document for the amendments"
- "Discussing with the man who wasn't there"
- "The Last Stand of the Disaffiliationist"
- "Note of reservation on the perspectives document"
Click here for earlier debate on related questions, from April 2009
Amendment 1, candidates
Section 6 'Outside-Labour left electoralism', the last paragraph. Delete the first sentence ("Anti-Labour electoralism cannot be a priority for us in the coming period, but there may be limited opportunities".)
Amendment 2, reaffiliation
Section 7 'The Labour Movement in Politics After the Election', last sentence of point c) and all point d). Delete and replace with
In the new political situation, and for now, disaffiliation will not be a live political issue, although re-affiliation in the FBU and RMT might well be. In the latter case our basic attitude should be (as in the last 10 years):
a.. while arguing the general case for affiliated unions fighting within the Labour structures, assess any moves for re-affiliation concretely;
b.. not automatically lining-up with the union bureaucracy (or parts of it) arguing for re-affiliation;
c.. certainly challenging apolitical attitudes among militants rightly disgusted with New Labour, but not accepting that the fight for working class political representation is solely through the prism and promise of affiliated unions asserting themselves within the Blairite structures.
Debate on these amendments
The perspectives document is a candid document which tries to state things clearly and honestly. It was written to promote and focus discussion and decisions about the issues that have divided us since we started to face up to the new political situation created by the economic crisis.
It is not intended to be a timeless text, but to help the AWL reorient in the new situation.
After a very long discussion - 18 months in all - we have reached a point where we are more or less united on what AWL should do in the period ahead. The sole antagonistic alternative to the perspectives document that will be presented to conference is three small amendments from JBx.
JBx voted for the practical conclusions of the perspectives document at the October NC. He voted against at the September NC. He has not to my knowledge offered an explanation for his shift.
He was the only NC member to vote against the "general line" of the document at the October NC. I understand he intends at conference to vote for the "general line" with a note of reservation. In any case, the smallness of his amendments inescapably indicates a general endorsement of the rest of the document, i.e. the bulk of it, which he does not propose to amend.
His cluster of amendments, if passed, would confuse and muddy but not change the political gist of the text. Instead of stating a position boldly and clearly, JBx deals in what might be called a rearguard guerrilla strategy.
He described himself at the June NC as a "disaffiliationist" "in general terms", but not in favour of advocating disaffiliation in any union now.
Disaffiliation is a tactical move. It is extraordinary for someone to name himself politically for a tactic he does not actually support. A tactic, moreover, that we have almost always opposed because it cut against the grain and logic of what we advocated for most of the period when New Labour was in office (until 2008) - that unions should fight within the Labour structures to "reclaim" the party - fight, if necessary, up to expulsion or some other break with the Parliamentary leadership. Disaffiliation - for unions to just pick up their marbles and leave - was not even in 2008 something we would have advocated as our first choice.
How JBx chooses to name himself politically, however quaint it may be, would be of no consequence - except that the underlying thread in his amendments reflects his "disaffiliationism".
He proposes the deletion of the following sentence (from section 6, para 5): "Anti-Labour electoralism cannot be a priority for us in the coming period, but there may be limited opportunities".
In the paragraph as it stands, that sentence is followed by: "There may be cases...." Those sentences would, if JBx's amendment were carried, stand on their own, without the initial sentence stating a context.
Strangely, JBx's amendment does not delete any of the previous paragraphs of section 6, which give an account of the collapse of left anti-Labour electoralism into desultoriness even before Labour went into opposition. He does not dispute the account of real developments, but wants to delete the conclusion which they indicate.
Does he in fact think that anti-Labour electoralism can be a priority for us in the coming period? Yes or no? He implies yes, but does not state it.
A serious alternative to the perspectives document would say clearly that we should make anti-Labour electoralism a priority, and argue for that choice - not try to sneak it in.
JBx's essential drive is to want to replace the worked-out, nuanced analysis in the text with a wait-and-see attitude. He cannot argue in detail against the analysis, so he proposes essentially a delaying operation, an assertion that there may be this or that change but essentially things remain the same.
The wording of the amendments is extremely bland, and on the surface it is almost plausible.
Some of it is mysterious or encrypted.
"In the new political situation, and for now, disaffiliation will not be a live political issue, although re-affiliation in the FBU and RMT might well be. In the latter case our basic attitude should be (as in the last 10 years)... While arguing the general case for affiliated unions fighting within the Labour structures, [we should] assess any moves for re-affiliation concretely..."
Of course we assess everything, all the time, concretely! (Some of us do! In this dispute JBx doesn't, urging instead that our 1990s analysis of Labour's rule changes should always be "emphasised" so as to marginalise any consideration of shifts).
Trotsky put it very well: "On guard against routine handling of a situation as against a plague..."
Indeed. So what is JBx's point? Without daring to argue for it "concretely", he wants to suggest that we might favour disaffiliation, or remaining disaffiliated.
To be sufficiently "concrete" here, John, you would have to suggest some situation, plausible in the coming year or so, where we might favour disaffiliation, or remaining disaffiliated, that is, voluntary withdrawal and abstention by some unions.
But that is the thin end of the "disaffiliationist" wedge. As far as I can see, the only circumstances in which we would back disaffiliation - passive withdrawal, as distinct from militant defiance that might lead to a union being expelled from the Labour Party - would be a condition of absolute atrophy of the Labour Party structures. That is, for disaffiliation to be "concretely" preferable, things would have to go in the opposite direction to the direction they are going now and have been going for a little while.
Short of that absolute atrophy, in all circumstances we would advocate a fight to transform the Labour Party and Labour/ union relations. Wouldn't we? That is certainly what we have generally advocated over "the last ten years".
And, if you think about it, any such circumstances - absolute decline of the Labour Party, no hope of change, etc. - that would make us favour disaffiliation for one union would apply to all unions! If disaffiliating, or staying disaffiliated, is "concretely" good for one union, why wouldn't it be good for all?
Here, if you peel back the surface of the amendment, and look at what is underneath, the "disaffiliationist in general terms" expresses himself, if not bravely, at least unmistakably.
Short of an enormous political defeat for the labour movement and for the unions within the Labour Party, we must favour the advocacy of a fight by the unions inside the existing structures. Our only point of contact with "disaffiliationists in general terms" on this is that in a situation of a union pursuing a class issue, if necessary to the point of expulsion, the class struggle and its logic would guide us. Even in that situation, we would fight such an expulsion and advocate that the affiliated unions oppose it.
JBx continues: "Not automatically lining-up with the union bureaucracy (or parts of it) arguing for re-affiliation".
This is like the exhortation to "assess concretely": an implied political position dressed up in an abstract truism.
When do we "automatically" line up with anybody, except in elemental things like a strike or self-defence against racism? Never! Nowhere and never. Least of all do we line up "automatically" with elements like the bureaucracy, to which we have a permanent antagonism, latent or active.
So what is JBx's point here? He wants to suggest that there could plausibly be circumstances, in the next year or so, where we might oppose RMT or FBU reaffiliation. Why? Because the bureaucracy (or sections of the bureaucracy) were pushing reaffiliation? That would be a sufficient reason for us to oppose reaffiliation?
Again, if you think about it, reaffiliation is unlikely to be carried without the support of some of, or the whole, bureaucracy in FBU or RMT. Of course we never line up "automatically" with "the bureaucracy", but the reference here is meaningless unless it means that we never line up with the bureaucracy on reaffiliation.
The function of the clause, in JBx's amendment, is to express his underlying "disaffiliationism in general terms".
Specifically, he proposes to leave the question open. To make sense, JBx should offer some account of plausible situations within the next year or so when we would oppose RMT or FBU reaffiliation, and say why. He doesn't.
JBx continues: "challenging apolitical attitudes among militants rightly disgusted with New Labour, but not accepting that the fight for working class political representation is solely through the prism and promise of affiliated unions asserting themselves within the Blairite structures".
The phrase "the fight for working-class representation" is too abstract and general here. What is working-class representation?
Has the Labour Party ever been an adequate vehicle or "prism" for working-class representation. On a fundamental level, no, not at all! Never!
Labour has misrepresented the working class, sustained capitalism even in1945 when a sizeable section of Labour voters wanted an end to it, and not served the fundamental historical interests of the working class. That is why we - communists - have always sought to replace it. Why we, on a basic level, reject the idea that "working class representation" operates "solely" - or, even, in any proper way, at all! - through a Labour Party, even a Labour Party in which the trade unions are entirely dominant.
However, working-class representation has conventionally also carried a "minimal" meaning, in the minimal sense of candidates or MPs, and a mass party, linked to the organisations of the working class, the unions, and working-class electorates. It was on that minimal level that New Labour became different from old Labour. That minimal sense was what we had in mind when we said that the working class had been disenfranchised by New Labour, and that we had to win labour representation again.
Nobody in AWL has ever said that workers are, or can ever be, adequately represented by "the prism" (whatever that means here) of the Labour Party and the promise of trade union leaders asserting themselves. Adequate political representation demands a mass revolutionary socialist party.
Labour representation in the minimal sense could be restored only by a Labour Party transformed by the union leaders asserting themselves. No number of left propaganda candidacies against Labour, even relatively successful and valuable ones, could do it. No exercise by a union like the RMT in backing SP or allied candidates could do it.
So what is JBx saying here? He is resisting the idea that with Labour in opposition, and with even those very limited shifts that have taken place in the Labour Party, the possibility of challenging New Labour is radically transformed from something that can, in favourable conditions, be made a general approach - such as it was for us, for example, in the 2001 general election - to something exceptional and unusual.
There may be cases where in response to some specific outrage there can be valuable non-Labour candidates, with serious labour movement backing, at national or local government level. There may be cases where we can usefully run an AWL "propaganda candidate". The perspectives document takes account of that.
But AWL needs to draw up a proper balance sheet on the experience of left anti-Labour electoralism in the New Labour period, and face the fact that the enterprise dwindled into desultoriness even before Labour went into opposition. Exceptional for some unusual and untypical cases, the period of politically fruitful electoral challenges to Labour from the left is closed for the calculable future.
That is what JBx is resisting, by way of obfuscations and evasions.
My amendments to the Perspective discussion: explanation and response
Below is a summary of the reasons for moving my amendments in the debate on Political Perspectives. These amendments were written to the ‘practical conclusions’ extract, produced by Bruce, which was circulated for the Conference agenda. In Part 2 I will also respond to some of the arguments raised by Martin in his recent email (‘The Last Stand Of The Disaffiliationist’).
Why the amendments? Because I think there has been a shift away from our previous analysis of the centrality of the Labour Party structural changes, and the sharp conclusions to be drawn from this for our perspectives. I do not think this shift is warranted now, despite the fact that we are obviously in a new political situation.
Part of the discussion is about emphasis and weight, which I believe have important implications and effect particular conclusions. That is the basis for the amendments: to counter this shift by re-emphasising the centrality of the still in place structural changes to our analysis and perspectives, and amending the main ‘practical conclusion’ that most clearly expresses the shift (our attitude to reaffiliation of the RMT and FBU).
In the discussion to date, Sean & Martin’s basic response on this issue has been (I paraphrase): the structural changes are all itemised in the Perspectives document, so what’s the problem? Sean goes further and says that we need to focus on what is new, and not bury these in ‘commonplaces’ (i.e. the structural changes). He explicitly says he is ‘bending the stick’. He also says that we shouldn’t be in love with our old analysis. Both Sean and Martin point to part 4(e) of the Perspectives document, with its clear section on the structural changes in the Labour Party ("...it had many of its old structures and its modes of relating to the trade unions and the working class destroyed or changed radically in terms of their previous function. Annual conference as a living congress of the labour movement in politics no longer exists.").
What’s the problem? The problem for me is that these correct observations are not followed through in the Perspectives document in the way that they been in our previous analysis and warranted still by the present situation, and this has implications for our work.
What does this mean? Firstly, on the question of ‘weight’ and emphasis in the analysis, and taking two important examples from section 7 of the Perspectives document.
1. "The undemocratic structures imposed on the Labour Party in 1997 are still there, but to fetishise these structures as the sole defining factor would be as wrong as dismissing them as inconsequential." (Perspectives document)
To which I would reply - we never in the past saw them as the "sole defining factor", but we certainly saw them as the main, decisive one. That is not surprising (read what 4(e) says!).
What we actually said in the past was this: "The decisive changes are not .... primarily a matter of the policies of New Labour ......It is the changes in structures and relationships between the Party and the unions... that are decisive. Decisive about New Labour is the structural changes, the fact that all the old forums and channels through which the labour movement could discuss and pronounce on such policies are gone or radically changed. The Blairites have built on Thatcherism, and on the tremendous defeats inflicted on the working class by Thatcherism, to transform the Labour Party radically.......The transforming changes affect precisely those areas where the political life of the old Labour Party, that is of the old labour movement, expressed itself, and into which socialists could intervene as we did." (Solidarity 3/29, 1 May 2003).
2. "The central fact that the AWL must register .... is that the union link has survived the long period of New Labour government." (Perspectives document)
The emphasis here is on the retention of the formal union link. I agree that is very important (breaking it was a serious option considered by the Blairites), and is what fundamentally distinguishes New Labour from the US Democratic Party. But when we have discussed this before we also registered, as a central point, that the content of the Labour-union links had been radically changed by the Blairite structural changes in the Labour Party. Yes, unions remained affiliated and continued to give money, but with radically different relationships and structures to what existed previously (‘Old’ Labour), and this has important implications for our approach on e.g. the issue of reaffiliation.
Later in Section 7 (Perspectives document) the changed relationships are mentioned: "The Labour-union links, though seriously changed, have survived. The history of the interaction begins again, and in radically changed conditions to those of the last 20 years." They are mentioned, but the emphasis has clearly changed: with the focus on the formal links and the changed conditions, not on the fact that the links have remained seriously weakened. I think the latter must also be clearly registered in our assessment of the starting point of the interaction beginning again.
The analysis developed from the Blairite coup and the 13 years of New Labour government is certainly not written in stone. Obviously it needs to be assessed against developments and above all against the new situation, including unprecedented slump and cuts, and New Labour in opposition. The issue here is whether the new situation and related changes (including the influx of new LP members) warrants modifying the central feature of what we said before ("Decisive about New Labour is the structural changes"), and the particular perspectives that flow from that? My answer at this stage is no, for the simple reason that the structural changes basically remain in place.
Do Sean and Martin think it should be modified? There are indications that they do – Sean, for example, has reasonably commented that we shouldn’t be in love with our old analysis; there has been plenty of talk about ‘lines of movement’; I think the Perspectives document does contain important modifications in emphasis and conclusions. Do they or don’t they? If they do, how? At the very least, I think answers to those questions would make for a better, clearer discussion.
What has changed?
A reported 30,000 members have joined the Labour Party since the election; 250,000 had left during the years of New Labour government. The influx is significant, but it is to a Party where all the old democratic channels remain blocked off and where members have virtually no say (and none of significance).
The recent Party Conference voted to reintroduce the rule allowing trade unions and the CLPs to put 8 motions (4 each) to Party Conference. It was a return to the situation that existed before 2007 – nothing more. Limited change within the Blairite structures has taken place before, and an earlier comment relating to a similar change about resolutions is relevant here. In 2004 we commented: "That real Labour Party democracy, limited and inadequate though it was, has gone. The limited concession made by New Labour in 2003, that in future Constituency Labour Parties can put four motions on each conference agenda, does not change that."
Within the existing structures, what the leaders of the main unions do is decisive in the fight for a democratic Labour Party. It was positive that they supported the limited change to reintroduce the 8 resolutions at Party conference. However, an assessment of this move needs to be weighed against the following comment from a Conference delegate, reported in the latest ‘Solidarity’: "...I was disappointed that many rule changes didn’t get through and that trade union votes were implicated in that."
This year’s LP conference saw the launch of a review into the Blairite structures established by the 1997 ‘Partnership in Power’ proposals, which will report back to next year’s Conference. That is progress and provides openings, but the structure of the review is such as to rule out rank and file influence. The review is run by the Joint Policy Committee, which is controlled by the Party leadership. They will produce recommendations to the next Party conference having reviewed all the submissions made. These recommendations will, on the basis of the existing rules, be on a take-it-or-leave it basis, with no right of amendments.
The trade union vote was decisive in the election of Ed Miliband, but was entirely within the existing structures. That is not modified by any hopes that the union leaders might use that to flex their muscles in the Party. The best that can be said for it is the description in the latest Solidarity: "Their role in the election of Ed Miliband is, we hope, a small down-payment on them doing that (reclaiming and reorganising the Labour Party)."
Any assessment about ‘the direction of movement’ at this stage must conclude that it has not gone very far at all. We argue and organise for the limited steps to go further, but that is for the future and outside our control or real influence. It is certainly not something sufficient to warrant modifying what we have said before; indeed, modification on the basis of future promises and hopes (‘the direction of movement’) would be completely against how we approached the issue previously.
(It is worth pointing out here, if only to get some balance in the discussion, that the Perspectives document itself doesn’t believe that the ‘direction of movement’ will go very far: "...the pressure for a radical restructuring and revival of the Labour Party as a living organisation that a massive defeat might have produced does not now exist." my emphasis).
For the sake of this discussion I want to summarise my understanding of the main conclusions we drew from our previous analysis of the Blairite coup and structural changes. I want to summarise them because many comrades were not around at the time and are possibly not familiar with them. They also more clearly explain the basis for the amendments.
1. Anti-Labour candidates. "For these reasons (structural changes, JB) we have advocated independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. We never saw such things as ruled out in principle. We rejected them previously only because of the practicalities, chief of which was the open nature of the Party, and what socialists could do in it." (Solidarity 3/29).
The argument for standing candidates here was not only rooted in the basic principle of Marxists using the electoral arena to fight for independent working class politics. It was also based in the analysis of the structural changes in the Labour Party, and the blocking off of any kind of workers’ voice by those changes.
The crucial ‘storyline’ we raised at the time was this:
"Before they founded their own party, the trade unions backed the Liberal Party, and regularly got a group of MPs elected under Liberal Party auspices, the so-called ‘Lib-Labs’. In the last two decades of the 19th century, the pioneer socialists stood in elections, in the main but not only in local elections, against a Liberal Party that had trade union backing.
The trade unions continue to have organic ties to New Labour, not least financial ties, that the late 19th century trade unions did not have with the Liberal Party. Acknowledge that difference; understand that the trade unions could do much more than they now do inside the Labour Party to fight Blairism; advocate that the rank and file of the trade unions should demand of the trade union leaders that they do fight Blair and Blairism within the Labour Party – and nonetheless there is an important degree of parallel between the position of socialists now standing against the trade-union-backed Labour Party, and our predecessors a hundred years ago standing against a Liberal Party which had trade-union backing." (Solidarity 3/29)
We favoured trade union backing for such candidates, including within the affiliated unions and even at the risk of provoking expulsion moves by the Labour leadership. We favoured doing this sensibly and not in a needlessly provocative way, but doing it nonetheless (this caused considerable debate in our own organisation at the time and for a number of years). We explained it in these terms: "We must fight for working-class politics in the labour movement. We do not fight in the most advantageous, still less ideal conditions. We cannot let fear of damage that will be done during the struggle stifle the will of the rank and file to fight. We cannot fetishise the existing links and relations between the New Labour Party and the trade unions. We must advocate a fight on every level, and now." (Solidarity 3/29)
Also of relevance to our present discussions are the following. The policy on candidates was not based on any illusions about the difficulties or possibilities, or predicated on the ability or otherwise to (as the current Perspectives document puts it) "regroup a substantial body of left and working-class activists" from the work within a defined period. We hoped for that, but it was not a condition for it. We explicitly rejected and distinguished it from the ‘toy town electoralism’ from the sects. It was not conceived as a sectarian project, counterposed to the actual labour movement, but as a central element in the new conditions created by the Blairite coup in our work to transform that movement. It was seen a necessary political activity, to be promoted where practical. It was about raising the banner for working class political representation as conceived and argued for, in a labour movement whose political voice had been seriously stifled by the changes to the Labour Party.
2. Walking on two legs. We talked about "the fight on the different fronts – to get the trade union leaders to fight Blairism within the Labour structures, and to get the trade unions to back working-class and socialist candidates against New Labour.." (Solidarity 3/29)
We argued first and foremost for the affiliated unions to use their position and launch a fight within the structures, pushing it to a split if necessary, but rejected any perspective based on waiting on them to deliver. We also understood that, in the given situation (weakness of the Marxists, and the Blairite stifling of anything resembling an independent working class politics) there would inevitably be fragmented responses. We argued for relating to such fragmented responses as militants, concerned to build the force that was crucial to transforming the existing labour movement, not as people tied to preconceived scenarios and playing the role of sheepdogs towards of how we thought things should develop.
These points were expressed as follows (Solidarity 3/29):
"Our central ‘political’ demand on the unions – that they fight Blairism within the Labour structures, right through to a break, and found a new working-class trade-union based party – does not oblige us to oppose everything short of that .... and should not shade into a conservative defence and support for the Blair-serving status quo against immediate limited initiatives, left-wing or labour-movement electoral challenges to the New Labour party; things which, on their merits, we should support here and now."
"To campaign now in unaffiliated unions for them to affiliate to New Labour, on the basis of them joining a general trade-union fight against the Blair machine with the Labour structures, would be inept – a piece of project-mongering that could not be shown to make sense to thinking militants. Such a fight does not exist in any halfway coherent, concerted or large-scale fashion. A campaign for affiliation would inescapably imply commitment to a narrow preconceived scenario for the future, that the unions will fight in a co-ordinated fashion to reclaim the Labour Party ... There is no warrant in what has happened, or what is foreseeably likely to happen, for tying our tactics to that scenario."
Issues from our present discussion were also discussed in the disputes at the time over the correct response to the radical changes in the Labour Party. They are dealt with at length in the pamphlet ‘The Trade Union Movement, New Labour and Working-Class Representation’ (2004). It goes without saying that we should discuss their relevance/applicability to today’s situation, however I would note the following for now:
On our attitude to the reaffiliation of the disaffiliated and expelled unions (FBU & RMT), some comrades argued that we should fight to get them to reaffiliate, virtually as a matter of course, because the LP-TU link was the only show in town for working class political representation, and there was nothing of consequence outside (except assorted sectarians and demagogues). They accepted that the price to be paid for reaffiliation would be the unions ditching their policy of support for anti-Labour candidates. They were in a minority.
The majority rejected the general approach argued by the comrades, pointing out that it was wrong to relate to the Blair Labour Party as though the ‘old’ Labour Party still existed in real way. We also argued that we could not, in that situation, accept that the unions should drop their support for anti-Labour candidates as the price for reaffiliation. "To do what (the comrades) want would be to commit ourselves to campaigning to put Blair Labour back together on the pretence that it is Old Labour – or that Old Labour will eventually re-emerge out of it!" (‘TU Movement, New Labour and Working-Class Representation’)
What ‘relating as militants’ meant in practice was decided concretely, guided by how best to fight for independent working class politics and avoid being politically stifled, and not by the overarching idea that nothing could be done outside the affiliated structures. In 2007, but not at other times, we floated the idea of the RMT trying to reaffiliate (formally the union rule book says it is still affiliated, and cheques are sent off every year and not cashed) around the possibility of John McDonnell standing for leader. It didn’t get far and certainly the issue of the union’s support for anti-Labour candidates was not discussed. In 2001/02 we did not support the FBU leadership’s campaign to overturn their 2001 Conference decision to support candidates that supported the union policy. We related tactically to the issue of opening up the union political funds to non-Labour organisations.
I think that the Perspective document draws back from the practical conclusions we previously reached in a number of important respects, and as outlined above. With the Blairite Labour Party still in place, I do not think that is warranted.
(a) Independent electoral activity. In Section 6, the Perspectives document restates the commonplace "In principle we are for socialist candidates challenging Labour. The practicalities depend on the circumstances and the quality of the socialist, or would-be socialist, candidates" and adds "Anti-Labour electoralism cannot be a priority for us in the coming period, but there may be limited opportunities."
What is missing here are two central elements from our previous analysis: (a) the relation between anti-Labour candidates and the structural changes in the Labour, and (b) our attitude to unions and their branches supporting such electoral challenges, even if that means those unions running the risk of expulsion from New Labour. (In relation to (b), the question of LP legality is only raised in relation to our LP fraction work). I think that is wrong for the reasons spelt out before.
I do not deny the practical problems now involved with socialist or independent working class candidates challenging Labour, now in opposition to the Tory coalition. I accept that the sharpest point is likely to be Labour councils slavishly implementing the cuts. However, if we also see it as we should – as a necessary means of fighting the working class political disenfranchisement that still exists with the radically changed Labour Party – then at the very least that will make us more positive and pro-active in seeking such challenges than is expressed in the Perspectives document.
(b) Reaffiliation of the FBU & RMT. Parts of 7(d) (Perspectives document) have been reworded, but it still wants to commit the organisation now to siding with any future reaffiliation moves in those unions, and the caveat that the moves need to be "serious" does not change that. (For the sake of this discussion, the difference between the resolutions use of "not oppose" rather than support is of no significance. Even if the comrades want to argue we might abstain, my arguments below still hold.)
I think the way the issue is argued in the Perspectives document is, for all intents and purposes, identical to the way a minority of our comrades argued it in previous discussions (the LP-TU link is the only show in town for working class political representation and "fruitful political life", and there is nothing of consequence outside - except assorted sectarians and those who want to build an alternative militant political labour movement, counterposed to the actual labour movement). I think it was a wrong approach then and it remains a wrong approach now.
Significantly, the section in the Perspective document does not mention one of the main issues before – whether or not we support (or even abstain) when the issue of the union ditching their policy of supporting non-Labour candidates inevitably comes up. I think that if you follow the arguments and approach in the Perspectives document the answer to that question must be yes, but I also think the movers of the Perspectives document should clarify this before asking comrades to vote on this section.
If comrades agree that we should not make such a commitment now, then they should vote for my amendment on the reaffiliation issue. That amendment deletes the proposal that we should make such a commitment, but also explicitly allows for our policy to be assessed concretely. This means reviewing the question if the situation changes and, for example, the union leaders do make moves to significantly open up the structures.
I discuss this in more detail in the next section but would add two more points at this stage.
The Perspectives say: "Concretely, in current and near-future conditions, RMT or FBU reaffiliation would add lively pressure there in favour of reconstructing Labour Party democracy, in favour of a firmer stand against the cuts, and so on." Presumably, the comrades think this would be a reasonable price to pay for dropping their policy of supporting non-Labour candidates, but what does it mean? It is a fact that there has been "lively pressure" within the New Labour structures on a number of occasions, and it is also a fact that they have come to nothing because of the structures, the sealing up of the channels etc.
In "current and near-future conditions" – the Perspectives document itself has the following to say about these. "...it (LP) had many of its old structures and its modes of relating to the trade unions and the working class destroyed or changed radically in terms of their previous function. Annual conference as a living congress of the labour movement in politics no longer exists."(4(e)). In section 8 it says: "...the pressure for a radical restructuring and revival of the Labour Party as a living organisation that a massive defeat might have produced does not now exist." Despite these conditions, accurately described by themselves, the supporters of the Perspective document still want the organisation to change its existing approach (outlined above). I think they are wrong.
There is another element in our previous analysis that also needs to be emphasised on the reaffiliation issue – the effect of the Blairite Labour Party structural changes on the input/influence of rank and file trade union members. Still relevant today is what we wrote in 2004: "Today the union-Labour link is qualitatively more shut off from rank-and-file influence than it has ever been before."
I specifically want to respond to some of the arguments in Martin’s email following last Saturday’s NC – the post with the silly title ‘The Last Stand Of The Disaffiliationist’.
Martin’s first point: "At our conference the controversial votes about perspectives will be on some apparently very small and fiddly amendments, none of which is backed up by any written explanation." I do not accept his description of the amendments either here or later in his post. This contribution deals with the written explanation bit. (I do not dispute that they should have done earlier, but you do your best).
I mainly want to respond here, and again, to the FBU & RMT reaffiliation issue as discussed in his post, and also on the issue of disaffiliation. (There are other issues that are worth a response, but not here).
Martin complains that "no serious person can vote for an amendment which states, as its sole answer to a real political question, "you must assess it concretely". It’s as if I asked someone for directions to Kings Cross, and got the sage reply: "Ah, you have to assess that concretely". Either "I don’t know" or some rough indication of direction would be better!"
Martin, of course, has got his route map to hand. Go to the Labour Party first (but not too quickly because you might "trip yourself up"). And then, you can’t do much except "function as a force for political ferment", but at least it’s better than doing nothing outside where you’ve been "politically neutralised" for years. And the clear assumption is that nothing much will continue to happen outside.
I think there are a number of questions here that are central to the discussion.
(a) The route map approach might be more appealing but it doesn’t relate to the situation we face. It is pointing in the direction of a Labour Party where the democratic structures are still gutted, and where any changes have been both limited and left the structures intact. It is a route map that, here and now, is based on the hope that the main union leaders will decide to push open the structures and based on a preconceived scenario about how things should develop. It is a recommended route map for the RMT and FBU in which the possibilities of them affecting that situation, now and in the near future, are very slight indeed, and even less so for rank and file members of those unions.
(b) Reaffiliation will have a cost, which is skated over. Anybody arguing for it (or "not opposing") will be faced with the straight question – fine, but give up your policy of supporting anti-Labour candidates. How does Martin propose we respond? On the basis of what is in the Perspectives document it must be yes (and you cannot get round that with all the knowing winks about doing it ‘unofficially’, ‘as in the past’). And he proposes saying this now, "in current and near-future conditions", when the structural changes are still solidly in place, and the prospects outlined in the Perspectives document are certainly not promising.
The issue of reaffiliation is a tactical question, but it also very clearly tied up with the Blairite structural changes and their effect. It there was a real opening up of the structures (including the possibility of using the structures for working class representation in elections), then the issue would be posed differently and supporting reaffiliation moves could make sense. But that’s not the situation now and it would be wrong to change our approach on the basis of the new political situation and hopes that the union leaders might act, even in the "near-future".
I know that some union branches, nearly a decade ago, got away with supporting anti-Labour candidates like Livingstone, while their national unions remain affiliated. But you cannot base a policy on that. For a start, things have changed – including decisively that the Labour Party has expelled the RMT, when one of its Scottish sections affiliated to the SSP. So the still in place Blairite bureaucracy in the Labour Party, having once expelled the RMT is then going to agree to its reaffiliation and not do anything when RMT branches continue to operate (unofficially of course) as before? (A Labour Party bureaucracy, I should add, that has just expelled a number of its councillors in Tower Hamlets for supporting an independent candidate for mayor?) This is what Martin wants us to argue with RMT militants - it is not credible.
(c) Doing nothing outside is not a fixed quantity. Again, we are not big enough to determine what happens, but we are certainly in a better situation in e.g. the RMT, to influence what is done and take intitiatives (including supporting Jill’s candidacy), and then grouping militants around us and our perspective. Clearly the "terrain for anti-Labour left electoralism is more unfavourable than it was in 1997-2010", but that could change depending on the interaction between battles against the cuts and developments within the Labour Party "within the next year or so".
Martin says that no such electoral challenge that we would argue for unions to support exists now or in the foreseeable near-future. That’s true now, and not surprising still shortly after the election, and with Labour in opposition and against the ‘Tory cuts’. But even in the near-future, when we are expecting huge class battles? Might these, and the resulting interactions, not change the situation and throw up anti-Labour council cutting electoral challenges that we would support and argue for unions to support. Why discount that in advance? Why effect what we could hope to do in such a situation with a policy now that would rule out the FBU & RMT supporting such challenges?
(I think the issue of the sectarian "pole", which exercises Martin greatly, is a non-issue here. Whether some comrades have or have not argued for this is in the past is beside the point in this discussion. Our previous analysis and policy was not based on supporting a sectarian "pole" and we did not argue for it. Standing candidates (socialist candidates, labour movement candidates, even candidates put up by unions during strikes) was, we thought, a necessary part of the fight for an independent working class voice to be established and not leave the electoral terrain to the Blairites. It was not counterposed to the actual labour movement, although we accepted there would be a lot of ‘walking on 2 legs’ and there would be inevitable fragmentation and false starts. We agreed to intervene in those as militants, and not as ‘inspectors of history’ with our own hopes and scenarios about how things ‘should’ develop. Fundamentally we were concerned to build ourselves as a force on the understanding that "The central conclusion from the reality of the fragmented responses to the Blairite coup is that only a coherent Marxist organisation can in itself act to coordinate in any thoroughgoing way the different responses evoked in the labour movement. We, as a living organisation, have to respond to the ‘fragments’. AWL has to co-ordinate our different fields of work – trade union, youth, students, No Sweat, Socialist Alliance, SSP, Labour Party – integrating them both politically and organisationally." Solidarity 3/29)
(d) Thinking concretely here clearly does not mean "I don’t know" (read the amendment!), it means the answer to whether or not we support likely moves for reaffiliation might be different depending on the circumstances. I do not think we should commit to siding with even "serious moves" now for the reasons explained, but accept that might change.
It is true that the amendment does not spell out a list of criteria for concretely viewing the case for reaffiliation at any particular time, but refers to a general guideline of "(as in the last 10 years)". For Martin this amounts to saying "you can only guess".
Firstly, how we have responded over the last 10 years is a matter of facts, not guesswork. Read some of the details (to 2004) in ‘The Trade Union Movement, New Labour and Working-Class Representation.’ – also mentioned earlier in this contribution. The comrades then who had the matter of course ‘reaffiliation’ position were in a small minority; we counterposed to them the need to think concretely about the issues but certainly not lining up with those in either the RMT or FBU who would ditch the policy of supporting anti-Labour candidates.
The point is that we did not always argue either for or against it. Martin has cited the 2007 case where our comrades floated the idea of the RMT trying to reaffiliate and take advantage of the possible John McDonnell leadership campaign. When that campaign was not able to get off the ground the idea was not pursued, or argued for since. Martin wants to change that by doing it again now, and with nothing even resembling the possibilities we thought might exist in 2007).
The other case Martin brings up (opposing FBU disaffiliation in 2004) is not relevant here because we approached the two issues of reaffiliation and disaffiliation in significantly different ways. Both were approached ‘concretely’, to be sure, but for almost the whole period we opposed disaffiliation because it was counterposed to fighting within the structures. Once a union had left, however, we did not adopt the apparent mirror-image policy of favouring reaffiliation as a relatively stable policy, for reasons explained before in this contribution.
Our approach over this period was not simple and clearcut – we were trying to relate to a complex situation; to point the way forward to a transformed labour movement within an existing one in which the Blairite structural changes were a decisive factor. It involved thinking concretely, but what we wrote and did during the previous 10 years does, I think, give a clear indication of how we should continue to proceed in the present situation. Against Martin’s route map approach, it is the correct one.
I comment briefly on this in the amendment: "In the new political situation, and for now, disaffiliation will not be a live political issue." In terms of political conclusion, if not all the commentary in the Perspectives document, there is agreement on that.
Martin, however, wants to take it further, and builds a whole argument (and the headline of his post) on a few sentences from the minutes of a contribution of mine at the June NC – "Pushing disaffiliaton would be silly now....But what about 2011? Yes, I am a disaffiliationist in general terms. I’m in favour of breaking the structure up if it can be done". On the basis of the quotes he claims that I am "an advocate of defeat, withdrawal, and regression."
What are the facts?
Firstly the minutes from an NC 4 months ago, a few sentences of which are now suddenly being waved around by Martin and Sean at the NC. (I say suddenly, because there has been no reference to them during the previous 4 months old).
The quoted sentences represent, in fact, a small part of a contribution that was actually about supporting "going after opportunities and investigating" things inside the Labour Party (not exactly the hallmark of dyed in the wool ‘disaffiliationist’);
The sentences immediately following the quoted ones say: "The idea that everything can be done through the LP is wrong. We have to do stuff locally to build the base for genuine socialist candidates. Stuff like building a base on the Aylesbury estate is critical." In other words the contribution was about trying to do the two things (‘walk on 2 legs’) that were central to our persective since the Blairite coup in the Labour Party. Whatever that is it is not the view of someone who believes disaffiliation is a principle, or even a tactic applicable outside very specific circumstances (which the organisation supported in limited cases between 2008-09).
And the words about disaffiliation? They could have been better and were said in response to comrades banging on against the ‘disaffiliationists’. They also tried to express the idea that we are not defenders of the status quo, but want to shake things up, transform the structures, build a labour movement that can fight for its interests. Bending the stick? For sure. Arguing for disaffiliation as a principle? No.
If comrades want to have a sensible discussion about my position on disaffiliation, including my support for the policy last year in relation to the CWU conference (I wrote the article in Solidarity about the conference), then there is plenty of material to base that on without trawling back through NC minutes.
I supported the policy we had until 2008 of opposing disaffiliation. "We are against disaffiliation, which in practical terms could only mean the Labour-affiliated unions ducking out of the fight-to-a-break against the New Labour machine which we advocate." I agreed with the modification of that policy in 2008, originally written by Martin and proposed by Sean at our Conference that year. I do not think it has been a live issue since the 2009 CWU conference and I think we should oppose it again now as we did before 2008.
And the future? In a situation where the Blairite structural changes remain in place, and our hopes for substantive change not realised, then the tactic could become relevant again and I have no problem saying that clearly. But saying that clearly is not the same as Martin’s caricature of "...(looking) eagerly for chances to push it again".
It is true that ‘become relevant again’ would almost certainly relate to a situation where our hopes for a serious fight inside the Labour structures had suffered serious setbacks, but we can and should discuss that possibility (and whether supporting disaffiliation again might make sense) without being "an advocate of defeat, withdrawal, and regression."
Martin finishes with the allegation that my amendments have been written with the deliberate intent to blur political lines, and co-opt a rotten bloc to get as many votes as possible:
"the amendments are written so as to achieve maximum vagueness, minimum political precision, maximum possibility of ‘co-opting’ any hesitations or doubts or confusions about perspectives ..."
I think the allegation is a serious one, about an approach to debate that I regard as impermissable. In fact the allegation is wrong – it is a slander. Beyond saying what it is, all I can ask comrades to do is read them, listen to my motivation and written explanation and vote for what they think right.
When I have moved my amendments I have made clear they are not counterposed to the (very) ‘general lines’ of the Perspectives document (new political situation; turn the organisation, including limited but serious LP fraction work). The amendments try to deal with what I think has been a shift away from our previous analysis of the centrality of the Labour Party structural changes, and the sharp conclusions to be drawn from this for our perspectives. They seek to counter this shift by re-emphasising the centrality of the still in place structural changes to what we say and do now; they also amend the main ‘practical conclusion’ that most clearly expresses the shift (our attitude to reaffiliation of the RMT and FBU).
The amendments are not an argument against the turn in general, including the exploratory LP work. If comrades think that turn is wrong then they shouldn’t vote for either the amendments or the document/extract, but should instead explain why they think it is wrong and what their alternative is.
Comments on the "motivation" document for the amendments
"Dear friend, all theory is grey,
And green the golden tree of life"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
There are two linked but also separate angles from which the Labour Party has to be viewed. There is our own narrower angle - what AWL does - and there is an overall assessment of where things are going in the political labour movement.
The 1997 change in structures that killed much of the life of the old Labour Party and largely nullified rank and file trade-union participation indicate that there is no question for us of making "entry work" and its exigencies the central focus for our activity. Nobody says that has changed decisively. There has been a substantial growth in Labour Party membership since the general election, and, with Labour in opposition, allied against the Tory cuts with the unions, the Labour Party is likely to grow further. That indicates exploration and "fraction work", but nobody says it indicates more.
As well as what we do, there is what we see of the broad labour movement.
The 1997 rule changes do not rule out movement - movement which may in time lead to a loosening of the constraints of those rule changes, but which can start even within those constraints. They do not in themselves mean that we see the fundamental, overall link between the unions and the Labour Party as no longer existing. At the lowest point of New Labour, we never ceased to assert that the unions - for immediate practical purposes, the union leaders - could still do a great deal in the Labour Party, and that they should do so.
We progressively lost hope that they would, and that affected our attitudes. With New Labour in power and, before the economic crisis, with prospects of remaining in power for a long time, we fought against those comrades who said that we should tell the labour movement to "wait",. Indefinitely, until the big unions moved.
In October 2010, things are already moving. The 1997 rule changes proved no absolute block to the unions' role in electing Ed Miliband. Nor, as the need has become felt to fight "Con-Dem cuts", have they proved an absolute block to a serious influx of members in the Labour Party (40,000 or so).
The destruction of the old structures - even despite the recent reversal of the 2007 decision to ban motions to conference - remains a block to the restoration of the relatively teeming national political life of the old Labour Party. Nobody says otherwise! Nobody implies otherwise! Nobody thinks otherwise!
What we must do, however, is refuse to let ourselves be reduced to a frozen fixation on the weight and significance we gave to the 1997 rule changes, one that gives them an absolute determining force that they no longer have..
The most astonishing, not to say ridiculous, thing in JBx's text is that to make his points about the perspectives document he adduces, as authority, quotations from the recent issues of Solidarity.
The things he quotes were written or solicited by supporters or authors of the perspectives document. That, to any reasonable person - as distinct from a quibbler or squabbler - would indicate that:
a) We agree with those points;
b) We think them important;
c) We qualify, by them, things we say elsewhere about changes in the Labour Party;
d) We know how much remains to be done before the Labour Party is anything like it once was, let alone anything like what we want in terms of our full politics.
What do the quotations mean for JBx? He cites them as authority for his charges that we have illusions in the Labour Party and in the changes within it. We need - or the other members of AWL need - to have what we write or solicit triumphantly quoted back at us by JBx, or else we won't understand it?
But if we do have illusions and delusions in the Labour Party now, and about how much it has changed, then why do we write or solicit such things? Why do we record the sober reality of how little has changed, and how much remains to do, at the same time that we point to the importance shifts that have taken place?
It does not seem to have occurred to JBx that it is simply risible to use such gambits to try to contradict us, and to present himself in contrast to us as understanding the necessary qualifications. Could anything be more ridiculous? Or futile?
In his own document he establishes that we know, say, report, and intend to go on reporting as long as necessary, the things he says we don't know, say, or take seriously.
What does he want want exactly? That certain passages in future articles be followed by bracketed statements such as "JBx thinks this is very important - far more important than the person who has written these words understands"?
The point seems to be that nothing will satisfy JBx short of having our articles in response to events reiterate our whole analysis of an earlier stage of Labour Party development, and then grudgingly admit to consider new events that qualify that analysis. But that would mean us proceeding as sectarian fetishists.
In fact the perspectives document should properly be amended to take account of events at Labour Party conference (the restoration of motions, the victory of Ed Miliband, and his speech disowning New Labour). But JBx's complaint is not that. It is the opposite: that the document as a whole is not rigid and backward-looking enough.
"The problem for me is that these correct observations [some of which are in fact no longer exactly correct] are not followed through in the Perspectives document in the way that they been in our previous analysis and warranted still by the present situation, and this has implications for our work".
On one level this is just a way of asserting that the 1997 structural changes in the Labour Party are the sole element in the situation. It is a way of abstracting those elements of the Labour Party from the whole picture and elevating them into a fetish (just as JBx makes a fetish of disaffiliation - he is a "disaffiliationist" "in general terms" even when, so he says himself, actual disaffiliation would be "silly" - June NC minutes).
Yet isn't it plain that the undemocratic rules have one overall meaning in a world where everything politically is as still as the grave, and not the same weight or meaning in the post-election world where things have already moved rather significantly? The rules which are an almost absolute blockage in one context - New Labour in government, the unions acquiescent, the economic situation stable - have a different weight when the unions are not so quiescent and when there is a very strong pressure (the cuts, etc.) on the labour movement to find ways of acting.
It is a matter of plain fact that the unions have already reversed the 2007 shift that led us to view disaffiliation, which we had hitherto opposed flatly, in a new light. Repeat, fact, not speculation.
JBx writes: "We never in the past saw them [the 1997 rule changes] as the 'sole defining factor', but we certainly saw them as the main, decisive one". But by insisting that those rules changes are the "main, decisive" factor even when much else is changing, in effect he himself is advocating that the AWL does see those rule changes as "the sole defining factor".
JBx voted against the "practical conclusions" of the perspectives document at the September NC, and for the "practical conclusions" at the October NC. He voted against the "general line" of the document at the October NC, but if I understand right will now vote for the "general line" with a note of reservation.
The direction of movement is encouraging, but the explanation is unclear. JBx has made a very marginal contribution to the discussion over the last year and a half. The differences have narrowed to almost nothing, but he still won't let go of the dispute.
At the last minute he has produced a document to explain his amendments to the perspectives document. His amendments should be rejected because they would add only confusion and hidden "subtexts" to the document, but in overt political substance they are very trivial.
There is a parallel, of sorts. Back in the mid 1940s, the leadership of the British Trotskyist movement (WIL/ RCP), Jock Haston and Ted Grant, who were not stupid people and who, then, carried some weighty theoretical and political baggage, refused to do the entry work in the Labour Party which the Fourth International leadership and the Healy minority in Britain advocated.
Faced with a tremendous post-war revival of life in the Labour Party, and a great surge in the credibility of reformism as the Labour government created the modern welfare state, they refused to budge.
What did they argue? That "the conditions for entry which Trotsky laid down [in relation to France, for example, in 1934] are not present".
That was true. But nevertheless everything in the actual situation in Britain and in the Labour Party did point to entry. The RCP leadership would eventually (in 1949) realise that, and most of them - Jock Haston, Millie Lee, Roy Tearse, etc. - joined the Labour Party, not as Trotskyists, but as new converts to reformism!
The RCP leaders were fetishising as absolute "rules" the specific arguments elaborated by Trotsky in France in 1934 for entry into the Socialist Party.
All the stages of the AWL's analysis of the evolving Labour Party, from the 1980s, were my work, bar the last stage (disaffiliation), which was MT's. But I have no hesitation in saying that to treat those analyses as other than working approximations, or provisional assessments of a changing reality - to make a fetish of any one of the stages of assessment - would be nonsense.
After recent events in the Labour Party, it takes a singular political self-blinkering to say (as JBx does) that the perspectives document focuses only on the "formal" Labour-union links and ignores the "content".
The point is that the "formal" - JBx apparently means to say, entirely empty and dead - links can have different political content and can encase different real, living, concrete political relationships, in different situations.
When we advocated that the unions should assert themselves in the Labour Party structures against the Labour leadership and the New Labour government, weren't we saying just that - that the actual, real, concrete relationships could and should change, within the existing formal structure? And haven't we seen them change substantially in the last few months?
It is surreal to have to argue this a couple of weeks after the trade unions put their candidate for Labour leader in place, against the wishes of the big majority of the ex-Cabinet, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the majority even of the CLPs.
That we have to argue it is a measure of how wooden and inflexible and out of touch with reality JBx is. It is also the measure of how foolish it is to fetishise one's own "product" (or, here, for JBx, my "product", my previous analyses!)
JBx quotes the perspectives document:
"The Labour-union links, though seriously changed, have survived. The history of the interaction begins again, and in radically changed conditions to those of the last 20 years."
He comments: "They [the 'serious changes' under New Labour in the Labour-union links] are mentioned, but the emphasis has clearly changed: with the focus on the formal links and the changed conditions, not on the fact that the links have remained seriously weakened".
This is priceless! JBx ignores everything concrete, specific, everything that indicates development and movement in current reality. He writes as if he hasn't been reading newspapers or watching the TV news for six months or a year!
It is not enough to "mention" the changes over the last 20 years in the union/ Labour links, and on that basis examine the changes in the content of the relationship in the last year or six months. No, previous changes must be "emphasised"! And the changing reality in which the perspectives document seeks to orient the AWL? That counts for nothing, or at least must be de-emphasised.
We must keep our faces rigidly turned to the past - and, now, not the immediate past, either - and our backs heroically turned to the present and the future.
The formal, structural link can have different political contents. The content can change. It has changed, considerably - not completely, not to anywhere near what we want, but nonetheless considerably.
What is the political function of JBx's incessant warnings against "exaggerating" changes? It is to cover up giving no more than token acknowledgement to the changes. JBx does not know quite what he wants. What his "motivation" document indicates is that, given free rein, he would blunder us into the posture of a small group fetishising its own formulae and incapable of advancing in response to experience.
JBx quotes extensively from my pamphlet against Tom Rigby and Maria Exall ("The Trade Unions, the Labour Party, and Working-Class Representation").
That was a detailed examination of the issue from every angle I could think of. It was focused on a particular situation - New Labour still very stable, and TR and ME arguing for an orientation that would minimise and dismiss the changes from old Labour and have us wait for a supposedly more-or-less inevitable process by which those changes would be reversed.
The pamphlet should be read as a whole, not mined for snippets that focus on a particular aspect of the question. The approach and method I used in the pamphlet is exactly the same approach and method I would use... to arrive at different conclusions in radically changed circumstances.
It is not at all clear what JBx thinks he is doing now - or what he wants to do. It is probably not clear to JBx himself.
He voted against the practical conclusions of the perspectives document at the September NC, and for them at the October NC. He voted against the general line of the perspectives document at the October NC, and now seems to plan to vote for the general line with a statement of reservation - or in any case proposes amendments to the document so small as implicitly to amount to an endorsement of the general line, i.e. of the bulk of the document, which he does not propose to amend.
What has changed? Nothing but JBx's mind. Such radical instability would suggest to most of us that we should be silent until we have worked things through. With JBx it does not even suggest that he should offer an explanation of his convolutions on the question to the AWL members whom he is asking to vote for his amendments!
His commentary on the amendments leads me to suspect that the only way JBx would be satisfied would be if the whole axis of the document were to be shifted from what it is now, a taking account of what is new in the real world, to a reiteration of old truths and an insistence that, except for a few details, nothing is new and nothing is changed!
He would make a sectish fetish of our old analysis and of the attitudes that followed from it in a very substantially different situation - boom, Labour in government with no important social-policy distinctions from the Tory opposition, the unions quiescent, etc. He would have us relate to the new political situation by walking backwards into it, eyes and minds fixed resolutely on the past.
That would not be serious politics. It would be serious disorientation. JBx's inability to focus the cogitations in his "motivation" on anything but small and essentially trivial, though muddled, amendments, is a clear sign of political disorientation.
Discussing with the man who wasn't there
SM and MT, 15/10/10
The discussion which we started 18 months ago has not by any means been a model discussion. The AWL has had the discussion which it needed to have. We have made substantial progress towards politically rearming AWL.
We now have comprehensive unity on what the AWL must do – and do urgently and in a new spirit – in the new political situation. The 9 October NC voted unanimously that the paper should go weekly soon after the conference, if the conference endorses that decision.
Nobody on the NC, and as far as I know no-one in the AWL, now argues that we should advocate trade-union disaffiliation from the Labour Party. Everyone agrees that it would be stupid and politically irresponsible to advocate that the unions, which have just had their candidate for leader elected, and against the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and of the Blair/Brown-shaped CLPs, should now walk away. The policy which we have had for over a decade of "New Labour" up until 2008, that the unions should fight to assert themselves in the Labour Party, is operational once more.
On all that, we are agreed. There are still differences on the exact whys and wherefores of it, but those too have narrowed to not much.
Very late in the discussion, after we had got to this approximation to unity, JBx produced a small cluster of amendments to the perspectives document. They are all trivial. The NC endorsed a couple of them, and those are incorporated in the document. JBx's three other amendments, which in our view would muddy up the text of the document, were rejected by the NC, and we believe the conference should reject them.
We completed the notes below on 3 October. At that point we decided not to circulate them, thinking that the polemic might inflame things unnecessarily when the AWL was moving to unity. Now that JBx has circulated a long document (15 October), that argument has lost weight.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish, I wish he'd go away...
Broad agreement on the current situation vis-a-vis the Labour Party in opposition seems to be emerging in the AWL.
A series of "differences of assessment" and "caveats" are still being brought against the perspectives document. We will show in the body of this article that these "differences" are at best at cross-purposes, and often depend on reading in the perspectives document ideas which are not in it.
To put it at its weakest, events have developed broadly in line with SM's analysis of 18 months ago, when the dispute about CWU disaffiliation began. There is serious disagreement between Labour and the Tories on policy. The Labour Party in opposition denounces the Tory/ Lib-Dem programme of cuts. It does not oppose on principle, but nonetheless it opposes the actual cuts programme of the government.
Labour and the TUC have a common alignment against the Tory/ Lib-Dem cuts. The unions have begun to assert themselves in the Labour Party. The new leader of the Labour Party is in place thanks to union backing, and against the wishes of the big majority of the ex-Cabinet and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The decision of 2007 to effectively abolish Labour Party conference (by banning motions) has been reversed.
The fundamental divergence of reality from what SM sketched 18 months ago is that in the general election Labour did not suffer the crushing defeat we all expected. A crushing defeat would have thrown things wide open in the Labour Party.
In fact working-class fear of the Tories, and the alarm drums against the Tories and Tory cuts beaten by the Labour leaders in the general election limited Labour's defeat and stopped the Tories winning the election outright. Labour can hope to return to government within five years or earlier.
This will limit the level of ferment in the Labour Party. We do not exaggerate the changes in the Labour Party, or imagine that it is certain that things will continue moving as they have done in recent months. But that the Labour Party requires new attention from us is undeniable, and now not denied.
But comrades still go on attributing to the authors, now as at the beginning of the dispute, positions and arguments that are often the opposite of what we say and write. This level of confusion cannot but hinder us from being fully effective in what we agree to do.
On one level, the polemic is bizarre - as if comrades don't, or can't, read what is there in black and white. We offer a few startling examples. We will not name the comrades quoted, because we want to focus on the issues and the records of the discussions are readily available.
NEVER ABOUT DISAFFILIATION?
Not so much in minuted debates, but in many conversations, comrades say: "Well, we agree that it is wrong to push disaffiliation, but that was never what the argument was really about".
The article which opened our debate over the last 18 months, SM's article about CWU disaffiliation, was extremely tentative in its statements about the possibility of Labour revival. Its practical conclusions were strictly limited: hold off, at least for now, from pushing CWU disaffiliation.
It was those strictly limited practical conclusions, and that tentative raising of the possibility of Labour revival, that provoked denunciation. Many of the denunciations were made as if SM had claimed that it was certain that Labour would soon return to its condition of the early 1980s, or even, more improbably, become an adequate vehicle for working-class political representation.
No such claim had been made.
A comrade at the September NC: "I don't accept much of the stuff in this document that rubbishes the policy we adopted in 1998. It wasn't... rooted in an emotional alienation from New Labour. It was based on the change in Labour structures and the sealing up of the open valve".
Another comrade, at the first pre-conference discussion in London: " I don't agree with the document's suggestion that AWL has had some kind of subjective emotional recoil from the LP".
Nothing in the document "rubbishes the policy we adopted in 1998". In fact the document reprises the analysis of New Labour we developed from 1994-5 onwards (section 4). It makes no suggestion that the analysis was wrong, still less that it represented a spasm of "emotional alienation from New Labour".
The document goes on to say: "The New Labour political machine is intact" (section 7).
The only reference to "emotional alienation from New Labour" is not in section 4, where it would have to be if the document were saying that our previous analysis of the Labour Party was an emotional spasm, but in section 7.
"The central fact that the AWL must register - the AWL, which has become progressively disgusted and alienated at New Labour... - is that the union link has survived..."
There is no suggestion there that the disgust and alienation is misplaced. The disgust and alienation is "emotional", to be sure, but the right emotion! In his presentation to the pre-conference meeting in London, SM had stressed his own "emotional alienation" from the Labour Party.
This strand in the current argument seems to be an "after-life" of the strand in the arguments of last year which took the form of restating the general analysis of the Labour Party developed by AWL (and mainly by SM) since 1994-5, and counterposing those generalities to all talk of possible shifts and stirrings.
1998? Our attitude to and analysis of the Labour Party shifted step by step, in line with changing events, over a long period, rather than switching suddenly in 1998.
The particular shift in 1998 was that, on SM's initiative, we decided to explore standing socialist candidates against Labour. We had never rejected such candidates on principle. Comrades can see from, for example, what we wrote against the Militant (SP) candidacy in Walton in 1991 that even in vehement polemic against anti-Labour candidacies, we said they should be ruled out not on principle but by practical calculations. Now we said that the practical calculus was shifting.
We put it in very measured and tentative terms, in the "John Nihill" (SM) article in the magazine which opened the reorientation.
"Sections of the left are now beginning to make a fetish of small scale electoralism. Toytown Bolshevism is being supplemented by toytown electioneering. Nothing can be more foolish. Socialists need flexible tactics to relate to the crisis of working class representation...
"Standing in elections will for the little groups on the left, including the Socialist Workers Party, be only a small part of what must be done in the foreseeable future...
"In the unions we should focus on making the unions fight for union policy against the Labour Government. That means fighting the union leaders. That should include both mass action - strikes, demonstrations, etc., and the use of the unions' potential powers within the new LP structures...
"Standing in elections will logically lead to calls for trade unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party. That sounds radical, but right now it is an acceptance of utter defeat...
"The left will have to find ways of uniting its efforts - that is of uniting itself - before it can mount effective socialist propaganda challenges to New Labour in local and Parliamentary elections. A combination of standing united left candidates in selected elections and continued work, as above, in the Labour Party is what we need".
That position was not a spasm of "emotional reaction", and there is no suggestion in the document that it was.
The conference document does summarise the experience since 1998, and draw some negative practical conclusions about anti-Labour electoralism. But many of those practical conclusions are not new: see the negative assessment that we made about the Socialist Alliance campaign in 2001 (which turned out, in the event, to be the high point of left anti-Labour electoralism under the New Labour government), and our conclusion that something seriously better than that Socialist Alliance was needed to make left anti-Labour electoralism more than futile play-acting. And even those practical conclusions drawn now do not dismiss or abolish the argument made in 1998.
They could be better summarised as returning us to a stance on anti-Labour electoralism more similar to the caution of 1998 than to an attitude which we have tended to drift towards at some points recently - of supporting and encouraging almost any halfway presentable anti-Labour left candidate.
BOOM, INDEFINITE LABOUR GOVERNMENT
Also at the September NC, a comrade accused the document of "rubbishing the policy we adopted in 1998" by allegedly claimed that the policy was "based on an indefinite boom and an indefinite continuation of Labour government..."
In 1997-8 we were in the midst of the "Asian crisis". As it turned out, the British economy would escape that international crisis with little trouble, but we didn't know that: the front page of our magazine for September 1998 read: "Capitalism's spiralling crisis".
Our calculations about Labour in 1998 had nothing to do with the economic situation, but were rooted in an assessment of the evolution, and direction of evolution, of the Labour Party.
Probably the comrade was referring not to any policy adopted in 1998, but to the idea we floated in late 2007 (not 1998) of "some sort of CIO-like regrouping of the militant unions, Trades Councils, and perhaps other elements" (section 7c of the document).
In 2007-8 New Labour had been in government for a whole decade of economic boom. What we saw as the likely continuation of New Labour government did affect our analysis.
The big new shift for the worse in Labour structures marked by the Bournemouth 2007 decision to ban motions to Labour conference looked stable for a long time to come. All hope for a general union reassertion in the Labour Party, even on a limited scale, appeared to be off the agenda for the indefinite future.
The global crisis was at its early stages then, but it was not at all clear that it would be as big as it turned out to be, and we did not "factor it in" to our calculations about the Labour Party.
With the global economic crisis, and Labour being flung into counterposition to a fiercely-cutting Tory government, that has changed. The Bournemouth 2007 decision, for example, far from being fixed for an epoch, has been reversed.
There is no suggestion in the document that our analysis of New Labour, or our shift on anti-Labour electoralism in 1998, were based on the assumptions we had in late 2007. There is a statement that our expectations in late 2007 turned out to be wrong.
At the first London pre-conference meeting a comrade said: "There's a more optimistic assessment of Labour in this document than I have. Labour is a career vehicle for bourgeois politicians who need the working class to vote for them. It's more of a cynical machine now than it ever was in its past. I think the rot has gone further than SM, MT et al do".
Nothing in the document suggests that the Labour leaders are other than bourgeois politicians!
Whether the current Labour leaders are personally more "cynical" than, say, Harold Wilson, is matter for expert psychological research. There is no question that the New Labour years (building on the Kinnock years before them) developed a whole social layer of career political apparatchiks, rising to high places in the Labour Party through the machine and with scarcely any previous labour movement involvement.
That is part of the analysis we developed over many years, which is summarised briefly in section 4 of the document. The document also notes (section 7) that "the New Labour machine is intact".
So how is the document too "optimistic"?
A comrade has written: "That the [Labour leaders] are differentiating to the left shows that they know they are linked to the working class constituency and must, at least somewhat, represent its interests... How much that is about organic links, and how much about cynical calculation I'm not sure".
Indeed not. But this approach puts all the emphasis on speculative psychology, as if all our assessments of big political trends must depend on peering inside Ed Miliband’s head and discovering exactly how cynical and how sincere he is. In fact, politically, the question is not one of the personal motives of Labour leaders, but how what Labour leaders do and say will impact on a working class facing the Tory/ Lib-Dem onslaught.
The suggestion that the document says that the Labour leaders now talk (comparatively) left because of "organic links", and the era when Labour leaders said things out of "cynical calculation" is gone, is wide of the mark.
The document does not say, suggest, or imply any such thing.
One comrade "disagrees with a lot of the analyses in the document... the chances of the LP opening up again... are very slim".
Now the document nowhere uses the term "opening up" for what's happening in the Labour Party. Still less does it anywhere base anything on such a formulation.
In a sense, of course, you could use that term. There has been a contested election for leader, in which the candidate of the big majority of the ex-Cabinet and the majority of the PLP lost to the union-backed candidate. The unions have fought the party leadership on some small things, and won some small democratic reforms. 35,000 new members have joined the party.
Again, the difference between the assessments we made last year and present-day reality is that what we said would happen has happened a lot more quickly than we thought it would.
What happened at the Labour conference a mere four months after the general election is very far from our full "programme" for the labour movement, but is nonetheless of enormous significance in indicating the direction of evolution.
The document, which sums those things up as "small stirrings" and "a modest revival of life", rather than "opening up", is now shown by events to have erred on the side of caution, not over-expectation. In any case, those things are facts already in existence, not some future possibility of which we can debate "the chances".
The document says that "small stirrings" and "modest revival" are likely to continue with the Tories cutting and Labour in opposition, but that, with Labour’s comparatively good general election result (compared to the polls a year earlier), substantial "pressure for a radical restructuring and revival" does not exist.
FLIP BACK TO HOW THE LABOUR PARTY WAS "BEFORE"?
Another comrade: "My biggest disagreement with the document is the emphasis on how much the LP and the labour movement have now 'realigned'. Things don't just flip back to how they were before..."
Indeed, they don’t revert exactly. SM argued that point at some length in the pamphlet on the trade unions and the Labour Party written against Tom Rigby and Maria Exall. The point was reaffirmed, again with emphasis, in Workers’ Liberty 3/23 last summer. It is repeated in the perspectives document itself.
Even if the ferment in the Labour Party increases much more than we can confidently predict as of now, it is very unlikely that things will take the form of an even approximately straight rewinding of history.
But it does not follow that nothing changes - that as long as the Labour Party does not return to its condition of, say, 1981, it remains in its condition of, say, 2007, or that any shifts from that 2007 condition must be dismissed as unimportant.
"Emphasis"? Yes, the document notes what has changed as well as what is the same! A document which just said that "on a very high level of generality, looking at things from a huge distance, everything is the same with the Labour Party as it was", might be "correct", but it would be no use for registering year-to-year changes, and registering those changes should be part of the job of a yearly perspectives document.
This strand in the current argument seems to be an "after-life" of the claim often made last year, that we were predicting a certain return of the Labour Party to its condition of the early 1980s, or, even more improbably, predicting that the Labour Party would soon become an adequate vehicle for working-class political representation. We never predicted that, and do not predict it now!
IGNORING WORKING-CLASS DISAFFECTION?
A comrade at the September NC: "The document picks up on everything from the general election which suggests that things have changed in the direction of the LP, and ignores the working-class disaffection with the Labour government".
This is a prize example of a comrade determinedly walking backwards, eyes fixed firmly on the old horizon!
Working-class disaffection with New Labour was a basic part of the picture we developed over the period of the New Labour government. That picture is reprised in section 4, and not at all "ignored".
Of course it continues. Otherwise Labour would have won the election! But the general election also showed disaffected workers rallying to the Labour Party for fear of the Tories and because Gordon Brown beat the drum of anti-Toryism, and opposition to Tory cuts, during the election campaign.
In mid 2009 all of us - and almost everyone else, too - expected the Tories to win a big, clear majority in the general election.
The Tories didn't do that, and their failure was not due to a big diversion of votes to the Lib-Dems (or to UKIP and the BNP, either). Labour did, not well, but not as badly as expected. Indeed, you could argue that, compared to what it really deserved, the Brown Labour Party did remarkably well in the general election.
To offer an account of that unexpected aspect of the election result is not at all to "ignore" the more "expected" aspect of it. Yes, Labour lost. An awful lot of working-class voters were still fed up with New Labour. But that is not new.
And to focus on what remains unchanged, and dismiss all discussion of changes as showing the wrong "emphasis", is to miss what is new and to miss the dynamic of development. It is an example of reacting to the present, the so-to-speak "new present", with your eyes fixed resolutely on the past.
NO DIFFERENTIATION, BUT LABOUR'S CHANCES RAISED BY TORY CUTS?
Another comrade at the NC: "I cannot see the differentiation between Tories and Labour during the election. The basic thing in the last election [was], at the end, people took notice of the savage cuts, and that raised Labour's chances".
But why did "taking notice of the savage cuts" proposed by the Tories raise Labour's chances? Only because working-class voters did see a "differentiation between Tories and Labour".
Nowhere in the document is there anything that claims that the "differentiation" was more than a matter of working-class people seeing a Labour vote as some (unreliable) way to try to reduce the impending cuts.
The Last Stand of the Disaffiliationist
JBx has three amendments which seek (a) to put more "emphasis" on the elements of Labour Party structure that remain unchanged; (b) to be more enthusiastic about anti-Labour electoralism; (c) to be more negative about FBU and RMT reaffiliation.
On paper the amendments are so bland that even a wholehearted supporter of the perspectives document might vote for them, especially if she or he does not look closely at what the amendments delete from the original text.
(a) The document devotes section 4 to summarising our established analysis of Blair's destruction of Labour Party democracy, and is explicit that the recent shifts within the Labour Party are small, and significant as indicating a direction of movement rather than as any complete or near-complete transformation. The document needs no "added emphasis" here.
So what is going on with this amendment? At the 09/10/10 NC JBx announced that the Labour Party's promised review of structures is being stitched up, and claimed that even the tame Labour-left journal Labour Briefing is "to the left" of our coverage on the issue.
How did JBx know about the stitch-up? By reading an article I wrote in Solidarity 3/178, 29 July? Maybe he missed that article. But if so he should check what we have written before making accusations.
Labour Briefing goes big on weary "everything's crap" statements about conditions in the Labour Party, flanked by claims that everything is also crap outside the Labour Party. (Answer: nothing for it but to jog along routinely in the Labour Party). It doesn't propose to do anything about the review. We have warned for months that the review is being stitched up, and have taken active steps to create a campaign to open it up.
To my mind that makes us to the left of Briefing, and not vice versa!
"Leftness" is not measured by the intensity of your sourness and passivity. That JBx sees Labour Briefing as "left-wing" here maybe says something about what his amendments represent - an attempt to strike a "left" stance by "emphasising" how little is happening, how little can be done, how strong our reservations should be, etc.
(b) The document explicitly discusses possibilities of us backing solid local labour movement candidates against, for example, outrageously-cutting Labour councillors, and has incorporated an amendment from CN spelling out even more explicitly that we don't exclude anti-Labour candidates.
The main point here is that JBx's amendment - while not contesting the perspectives document's account of the defeat of left anti-Labour electoralism since 2001 - wants to delete the sentences which sum up the political conclusions flowing from that account and from the fact that, with Labour in opposition to fiercely-cutting Tories, the terrain for anti-Labour left electoralism is more unfavourable than it was in 1997-2010.
(c) The document says that it would be premature for us to push RMT or FBU reaffiliation now as we did in 2007, but that if significant moves for reaffiliation develop in those unions sooner than we think, we should not oppose them. JBx's amendment would substitute only a call for us to "assess concretely" any move to reaffiliation.
Of course! But no serious person can vote for an amendment which states, as its sole answer to a real political question, "you must assess it concretely".
It's as if I asked someone for directions to Kings Cross, and got the sage reply: "Ah, you have to assess that concretely". Either "I don't know" or some rough indication of direction would be better!
The perspectives document offers "concrete assessment" itself, not an abstract call to "assess concretely".
"Concretely, in current or near-future conditions, RMT or FBU reaffiliation to the Labour Party would add lively pressure there in favour of reconstructing Labour Party democracy, in favour of a firmer stand against cuts, and so on. It could also make for more fruitful political life in RMT and FBU, promoted by the "feedback" from Labour Party battles into those unions. We should not trip ourselves up by moving too fast on this. But if serious moves for reaffiliation develop within either union we should not oppose them, even if, for example, they come from people not on our political wavelength such as soft-left Labourites. In all cases, we assert our own politics and our own views on how affiliation should be used, by amendments, by speeches, or by leaflets and articles".
What's wrong with that? In the discussion at the NC on 09/10/10, two possibilities were mentioned.
One, that FBU reaffiliation might be counterposed to FBU support for a strong (and presumably, more or less adequate or at least promising) left electoral challenge to Labour.
The ghost of the "pole" reappears! "Concretely", no such "pole" likely to contend for FBU support exists or is at all likely to emerge in the next year or so.
Two, that FBU members might meet reaffiliation proposals by saying that nothing can be done within the LP. Almost certainly some would say that. But it's not true that nothing can be done.
Affiliated to the LP, the FBU could push rule changes, procedural challenges, emergency motions. It could submit "contemporary motions". The possibilities there are limited because the rules currently limit debate to four topics selected by the unions and four selected by the CLPs, and the four "union" topics are always dictated by Unite, GMB, and Unison. But smaller unions can and do submit motions and get them included in composites, sometimes under one of the CLP-chosen topics.
The FBU is a relatively small union, and of course could not change conditions in the LP much by its sole efforts. But inside the LP it could function as a force for political ferment. Outside, it has been politically neutralised for six years.
So what does JBx's amendment mean "concretely"? That we oppose reaffiliation only if there is an immediate prospect of an alternative electoral "pole" winning union support? Or that we oppose it whenever FBU or RMT members grumble (rightly) about the lack of democracy inside the Labour Party? The amendment does not say.
The only hint of any criteria in the amendment is the formula "as in the last 10 years". Does that mean that our attitude to RMT reaffiliation should be as in 2007, when we took it on ourselves to push it forward within the union? Or that our attitude to FBU reaffiliation should be as in 2004, when we opposed disaffiliation? You can guess that by "as in the last ten years" JBx means "as in 2008 [when our views were shaped by the apparent fixity of the Labour Party's Bournemouth 2007 decision to ban motions to Labour conference] and not as at any other time over the last ten years", but you can only guess.
In short, the amendments are written so as to achieve maximum vagueness, minimum political precision, maximum possibility of "co-opting" any hesitations or doubts or confusions about perspectives…
At the June NC, JBx said: "Pushing disaffiliation would be silly now. Things can be right in general terms but not the right thing to push at a particular time. But what about 2011? Yes, I am a disaffiliationist in general terms. I'm in favour of breaking the structure up if it can be done". (From the minutes as corrected by JBx himself).
Disaffiliation is a tactical issue. If there is any real will to fight politically within a union, and we are in any position to influence it, then it would be utterly weak for us to argue for disaffiliation, i.e. for walking away from a fight. We would argue for the union to take up a sharp fight within Labour structures against the Labour leadership, pushing it to a split if sufficient ferment can be generated. The time when we might go along with disaffiliation is when everything appears flat calm for the foreseeable future, and there is nothing in the foreseeable future that we can counterpose as a more active policy, in other words a situation such as we thought (wrongly, I'm glad to say) we were getting into in 2008.
To be a "disaffiliationist in general terms" - someone who concedes that disaffiliation is "not the right thing to push" right now, but thinks disaffiliation is always "right in general terms", and looks eagerly for chances to push it again - is to be someone who "in general terms" looks to, aspires to, yearns for... a condition of flat calm and political demoralisation.
It is also nonsense to be "in favour of breaking the structure up if it can be done". The labour movement needs to go beyond Labour politically, and that can best be done by forcing a differentiation and split in the Labour structures (i.e. the opposite of disaffiliation). "Breaking the structure up" by one-by-one disaffiliation of unions can be nothing other than a regression of the union movement to abject "shopping around" in bourgeois politics. It may come to that. We do not act as sheepdogs for the Labour Party when unions make challenges with a positive political content, even if we calculate in the longer term that there is a risk of those challenges leading to a disorganised "breakup". But to be a "disaffiliationist in general terms", always eager for a chance to "break the structure up" through disaffiliation, is to be an advocate of defeat, withdrawal, and regression.
Plainly there is a lot more here than in JBx's bland amendments! But it is not stated in any motion or document. The conference should not vote for "coded" versions of such positions, however bland and catch-all the language they are drafted in.
Note of reservation on the perspectives document
To start with perhaps it's best to list a few things I do agree with in the document:
the programmatic and practical points in what has become known as the 'practical conclusions' extract in DB 292 ('Make Labour fight', 'modest revival in Labour Party life' and consequently fraction work; workers' government propaganda etc);
that disaffiliation is not now on the immediate agenda;
that there has been a shift since the election and that Labour in opposition is not the same as Labour in government.
However I think the general tenor of the document is to paint a misleading and one-sided picture of Labour in and after the election, one which I think overplays the break with the pre-election past and has implications for what we expect to happen now. This is probably the result of 'bending the stick' (not, IMHO, one of Lenin's greatest contributions to Marxist practice) in order to emphasise the changes that have occurred. However I think this leads to a serious imbalance in the document. I think therefore that it is best to vote on the 'practical conclusions' extract and not adopt a wrong assessment and perspective.
THE DOCUMENT'S POSITION
To sum up, the position taken is:
that real and serious differences on cuts opened up between Labour and the Tories in the run-up to the election;
that this expressed itself in the election as a class difference: “the difference between the projected Tory and Labour cuts was enormously important to working-class lives... Labour came to seem to large chunks of the electorate to be preferable, more trustworthy than the Tories. The outgoing Brown government attained a level of credibility as critics of the Tories and as a more trustworthy government that would have seemed miraculous a year earlier.”
that this had the effect of rallying workers to Labour so that “the feebleness of the Labour Party organisation in the country and the lack of other than a token youth movement probably made the difference between Labour defeat and victory in the May 2010 election”;
that a consequence of Labour losing the election but not losing as badly as expected is less upheaval in the Labour Party than would otherwise have been the case;
that Labour, being in opposition, has or will be able to reposition itself so that: “ The New Labour political machine is intact. Its first sight reality is no longer as the "party of business" ostentatiously marginalising the trade unions, but a Labour Party substantially defined, in popular awareness, by its opposition, in common with the trade unions, to "extreme" Tory cuts. For the next period, the working class, the unions, and the Labour Party are pushed together, and in a situation where there is no other political force even loosely connected to the working class which stands as a credible political alternative to the Tories.”
that Labour's inability to fight Tory cuts effectively has no impact on its new-found working-class support: “The fact that Labour would also have made cuts, and the fact that Labour councils will make cuts in response to Lib/Tory government constraints (while saying that they are softening those cuts as much as they can), will not change that picture.”
There are some elements of this analysis that I accept. It would be foolish to deny that sections of the working class did rally to Labour during the election out of fear of what the Tories would do but that is not the full story. Similarly it would be foolish to assert that there exists – or is likely to exist in the near future – a left alternative to Labour which could replace Labour as the most visible – particularly in parliamentary terms – opposition to the coalition.
THE ELECTION AND BEFORE
The result of the election contained a number of different elements. Alongside the acknowledged rallying of sections of the electorate to Labour, we saw a 5 million drop in the Labour vote compared with 2005, Labour's proportion of the vote at its second lowest level since 1945 and, for the first time, Labour winning a higher proportion of the vote among ABC1 (middle class and skilled working class) voters than among C2DE voters (unskilled workers and the 'poor'). A large part of Labour's core vote either abstained or left Labour, leading Ed Miliband to comment that “our core vote had become a swing vote.”
None of this is mentioned in the document. Martin has said that it didn't need to be as it was not “surprising” (as if we only ever noted what was surprising) or that disillusion with Labour has been mentioned in articles in the paper. However acknowledging this gives a rather different – and more complex - picture from the one in the document where there was just “a far wider public understanding than the polls could accommodate that the difference between the projected Tory and Labour cuts was enormously important to working-class lives.” It also makes nonsense of the claim quoted above that it was only organisational weakness that cost Labour the election.
Labour's policy on the cuts in the election was far from providing the clear-cut counterposition to the Tories the document implies. Alongside warnings about the impact of Tory cuts, we had Darling stating that he would in any case have to make cuts on a larger scale than Thatcher and an argument about how quickly to cut the deficit. The result was the absence of a clear alternative as left-Keynesian commentator Larry Elliott points out:
”Labour's problem at the last election was twofold. It had been so wedded to the "markets work" mantra that it was unable to articulate a convincing alternative when the follies of unfettered finance took the global economy to the brink of collapse.
“Intervention worked in 2008 but it was too little, too late. Labour had moved heaven and earth to avoid nationalising Northern Rock; it had no clear idea what to do with those banks it did take into quasi-public ownership, and it showed less appetite for curbing the excesses of the City than either of the other main parties. Its election pitch was that it would cut more cautiously than the Conservatives: an approach that was both weak and unconvincing.
”As a result, Labour threw away its trump card – that the crisis highlighted the need for more intervention – and allowed the election to be fought on the issue of deficit reduction. This was a fight it was never going to win.”
Martin makes a lot out of whether I think there was differentiation between Labour and the Tories during the election or just after Labour lost. Obviously at one level, there was – for example. there was a lot of talk about what Labour had done being at risk if the Tories came to power and doubtless this did influence some people disgusted with Labour to still come out and vote for them. However, as Elliott points out, Labour's failure to take on the Tory onslaught on the deficit at a fundamental level left it unable to present a convincing or even a clear alternative, being always vulnerable to the question “Well what would you cut then?” (This is not a question of comparing their politics to a perfect Trotskyist programme, as implied by Sean in his article on Miliband, but of a minimal reformist adequacy in the immediate task of defending public spending.) This in part explains how, according to many polls, the Tory ideological offensive on the cuts seems to have been effective in persuading a majority of people that serious cuts were needed quickly after the election. (That may change quickly of course as the impact of the cuts is felt.)
SINCE THE ELECTION
This not just a historical quibble. It has implications for the cuts battle now. In the leadership contest there was nobody except Ed Balls who actually challenged the Tory ideological offensive on the need for cuts. Ed Miliband (who had the opportunity to do otherwise) has chosen precisely to reposition Labour as a 'responsible opposition', saying he won't oppose all cuts, offering bipartisan support for the coalition now and then, distancing himself from the left and unions, opposing 'irresponsible strikes' and appointing as Shadow Chancellor, not Balls, but Johnson, a Blairite who is set to continue with Darling's approach. He is trying to position himself precisely as leader of a party “ostentatiously marginalising the trade unions”.
In this context, what does the rather cryptic statement that “the political alignment of Labour and the unions is restored” mean? We are not at some kind of zero hour where the pre-Blair labour movement has been or is likely to be restored. As the document does point out, it is not merely the structures that stand in the way of that – and, their substantial revision (e.g. removal of the unaccountable National Policy Forum) is, I think, unlikely even given the consultation and the possible changes to conference. The personnel of the PLP, largely hand-picked in the Blair-Brown years, has asserted themselves in the Shadow Cabinet elections so that Miliband, after proclaiming the death of New Labour, chose a shadow team dominated by Blairites. The Labour left remains weak. CLPs remain to the right of the unions as shown in the leadership election. The Labour-union link as it remains is well insulated from rank and file pressure in the largest unions.
In theory the union leaders are in a position to extract concessions from Miliband but the most likely scenario, as the document agrees, is that unless there is pressure from below, they will fall into line and not 'rock the boat'. Any “political alignment” of the unions and Labour on the cuts is less likely to be around union resistance to the cuts than in a continuation of the deferral of the union leaders to the Labour leadership – now their need to get a Labour government re-elected. At the same time there is likely to be conflict between unions and Labour councils which implement cuts while arguing that there is nothing else that they can do. That Labour will oppose some cuts (and do that, as I have argued rather weakly) does not create a 'bloc' that will be seen to be a united force fighting the cuts, none of which is to deny that Labour will generally be the electoral alternative to the Tories.
I think the document considerably overplays both the significance of the election seen as the class rallying to Labour and the extent to which Labour will place itself at the head of a clear bloc with the unions opposing the cuts. Though we are clearly not in the same situation as before the election when Labour had direct responsibility for policy (and therefore less room to manoeuvre), the party has not repositioned itself sharply on the cuts and the defence of the public sector while there is the prospect (perhaps already more than that) of Labour councils implementing the cuts. The legacy of the Blair-Brown years weighs heavily, not merely in terms of structures or personnel, but also the unwillingness to adopt alternatives to neo-liberal economics and a politics that concerns itself with 'branding' itself as a party of the centre. This has implications for how the anti-cuts fight will develop with less likelihood of Labour being able to be hegemonic force at local level.