Dave Osler (Solidarity 228) reckons that the “search for life on Mars... will reach fruition long before anyone ever discovers signs of life in the Labour Party”.
Oddly, though, Dave himself is a member of the Labour Party, and concludes his column by “we should keep looking” for that elusive “life in the Labour Party”.
Dave is not untypical of Labour leftists here. If you really want a downbeat picture of life in the Labour Party, don’t ask an “ultra-left”, ask a Labour leftist. Often what distinguishes Labour leftists from SWP or SP types is not so much that they are pursuing or recommending campaigns within the Labour Party, but that they are downbeat about left-wing life everywhere, inside the Labour Party or outside.
They’re partly right. When the SWP and the SP talk as if a general strike is round the corner, they are unrealistic. The number of people interested in reading left-wing papers, attending left-wing meetings, or joining activist-left groups, has risen since the crash of 2008, but there is still no large “left milieu”. The local anti-cuts campaigns which emerged in 2010 have in many places (not everywhere) shrunk to cabals of long-time left-group activists.
And, speaking soberly, many of the people who are interested in the left are as yet cautious about their leftness. That the Occupy movement has not demanded expropriation of the banks and big business, but rather things like “an end to global tax injustice” and “regulators genuinely independent of the industries they regulate”, reflects not a special unmilitancy of that movement, but a general mood.
Beyond a point, however, “sobriety”, “realism”, and caution in assessment can become more part of the problem than of the solution. Dave notes that there has been an influx of new members into the Labour Party, but shrugs: “no attempt seems to have been made systematically to integrate this layer”.
No attempt by whom? Of course the Blairite apparatchiks who still dominate the Labour machine will not integrate members into activity. But what did we expect? The problem is that mostly Labour leftists, sunk as they are in gloom, have generally made little effort to organise those new members.
“Oh well, most of the new members are not very left wing”. “Oh well, a lot of them come to a couple of meetings and then vanish”. “Oh well, many of them won’t renew their membership after the first year”.
There can’t really be a compact influx of combative left-wingers into the Labour Party (as in the early 70s, and again after 1979) until a large-ish pool of combative left-wingers is formed in society more broadly. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done in the meantime. Labour Party conference 2012 was the liveliest, in terms of reactions from the floor, for many years; but there was little left-wing organising in the conference hall. There could have been.
“If it is radical youth and students you are after”, Dave continues, “the Labour Party is just about the last place you will find them”. Young Labour is feeble, though showing a tad more life recently, and that type of young person who is or wants to be an MP’s aide, a union full-timer, or an NGO or think-tank office worker, is horribly over-represented in its thin ranks. But there was a walk-out at Young Labour conference 2011 in protest at undemocratic manipulation.
There are things to be done, and things that go beyond “looking”.