It is good that Harry Glass, in his article “The left and the general election” (Solidarity 366) opened the discussion about the left’s role in the general election. However, I think the focus of his fire on some occasions is wrong.
He argues that “the dismal vote attained by candidates to the left of Labour suggests their approach is flawed.” But then goes on to outline a few places where the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition’s (TUSC) “dismal” votes were sufficient to stop Labour winning the seat. Logically, had TUSC received less dismal votes then in Harry’s view their approach wouldn’t have been flawed — but it would have further electorally harmed Labour.
Trotsky, when discussing the ILP standing candidates against Labour, wrote: “It would have been foolish for the ILP to have sacrificed its political programme in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the LP to monopolise the platform as the Communist Party did. We do not know our strength until we test it. There is always a risk of splitting, and of losing deposits, but such risks must be taken: otherwise we boycott ourselves.”
Workers’ Liberty used this quote to support standing candidates against Labour in a pamphlet we published in April 2004 (after the launch of Respect and when the Socialist Alliance was in the process of ceasing to exist!) It is clear that TUSC is in no way analogous to the ILP in 1930s. However, our condemnation of them must be that their programme was wholly inadequate, not that they took votes from Labour. They didn’t call for a workers’ government. They appeared as left reformists and didn’t even put all the Socialist Party’s (the main force behind TUSC) programme, as unsatisfactory as that would still be. In an election poisoned by xenophobia and nationalism they did nothing to raise the issue of migrant rights.
Surely, the biggest responsibility for the election result rests on the cowardly Labour leadership who ran such a vapid campaign, a campaign which persuaded less than 20% of the electorate to vote for it. The leaders of the unions, most of whom on paper have better policies than the Labour manifesto, did not use their remaining weight within the party to push for the policies of their unions, also shoulder a huge amount of responsibility.
However, the left does bear a big responsibility for the awful results in the election. The failure to build a sufficiently large organisation implanted in the working class which could stand independent working class candidates against Labour has allowed petty-bourgeois alternatives, nationalists and right-wing populists to pick up the widespread disgust in our class at the Westminster political machine. Worse than the return of the Tories is that the agenda for the political alternative to them, currently, is set by forces to their right, the left could have and should have done something about that. Building such an organisation does not mean that we would or should eschew work in the Labour Party, or work in the affiliated unions to affect events within the Labour Party. That argument still needs to be won with the left at large.
Whilst in the 2015 election we were faced with no alternative but to call for a Labour vote in most if not all constituencies, we must consider whether the focus on a Labour victory was the most effective way of raising our politics and building the forces of revolutionary socialism. When you consider less than 20% of the electorate voted for a Labour victory and that large numbers of our class and radical young people, who are probably more open to our ideas, chose to vote for various petty-bourgeois options, might not we have persuaded more people had we focussed on our propaganda for a workers’ government, whilst patiently explaining that necessary forces for this remain, largely impotently, wedded to the Labour Party and this required voting Labour and working within it?
It may be that Corbyn’s candidacy for Labour leader might mark a sea-change within the Labour Party. We must do everything we can to ensure that it does. Nonetheless, we must recognise that Corbyn is only on the ballot paper via largesse of right wing MPs such as Frank Field, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy.
More importantly the leadership election and the election for Labour’s candidate for London Mayor is the beginning of the implementation of the Collins report — not due to be implemented until 2016 — as both are being carried out without an electoral college. This seems to have happened entirely without comment from the left or the unions, let alone any opposition!
The structural reforms of the Collins report make it more difficult for unions to express a collective working-class voice in the party. They build on and extend the Blairite reforms to the Party which effectively concrete over the channels for democratic control of the Party and left any life in the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) similar to isolated rock pools, unable to link up with life in other CLPs.
The trajectory remains for the Labour Party to cease to be a bourgeois-workers party. This isn’t unchallengeable but we must recognise it. We must also consider seriously the most effective tactics to challenge this.
I would suggest that unless we are able to use the Corbyn campaign to affect a sea-change, we will need to revisit the issue of standing candidates against Labour and focus our propaganda around our concept of a workers’ government.