Labour, Marx and 21st century socialism: an interview with John McDonnell

Submitted by Anon on 20 November, 2006 - 2:10

David Broder, Chris Ford and Mladen Jakopovich spoke to John McDonnell about his campaign for the Labour leadership as well as what socialism means to him.

What led to your decision to stand for the Labour leadership?

Tony Blair announced that he was going before the last election, and he did that as a defensive reaction to what was going on in the opinion polls and on the doorstep where people were anxious that he should leave and depart the scene. When he announced that he was going, the view was then discussed as to whether the left should run a candidate, and there was extensive discussion for about a year about whether or not, in principle, we should run a candidate, on what programme, and who the individual should be. I initially argued that we shouldn't run a candidate, since I'm a slow bureaucratic plodder, working on the basis that we were building up the left in the unions, building up the left in Parliament, building up the left in the CLPs, and we may not have had the strength or ability to mount an adequate challenge and unify everyone around that challenge. After lots of consultative meetings with CLPs, meetings with trade unions, open trade union conferences, it was clear that people were up for it, that everyone thought it would be a missed opportunity if we didn't. In addition to that, it was clear that the organization was on the ground, the broad left in the unions and the CLPs, what's left of the Constituency Labour Parties.

So, having been one of the people who was opposed to the idea, having strong reservations, I became convinced. People were coming to meetings and demanding it, people getting up at union conferences and calling for a candidacy, so there was popular demand. Then, we went back into consultative discussions about whether we should in principle, the whole point was making sure the rank and file were up for it, and, having made the principle decision that we should, we went to the Labour Representation Committee conference to seek their endorsement, got unanimous support, and then, a more detailed discussionabout the policy.

There's not been a challenge for 18 years. Since the last challenge, a lot has changed. Will it be a viable challenge - and why now?

I think it's a difficult assessment, but if you look what's happening numerically within the Constituency Labour Parties, they're significantly reduced in terms of what they were before. A much smaller membership will be voting in the Constituency Labour Parties. A smaller membership - but still we're finding there, all the time now, a left which has been dormant but which can easily be re-engaged. That's the first thing. The second thing is that there's a left which has left the Labour Party but which as a result of this campaign wants to rejoin and get stuck in again. So I think there's a viable challenge in the CLPs and a sufficient level of support to turn this into a realistic campaign that could possibly win. Within the trade unions there's a completely different story altogether. There's been a resurgence of the left in the last five years to the point that you can't stand for any electoral position within a trade union without being on the left... that includes some elements who pretend they're on the left, but they need our support. The broad lefts within each of the major unions - the affiliated unions - I think they'll give us a strong organizational base. Where we're weak is in the Parliamentary Labour Party, obviously, which is completely understandable, since New Labour's approach to democracy is to squeeze out any opportunity for left-wingers to get back into Parliament. The process has been geared to parachute New Labour apparatchiks in, and any opponents of the government have been squeezed out. What we've not been able to do is replenish the left within the PLP. I think we've got the vote in the CLPs, we've got the vote in the trade unions - overwhelmingly - as demonstrated by the TUC, where we got 59% of the support. The problem is in the PLP, the issue is whether we can get the 44 nominations to be on the ballot paper. Don't know. I just don't know, to be honest. The Guardian says we've got 41, The Times says 42 - I don't know where they get those figures from. I'm not even putting people in a corner to ask them whether they're going to nominate at this stage. I don't want that to happen - if people want to volunteer themselves at this stage, that's fine. But I don't want to pressurize anyone until we've got the campaign built up in the constituencies and the trade unions to demonstrate that we've got viable support. At that point in time, when we've demonstrated that we've got realistic support on the ballot, at that point I think we'll get the nominations together. Calculations at the moment - it could be anything between 5 and 10 short. That's my view, but, we'll see.

I have seen it said that your campaign is a doomed effort to respond to Bennism. How would you respond to that?

The most important thing about this campaign is that we're trying to stimulate a debate about what socialism means in Britain and globally in the 21st century. It's the old Gramsci thing - we're trying to win the battle of ideas on the basis of a really thorough, democratic debate. So we're trying to win hegemony within both the party and the country. And then, use that battle of ideas to make sure we can reflect that in the battle of organization within the movement overall. If you look at what we're doing, New Labour has run into the sand. All those people, even in government, is down a small rump, a bunker mentality around Blair and some around Brown. The Labour Party is facing the prospect of loss of office, as a result of the failure of its policies, and people are desperate for an alternative. We're providing that alternative - both within the movement, and, I think, in the country. If we can build up sufficient elements engaged in the debate, that will draw us in the support we need electorally. Traditional route - win the argument, on the base of organization. That's what we're doing.

As we know, the Labour Party grew out of the trade unions, of a desire for working-class representation. In the early days, it comprised all the socialist tendencies. Some of the leaders were just looking for a respectable place, representatives of labour alongside capital in Parliament. Some genuinely believed in social change. An important contribution to the shape of the party was the left, like the Social Democratic Federation, which left after a year, the Socialist Labour Party, the syndicalists, the shop stewards, the ILP, the CP, they all took a quite sectarian attitude towards the Labour Party and that led to a lot of self-isolation. Is that still a relevant issue?

Let's just go back to the historical comparisons. The Labour Party always described themselves as a broad church. That's true. A huge coalition - not just in terms of the formation of the membership of the party, but also its support base. The formation of the Labour Party ranged from socialists who had an analysis of the world as we understand it, right the way across from Marxists to social reformers, an element of trade unionists with straightforward, economistic demands, and ranged to a liberal end partly of social reformers but also those disaffected with the Liberal Party itself. A broad coalition. The key issue for us as socialists is that it's a terrain of struggle. The point of the Labour Party is that it provides us with a forum within which we can engage in that debate and win our argument. At different times in our history, different elements within that coalition have dominated, and at different times the policies have represented the balance of forces within that struggle. I think we've had a long period where it's not just that the right wing have dominated, but that elements which are not normally part of that coalition have entered the party. You would never see New Labour as part of the historic coalition of Labour, they've gone much beyond that. The policies they've implemented have been downright Thatcherite. What we've seen for a long time is not just right-wing domination of the Labour Party, but the domination of parties extraneous to that coalition.

What this campaign is all about is winning back the Labour Party to a position where avowed socialists can say that this is where we want the party to go, and win the argument within that coalition. I think we're doing it, I actually think we're doing it. The problem is that we have a democratic structure within the party and government that means there's no accountability of the leadership and the implementers of policy to those who want to change policy. That's what the challenge is as well, so there isn't just a debate around what policy there is, around what the analysis of the world should be, but also about how we restore democracy. We can win the battle of ideas, but if we don't win the battle of organization we don't win the battle of restoring democracy to the party, and we'd be in the same position we are now, in opposition within our own party.

Revulsion to New Labour, since 1996, has led a lot of the left to coalesce into electoral blocs against it. How would you assess that?

I don't want to get into a sectarian discussion - I think people want to make their own minds up about what route to pursue. I'm coming at it in terms of the sheer pragmatism of politics in this country, with a first-past-the-post electoral system. On a sheer pragmatic basis, I can't see how you can assess that outside the party you'd be more effective. The reason I'm in the Labour Party is, as I say, it's a terrain of struggle, within which we can win battles and eventually win power with the ideas that we convince people of. Outside the Labour Party, the problem is that there's no form under the first-past-the-post system that you'd be able to win sufficient support to win positions where you could form a government or have any real pressure on government. And the second thing is that it's a matter of cutting yourself off from the party which still has - and you can call it false consciousness or whatever - the affinitity and loyalty of the large section of the labour movement and of the working class. So for those very pragmatic reasons, I think it's important to work within the Labour Party.

You've referred to Blair and Brown coming to power as a "coup"- elements from outside the traditional party coming in and taking over. But given, for example in last week's vote on an inquiry into the war, how little of the traditional social democrat or 'old Labour' forces in the party opposes itself to the New Labour project, how can it meaningfully be described as a coup?

The issue around accountability and democracy is one of the issues here. That vote was very specific. But if you take the vote on the war itself, which I think is much more reflective of the balance of forces within the party, and the vote on the inquiry last week with only 12 votes [i.e. rebel Labour MPs] and also the vote on extradition, that demonstrates just how isolated the PLP was from not just the Labour Party and the trade union movement generally, but also isolated from the community. And I think that if you had a re-run of the vote on the war - even then, no matter how isolated they were, there was a significant number of Labour MPs who voted on the basis of their own beliefs and their consciences, as it was such an important issue. So, the issue for me really is, how has that PLP, which holds some of the strings of power, become so isolated from the movement overall. You see at Labour Party conference, if you look at the resolutions that go through, both in terms of the trade union votes but also in terms of CLPs, which are largely manipulated by full time officials, majority after majority votes a position on a whole range of issues which the government completely rejects, which are a challenge to New Labour. The issue is; how has the PLP become cut off in the same way that any degenerate party does? It's the same as Trotsky's analysis of the bureaucracy. The leadership replaces the central committee, the central committee replaces the membership. And that's what's happened here. That coup has allowed the ruthless use of patronage to isolate the PLP from any democracy or accountability within the party itself. So where do we win from here? We argue around the policies, we build majority support for those policies, we lead members and others through that process of having won that argument on policies; what is it stopping us from implementing them in government? The breakdown of accountability and democracy. And it isn't just the PLP cut off from the party - it's also Cabinet meetings, according to David Blunkett, for 20 minutes on a Thursday, with no political debate whatsoever and a leadership that's isolated itself in two ministries - in the Prime Minister's office and in the Treasury, completely cut off from any accountability. The reason I refer to the coup is that when John Smith took over as leader after Kinnock, there was a different atmosphere within the party. Smith came from the right-wing tradition within the party but he was Labour. You couldn't contest that he was a traditional Labour, social-democratic politician. And he was committed to the elements of the Labour Party which represent the 'broad church' coalition. When Jack Straw came up with the abolition of Clause Four at the time, he rejected it completely. The second thing he did was to get rid of Mandelson immediately - all the spin doctors went. Thirdly, he appointed a cabinet which was largely reflective of the left, right and centre of the Labour Party. Good example - John McAllion was a front bench spokesperson for the Labour front bench at that time, now with the Scottish Socialist Party. So you'd had that 'broad church' coalition re-established under John Smith's leadership. The coup that occurred when he died not only changed the political direction of the party, but the accountability. The ruthless use of patronage within the PLP, the closing down of democratic structures like Cabinet, the closing down of Conference as a sovereign decision-making body, cut off the connection of accountability between the PLP and the Labour Party overall.

In terms of your campaign as it stands, a big argument has been made that the main task of socialists should be that the unions should assert themselves in the Labour Party, and that they're the ones who can make significant change in terms of your campaign. Do you agree with that, and would you agree that fighting just through the unions could be a self-defeating approach in itself?

There's a line of argument that whenever the Labour Party finds itself in trouble the unions always come forward to save it. Now, to some extent, if you look back through the history of the Labour Party, it's true in organizational terms, and in some instances it's true in political terms as well, because they reassert the strength of feeling of working-class people about certain policies which Labour governments are pursuing, and there's a need for change. So there's an element of that, in that the unions could play an important role in this campaign. There's no doubt about it. Electorally, they play a significant role. But what I'm concerned about is that we don't want to be in a situation where we mobilize support in the unions through some bureaucratic manoeuvre. People say "what general secretaries are supporting you?". I don't want to be seen as the candidate of the general secretaries of the unions, because we don't want to get back into the old situation of smoke-filled rooms where manoeuvres are taken to impose a candidate on their unions which the rank-and-file have no support for or have no idea what their policies are, and then manipulate the situation where we have someone elected on the backs of general secretary votes, mobilisation of bloc votes, where there's no political understanding of what we're about. That's why my campaign is a rank-and-file campaign. It's basically saying; here's the policy discussions we need to have in the rank-and-file, we need to arrive at a common set of conclusions about the way forward in each of these policy areas, and also an overall analysis about the way the world works and how we want to change it. And on that basis we win with a politically conscious campaign, not by way of bureaucratic manoeuvre. The unions are quite important in playing that role. That will be translated electorally into individual rank-and-file members' votes. In their section of the electoral college, every union is required by rule to ballot their members - one person one vote - and distribute their votes accordingly. If we can win the argument, if we can mobilize the support, we don't need bureaucratic manoeuvres either to get onto the ballot paper or to win the election itself. It's the same with the CLPs, actually. The other thing that's coming out of this campaign; it isn't just about the leadership; it's also about, if there are issues that affect us across the board in terms of individual unions - we can link up with communities as well - it's about mounting those individual campaigns. So the campaign around the Trade Union Freedom Bill is absolutely critical for us, the campaign against privatisation is absolutely critical. We've been discussing for about 18 months - and not done much about it until now - this general concept of quality of life at work, which links employment rights with health and safety and control of working hours, maternity leave and parental care and anti-discrimination legislation - how does that affect the workplace? What's coming out of the campaign is that we're discussing the issues and how we resolve them, and how we work together in individual unions, across unions and in the political movement more widely. Completely non-sectarian approach. That's the exciting thing about the campaign - people's ideas are being challenged in practice.

In regard to your own ideas. I've often heard you refer to Marx, and despite all the talk about the 'end of history' there seems to be a lot more respect for him now. What do you think of Marx, and do you think he's made a positive contribution to 21st century socialism?

What's interesting is that all the people who talked about the end of history and the irrelevance of Marxism and all the rest of it ten years ago are now eating their hats, eating their words, aren't they? There is not a single political or economic debate that's gone on over the last century and a half without some reference to Marx. In the real world - full stop. I meet with the CBI and the Institute of Directors and all the rest on different issues, and they refer to capitalism and how it works straightforwardly. Look at the American debates - they openly refer to their economic system as 'capitalist'. They're not ashamed of it. And they use the same sort of analysis of the development of profit etc. as Marx did himself. There's an understanding of the realities of what the world is. The significance of Marx is that is the most detailed and comprehensive understanding and analysis of what capitalism is and how it works that we've had. So, whether you're an opponent or a supporter of Marx, you have to refer to him, that's the first thing. The second thing is that as a mobilising understanding of the world, it's absolutely key to what's happened. It isn't just Marx, it's how Marxism has been developed on. I'll just give the example of rehabilitation of terms. We now have again the use of the word 'imperialism' in many textbooks. And it isn't just coming from the left, it's general - David Harvey's piece on the new era of imperialism, for example, an academic from New York. Rehabilitating the term because it matches the reality of what's going on. Globalization is the highest stage of imperialism so far. I think what's interesting about this whole period now is that we can remove the prejudices from the debate that's gone on from the 80s into the 90s about what Marxism means, and get back to the discussion about what Marx's analysis was and how it's been interpreted by individual political theorists and activists - and arrive at a situation where we have a more thorough understanding of the world. There's example after example. Marx did a hell of a lot of work in terms of the role of finance capital. That's been developed upon by various others, and also issues around economic cycles. That's highly relevant today - we now live in a country where finance capital absolutely dominates the whole system, to the point of squeezing manufacturing out. So we now have an economy which is dominated by finance and the service sector. If you look at the work that Marx and others did around the analysis of finance capital, and how it drives out other forms of investment to maximise exploitation - that's a thorough understanding of 21st century capitalism.

In terms of yourself, who has been most significant in terms of your thinking?

If we go through it... the fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically. In terms of the ability to mobilise spontaneously, Rosa Luxemburg. Interestingly enough, for a long time I was quite interested by the writers of the New Left who appeared in the 60s. Williams, Miliband, Griffiths, E.P. Thompson and others, particularly around the historical issues themselves. That New Left that blossomed in the 60s were quite influential upon my generation, and they introduced us to Gramsci. If you remember, Gramsci wasn't even published in this country until that point in time. So that was important - and Perry Anderson too. Unfortunately, they exhausted themselves doing theoretical work without actually encouraging what they'd introduced us to, which was praxis - the mixture of theory and practice on the ground. I also think, in practical terms, some of them linked to the Stalinist parties etc., and others were taken down political paths which became either fairly sectarian, or irrelevant. When they took us down the cul-de-sac of Althusser, who was a complete headcase as far as I'm concerned, it drove us all into the sand. That sort of influence. Miliband for example was a brilliant writer, a brilliant Marxist writer in this country, but in terms of pragmatic practical politics was a complete disaster. At that point in time when he was encouraging people to leave the Labour Party, that was probably one of the strongest times for the left in dominating the Labour Party, through the late 70s and early 80s.

You mentioned globalization as being a 'highest stage'. Do you think we are in a world-historic crisis, a turning point?

There are some issues which clearly demonstrate that we're at a turning point, because, if not, we're in an endgame in terms of climate change. We've now discovered that in addition to the economic issues there's an environmental limit that we can't go beyond. I don't want to be cataclysmic about it, but there is a clear issue there that transforms the nature of the debate as well. But I think globalization is a form of imperialism that is more intense than anything that we've experienced in the past. The issue for us is; how do we debate 21st century socialism in a way that enables us to take account of what's happened by way of both the reach of capital exploitation, and also the intensity of capital exploitation. For the last century we've been arguing that we're an international movement to work together in solidarity across the world to tackle these issues and combat imperialism, but realistically, there's been virtually no movement in terms of seriously combatting it. Socialist Internationals have collapsed, usually in the face of war, and people have retreated into, or retrenched into, 'socialism in one country'-type arguments. The challenge for us in this debate is first of all, yes, look at the policies we need on the ground here, but how do we work in international solidarity and what structures of world governance do we need to tackle globalization and imperialism in this form. We haven't even scratched the surface in that debate yet. Is it about a new socialist International? Is it about something built on the World Social Forum debates? Is it looking at restructuring world governance around the UN or whatever, that we can then use as a terrain of struggle to win our ideas?

Do you think the basis exists for a new International?

I think we've got to start raising the question now. I really do. And I think the question's been put on the agenda as a result of the intensification of the war, the renewal of nuclear weapons and proliferation - but in addition to that, these climactic issues which will result in tensions across the world if we don't deal with them.

In terms of the 21st century vision and a historic crisis, I would ask about the 20th, because a common answer was state control - whether it be the USSR, the National Coal Board etc. - simply taking over private capitalism. What lessons do you think we can learn from this for the 21st century?

Well, the interesting thing with these arguments around public ownership is that we've been floating ideas for quite a while about how we create new forms of public ownership which make sure that there's democratic accountability to those who provide the services, those who receive them and the community in general. But we've not produced definitive models industry-by-industry. We're going into the same phase as we did after the second world war where Manny Shinwell, who was the minister responsible, came into office after the election of a Labour government with a reasonable majority, and he asked for the files on nationalisation, what the policies and proposals were, and there was nothing there. They were empty. One of the things that I've been trying to highlight to people in this campaign is that if we want to go into power, we've got to get serious about detailed policy analysis and implementation. I'll just give you one small example. Two years ago RMT commissioned Catalyst - a think tank - at our request to undertake a study about privatisation but then we asked them to move it on and asked them to look at how we pull back from the government's privatisation policies in a way that can bring rail back into public ownership and what structures of governance will be effective in providing the service itself. A very simple plan was put forward, which I wholeheartedly endorsed, which was for rail to be brought back into public ownership and the cheapest and most effective way to do that is to make sure that as the contracts with private companies run out, we systematically roll them back into the public sector. The reason for doing that is not just that it's the easiest one financially and legally, but also in managerial terms it's more effective as well. In the same way, when this government brought back Connex and South East Trains into the public sector, it managed it very very well, and it was done in a way with which management could cope over a period of time. One of the arguments is; how do we introduce that in government after the election of a Labour leader such as myself? Well, we'll simply announce the policy itself, as the contracts run out we'll bring them back into public ownership, and in the breathing space between now and the contracts running out, we would establish the structures, which are thoroughly democratic, based upon worker representatives, passenger representatives, and local community representatives actually engaged in the management of their train service in their region. Perfectly appropriate and effective, I think. That would give us the basis, just in that industry, of showing a practical example of socialism in practice. We should have that debate in the health service, in local government, in every other public service. On the other issues I've been trying to raise, New Labour has gone along the line that it's a non-interventionist government in the economy overall. Therefore they always use this slogan 'we're not ever going back to backing winners', i.e. going into certain sectors of industry and taking them over or trying to in some way take a section of a sector and dominate it, and try to make a base upon which you improve service delivery or pricing overall. The argument that we've been putting forward is that the 'backing winners' approach of past Labour governments has always been on the basis of bailing out failures, never about 'backing winners'. There's never been a long term strategy for investment in manufacturing or any service business in this country. One of the proposals that we're trying to get a discussion going around is 'let's look at certain sectors of our industrial sector or our financial sector, and see whether or not we should be pursuing now a policy of public ownership of part of that sector so it does set the trend in terms of pricing, long-term research and development investment, and the conditions and treatment of the workers themselves. If we did that and then looked at the same sort of structure, which would be around management of the company by the workers themselves, by the people who consume the service, and by directly elected representatives of local communities. I think what we'd be able to do; I'll use the example of the pharmaceutical industry, we would break the exploitation of the NHS by the pharmaceutical industry and we'd set a standard for the rest of the industry both in terms of pricing and conditions. We need to be having those practical debates. I come at it as a civil servant, I come at it as a bureaucrat, we've got to get down to the situation where we know, exactly, all the answers to sector-by-sector engagement.

In the late 70s and early 80s, the left opposition in the Labour Party developed the Alternative Economic Strategy. Do you think there's a need for that type of alternative?

I was an opponent of the AES, because I didn't see it doing anything by way of challenging the power bases or offering public ownership on the basis democratic control of either any sector of industry, or the economy overall. And I didn't see it as the basis of promoting public services, which not only allow us to deliver services efficiently, effectively, and accountably, but also give us more managerial control of the economy overall. So I wasn't an advocate - although in comparison with what New Labour's done it was almost revolutionary. What we need to do, I think, is to stake the claim for the management and planning of our economy, and get that almost philosophical debate going again. Is planning and co-operation and management of the economy in the interests of the community overall, better than the free market liberalism and neocon, dog-eat-dog capitalism that we're experiencing at the moment? I think there'd be majority support in the country for a more managed and rational approach. We've won that argument since the Enlightenment, but we've never been able to implement it. The way you win the argument to people out in the community overall is that you relate the very practical and pragmatic effects of what that would have on their lives in particular. So working in whatever sector you're working in, how would this work within your particular sector, and how efficient and effective would it be for the country overall but also for you and your family. I think that's the level of detail we've got to back down to.

In your criticism of the AES, you point to some difficulties which exist, especially under globalisation. It does restrict manoeuvrability, the political system. Under a Labour government with you at the head of it - if they let you - how would you tackle these restrictions imposed on political manoeuvrability?

The issue for us is posed in Miliband's book Socialism and the Sceptical Age, which I thought was quite interesting. It was his last book, which he did on his death bed, and signed off the proofs when he was actually in hospital itself. I thought it was an interesting book because he's an academic trying to come to terms with the use of power. He approached it in a very academic way, but I think he caught the drift of what we should do as socialists in government. And his argument, straightforwardly, is that there are three phases when you're in government. First is making sure that you secure your position tactically by ensuring very, very quickly that you demonstrate to those people who elected you that you're delivering the goods. So one of the first things that we'd do would be to increase pensions and restore the link with earnings. We'd go out to public sector workers and stop the wage freeze implemented by Gordon Brown. We'd stop privatisation. There's tactical issues there where you immediately build up support among the supporters that have elected you. It's important that we recognize that what you want to do is maintain popular support throughout. The second phase then is to make sure that you're putting in place medium term strategic plans that move the debate forward; that enables you then to bring forward further longer term ambitions. So I think there's always those three phases that face any socialist government or any government that wants change. What I'm campaigning on now is almost schematic - very straightforward alternatives that we can provide very, very quickly. So, like on peace and war, we'd withdraw from Iraq. On peace and war, no investment in Trident, an end to nuclear weapons. Something very symbolic yet straightforward and relatively easy to do. On poverty, increase pensions, restore the link with earnings, increase child benefit, significantly increase the minimum wage - all pragmatic and popular policies. That enables us then to enter into the wider debate about why we're not in control of our lives. Why do communities not have democratic control over their existence? Why are people working all the hours God sends just to survive, why can't they afford a roof over their heads? It enables us to have the debate about who runs our economy, and whether it's run in a way which meets the needs of the community and the population as a whole, and whether it's fair and democratic. I think that opens up then about how we plan our economy. As soon as we start building up that popular support for measures which enable us to plan our economy, and that includes elements of control over finance - of course there'll be a backlash against us - but if we've built up that popular support, we'll sustain it. Remember, even the most hardened capitalist in this country is here because they want to make a profit...

But I'll give you an example, the Bullock report in the late 70s, which called for a degree of workers' participation. The CBI immediately threatened a strike of capital.

Of course they did. And wouldn't have done, and wouldn't have delivered. Because the thing about capital is that it's not coherent. There's no such thing as solidarity among capital. They compete against each other for who'll make the most profit. So therefore they'll undercut one another - you just have to face them out, basically. The issue for us though is that there is a changed world, and there's no such thing as 'socialism in one country' - and never was. The issue is, how do we build our international links, to ensure mutual protection and promotion of socialism to our mutual advantage.

In terms of Europe, it seems difficult to roll the process back. What's your attitude? Much of the labour movement is quite 'Little England'.

Some elements are 'Little England'. But the key issue for us will be the stability pact, whether we can invest in public services and go beyond the limits that Gordon Brown's set us, as a result of Europe, on borrowing in relation to GDP, and the level of public investment we'd undertake. I think there's countries across Europe in exactly the same position as us; most of them disregard the stability pact and Brown's used that as an excuse. So I think we have allies in Europe that we can link up with to transform the European Union into something which we've been arguing for for a long period of time, people looking for a progressive social model in Europe rather than the one we have at the moment. That does raise issues around international alliances, international solidarity, and eventually, the reform of European institutions. How do we achieve some form of solidarity that doesn't emerge in a super-state emerging, based upon capital? A challenging debate. I think as soon as we plant that flag of debate in the ground, others will rally to it.

The other big international issue is Afghanistan, Iraq and the US. In the light of the elections, what do you think our perspective should be?

The statement I've made all the way along is that we should immediately break the military alliance with Bush, withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, link up with progressives in the US as best we can. But we recognize that the Democrats have been relatively weak on this in the run-up to the elections, but if we provide the opportunity of a discussion on this issue, I think we'll find more of a consensus than people realise. Whatever the Democrats are, they'll be hunting votes for the presidential elections. I think that the votes they'll want are those people who've made up their minds that the US ought to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's exploit it for all it's worth. My own view, a stage-by-stage process, is withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, link up with partners in Europe and the US as best we can, about international peace conferences and how we go forward, seek to resolve the Middle East issue as a result of that, but also move onto this discussion about world governance and nuclear proliferation.

There's been a disagreement in the anti-war movement on Iraq in terms of the Third Camp. Whether you side with the "resistance", or whether you support the workers', women's and secular movements. What's your view on this?

We offer solidarity to all those developing civil society structures such as trade unions and political parties that have association and affinity with our own ideals. That's based upon democracy, and I think also we must make it very clear that what we're looking for is a secular society, and we'll be arguing for - it might sound fanciful at the moment - a socialist society. What do we mean by that? One of the strongest arguments is the control by the people themselves of the enormous wealth that Iraq has and its oil.

The emergence of American hegemony has deflected attention a lot, in some ways, from other powers, for example China and Russia. What attitude do you think should be taken towards China, with no free labour movement and a growing economy?

It's always been the same. Just because China has now gone through this process of marketisation, development down the capitalist path or whatever, our criticisms are exactly the same as before. A lack of socialist practice, in terms of democratic accountability and engagement, abuse of human rights, and now, abuse of human rights as a result of the intensity of exploitation of their own people. The criticisms stand up, whether they call themselves socialist or now capitalist, that exploitation and abuse still goes on. So I think it's critical. Our role is to be critical of those people who we feel abuse other people, wherever they are.

What do you think of Russia's role in the east?

The concern that I've got is that we now have a system... the criticisms we had of the Soviet Union were completely correct, their abuse of their own people, the lack of democratic rights, the undermining of democracy itself, the horrendous human suffering that went on. The criticisms were right. That's moved on now to a form of gangsterism which again we have to be critical of. These aren't people we want to be allying ourselves to. Of course, on a whole range of international issues what we'll want to do is try and engage them in the same way we have in the past, to try and persuade them otherwise.

It's possible you might not win. Do you think there's a possibility through this campaign of a recomposition of the left? Secondly, even if you don't win, we'll be facing the serious possibility of a Tory victory in an election. What attitude do you think socialists should take through this campaign and after into a general election?

I don't envisage, or even contemplate, or discuss at any time, the prospect of not winning. I don't go into any campaign without seeking to win. The issue is, win or lose, what do we do? If we win, the importance of having a conscious, effectively mobilised left, across the board, is absolutely critical for two reasons. One is to hold to account those people who we elect into position. Absolutely critical. The second role is to support those who we elect into position. If we have a socialist Prime Minister seeking to implement socialist policies in this country, we need to make sure that we hold that person to account so that we all have a say in the implementation of those policies, and we never lose control of the trajectory and the process that we're going through. But, if we do have a Prime Minister of that sort, we will come under immediate attack from the City of London, international finance capital, and other countries in terms of political isolation. What we will then need to do as a movement is mobilise popular support behind that government. So, whatever, win or lose, the most important thing is to build up the base of the party in a completely non-sectarian way, offering them structures of engagement, in the way we're running this campaign. All our meetings are open. People can come along to them and express their views. We're encouraging them to mobilise support and work with others on individual campaigns if they can't support this one. I think that's the way to go forward. If out of this campaign we can get that, I think we'll have moved forward dramatically, and we could have a significant breakthrough on what our shared understanding of the world is, and where we go forward in the detail of policy making as well.

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