Labour Party: Left must learn the lessons of defeat

Submitted by Anon on 30 November, 1997 - 11:18

This year’s Labour Party Conference voted in favour of the Partnership in Power (PiP) proposals thereby effectively disaffiliating the Constituency Parties from the Party nationally and rendering the trade union link ineffective. How should the left respond?
The differences that emerged during the fight against PiP, on whether to oppose it on the grounds that it was anti-democratic or to tactically advocate a twelve-month delay in the vote to give more time for discussion, have now crystallised into new divisions.

Much of the debate has been about our approach to the new National Executive Committee. Banning MPs from standing in the Constituency Section for the NEC has created a new problem: who to stand instead of the Campaign Group of MPs slate? Alistair Ward, writing on the NEC slate in Labour Left Briefing argues: “…the priority is to unite all those who believe in a democratic Party based on links with the trade unions and policies to redistribute wealth in society. We must start… to plan a slate that wins backing from Labour Reform, the Campaign for Labour Democracy, the Labour Women’s Action Committee and the Network of Socialist Campaign Groups.”

But unity over a slate for the NEC requires a greater degree of commitment than unity over a single issue. Although it was perfectly possible to link up with Labour Reform and others over the battle against PiP, it will not be so easy to unite on a “left slate” as the core activists in Labour Reform agree with Blair’s economic attacks on the working class.

Others argue in favour of building unity on political grounds, between the left in the Party and in the trade union movement whilst not isolating ourselves from other forces. Any alliances that are forged with the centre-ground in the Party must be based on specific issues. There is a problem with this. It is shooting ourselves in the foot to argue for unity on an across-the-board, self-styled “left” platform with people who do not share a commitment to the political independence of the working class and a socialist transformation of society.

Any “left unity” that falls short of this is born out of desperation to seek alliances with anyone and everyone, regardless of the real differences — for the sake of appearing bigger than your true forces. The same desperation led some in the anti-PiP campaign to over-inflate the threat that was posed to Blair’s project — by the alliance between CLPD and Labour Reform.

For instance, Ken Livingstone, in an interview with Labour Left Briefing, suggested PiP had only been won because of shady deals and bullying from the Party machine, “If it hadn’t been for incredible arm-twisting and brow beating of delegates — and a deal with the unions offering them much better legislation on trade union rights at work — they wouldn’t have got PiP through.” This is a very over-optimistic view of the strength of the left: “We could have had a spectacular defeat on each day of Conference — avoided only by traditional old Labour values… You could say that because of the strength of the left in the NEC elections there’s been extra money for the NHS.”

The reality on Conference floor was different. The union leaders have signed up to a deal that offered Blair whatever he wanted in return for precisely nothing. Far from giving way on PiP to secure a reduction in the legal shackles around the unions, they are banking on the continuation of the anti-union laws to squash the demands of their own members. Edmonds and Morris are happy to avoid democratic debate in the Labour Party just as they want to avoid it in their unions. It will take an awful lot of sustained rank-and-file pressure in the unions to force them to actively oppose Blair.

There was little evidence of the need to bully CLP delegates either. Although nearly all the delegates I spoke to were unhappy at various aspects of the proposals, nearly all voted for the whole lot. A curious mixture of naiveté and cynicism is at work inside the CLPs — cynicism about the ability of members to influence anything, and naiveté that Blair et al have the working class best interests at heart, or at least those of Party members.

This is echoed throughout the labour movement. How many of us have attended union conferences where the leadership is defeated on policy after policy, and then overwhelmingly re-elected?

Partnership in Power has made that cynically naive relationship one of formal subordination. Winning the opinion of a majority of CLPs over any specific policy issue is no longer worth a hill of beans.
The battle over PiP was about Blair attempting to wall off the Labour Party from the struggles which are bound to appear between the Labour government and the working class. The left lost that battle. It therefore now becomes more crucial that work inside the Labour Party is related to the outside world. Any possibilities that arise for changing the Labour Party’s structures, will do so out of pressure on the Party to change its policies.

When it comes to putting pressure on the Labour government to change policy, its clear that Labour Party members are right at the back of the queue to be heard. But pressure will be put on the government in the coming years, not least because Blair, Brown et al have no solutions to the problems that beset the Tory government before them. When working-class tolerance with the Labour Government is pushed to the limit, (as it was in 1978-9) the task of the left must be to channel the emerging class anger into the labour movement, and not allow it to dissipate or, worse, to be used against the working class by the Tories in the way that Thatcher did in the early eighties.
We need to advance a clear and coherent socialist alternative in the Labour Party and the trade unions. To attract the most angry and active of class activists into the organised labour movement, we need to demonstrate that there are some forces inside the Party who are campaigning for the interests of the working class.

Allie Kemp

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