"Maintain and strengthen the AWL's open revolutionary socialist political profile": document on the Labour Party (5.0)

Submitted by martin on 20 May, 2007 - 6:41

A. 1. John McDonnell's campaign for Labour leader is the first attempt since the Benn-Heffer campaign of 1988 to propose, on a wide, public, national level, a working-class political alternative to the Blair-Brown policies of anti-union laws, privatisation, marketisation, warmongering, and squeeze on civil liberties which have stifled the labour movement in politics for over a decade now. We support the campaign. The question is, how can we "build on" it?

2. The fact of the McDonnell campaign, and of our involvement in it, does not in any fundamental sense contradict or negate the basic assessment of the Labour Party and our relation to it which we have made over the last ten years or so. Neither would a Brown victory or the failure of McDonnell to get onto the ballot paper indicate any fundamental shift. Our basic political orientation remains one of fighting for the unions to rebuild themselves, to stand up for working-class interests in politics. That is, effectively to restore the working-class franchise which has been massively degraded by the hijacking of the Labour Party. To break the labour movement from Blair and Brown. To convince the labour movement to aim for a workers' government, accountable to and serving the working class. Those are the politics we argue for in the McDonnell campaign.

3. Given the poor condition of the Constituency Labour Parties, the focus of our Labour Party work is in the unions.

4. We seek wherever possible, to promote the concepts of working class representation and a workers government, both through the McDonnell campaign and after it finishes through the LRC and any ongoing local initiatives. This will include, but is not limited to, arguing for affiliated unions to actively intervene in internal Labour Party elections and selection processes by voting for and promoting candidates who advocate class based politics or who are prepared to be guided by the trade union movement rather than by the Blairite machinery.

5. Our overall, long-term assessment of New Labour and its relation to the working class indicates that though we support such things as the McDonnell campaign when they exist, we maintain and strengthen the AWL's open revolutionary socialist political profile. Wherever it is possible to do so in a serious, worthwhile fashion, we organise challenges to New Labour by initiating or supporting independent socialist election campaigns such as the campaigns we ran in Nottingham in 2005 and Hackney in 2006.


1. Our basic characterisation of the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers' party remains what it was. It is of the general species of political formations beset by a contradiction between a primarily working-class base, and a bourgeois leadership and policy.

In relation to all such bourgeois workers' parties Trotsky pointed out our guiding concerns: it is fatal to be "indifferent to the inner struggle within reformist organisations - as if one could win the masses without intervening in their daily strife!" We "intervene". In certain circumstances we organise the left. We seek levers and channels by way of which to revolutionise and reshape the labour movement which history - that is, the wills and ideas of others - has created.

2. We cannot simply read off detailed tactics (for example, in elections) or questions of our own activity and orientation from our general characterisation of Labour as a bourgeois workers' party. The particular tactics of Marxists will differ widely depending on specifics. Trotsky: "The mass organisations have value precisely because they are mass organisations. Even when they are under patriotic reformist leadership one cannot discount them. One must win the masses who are in their clutches: whether from outside or from inside depends on the circumstances".

As a norm, as well as whatever activities we do which are specifically geared to the internal life of a bourgeois workers' party, the staple activity of Marxists is open campaigning under our own flag (publications, election campaigns, etc). The reason for this is that bourgeois workers' parties by their nature rely on working-class passivity, rarely involve very large numbers of workers in actual activity, and sometimes involve quite small numbers. Marxists have to reach out to the younger, more militant workers, and not let their light be hidden under a bushel of general platitudes about "the workers' party". This consideration is important in Britain today.

The exception comes when the Marxists are very weak, or the bourgeois workers' party is unusually broad in its reach over working-class activists and unusually open in its internal regime, or both.

Thus, for example, when Trotsky recommended the British Trotskyists in the 1930s to focus their activity in the Labour Party, he wrote: "Had it been a question of a formed, homogeneous party with a stable apparatus, entry in it would not only be useless but fatal. But the Labour Party is altogether in a different state. Its apparatus is not homogeneous and, therefore, permits great freedom to different currents".

3. For some of its history, the British Labour Party has been an exception to the rule of bourgeois workers' parties. In some of its phases it has had a comparatively loose, open, federal structure - with trade-union delegates functioning in the party structures at every level - and has been unusually broad in its reach over working-class activists.

For those reasons, the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky and the Comintern Congress of 1920 advised the British Communists to seek affiliation to the Labour Party, though no similar tactic was proposed in relation to any other bourgeois workers' party in Europe. They hinged their assessment not on the British Labour Party's policies - which were reactionary, and of the same type as other bourgeois workers' parties - but on its unusual structures and the opportunities those gave to communists.

4. That Labour Party "exceptionality" has been changed radically over the last 20 years, and especially since Tony Blair took over in 1994. The Labour Party now differs from bourgeois workers' parties in other countries, on the whole, by having less openness and life, rather than more. Its working-class base has been massively eroded in the last decade.

5. Blair and Brown, building on Kinnock and Smith, have pushed through big structural changes in the Labour Party which have radically diminished and qualitatively changed working-class political life within it. The details are set out below in section D.

6. Every bourgeois workers' party embodies a contradiction between two tendencies: on the one hand, it is a bourgeois machine for ensnaring working-class organisations in bourgeois politics and maintaining and enforcing working-class political passivity; on the other, it offers some levers for working-class political activity. In the British Labour Party today, the first tendency is massively predominant.

7. Previously work among the activists in the CLPs could, by way of the Labour Party structures, feed back into a political vitalisation of the relatively slow-moving and passive unions; now the Labour Party, and the future of the Labour Party depends on the policies and initiatives of the unions. Previously, in elections, it was possible and plausible for Marxists to have a public political presence along the lines of "vote Labour and fight" - "vote Labour, but fight for working-class policies, against the Labour leadership, within the Labour structures". Given the structural changes, the old 'Vote Labour and fight' slogan now lacks grip. If we call for a Labour vote 'by default', it only now makes sense for two reasons: as part of a broader campaign for labour representation in the unions and elsewhere and because having a Labour government puts the leadership on the spot and provides a focus for such a campaign.

8. No serious struggle can be carried through without first making a realistic assessment of the terrain and the tasks. For example, to dismiss the structural changes which have already been carried through in the Labour Party as insignificant is necessarily also to say that a successful battle to reverse those changes would be insignificant; and thus to weaken, rather than strengthen, our effort.

9. The McDonnell campaign offers us opportunities for work in and around the Labour Party such as has been barred to us for a decade and a half. We have seized and acted upon these opportunities; we should continue to do so. Neither the fact of the McDonnell campaign, nor its calculable effects, changes anything of our basic assessment. It would be political foolishness and political disorientation to imagine that they do.


1. Our general conclusion in 1998 from the changes in the Labour Party remains valid. "To continue to forgo socialist propaganda in elections in deference to the monopoly of the anti-socialist and anti-working class Blair party is increasingly to boycott our own politics and our own proper working-class concerns".

2. The precedent we cited then also remains valid: the "electoral guerrilla war" of the socialist groups (SDF and ILP) in the late 19th century, in the period leading up to the formation of the Labour Party. Neither SDF nor ILP could pose itself as an alternative governing force against the Liberals who dominated the working-class vote at the time. But the SDF and ILP contested elections selectively in order to build up support, to spread socialist education, and to promote the basic idea of working-class political representation. Their efforts laid the ground for the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (forerunner of the Labour Party) in 1900.

3. Also valid are the conditions we stipulated in 1998: "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 in the Labour Party is what we need".

4. The Socialist Alliance of 2001 was a positive and promising venture along those lines. The idea that its failure means we should "turn to the Labour Party" is nonsensical "wishful thinking". Whether we should "turn to the Labour Party" depends on the state of the Labour Party. The failure of the Socialist Alliance has no bearing on the state of the Labour Party.

The state of the Labour Party - its political role, and above all else, the opportunities (or lack of them) for work in it - is what determines our political relationship to New Labour. The failures of the SWP, the SP, and the SSP in no way detract from the truth of what we said in 1998 about the changes in the Labour Party. On the contrary, those changes have been reinforced, hardened, and consolidated by nine years of Blair governments.

5. The Socialist Alliance's relatively poor results from its 98 candidates in 2001, and its subsequent demise, were due to the specific political choices of the dominant political force in the Alliance, the SWP - or, in other words, to the relative weakness of the AWL within the would-be revolutionary left - rather than to any general impossibility of effective independent socialist electoral efforts in current conditions.

6. The Scottish Socialist Party's record, despite all the SSP's faults, testifies to the possibility in current conditions of effective independent socialist electoral efforts. The recent setbacks for the SSP are due to specific bad political choices by the SSP leadership, and in particular to the destructive irresponsibility of Tommy Sheridan, rather than to any general impossibility of effective independent socialist electoral efforts. The success of the SSP in attracting up to 10% of the vote in Glasgow and succeeding in getting a number of MSPs elected at the last Scottish parliamentary elections indicate that there is a particular potential for independent socialist electoral success in Scotland which is not yet reflected in any similar increase in the socialist vote in England.

7. With the political collapse of the SWP and the retreat of the Socialist Party into cultivating its own tiny electoral bastions, the necessary united left electoral effort has become much more difficult to organise. In fact, for now, impossible. The formation of the Socialist Green Unity Coalition helped us run candidates plausibly as "Socialist Unity" in Nottingham in 2005 and Hackney in 2006, but as yet has little promise of anything more than that.

8. Further "Socialist Unity" candidacies by us may well be worthwhile. This will have to be judged according to circumstances. In anything like current conditions, we can effectively organise only very few such candidacies. That is because of our weakness, and the political weaknesses of the broader class-struggle left, not because the Labour Party today is so open, and commands such wide and active working class support, as to make such candidacies inadvisable.

That the SWP fouled up the task of organising a selective socialist electoral challenge to New Labour does not mean that the job was impossible.

9. Moreover, doing the independent electoral work we have done has not disabled us from taking part in the McDonnell campaign.


1. Input to Labour Party conference from the labour movement has become qualitatively more difficult. For CLPs and rank and file Labour and trade union members, it is in practice effectively blocked off: an exception here and there does not change that. The unions still have nearly 50% of the vote at Labour Party conference, but they are very limited in using that 50% (only four motions, decided de facto by the four biggest unions without the smaller unions having any say). The conference has become entirely a stage-managed publicity event. Except for the trade union leaders, when and if they use their weight against the Labour Party leaders, conference is no longer a parliament of the labour movement. Not by rule-change, but by dint of repeated open dismissal of conference decisions by the Blair-Brown leadership, and silence from the union leaders, conference decisions have ceased to have weight in the Labour Party.

2. The union say in the National Executive has been reduced both numerically (to 12 out of 32) and in substance (the Executive has become essentially only a consultative committee for the parliamentary leadership). Union input has been further diluted by the setting-up of the National Policy Forum, where the unions have only 30 out of 183 representatives. Those 30 operate "behind closed doors" as far as the rank and file of the unions are concerned.

3. It is not just that "the unions" in general have a reduced input to the Labour Party. The union input is to a much greater degree channelled through the top union leaders, rather than coming through a diversity of forms as in the old Labour structures.

4. Important unions now have rules which further restrict rank-and-file activist influence on their union input into the Labour Party. Unison has a separate political structure, not very permeable to the rank and file, and Unison conference cannot mandate the Unison political structure. Amicus also has a separate political structure, even more impermeable than Unison's. The political structure of the proposed merged TGWU-Amicus organisation remains unclear.

5. Meanwhile, a veritable army of "New Labourites", many with no labour-movement background or allegiance at all, sits above the formal structures of the Labour Party. Even before the 1997 general election, this Blair-Brown "party on top of a party", organised around the personal offices of Blair and Brown, was weightier than the formal "Labour Party machine". Over the last nine years in government the "party on top of a party" has acquired further weight through a vast proliferation of "adviser" jobs, "task forces", "think tanks", and so on.

6. The Constituency Labour Parties have a lower membership on paper than they had even in World War 2, when all electoral contests with the Tories were suspended and most activists had been drafted into the armed forces. On all accounts, the active membership has declined even more than the paper membership. Union delegates to CLPs have become rare. About half of all CLPs no longer bother to send a delegate to Labour Party conference. Those CLP delegates who do arrive vote, in their majority, way to the right of the unions.

7. While Labour councils carry out relentlessly anti-working-class policies, rebellions by left-wing Labour councillors are much rarer than for decades, even though councillors are necessarily much more vulnerable to pressure from even quarter-alive local Labour Parties than MPs are.

8. The Labour Party has not had a functioning youth organisation, unofficial or official, for nearly 20 years. Nominally, a Young Labour organisation exists, but it is lifeless. There are very few active student Labour Clubs.

9. Labour government policy is relentlessly and directly anti-working-class, and counter to mass working-class opinion, on all the key issues - trade-union rights, privatisation, health service, education, pensions, Iraq... Of course all previous Labour governments betrayed their working-class supporters, and directly clashed with workers in struggle. None gloried in affronting working-class opinion as this one has done.

10. This destruction of the activist base of the party, whilst bolstering Blair's ideological hold on the Party, contains within it an inherent instability – without party activists, electoral success becomes more and more difficult to attain irrespective of policies. It is the cause of some tension within the New Labour machine and has been partially responsible for leaked disagreements over any further internal reform, and for the spectacle of MPs scuttling to be part of local single issue campaigns in their constituencies even where these conflicted with their stated ministerial positions such as over maternity unit closures as the MPs recognise how dependent they are on local activists giving their practical support come election time.


1. At the time of the great upheaval in the Labour Party in 1979-82, we warned that the old adage that "those who make a revolution by halves dig their own graves" applied here too. If the left did not push through the transformation of the Labour Party to the end, creating a political labour movement genuinely accountable to the rank and file and genuinely committed to fighting for a workers' government, then the alternative would not be a return to the old, easy-going, ramshackle Labour Party. The Labour leaders who defeated the rank-and-file rebellion would take steps to protect themselves against future rebellions. At the very least they would transform the Labour Party regime into something much tighter and more centralised, on the model of the social-democratic parties of continental Europe.

2. We were right. Kinnock and Smith started the process. Blair pushed it qualitatively further.

3. In September 1996, Stephen Byers, then a top Blairite,called for the Labour Party to break all links with the unions. In January 1997 Tony Blair declared that the Labour Party must be transformed into an unambiguously "pro-business" party like the Democrats in the USA.

As we assessed it the time: "Blair has said it openly. They want to make the Labour Party into an out-and-out bourgeois party... The lesser, half-way-house, versions of the Blair project would, while keeping some formal ties, make the unions junior lobbyists rather than the decisive core of the party".

So far the Blair-Brown faction has gone for the "half-way house" version. They decided not to use the strong position accruing to them immediately after their election victory in 1997 to go for a quick and complete break with the unions. They did not. The union leaders were so servile that they felt no need to go for something so risky.

The basic "project" remains, though. Now elements of the Labour leadership are proposing to reduce even the nominal union say at Labour Party conference to 30%, or 15%.

4. History shows us examples of social-democratic parties which had shrivelled - as any sort of working-class activist-based force - apparently to the point of death, but then, in the absence of an adequate working-class Marxist alternative, regained a considerable degree of life. Example: the French Socialist Party. Shrivelled in the early 1920s; lively in the mid-1930s; shrivelled again in the late 1960s; reviving in the 1970s. In 1924 Trotsky had to warn the French Communists, who could see no need for united-front tactics towards the Socialist Party because the Socialist Party was so weak, that by their very nature reformist parties tend to have a pool of passive support - which under certain conditions can change into active support - out of proportion to their active strength. "The [SP] may under certain conditions prove to be a much more important counter-revolutionary factor within the working class than might appear, if one were to judge solely from the weakness of their organization and the insignificant circulation and ideological content of their paper, Le Populaire".

5. Another example is the New Zealand Labour Party after the Lange years.

6. It is not impossible that the same thing could happen with the British Labour Party: that, say, after losing a general election, a new leadership might decide it was safe to repair its ties with the working class and to return to something more like "old Labour".

7. For our own orientation it is necessary to stress a central fact here: we cannot conceivably by our activities make that "return to old Labour" happen. We should not tell those we reach that they should join the Labour Party and make it happen. That would be the witch-doctor dressing in green to make spring come back! Our objective is not, and cannot be, to wait and see if that "return to old Labour" happens, nudging it along if we can.

Our objective is to mobilise working-class forces now against the Blair-Brown stifling of working-class political representation. The quicker and more energetically workers do mobilise, the more likely is a sharp, open split in which the Blair-Brown faction takes the "party on top of a party", probably most of the MPs, some of the unions, and at least a section of the CLPs (that section represented by the large number of CLP delegates who regularly vote with the platform at Labour Party conferences). After such a split, the Blair-Brown faction would have a large political machine, something altogether weightier than McDonald and Snowden had after 1931. But we would also have, on the other side, the beginnings of a genuine new workers' party based on the unions.

8. That is what we should go for. We argue against unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party - not on the grounds that they should wait until some supposed automatic "swing of the pendulum" restores something like "old Labour", but on the grounds that they should urgently use every toehold in the Labour structures to mobilise workers politically against Blair and Brown.

9. Ever since 1997, starting with the rebellion by 61 Labour MPs in late 1997 against cuts in disability benefit, we have been on the look-out for political developments which could provoke a revival in the CLPs. The ferment over the Iraq war, and the shift by the union leaders in recent years towards a more combative attitude (at least, and, alas, so far, only, in words) to Blair, were possibilities of that sort. In actual fact, so far, those developments have led to a further bleeding-away of leftish Labour Party members rather than a revival in the CLPs.

It may not always be so. Therefore, all AWL members who have not been specifically expelled or excluded from the Labour Party should not only get Labour Party membership cards, but also (around the current McDonnell campaign) check out their local Labour Party ward and GC meetings. They should not just attend one or two meetings and withdraw straight away if no lively left wing is immediately visible, but investigate properly.

We should ensure that we keep in touch with Labour leftists whom we know through previous Labour Party work, through unions or through campaigns, to monitor what's happening to the Labour Party and to be alert to any signs of life, and make every opportunity to draw Labour Party members into campaigns.

10. However it is evident that, for now, the vast bulk of our “Labour Party” work will in fact be directed through our union fractions, and in particular through the affiliated unions.

We should raise the following:

Union-sponsored MPs should defend union policies. We could tie this to the relevant privatisation issues-PFI in the health service, for instance.
Opposing Blair's privatisations, fighting for our class. We should explicitly raise the necessity for a political angle to anti-privatisation campaigning, counterposing involvement in the pollitical process to passive “lobbying” of MPs
Get union branches/regional structures to organise discussions and debates on Labour/working-class representation and working-class policies in the run up to the next general election
Push where we can for the setting up of a permanent local Labour Representation Committees which would promote accountable representation of workers in politics. The McDonnell campaign has been a springboard to establish this in some areas.
The EC should draw up guidelines for comrades in particular unions to discuss ways in which we can (a) argue that political funds can be targeted and (b) get more involved in the political structures.
We continue to explain our overall policy with union activists to try and convince them of the case for a Workers Government.


1. We reaffirm the basic practical guidelines for our work round the McDonnell campaign.

AWL union fractions should:
- seek to establish pro-McDonnell networks in their unions (including non-affiliated ones);
- push motions through the union structures (in Unison, the APF) for support for McDonnell.

AWL branches should:
- seek to establish AWL members as local contacts and organisers for the campaign; - seek out local LP leftists and talk with them; - help organise local public meetings with McDonnell;
- canvass their AWL members to follow AWL policy of being signed up as individual members of the Labour Party;
- put motions in union branches to support McDonnell or sponsor debates on the LP leadership with representatives from the various candidates;
- seek to get CLPs to set up such debates.

2. In this activity we should also promote opposition to the moves to reduce the union say at Labour Party conference; positively demand Labour Party democracy; and call for a reduction in the current prohibitive nominations threshold for Labour Party leadership candidacies.

To maintain the momentum established by our intervention in the McD campaign and not to lose any ground gained, in preparation for these likely battles, we should formally re-establish our LP/LRC fraction. This would comprise reps from each branch and all the affiliated trade union fractions.

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