Two recent articles, by Michael Chessum in the New Statesman and by Ben Sellers on the blog Left Futures, ask the question: “Should socialists leave the Labour Party?” Ben says they shouldn't. Michael isn't sure, but is certain the question needs thinking about.
Well, there's no arguing with that. Socialist strategy needs continuous re-examination and reassessment, even in good times, which ours, sadly are not.
We should probably define our terms here. Although myself, Michael, and Ben are all coming from slightly different places politically, when we discuss what socialists should do, I understand us to be talking about those of us within the broad working-class movement who believe in some form of democratic working-class rule, and that through industrial, social, and political struggle we can develop the confidence to work towards that rule as an alternative to the rule of capital. There are not many of such people in Britain. The terrain that Michael and Ben have us arguing on is about is where it's most useful for us to spend our time.
Michael and Ben's initial articles are a month old now, and both comrades might argue that they have been overtaken by events (namely, Jeremy Corbyn's campaign for the Labour Party leadership). But with the essential contradictions that defined the picture before Corbyn's campaign still in place, we cannot put the fundamental ongoing debate, on hold for the duration of the leadership election. I think it's still worth discussing the essentials.
So what are any of us doing in the Labour Party in the first place? Michael's article is quite succinct on this point, and rightly points out that fundamental reason for socialist engagement with the Labour Party was not, ultimately, some notion that it could be “reclaimed” for a socialism it never meaningfully espoused, but rather “that left-wing activists should align themselves to, and agitate within, the organised working class, who are still, despite everything, largely affiliated to Labour.” In the interests of laying one's cards on the table, my aspiration is not a revamped left-wing social democracy, nor a “left party” that can occupy a perceived “space” in electoral opinion, but rather independent labour representation – that is, our movement creating a means to express itself in the political sphere that is based on and accountable to workers' fundamental organisations: trade unions. The unions, and their existing relationship to politics, is, therefore, my starting point.
Michael starts somewhere similar, I think. Much of his rumination (which, while inconclusive, rather leant, at least until Jeremy Corbyn's success in getting on the leadership ballot, in the direction of the idea that socialists should leave the Labour Party) depends on the idea that, with murmurs of Unite, the largest affiliated union, potentially breaking from Labour, the old idea that the Labour Party was the political expression of the majority of the industrial labour movement might simply no longer be the case. Ben says “that [a Unite split] would change the landscape considerably “, but he doesn't reckon it likely, as “trade unions are by their nature not risk-takers”. “The main unions, he argues, “will stick to Labour while there is a chance that they can influence the leadership and the policy of the party.”
For what it's worth, I share Ben's scepticism about a Unite breakaway. Unite seems unlikely even to lend its weight to Jeremy Corbyn's bid for the Labour leadership, and will probably back Andy Burnham. A union officialdom that cannot even bring itself to back a genuine left-wing challenge for the leadership is hardly likely to take bold strides towards a new radical party. Even if Unite did break, given the obvious political timidity of its current leadership, there is no guarantee that anything it did set up would even remotely resemble the “English Syriza” that Paul Mason and others have fancifully speculated might be possible.
Looking at the history of Unite's recent conduct within the Labour Party rather takes us to heart of the matter, and the point that I think both Michael and Ben have missed. What we really need to be discussing is not some technical question of strategy, playing armchair generals and debating whether Britain's pitifully small army of socialists are better deployed within the Labour Party or out of it. What we need to be discussing is how we can transform the entire labour movement. That is, in fact, a much more daunting task. Deciding whether one or two weekday evenings are better spent at a CLP meeting or a local Left Unity/TUSC/your-community-campaign-of-choice meeting (or down the pub?) is an easier, more digestible way of thinking about socialist strategy. But if we actually want to build working-class power, there is no shortcut around working to affect the top-to-bottom transformation of our entire movement.
In 2004, no affiliated union (including, in fact, the RMT itself) mounted any serious challenge to the Labour Party's expulsion of the RMT (which refused to censure Scottish branches which wanted to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party, then a viable left-of-Labour project). In 2006, Unite backed Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership against John McDonnell, despite Unite United Left, which did back McDonnell, holding a majority on the Unite Executive. In 2007, Unite, GMB, and Unison made noises of opposition against Labour Party rule-changes which disenfranchised local parties and furthered dis-empowered the annual conference, but then voted them through. In 2010, Unite and other affiliated unions again failed to back John McDonnell for the Labour leadership. In 2014, Unite grumbled about the implications of the Collins Review, which will substantially disenfranchise affiliated unions if its recommendation are imposed, as they are due to be in 2019, and then voted for it. Before the 2015 general election, Unite delegates on Labour's National Policy Forum helped voted down policy that would've committed the Labour Party to an anti-austerity political platform. And, most recently, Rachel Maskell (to take what I think can be judged a fairly representative example for the case in hand), who went straight from a senior officer's job in Unite to a Labour seat in Parliament, nominated... Andy Burnham.
That record shows how naïve it is to expect Unite, controlled by essentially the same forces which controlled it through all those episodes, to provide the impetus for an “English Syriza”. In fact, how radical the pronouncements of Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, and his ultra-Stalinist “Chief of Staff” Andrew Murray, are seems to be inversely proportional to their likely course of action. The record also shows that we cannot hope to transform the Labour Party (or break it up in a way which doesn't lead to the unions withdrawing from collective, permanent engagement in politics and towards making US-style financial deals with potential “friends of labour” from any and all parties) without transforming the unions that have, in large part, allowed the Labour Party to become what it has become.
If Michael pins his hopes on Unite disaffiliating from Labour and founding something better, the cavalry riding to Ben's rescue is a rebuilt Labour left. He hopes his Red Labour network can be the basis of that. Ben says: “We have to get together and build a serious, organised, engaged and thinking Labour left, one that leaves behind some of the false walls that have divided us.” It's not clear, though, what he thinks that Labour left should be doing. Passing left-wing policy in CLPs and at Labour Party conference? Worthwhile initiatives, but to be meaningful they must also involve a drive in the affiliated unions to get those unions to fight consistently within the party and against its leadership for those policies. The affiliated unions are key.
Debating whether individual socialists should intervene in the Labour Party substantially misses the point. Where local Labour Parties have life, that may make sense. Elsewhere, it may not. Local decisions about the disposal of individual resources matters less than what perspective we have for the whole movement. Our primary aim is to make our movement fit to fight. That has to start with a concerted effort in the unions to address, through the building of rank-and-file networks, the immense democratic deficit between the members and the leaderships, and to break the unions from the various forms of conservatism (whether explicit, as in the case of Unison, or a subtler variant that disguises an essential conservatism behind tokenistic pseudo-militancy) that currently characterise their conduct on both the industrial and political fronts. A combative, democratic labour movement, that fought politically for labour movement demands, would not flinch from expressing that combativeness within Labour Party structures, in the full knowledge that such combativeness may cause a Blairite Labour leadership to sever the union link, or otherwise cause a split.
I'm not arguing, by the way, that nothing can be done until we've transformed the entire movement. That may be the task of more than one generation. But if our perspective and aspiration is for that transformation, that should be our starting point and focus. The struggle to transform the labour movement will undoubtedly throw up unexpected openings and possibilities along the way, which we should remain alive to.
Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy for the Labour leadership provides an immediate focus. Ben and Red Labour have thrown themselves behind it, and Michael has called for the left to “unite behind” Corbyn's candidacy.
The presence in the leadership election of a candidate genuinely of the radical left can do wonders in terms of sharpening the contradictions within Labour. But the leadership election can't be the be-all and end-all, however it ends up. In his latest New Statesman article, Michael ruminates the the election might be “the beginning of the swan-song of the Labour left – another moment at which many of its number finally decide, from a position of strength, to start or join something new.” There is probably a widespread hope in some quarters of the far left that something like this scenario will develop: Corbyn's (unsuccessful) campaign will finally make people realise there's no point engaging with the Labour Party, and he and all his supporters will walk out of Labour to found a new party. But even in the unlikely event that this mechanical teleology becomes a reality, we'd still be faced with a fundamental roadblock: the question of organisation and politics in the whole labour movement.
Could networks developed around the Corbyn campaign be the future infrastructure of the reinvigorated Labour left that Ben aspires to? Well, maybe. Sort of. If Corbyn wins (an outcome that sober assessment must still deem unlikely, although perhaps becoming less so), the Labour Party will probably fracture, with hard-Blairites perhaps moving to overturn the election result, or simply walking out of the party (maybe to fuse with the rump Lib Dems, their natural allies). That would take us into uncharted, difficult, and unpredictable territory, but would create immense possibilities too. But the left will only be able to effectively navigate through that terrain if we immediately begin developing a more sophisticated perspective for winning genuine independent labour representation. Workers' Liberty has advocated the initiation of local labour movement conferences, organised through active union branches, or Trades Councils where they have life (and maybe, in one or two places, by CLPs), to act as forums where these perspectives can be thrashed out.
In 2012/2013, I wrote a document for the Workers' Liberty National Committee sketching out what form a campaign of consistent political self-assertion by the unions might look like (it can be read here). Notwithstanding a required update, I think it's largely still applicable, and arguably even more necessary given current conditions. Before that, in 2010, in a survey on the level of democracy across the trade union movement in Britain, I made some proposals for how a programme for rank-and-file-led democratic reform in the labour movement might look (an essential accompaniment to any attempt to win our unions to a more politically combative stance). Our unions have not, on the whole, become more democratic in the five years since, so I would stand by that article as a contribution to the current debate too.
I am hopefully not so arrogant as to suggest that two articles I wrote between three and five years ago can be, in and of themselves, adequate points of departure for socialists in the labour movement in 2015. I re-raise them here not because I think they have all (or perhaps any) of the answers, but to try to show more clearly the questions I think we need to answer.
Whatever we do – within Labour and without, including the Corbyn campaign and the work we must all now put in to win backing for it across the unions, particularly the affiliated ones – “reclaim Labour” or “leave Labour” are inadequate perspectives, answers to the wrong question, and neither of them quite possible in the way their proponents imagine. We cannot “reclaim” what was never straightforwardly “ours”, but conversely, while individuals can cancel their party membership, we cannot simply “leave” Labour, in the sense of walking away from it, or bypass it, when the bulk of our movement is still essentially tied to it.
Rather, we should aim to develop a campaign of working-class self-assertion on every front. The starting point for that is the rank-and-file push to make our unions fight, and the necessary perspective is for the transformation of the whole movement. Neither the Unite-led exodus from the Labour Party hinted at by Michael, possibly in the wake of a glorious defeat for Corbyn, nor Ben's hope that a feathered-up Labour left can drag the party back towards a more radical conception of social democracy, quite cut it.