The news that long-standing gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell will be the Green Party’s candidate in Oxford East at the next general election has generated some debate on the left.
Tatchell was the hard left Labour candidate in 1983’s infamous Bermondsey by-election, losing as a result of homophobic, red-baiting sabotage by the local Labour right and the party’s national leadership. He is a member of the Greens’ “ecosocialist” Green Left caucus and at least as radical on most issues as most Labour left-wingers. He is a committed, politically courageous and physically brave campaigner for LGBT liberation. Political disagreements aside, he is clearly a highly respect-worthy activist.
Oxford East’s sitting MP, Andrew Smith, by contrast, is former cabinet minister and down-the-line Brownite apparatchik with a 100% loyalist voting record.
Nonetheless, I believe that — painful as it is — socialists in Oxford East should vote Labour.
If Tatchell were standing as part of a socialist and working-class coalition (such as the old Socialist Alliance) or even perhaps as an “ecosocialist” independent, it would be a different matter.
The problem is the Greens are not a working-class organisation of any sort. They do not orientate to the labour movement, nor do they have labour movement affilates.
They do orient explicitly to a certain section of small business, promoting the benefits of local as against large-scale capitalist production. Their programme has a sort of radicalism about it, but little to do with the workers’ control, democratic planning and provision for need advocated by socialists.
Nor is their record radical in practice. In the last elections for Oxford City Council, one in five people voted Green, strengthening the Green group to eight. Yet the Green councillors have at various points entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who in the absence of Tory councillors in Oxford have acted as a focus for the right, making the the kind of cuts and privatisations the Greens claim to oppose — and with Green support.
Labour’s record in office is appalling. But as the fight around the Labour-union link, most recently in terms of the John McDonnell campaign, shows, what remains of Labour’s working-class links provides a certain amount of space to fight. Oxford East CLP has repeatedly taken left-wing, anti-government positions, with a number of its prominent activists and even councillors supporting the McDonnell campaign.
These stances do not go nearly far enough — evidently, since Andrew Smith has not been deselected and replaced with a socialist. But there is opposition and space for organising within Labour. Tatchell, by contrast, has praised the record of the Green councillors and so far been silent on their alliance with the right.
Advocating a Labour vote here is not about supporting Andrew Smith — and no AWL member or sympathiser should campaign for him at the next election, or do anything but debunk the anti-Tatchell propaganda which will no doubt be spewed forth even by Labour activists who should know better. Saying vote Labour is part of an overall orientation to a struggle for independent working-class politics within the labour movement — something which cannot always be judged on a candidate-by-candidate, issue-by-issue basis.
It is right to want to deny the Blairites’ their electoral monopoly by supporting left-wing candidates against them. But this has to be done in a way that is consistent with maintaining the overall perspective of class politics.
The Green-Labour confrontation in Oxford East is not the only situation in which such a difficulty exists. The apparent contradictions exist because we live in a strange period — one in which the main working-class party has been hijacked and is now in the process of becoming something other than a workers’ party, and in which most of the “radical” alternatives to it are not working-class but populist. Voting Green in Oxford East would no doubt feel better than advocating a vote for a Blairite Labour scumbag — but it will do nothing to help our central battle, the fight for working-class representation in politics.