By Sacha Ismail
IN a sense, the most important thing about John McDonnell's campaign is not its formal policies. The fact that in Parliament and outside it McDonnell has been a consistent and courageous fighter for the working class defines the importance of his bid for the leadership more than his in fact quite limited public programme. But of course, for revolutionary socialists, the politics matter too. They will define and shape what the campaign achieves, not just in terms of nominations received and votes cast, but the recomposition of the left in the labour movement.
The main points on which the campaign has focused so far are an end to the privatisation of public services, troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, abolition of student fees, more and better council housing, environmental protection through renewable energy, restoration of trade union rights and increased and index-linked minimum wage, benefits and pensions. In broad terms these should be welcomed. In the current political atmosphere of the Blairite-Thatcherite "consensus", the promise to reverse attacks on workers' rights, the marketisation of the public sector and New Labour's neo-con-driven foreign policy is of major importance.
McDonnell happily cites Marx, and has been critical of the left nationalist Alternative Economic Strategy-type policies (import controls, withdrawal from Europe etc) put forward by most of the Labour left in the 1980s. However, instead of consistently stressing the centrality of public ownership and developing ideas about what genuinely socialist models of public ownership should look like, the campaign has not given this any prominence, instead concentrating much more on the type of limited pledges described above.
Having these debates now is essential if we are to rebuild a left in the labour movement that stands for socialist policies, and not just warmed up versions of old Labour. Putting more of the economy in the hands of the state will not necessarily stop attacks on the working class, and even if it does bring an end to job cuts, service cuts and the other worst excesses of capitalism, that would not necessarily mean that workers have any real democratic control. We need democratic planning for need on the basis of workers' and community control. McDonnell has some record of criticising the Bennite-type Labour left on these issues and putting forward ideas about democratic self-management: these ideas need to be put front-and-centre in his campaign.
The question of working-class democracy is not just about workers' control in individual industries, but also about democracy in society as a whole and in the state. Ideas like votes for all at 16 and the abolition of the royal
prerogative, welcome as they are, are no substitute for a campaign against Britain's whole pseudo-democratic system and for a democratic republic in which representatives are accountable, recallable and deprived of privileges. This sort of focus on democracy is not the same sort of ultimatum-ism as e.g. demanding that the McDonnell campaign comes out for a workers' militia, and cannot be supported unless it does (a la Workers Power, who have no intention of supporting the campaign anyway).
The fight for democracy has real relevance to the class struggle now, particularly as the decline of bourgeois democracy is integrally bound up with the decline and destruction of democracy in the Labour Party. The way the PLP allows the Blairites to ignore conference policy, the contempt the Blair government displays for Parliament, its conduct of the Iraq war without even a pretence of democratic accountability, cash for peerages... the importance of the struggle for democracy becomes clearer with every new scandal.
Too much of the campaign's agenda, at the moment, is based on rolling back the Blair government's attacks, rather than organising the labour movement to make new conquests and advance towards a government genuinely committed to the working class, a workers' government. Even when support for more limited demands is justified, there could be a lot more emphasis on how these relate to further links in the chain. Opposing privatisation and tuition fees, for instance, poses the need for taxation of the rich to rebuild the welfare state and public services, something which the campaign has said very little about it. Or take the Trade Union Freedom Bill.
Although it is absolutely right to mobilise around the bill to put pressure on the Parliamentary Labour Party and the TUC, we need to be clear that we are not just for this limited set of demands, but for repeal of all the anti-union laws. The working class needs the right to strike so that it can fight the bosses, not just a slight loosening to the shackles placed on it by the Thatcherites and kept in place by Blair.
Revolutionary socialists need to build the McDonnell campaign, but an essential part of that is being clear about the limitations of its politics and putting forward our own alternative ideas.