Tony Benn MP has posed, with remarkable clarity, the issues involved in the current battle over Labour's future. In an article for the Observer entitled "The end of choice at the ballot box", Benn has accurately spelled out the disastrous consequences of a series of related developments, especially the NEC's proposals to change Labour's structure and its decision to create a Lib-Lab cabinet committee on constitutional reform.
Benn puts it like this;
"The Prime Minister's decision to set up a Cabinet Consultative Committee under his chairmanship, with a wide remit, and made up of Labour Ministers and Liberal leaders marks another step in the move to create a new political party in Britain..."
"...The next major step is due to take place at the labour conference in October, when a plan called "Party into Power" is to be presented, under which members of the party, the constituencies and affiliated organisations may lose their right to submit motions to conference."
"All these plans, combined with the tough new disciplinary code under which any Labour MP who holds an alternative opinion on any issue may be expelled and all new candidates will be drawn from an approved panel, virtually hands over complete control to the leadership."
"By the end of this parliament, if not before, it is possible that this project will have been completed and this new party will closely resemble the American Democratic Party, backed by big business and with no meaningful links with the Labour Party or labour movement"
"The British establishment has gone along with this from the very beginning and it is not hard to see why. It hopes and believes that such a party would be stronger than the Tories in dismantling the welfare state... and cutting public expenditure and wages in the name of labour flexibility and globalisation."
This is exactly what is happening!
Benn's great merit is that he has spelt out with remarkable clarity - a clarity absent from the circumlocution and coding employed by most of the parliamentary Labour left - the enormously high stakes involved in the current battles inside the Labour Party. He has elevated the discussion of the New Labour project above the trivia of spin-doctor gamesmanship and the degrading, “King Tony is badly advised" pap. Clearly, sharply and bluntly he has put the New Labour project in the proper context of class and linked this to paralysing bureaucratisation that is creeping like black ice over politics;
'But the price that may have to be paid (for the "Project") is the obliteration of any real policy choice through the ballot box, any real debate in the commons and a crisis of representation. We could see the complete disillusion with democracy and the appallingly low turnout there is in America. Clinton was elected with only 20% of the electorate."
This is exactly the danger. Workers’ Liberty has warned of it again and again. Back in 1980, at the high water mark of the Labour left, we argued that the outcome of the battles for Labour democracy would either be a transformed socialist labour movement, or the "Americanisation" of British politics and the destruction of the Labour Party as an entity based primarily on the labour movement. That logic is working itself quickly towards the moment of realisation. The key thing now is to know how socialists should relate to this, possibly terminal, crisis of labourism.
On this question of tactics Benn once again makes an important contribution:
"Those of us who remain committed to the trade union link and socialist objectives .. must continue to campaign quietly and persistently from inside the party and not be tempted to break away. Such principled campaigns are likely to win a great deal of support from the electors who voted Labour on 1 May, since the sheer scale of that victory suggests that it was not only the Conservatives who were rejected but much of the market based philosophy which nearly destroyed our social fabric and which urgently requires real change, not just new management."
Benn is right to say that we should not walk away from the Labour Party if we lose at the Brighton conference. The issue he does not develop, and it is fundamental, is how socialists continue to raise the issue of working class representation if New Labour is transformed into a "pure" bosses' party." The trade unions are the key here. Even the traditionally right wing AEEU, the engineering union, is talking of the need now to fight to get working class people into parliament. Its criticism of the class composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party — now mostly lawyers, journalists, academics and other jobbing political whores and loose ballast of that sort — is a great step forward. It shows what effect we can hope to have with a serious and bold agitation against the Blairites and for working class representation by working class MPs willing to fight for working class people and for working class policies Trade unions can use their influence in the Labour Party to deselect existing Blairite MPs and replace them with people loyal to the labour movement and the working class. That way we can hope to politically re-align the trade union movement on terms a lot more threatening to the Blair project than we can if we limit ourselves needlessly and artificially to single issue campaigning in a Labour Party increasingly bereft of an active proletarian core.
We are not yet in a position to launch a full scale Labour Representation Committee that could organise the unions to fight to save Labour as a worker's party and, if we lose that fight definitely, put up trade union candidates. We are in a situation where we can attempt to pull together the key activists in the unions, CLPs and the socialist groups who understand the centrality of mass labour movement politics. If we do that, we will be better able to give the Blairites the answer they deserve, win or lose at Brighton. The conference Unite for Labour Democracy on 13 September is therefore of enormous importance for serious working class socialists and labour movement activists.
We say: Unite the left to fight for working class representation!