The left and the election

Submitted by AWL on 30 October, 2019 - 9:12 Author: Martin Thomas

On 29 October Labour for a Socialist Europe is meeting to discuss its plans, including plans to organise an internationalist-left profile within the Labour campaign in the general election likely to come soon.

A basic leaflet is being printed, and an L4SE video has been produced. Other materials being discussed include:

• short “position papers” or “explainers” on a range of issues, to be available on the website and printable in short runs or from pdfs for street stalls and hand-to-hand use: Green New Deal, public ownership, union rights, etc.
• posters
• stickers
• tote bags

Everything is limited by funds — no millionaire donations here! — so a GoFundMe crowdfunding operation will soon be online.

The prime vehicle for the L4SE materials will probably be street or campus stalls. Official Labour campaigns rarely do such stalls, so there’s no cross-cutting or clash there.

Activists on the stalls will distribute leaflets, seek discussions, try to persuade sympathetic people to take bundles of leaflets to put round in their workplaces, or (on campus) in their lectures and seminars, or among their friends and neighbours.

There is no difficulty here with laws on election campaign funding. So long as the L4SE material does not mention individual parliamentary candidates, and so long as the budget remains limited (no problem, sadly!), its circulation does not bother the Electoral Commission.

There is also no reason why activists should not take the L4SE materials with them, as supplementary materials, when they join in official Labour canvassing and leafleting.

Our political purpose is not to cajole Remainers into voting Labour by “spinning” Labour policy in as pro-Remain a sense as we can. We want people to vote Labour, but we want to convince them by honest argument and by saying straightforwardly what we think on all the big issues.

And we want to use the heightened political attention during the election campaign to continue what we do outside election time: namely, to build an internationalist left presence within the labour movement, and draw in new activists for that.

We want to come out of the election period better prepared, equipped, educated, and organised for the battles ahead.
Two experiences from a long while back offer us instructive lessons.

In 1978-79 our forerunners, then organised around the paper Workers’ Action, were central to an effort in the May 1979 general election called the “Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory”.

The formula for the campaign was worked out piecemeal and with some improvisation. Back in 1977 there was talk of a sizeable left-of-Labour electoral slate for the general election which had to be held by 1979. Most left activists in those days were outside Labour. Among both them and Labour leftists there was anger against the social-cutting, wage-curbing Labour government.

We discussed if we could get involved with that possible left-of-Labour campaign. Eventually we decided that wasn’t viable. We had to stick to our activity within Labour. (And in fact, the left-of-Labour effort at the 1979 general election was weak).

But we couldn’t relapse into just repeating a generic slogan like “vote Labour and prepare to fight” and muttering our radical criticisms to the few people within earshot.

We decided to launch a specific campaign to agitate for socialist policies, and for the idea of organising for such politics within the labour movement against the Labour leadership, coupled with a Labour vote against Thatcher’s menacing Tories.

At first we thought this would be essentially just us and a few sympathisers, shouting as loud as we could, but still not very loud.

But the idea took off. The “Chartist” group (forerunners both of today’s Chartist magazine and of Labour Briefing, but then Trotskyists within the Labour Party) came in on it, and did useful work (while also debating and disputing with us, within the project, about many issues: the EU, local government policy, more).

Ken Livingstone (then a local left Labour councillor: this was before his period of association with the “Healyite” WRP), Ted Knight, Jeremy Corbyn, Reg Race (then a radical Labour leftist, though he later moved to the right) came in on it.
In an interview for the magazine International Communist. John O’Mahony [Sean Matgamna] described it:

“Broad forces from many different sources and many different tendencies are involved. I think that’s an indication of a felt need for such a campaign; in the run-up to the election people are feeling that they shouldn’t just passively go along with the smug right-wing propaganda, nor should they go along with the line that the Tories are so bad that we must forgive the right wing Labourites — who have actually been better Tories from the point of view of the bosses than the Tories themselves could have been, over the last four years.

“We’ve found a formula for combining the struggle for our politics, for class struggle politics, with a drive to keep the Tories out. The campaign challenges the monopoly of the right wing...

“We already have at least one constituency party [it would eventually be six] that will be campaigning in the elections on our politics, in a sort of parallel election campaign to the official Labour Party.

“The campaign is also a means of preventing the cessation of.discussion of working-class politics in the period up to the election. It prepares for a fightback, and that fightback will be necessary if Labour wins just as if the Tories win.

“The campaign enables us to politicise the labour movement side of the election campaign, in a way that would not be possible if we had to accept the monopoly of the right wing leadership, which of course is accepted by the do-nothing... pseudo-left”.

Back then, central control over constituency Labour Party campaigning was much less tight than it is now and has been in recent decades. But in the main the activity of the “Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory” (SCLV) was the same as what we can do today. In different circumstances — it was the 1970s, and the left was bigger, younger, and more active — but similar activity.

The SCLV impressed and enthused a wide circle on the Labour left beyond those who directly took part.

In the run-up to the next general election, in June 1983, some of them set about trying to do something similar on a bigger scale.

It looked good. We threw our efforts into backing it, and emphasised a “broad” and not-too-polemical attitude. We counselled caution to comrades who we thought might push too “sectarian” and sharp an attitude.

We miscalculated. The dampen-down-the-polemics approach is sometimes good. Not in that case. The new effort, “Socialists for a Labour Victory” (SLV), flopped.

We examined why in a round-table discussion with Andy Harris, Rachel Lever, and John Bloxam, members of the SLV committee, published in Socialist Organiser 139, 2 July 1983.

As we reported: “On 7 March ‘Socialists for a Labour Victory’ was set up at a large, enthusiastic meeting in London.

“Ernie Roberts, Jo Richardson and Joan Maynard [all then left Labour MPs] were there, and Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner sent apologies; Nigel Williamson was there from Tribune [then much more left-wing than later], Ken Livingstone and Dave Wetzel, from the Greater London Council; Peter Tatchell from Bermondsey; and a number of comrades from London Labour Briefing and the left wing of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.

“The plan was the SLV would provide an alternative voice for the Left — to make sure the radical policies passed by Labour conference were put across loudly, clearly, and vigorously in the election campaign”.

What went wrong? Rachel Lever said: “All the SLV was doing was producing slightly better leaflets than came out of [Labour Party HQ at] Walworth Rd — or sometimes slightly worse ones!”

John Bloxam explained: “There were two approaches in the SLV: one to see it just as a ginger group to get the best manifesto possible, the other to see it more as an outward-looking campaign. Those who saw it as a ginger group won out — mostly by inertia”.

The reason was not that the SLV secretaries, Andy Harris and Mandy Moore, were sell-outs. Not at all. Not that we had been excluded from the SLV committee. We hadn’t.

Not that the Labour left was weaker. It was much stronger than in 1979.

Not even that the official Labour manifesto in 1983 was more left-wing than in 1979, and people saw the official campaign as adequate. The official campaign was a mess, with top Labour leaders openly disavowing the manifesto.

There was great scope for an autonomous left-wing campaign, basing itself on the more left-wing policies adopted by Labour since 1979.

SLV was less broad than SCLV, in activity, paradoxically, because it was less “narrow” in politics — less sharp, less feisty, less willing to stake out cutting-edge positions.

Activists are roused to go out and agitate only when they feel that they have a message of burning urgency, one on which no equivocations or halfway versions will do.

We have such a message now, in this “Brexit election” and with a string of relatively well-known left policies to fight on.

Let’s go with it!

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