Can the left reclaim the Labour Party?
by Charlie Kimber
SIX MONTHS ago left wingers like Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn MP looked very lonely figures in the Labour Party. They were barely tolerated by the leadership as quaint reminders of a long-gone era when people thought capitalism could actually be done away with and privatisation was a swear word.
Suddenly the views of the left do not seem so marginal inside the Labour Party. Boosted by the stunning victory of Derek Simpson for the leadership of the Amicus union and the big strike by council workers, the left feels it may be about to regain some influence. A recent conference saw MPs talking about "reclaiming" the party and telling the "Blairite clique" that its rule was over. The renewed confidence of the Labour left is welcome. It is the echo of a much bigger mood in society-a growing disillusion with Blair, with the power of business, and with the idea that the market has the solution to everything.
It is very clear that something is shifting inside Labour and that there will be sharp clashes ahead. This matters to the whole working class movement. But how much can the left achieve within the Labour Party? The vote last week to refuse the readmission of Ken Livingstone to party membership shows the formidable obstacles the left still faces.
It was the closest vote on the executive since Blair became leader and could easily have gone the other way. But it underlined just how much Blair has stacked the odds in his favour in Labour's internal structures. There is a more basic problem- the Labour left is weak today. People like Tony Benn, George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn and a small group of other MPs have stood courageously against the war in Afghanistan, in solidarity with the Palestinians and for workers' rights.
But they are a small layer. There is a much bigger group of Labour Party supporters that is, for example, opposed to a war in Iraq and against privatising the NHS. But they are not at all consistent in their opposition to Blair's policies. At the recent conference of Labour left wingers hosted by the Socialist Campaign Group, some of those present argued that David Blunkett was right to crack down on asylum seekers.
Other said that more police powers and harsher sentences were the only way to deal with crime. Labour's membership has fallen from 400,000 to 260,000 in the last five years. People may flock to hear Tony Benn's roadshow, but they don't rush to join the Labour Party when they come out of the theatre. As the history on these pages shows, the Labour left was much more powerful in the past than it is now. Yet even then it never managed to win the party to implementing socialist policies.
Instead, time after time, people who had begun as standard-bearers of the left ended up as right wingers. The Labour leaders always have a powerful tool against the left-the fear that socialist policies will alienate some sections of the electorate and deliver power to the Tories. However baseless this may be, it is always wheeled out at a time of trouble. Blair routinely tells Labour members that the choice at the next election will not be between "the Labour Party you might like and New Labour, but between New Labour and the Tories".
Most of them-including much of the left-have always surrendered to such pressures to shut up and get behind the leader. The other prop for the Labour leadership is the union bureaucracies, the full time officials at the top of the hierarchy. The Labour Party was born as the voice of the union leaders, and the unions remain central to the party. They provided 70 percent of the money in the run-up to the general election last year and still have 50 percent of the votes at conference. The party's leaders, having spent years moaning about the unions, have turned immediately to them to clear the party's �6 million deficit.
In an article in Tribune last week Labour's (unelected) party chair Charles Clarke lectured the unions that "they have to agree a stable funding regime for the party". They had, he said, to avoid "the significant and unexpected reductions in funding for the party" that have happened recently. He conceded that "the government must ensure there are proper processes in place to listen to the views of affiliated unions".
Then he quickly added, "It is important for all sides to make it clear that affiliated unions do not have any expectation that payment of an affiliation fee to the Labour Party will lead to any particular government policy decision." So it is still the case that they take the money from business and give favours, but take the money from the unions and give nothing.
THROUGHOUT Labour's history there have often been tensions between the union leaders and the party hierarchy. We can see that today. At the party conference two years ago the unions defeated the leadership in a high profile vote over pensions, and later forced the government's hand over the abolition of vouchers for asylum seekers. Public sector unions are presently very unhappy over low pay and aspects of privatisation.
These differences are important. They open the ground for struggles like the recent council workers' strikes. But Dave Prentis (Unison), John Edmonds (GMB), Bill Morris (TGWU) and others are prepared to do deals with the party leaders. Prentis's supporters pushed through a deal accepting transfer of some staff to private companies in the health service.
This was in the same week that the Unison reps on the national executive voted with the left in support of Ken Livingstone. Such leaders will be open to the recent advice from former deputy leader Roy Hattersley that they should now be "treading softly and maximising their influence rather than intensifying their protests".
And then there is the problem of what "reclaiming the party" means. For some it means going back to the days of the 1960s and 1970s, to governments which had a different rhetoric but which were disastrous for the working class. For others it means backing Gordon Brown against Blair in the vain hope that he would bring about a real change if he were leader. Such agendas are far too limited to meet the urgent tasks of building a real alternative to New Labour policies, giving a fighting lead to workers and developing the anti-capitalist spirit. Indeed, they lead away from such objectives.
It is of course possible that Blair will be forced to make some concessions to the left if strikes and protests grow. A really big rise in class struggle would see many New Labour leaders "rediscovering" an interest in more radical rhetoric.
But all Blair's instincts are to move right when he is in trouble. He naturally craves the company of businessmen, not union leaders. He does deals with Italy's right wing premier Silvio Berlusconi, not John Monks of the TUC. It is good to see Labour left wingers smiling again. Socialists outside the Labour Party very much want to work with these people wherever possible in joint activity. But the critical arena of struggle lies outside Labour.
The limits of parliament
IMAGINE IF the left did take over the Labour Party. It would still be a long way from achieving socialism. Labour's whole tradition is to work through parliament. But that is not where real power lies. It lies with the people who control the investment decisions or big business, with the bankers and the financiers.
Labour governments which try to encroach on the privilege and power of business face financial, political and-in extreme cases-military pressure from the ruling class. Prime minister Harold Wilson's memoirs revealed this reality. As the pound dropped on the markets in the mid-1960s he met the governor of the Bank of England:
"Not for the first time, I said that we had now reached the situation where a newly elected government-with a mandate from the people-was being told by international speculators that the policies on which we had fought the election could not be implemented, that the government was to be forced into the adoption of Tory policies to which it was fundamentally opposed. The governor confirmed that this was in fact the case."
This stark truth is why a real socialist movement has to concentrate primarily on the struggle inside the workplaces and on the streets. Elections matter and can help pull together and build socialist opposition to capitalism. But the most important arena is the factories, offices, hospitals, schools and housing estates rather than parliament or the council chamber.
The following should be read alongside this article:
» How Labour's right wing has been challenged in past
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