General Election: why we need a socialist campaign to stop the Tories and fascists

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2010 - 12:16 Author: Editorial

“We are not getting excited about the election.” (Duncan Hallas, a central leader of the Socialist Workers Party, in Socialist Worker, on the eve of the 1979 general election which gave power to Thatcher’s Tories.)

One of two things. Either the outcome — the new government — of a May 2010 general election, is a matter of little or no consequence to the working class and to the labour movement and therefore a matter of indifference to socialists. Or it is of consequence, perhaps of great consequence, to the working class and therefore of great importance to socialists. We think it is important.

Only a fool will believe that the Tories are now a “benign party”. At the very least, the Tories in power will drive with special energy to cut working-class living standards. Their commitment to a speedy liquidation of the debt incurred by the government to bail out the bankers implies that.

As the election looms, the Tories are coyly fudging, mudging and backtracking from their bold talk at the height of the economic crisis of 2008-9. They don’t want to play Gordon Brown’s game in the election and let themselves be branded as a party of super-cutters. Don’t believe them!

They have said openly that they will consider extending the anti-union laws to ban public service strikes.

They will target the public sector unions, the conditions they have won, and try to smash them up.

In the narrowest sense they will use government power to cosset the rich. They now have a bizarre international political affiliation: in the European Parliament they are linked with a small cluster of right and far-right parties.
In Northern Ireland, the Tory party is negotiating behind the scenes to create a “pan-Unionist bloc”, that would include the Paisleyite DUP. Though that party has many features peculiar to itself and to Northern Ireland, it would not be too inaccurate to bracket it loosely with the British BNP. A Tory victory may pour petrol on the still-glowing embers of sectarian-national-communal conflict in Northern Ireland.

And therefore, what follows for the working class and for socialists? Hostility to the Tories, certainly. And therefore? Organise to fight them in the election? Apart from a small smattering of socialist candidates, there will be no socialist alternative in the election — no possible socialist government on offer. What follows as the New Labour government seemingly heads for defeat in the general election is a question about New Labour now. This is posed more urgently now than for many years.

Can we regard the Labour Party in any sense as a desirable alternative to the Tories and a new Tory, or Tory-Lib Dem, government? We believe we can and that we must. There are two main reasons for that conclusion.

Political differences

For the first time in many years there are now significant differences in policy and intent between New Labour and the Tory party — between the Labour Party and the traditional party of the British capitalist class.

Shallow, essentially demagogic, “anti-Toryism” has played a malign role in the labour movement in modern times, licensing virtually anything that was calculated to defeat the Tories. In the 1980s and 90s, the Labour Party inched slowly towards neo-Thatcherism under the banner of “anti-Toryism”. Even so, the Tories remain the fundamental party of the British ruling-class.

As ex-Prime Minister John Major once said of his organisation, the Tory party is “one of the greatest fighting political machines” in Europe. It is the “fighting machine” of the British capitalist class. It would be foolish to underestimate it.

Certainly, New Labour in power has, for a dozen years, also acted as a party of the ruling-class, a neo-Thatcherite government of the ruling-class and of the rich. To take one of many notorious examples, it has kept the working class locked in the Thatcher-imposed anti-union laws, which — by banning solidarity strikes — outlaw much that makes for effective trade union action.

If the Tories in power go on to ban public service strikes, they will be building on what the Labour government has preserved of the old Tory anti-working class enactments of the 1980s.

But the Labour government has also brought in important limited reforms such as tax credits. It has raised taxes for the rich in response to the economic crisis.

Symptomatically — though this is now, like everything else in the run-up to the general election, fudged — the Tories have advocated tax cuts for the rich.

They opposed the emergency — pro-capitalist — actions of the government in 2009 to prevent the social catastrophe of a collapse of the banks.

In short, there are now significant political differences between the two parties, one of which will form the government after May 2010. Do these differences matter to the working class? Yes they do!

They do not make New Labour anything other than a boss-serving government and a shackled, trussed-up remnant of the old Labour Party, but nevertheless there are significant differences. These things should matter to socialists. They matter to Solidarity.

That, in part, is the reason we say vote Labour in the general election wherever there is not a credible socialist candidate.

But the fundamental difference between Labour and the Tories is, however, not one of policy. There are important differences in policy between the Democrats and Republicans in the USA; we do not therefore back the Democrats.

Trade union links

The difference is that the big trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and finance it.

Even now, despite massive structural changes, the unions retain a considerable degree of power in the Labour Party — power, if they use it, to affect policy and power, to impose structural changes that would put into reverse the quasi-abolition of the old Labour Party over the last fifteen years by the Blair-Brown gang.

The union-Labour link, though altered, and despite a couple of trade union disaffiliations, has survived the grim years of New Labour government. There is now talk — it may be no more than talk — amongst union leaders of restoring like the old Labour Party conference. An all-shaping fact of the New Labour years is that the unions either haven’t used their power or, in the early Blair years, used it to help Blair-Brown-Mandelson destroy the old Labour Party structures.
The tragedy has been that, because of the quietude of the rank-and-file, initiative here has lain entirely with the union bureaucrats, who have chosen to play the role of donkey to rider with the New Labour gang. Socialists must up the fight to change that, to bring the rank-and-file of the unions into the equation.

Even so, in the general election, the Labour Party will be backed and financed by the unions as their contender to form the next government. Make any qualifications you like — and the qualifications are massive — the Labour Party will be the party of the unions in the general election.

If the link between the unions and Labour is the fundamental reason why socialists will say “vote Labour” in the general election, there is an additional reason: the aching lack of any half-way credible alternative on the left of the Labour Party. It is important to assess how this came about.

Weakness of the left

The years of New Labour government — and before the British war with Iraq and the economic crisis and its aftershocks, it looked like New Labour would go on and on — were years in which, as working-class ties to the government party were stretched and snapped, a serviceable socialist left might have been created. The AWL took part in efforts to create it, notably the Socialist Alliance (which had a sizeable presence in the 2001 general election).

The SA did badly in that general election. Workers’ Liberty magazine summed up the results thus: “The Socialist Alliance has little... to congratulate itself for. With very few exceptions our impact on the electorate was not noticeably greater than that which any half-way presentable socialist candidate would have made in any suitable constituency at any time in the last hundred years.”

Any hope of developing from the limited advances won in the 2001 election were destroyed by the SWP and its political satellites. Together with George Galloway MP, they created “Respect-George Galloway” (that was its registered name). Galloway was never more than a self-serving, wealth-chasing, middle-left Labour politician (and in addition one with odious hard-Stalinist opinions).

“Respect-George Galloway” linked itself to Islamic clerical-fascists in Britain, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Muslim Association of Britain, and in Iraq, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East. They celebrated the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election of 2006!

In a Britain in which the BNP was growing alarmingly, exploiting working-class dissatisfaction with the New Labour government, “Respect-George Galloway” branded themselves as Muslim communalists — “the best fighters for Muslims” — and thus sealed themselves off from the white working class, for whom “black and white, unite and fight” made sense, but adoptive Muslim communalism never could.

All possibility of developing a working-class alternative to the left of the New Labour party and government was thus squandered in reactionary — that is what the alliance with Muslim clerical-fascism was and is: reactionary — political foolishness, rooted in a muddled and reactionary “anti-imperialism”.

They allied the British left not with working-class (or even bourgeois) democrats in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, but with clerical-fascists, Sunni supremacists, the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

For its part, the Socialist Party has a disablingly black-and-white, over-simplified view of the labour movement, asserting that there is nothing at all left of the old Labour Party.

In an earlier incarnation, they had a no less simple-mindedly black-and-white — and wrong — view in which they saw the Labour Party as a pure emanation of working-class politics. In office in Liverpool in the mid-80s, the Socialist Party under its present leaders disgraced itself by self-serving timidity in face of the Tory government (see www.workersliberty.org/node/6876).

The SWP has said they want to stand a few candidates in the election. The Socialist Party will stand a handful. It will be a marginal activity in the general election. These candidates will be about building support for these organisations not about building genuine left unity and certainly not about offering an alternative government to the Tories.
In short, there is no credible socialist alternative to the Labour Party in the election. How unpalatable a choice New Labour is, is shown by the fact that Brown too stands for cuts — different cuts, perhaps lesser cuts, at a different rate and tempo, but cuts nonetheless.

But the choice the working class, and socialists who look to the working class and the labour movement, face is either abstention and a vote here and there for socialist candidates, or a vote for Labour. Cynical abstention is a rotten option for workers. We need an alternative political campaign which cuts across that cynicism.

The bulk of the labour movement will rightly call for a Labour vote. Labour movement militants — many “with gritted teeth” — will vote Labour, and call on their workmates to do the same.

We say: “vote Labour and prepare to fight, whoever wins — Tory or Labour.”

Vote Labour, prepare to fight

There may be some anti-Labour socialist candidates who should be voted for. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is standing one such candidate, Jill Mountford, for the purpose of making essential socialist propaganda (and of course, of building the AWL). But in most places, in general, we say: vote Labour!

Yet, saying “vote Labour" with all the reservations listed here raises a further question for socialists: do we just shrug and say “vote Labour”, and between now and the election, passively accept the politics of the Brown Labour Party and the New Labour government? That is the easy option, but we should not do that!

We cannot do that on pain of political self-betrayal. We need a campaign to stop the Tories and fascists, and for a Labour vote, a campaign that simultaneously advocates and organises labour movement people and socialist and anti-capitalist activists around anti-Brown, anti-New Labour policies.

We need not an indolent, passive “vote Labour” posture, but an active socialist campaign that combines stopping the Tories and fascists now with a simultaneous fight against Brown and New Labour — now, and after the election, whether Brown loses or wins.

Such a campaign should base itself on a class struggle programme of demands: for jobs, against cuts and privatisations, in defence of public services.

There is a precedent for such a campaign. Faced in 1979 with a terrible choice between the Callaghan Labour government and the Thatcher Tories, a choice comparable with our choice in 2010, socialists organised a “Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory”. Its purpose was to campaign actively for a Labour vote and for anti-Callaghan government policies. It organised militants to continue the fight for those policies against the Callaghan Labour leadership, in and out of government.

Many important things are different now. There was then a mass Labour Party which on a rank-and-file level was bitterly opposed to the Callaghan government. There is nothing like that now. But we are where we are.

As the American Trotskyist James P Cannon used to say: the cardinal question in politics is “what to do next”. Politics is always about now. Socialists relate to the “now”, decide what to do next, always with an eye to what best serves the tomorrow we work to shape, what best serves the longer term interests of the working class and of socialism.

Nevertheless we must relate to the political issues now, if we are not to accept relegation to the realm of general, abstract, socialist high-propaganda.

Events — especially the political decrepitude of the would-be left — have for a long time forced the AWL into a heavy emphasis on propaganda, into polemics with the kitsch left. That was necessary but it was not from free choice. Other possibilities are, or may be, now opening up.

The general election will, most likely, one way or another bring to a close the chapter of labour movement political history we have been living through for the last 15 and more years. A new chapter will, perhaps — we say no more than most likely will — open. Many things may become possible that were impossible for a long time. Now, in the run up to the General Election, it is not a matter only of speculation but of action, of doing what can be done here and now, to prepare.

That is why in the run-up to the May 2010 general election, we will be supporting the exploratory efforts to organise a Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists.

Comments

Submitted by dalcassian on Sat, 06/02/2010 - 02:14

Where this and other articles attempt to analyse responsibly the political situation the British working class is in as the General Election looms, Mark P substitutes abusive, loaded - and inaccurate - emotional foolishness for analysis. AWL is not going into the LP, into its bowels or any other part of its anatomy. Very little in the way of a living Labour Party remains to go back into.

What makes me think that he is a supporter of the ridiculous Socialist Party (ne Militant)? Having spent the decades of working class militancy buried in the LP, which it pretended was a straight-forward "workers party", having disgraced itself when in the mid 1980s it controlled the Liverpool Labour movement, this organisation is equally one-sided, equally undialectical in pretending that there is nothing at all of the old LP left now. They don't notice that most unions are still affiliated to the LP, still finance it, and that the Labour-TU link has survived - with a couple of important disafilliations - the 13 years of neo-Thatcherite Labour Government.

Have a look at what this tendency did in Liverpool in the mid-1980s here: The Tragic Fiasco of Liverpool City Council Under Militant-Socialist Party Leadership and at its basic ideas here.

Submitted by sacha on Wed, 17/02/2010 - 19:48

> Why vote Labour, for example, in a safe Labour seat with a cabinet minister standing?

Such a seat would be a prime target for an independent socialist challenge - indeed, that's part of the reason we chose to stand against Harriet Harman (not only a cabinet minister but New Labour deputy leader) in Camberwell and Peckham. Unfortunately, however, the left has fucked up repeatedly over the last ten years and so will not have a widespread, let alone strong, presence in the election, so in most cases that's not possible.

We wouldn't go to such a seat and campaign for the New Labour minister - ie actually put a lot of effort into getting workers to vote for them - but in the absence of a socialist candidate, who else would you vote for?

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by sacha on Wed, 17/02/2010 - 19:50

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 18/02/2010 - 11:49

Tom,

I think those formulations were, even then, perhaps a bit flat-footed. But in any case, the Bournemouth decision effectively abolishing the Labour Party conference as a conference has now been reversed - and there has in fact been a small movement towards greater democracy, with the unions pushing through the election of National Policy Forum delegates. There may well be more of this to come.

The AWL made a great deal of Bournemouth at a time when pretty much everyone else on the left ignored it. Now, to our surprise, it has been reversed. Why would we ignore that?

In early 2009 we might also have hoped - in fact it was our duty to hope - that the activist left would get its act together in some form, to create someting like a new socialist alliance. But that hasn't happened. Thus the election is dominated by the Labour vs Tory choice to an even greater degree than we imagined.

Btw, what does your Commune comrade Chris Ford think about all this?

Sacha

Submitted by Clive on Fri, 19/02/2010 - 15:33

What are the essential options for socialists in the election?

1. Say nothing at all.
2. Say there's no difference between the main parties, there isn't much we can do about it; we need an alternative, but there isn't one at the moment. (There are different versions, of course, of what the alternative might be: revolutionary party, new workers' party, etc). The alternative is a general strategic aim, but in there isn't much you can do to achieve it in the election (so don't stand candidates).
3. Say there is an alternative, and we're it (and stand candidates to that effect).
4. Say vote Labour.
5. Say vote Labour and try to do something to get the unions to make use of what links remain to fight the Labour leadership (and often, therefore, for union policies, etc)
6. Say vote Labour but use such possibilities as exist to make more immediate propaganda (ie stand candidates, but not in the spirit of 3, above).
7. A combination of 5 and 6.

Tom (without the U) seems to be saying that 7 is an incoherent position. It might be wrong for other reasons, but it doesn't seem incoherent to me. 1, 3, and 4 seem to me entirely inadequate. 2 or 6 would be coherent - and you could imagine situations (countries) where that would be all you could do.

It comes down to whether there is any scope at all for revitalising an opposition within the Labour Party, through the unions in particular. I think the AWL has used formulations which implied there was no scope. The question now is whether that's true. At the very least, if Labour loses the next election it seems *extremely* likely that there will be some debate, if not ferment, in the unions about how this came to be, and what to do about it. It makes sense to try to be part of that debate, starting now.

If combining 5 and 6 is wrong, it is only because it might make doing that more difficult, it seems to me. It certainly doesn't look wrong in principle, and there's nothing incoherent about it, IMHO.

Submitted by Clive on Sat, 20/02/2010 - 09:04

Tom (with a U this time): how relevant is that point - about Labour being objectively 'more progressive'? It seems dubious to me anyway (why is it 'progressive' in a substantive way to intervene to resolve a banking crisis? How was it different to Obama? Right now the only real difference between Tory and Labour on cuts in public spending is that Labour want to wait a bit longer to do it; and then only some of it...)

The real issue, surely, is whether or not Labour is meaningfully still a (bourgeois) workers' party. Clearly, it is. This isn't measured by its policies anyway (the other Tom talks about holding noses against the stench, and for sure the stench was pretty honking in 1979). A lot has changed under Blair - and even aside from formal changes, there has been a quite substantial erosion, I think, in just basic working class identification with Labour. But it hasn't changed completely, and that's the fundamental justification, not only for a Labour vote, but for calling for an intervention by the unions into Labour's processes.

(I think, if we're honest, another part of the argument is that things generally are pretty bad - there isn't even slightly a 'process of recomposition', or whatever, the seeds of an alternative to Labour, etc: the left is in a worse state than it was at the time of the Socialist Alliance).

I don't doubt that as part of vote-Labour argument it's worth spelling out how awful the Tories will be. But that's a slightly different thing.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 22/02/2010 - 12:18

UKIP Kris, you've posted substantially similar comments, ending with a quotation about the evils of socialism, on four or five posts. This kind of spamming, or whatever the technical term is, is not ok. It clogs up the website and prevents discussion. Since there's debate about your posts here, I've left these ones up and deleted the rest.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by martin on Wed, 24/02/2010 - 00:40

The Tories won't really be worse? But the pattern for Tory governments following Labour or social-democratic governments which have pushed through right-wing policies, and been able to demoralise and weaken the labour movement, is that they take advantage of the weakening. They are more aggressive because they lack even the very limited ties to the labour movement that those Labour or social-democratic leaderships have.

Consider the Heath government in 1970, and until its will was broken by industrial resistance, about 1972. Consider the Thatcher governments after 1979. Consider the National Party governments in New Zealand after 1990 which, despite being elected on a promise of a more consensual approach than the hard-neoliberal Lange Labour governments of 1984-90 (the Nationals' slogan was "a decent society"), pushed through further cuts and a fierce anti-union law. Consider the Howard governments in Australia after 1996, especially after they got control of the Senate and thus ability to push through measures without having to seek deals with the Democrats or the Greens.

In this case, the Tories even say they will be worse. They have a big government budget crisis and much pressure from financiers to make sure that they keep that promise to be worse. Politically, the liveliest pressure on them is from UKIP and the BNP.

There might be a similar difference between parties, and we might be able to say: vote for a serious rival socialist slate; even a minority vote for that slate will be a more potent political fact, encourage workers more, and put more pressure on the incoming government, than any vote for the "lesser evil". Or we might be unable to say anything much except to advocate voting for a few propaganda candidates.

In this case - for all the reasons summed up in saying that Labour is still, despite everything, and with all the qualifications, a bourgeois workers' party - we can do something like SCSTF.

It would be more left-wing not to do SCSTF, and instead to vote for whomever seems more congenial, constituency by constituency, TUSC here, Labour there, maybe SLP or Green or Respect somewhere else? To proclaim it as a "left-wing line" that there can be no concerted working-class policy in the election, but just a process of individuals opting for whomever they see as individually congenial?

I don't think so. I think that is just a shamefaced form of political indifferentism.

Labour's union links are of no consequence because the union officials are no longer union officials, but instead no different from ordinary capitalist managers? The fact that they are elected, operate within structures of committees and conferences, makes them no different from any other bourgeois figure supporting New Labour?

That is what I understand Tom (not U) to be arguing. At least, he seems to argue it for some full-time union officials, Dave Prentis and Derek Simpson, though presumably not for others (not for himself, I guess! It's strange being lectured by an unelected full-time union official on how bad union officials are).

It is certainly true that life in the unions has declined, and that some unions have become more undemocratic internally. The pressure on the union leaders from managers and (especially until recently, when the New Labour government was coasting on an economic boom) from the government has been much more effective than pressure from the rank and file.

But unions remain unions. Union officials remain union officials. How fast, and how much, the current crop of leading officials can be pushed into more pro-worker stances, or replaced, remains to be seen, and anyway is not just a matter of will. But for sure workers will not be well served by those who tell them: "Nothing can be changed about what your top union leadership does politically. The committees, conferences, and elections of your union are of no consequence. Best ignore them. Industrially, do what you can in your workplace. Politically, vote for whatever candidate seems most agreeable to you, or don't vote at all. Nothing more to be done".

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 24/02/2010 - 11:24

Tom's claim that we are "actively calling for a vote for [...] Gordon Brown and John Mann" is demagogic in the extreme and demonstrates, again, his inability to understand the idea of how socialists might intervene in an election from any point of view other than that of abstract platitude.

The Labour Party has always been full of bad people (or "scum", to use Tom's word), including people with worse politics than both Brown and Mann. But our position on the Labour Party is not about the politics of particular candidates, or about its paper policies but about the extent to which the union link has any bearing on the Labour Party's social character and whether it can, in any way, be used as a channel for working-class political self-assertion.

Our starting point is the question "how can the working class assert itself and raise its voice in this election?" Our answer, based on an assessment of a rather tragic reality, is that the link between the biggest unions and one of the potential parties of government is the best way of doing that - however imperfectly. Disagree with that assessment if you like (although I haven't found very much of what you've said so far - which seems to amount to "the Labour Party is terrible and the unions are shit anyway" - particularly convincing) but don't resort to demagogic posturing about how our position is predicated on "active support" for a couple of the worst elements.

The link between the unions and the Labour Party is nothing like the (actually non-existent) link between the US unions and the Democrats; the US unions do not have directly-elected representatives on the Democrat's leadership committees, for example. When the TU reps on the Labour Party NEC all voted against their own unions' policies and for the war on Iraq, we said that rank-and-file members should make a fuss about that, have those people replaced, elect people who would be bound by union policy. In the event such things didn't happen, but that wasn't because it was impossible for them to happen. What would you have said? Don't bother? "The link is too weak to speak of" so let them get away with it?

Similarly, when unions such as the RMT (while still affiliated to the Labour Party) have cleared out their Parliamentary Groups and replaced their sponsored MPs with only those prepared to be accountable to certain policies, we supported that as one small way in which unions could use their links to Labour Party MPs to assert themselves in parliament and wider politics. What would you have said? It doesn't matter, leave Prescott in the group, "the link is too weak to speak of"?

Nothing of that sort is possible in America, where no structural link exists between the Democrats (which isn't even really a political party in the atrophied, bureaucratised way that the 2010 Labour Party is) and the unions, and where the relationship is based on the unions funding Democratic candidates in return for extracting promises. Certainly, that is what the Labour-TU link has become in most places but the point - our point, and the reason for which we have launched the SCSTF - is that this is not inevitable and that different potentialities (as shown by e.g. McDonnell's leadership campaign, some of what the RMT did when still affiliated, and even policies passed by unions like the GMB around changing their relationship with sponsored MPs) exist.

The Labour Party is shit, it will continue to fuck us over in government and it would be better if the unions - en masse - forced a split and created a new working-class party. But given the imminence of a general election and the certain level of mass politicisation that it will necessarily bring with it, for a left group to just repeat those truisms won't do much except maybe garner a few recruits impressed by its r-r-radicalism. We have to start from where we are, not where we want to be.

-

Daniel Randall

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 24/02/2010 - 23:24

I'll come back on this point specifically because it seems to be the substance of Tom's objection (i.e. that he thinks the SCSTF is "abstract" and won't do anything); we can return to the stuff about whether to vote Labour and the character of the Labour Party later on.

Part of the point about the SCSTF is that it is barely nascent. What it will do is, to a large extent, yet to be decided.

Our (i.e. AWL's) hope is that it will be a tool for socialist rank-and-file militants in unions and working-class community campaigns to intervene in - or open up - debates in their union/campaign about how to relate to national politics, including electoral politics. We are realistic about what's possible here - clearly we don't imagine that the SCSTF will be calling mass demonstrations. Primarily it will be a lever for intervention into debate about working-class political representation that attempts to go beyond hand-wringing "isn't everything terrible?" or meek falling-into-line behind New Labour.

Militants that get their union branch to discuss and/or back the statement will then have a political jumping-off point in terms of beginning to organise direct-action resistance against the cuts that will inevitably follow the election - "we backed this statement that had all this left-wing stuff in it; shouldn't we do something about it?"

Does that make the SCSTF, in the first place, largely propagandistic? Yes. But there's a big difference between interventionist propaganda designed to open up and attempt to shape political debate in the workers' movement and "abstract platitudes".

-

Daniel Randall

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