Monday, November 30, 2009

The shade of Labourism

We on the Left are in a bad shape. We face massive spending cuts and job losses, and an accompanying war on the remaining strongholds of organised labour. We face a far right on the move, not just in this country but across Europe. A constant drumbeat of more or less explicit attacks on Europe's Muslim minority has now been punctuated by the small, cowardly decision by Swiss voters to ban the construction of minarets on the grounds that such buildings constitute a surreptitious Islamic 'colonisation' (this in a country with only four minarets). The far right are in ascendant, and they are abetted by a media and political class opportunistically using their language and validating their politics of resentment. More on that in a future post, but for the moment, consider John Denham's latest remarks. We have beatings, we have cemetery desecrations, we have attempts to march on local mosques. Our ability to meet such challenges is not negligible, but responses have proven to be patchy and fragmented. Organisationally, the left is atomised into some local strongholds in communities, unions, councils, etc. What is ailing us? I am not pedling any voluntarist illusions here - we can't just will mass resistance into being - but we do have to think about what our strategy is for overcoming our limitations.

For the last decade or so, much of the far left at any rate has shared a perspective that there needed to be a drastic realignment on the left, and that the window for this was provided by disaffection with New Labour's right-wing rule. This disaffection has been real enough. It is so severe that the Labour Party saw an unprecedented collapse in membership to below 1918 levels, and lost several heartland seats with previously mountainous majorities. The question would then be whether those former Labour Party members could be provided with a more radical home, and whether the party's angered ex-voters could be given a realistic alternative in the voting booths. It was not realistic to expect such a constituency to immediately break with reformism which, after all, is not a programme but a default disposition. Everyone feels its gravitational pull, especially during periods in which the left is weak. And while political disillusionment was manifest, and particularly evident in street politics, a sudden upsurge in labour militancy could not be counted on as a talisman.

There had been, and continues to be, a general decline in union density, as the working class has been reconstituted, and new sectors of the economy emerged that kept themselves more or less union-free. In addition, workers have become far more mobile. We hear a lot about immigration statistics, but rarely about the other aspects of this story: mass emigration from the UK, and mass migration within the UK's borders. For, in addition to the 427,000 workers who emigrated from the UK in 2008, over 100,000 workers migrated in and out of the North-West alone in 2005-6. 163,000 workers moved into London that year, but 243,000 moved out. This sort of turnover on an annual basis means that models of trade unionism elaborated on the basis of a relatively more static workforce are increasingly difficult to sustain. Days lost to strike action were at an all time low when New Labour were elected, and the number continued to decline for the remainder of the millenium. Traditions of militant trade unionism, 'DIY reformism', that enabled a powerful response to both Labour and Tory attacks in the late Sixties and early Seventies, no longer existed. And given New Labour's abject abasement before every passing millionaire with a friendly wink, it was necessary to fight for the most basic ideas, the class politics, that could articulate demands for a militant response to employers and the government. So, what was sought was a kind of organisation that could relate to the street campaigns (around Jubilee 2000 or the arms trade, for example), plant some feet gingerly in the unions, serenade disappointed Labour members and voters, and articulate popular grievances in socialist language. It was to meet that challenge that the SSP and the Socialist Alliance, and then Respect, were formed. The present remainders of those initiatives constitute most of the fragmentary footholds I mentioned earlier.

Those socialists who were sceptical of such a venture from the start, though, could appeal to a certain bowdlerised version of 20th Century politics. For over 100 years not a single other party has been able to seriously challenge the Labour Party for the loyalty and support of working class people either in terms of votes, members or union funding. No attempt to construct a mass socialist party to challenge Labour has been successful. Think of some of the attempts. The British Socialist Party, founded in 1911 as an explicitly marxist alternative to Labour, did contribute to the building of an initially strong Communist Party following the Russian Revolution. However, the Communist Party more or less abandoned the idea of an independent road to socialism in the early 1950s, with its British Road to Socialism programme, which stressed that socialism could be achieved through the existing parliamentary institutions. In practise, this meant supporting the Labour Party, and by the 1980s it meant supporting the Kinnockite right-wing and its attacks on the left, and adapting/capitulating to the 'New Times' brought about by Thatcherism. The ILP made gains in the 1930s as Ramsay MacDonald led Labour into the National Government, but was squeezed in the postwar period and eventually folded into a pressure group within Labour by the 1970s. A number of very small far left parties stood against Labour in the late 1970s, including the WRP and SWP, and got derisory votes. Arthur Scargill's SLP, launched when just about everyone in the labour movement was swinging behind Blair and Brown to get the Tories out, has rarely received more than derisory votes. Other challenges prior to the present decade are perhaps too recherche and nugatory to mention. Until the millenium, such challenges experienced diminishing returns.

They could go even further. Not only have socialists been unable to successfully challenge Labour for the support of the working class, but about a third of workers have always voted for the right - a higher proportion than in much of the continent. Perhaps, you might argue, the British working class is much too conservative to embrace anything other than a party of gradualist social reform, a party that has never seriously sought to challenge the capitalist framework within which it seeks to deliver such reforms. Given such a diagnosis, it would make sense for left-wing workers to embrace labourism not necessarily out of conviction, but from a belief that the only a broad front including reforming liberals and right-wing social democrats could provide the appropriate vehicle for advancing the interests of workers. Only, that is, a party like the Labour Party. At the very least, they could say, such efforts were premature, undertaken initially before there was the first sign of a real crisis in the Labour Party. It was all very well to attract Labour left-wingers like Liz Davies and Mike Marqusee (before rapidly losing them, ahem-hem, cough cough, moving along). But, so it was argued, that hardly amounted to a substantial split, certainly not enough to base a new party on.

The example of Respect did briefly answer those arguments to some extent. Its founders correctly anticipated that the antiwar movement would, despite the Labour leadership's ironclad grip on the party apparatus, feed into a crisis in the party. The self-defeating decision to expel George Galloway followed from that crisis. It was also obvious that a substantial segment of trade unionists were questioning their funding of and affiliation to a party that repeatedly treated them with contempt. In the same year that Respect was formed, the RMT was kicked out of the Labour Party for allowing its branches to affiliate to other political parties, notably the Scottish Socialist Party. There was, then, an opportunity to win the argument for democratising the political fund and opening it up to more radical competitors. An organisation with a parliamentary presence and some strong local performances under its belt could feasibly win the support of the most militant workers and gain enough funding to build a lasting political machine (though it was unlikely that such a party/coalition would have taken the form of Respect).

But it was a narrow window of opportunity. The coalition was still too small, unstable and ramshackle and ultimately fell apart over a mixture of substantial strategic disagreements and old-fashioned sectariana that has long dogged socialists who have for too long acted in relative isolation. We made utter prats of ourselves, and I exclude no one from that criticism. Part of the problem is that there was not enough of a crisis in Labour. The biggest mass movement in British politics had certainly caused the Blairites some real headaches, but it didn't register on the conference floor. This says a lot about the enervation of any resources of resistance that remained in Labour after years of top-down control and 'restructuring' by the party's Whigs. And the fact that only one MP defected - and then after being forced out - is a warning not to underestimate how seemingly natural the Labour Party has been, no matter how right-wing, as a vehicle for those wishing to deliver reforms.

We now have a left that is Beyond the Fragments, a 'plural' left that may have more organisations than individual members, certainly not capable for the time being of recomposing itself in a new organisation to challenge the Labour Party for its base. In fact, the current state of affairs makes it very difficult for us to resist the coming Tory onslaught. Moreover, absent a movement to relate to, it is not clear that such an organisation would fare even as well as its immediate predecessors. Even so, given that New Labour is not about to reconstitute itself as a party of even old-fashioned right-wing social democracy, given that the Blairites are not relinquishing control but steadily tightening it, it would be prudent not to bet on a revival of the Labour left, (and, if it needs to be said, an entryist strategy would simply be suicidal at this point). If anything, the crisis of Labourism has new chapters awaiting elaboration. And unity on the left, if not immediately achievable in the sense described above, is surely a state to aim for in the interim.