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Saving Labour for the left

Peter Rowlands on why socialists should be Labour Party members


here are large numbers of people who regard themselves as either socialists, social democrats, radicals or progressives who are not members of the Labour Party. They see it as a centre free market party that is no longer socialist in any sense of the word. It is internally undemocratic and has ceased to promote the interests of its traditional supporters in the working class and trade unions, and in going into Iraq lined itself up with a right wing imperialist American government. There is in my view much truth in this. Although, it has to be said that if the Tories had continued in power things would have been significantly worse for most people, particularly the less well off.

There would have been no minimum wage, no pension credit, (giving poorer pensioners £35 a week more) no child tax credit, (which has lifted large numbers of children out of poverty) and no huge increase in expenditure on education and health. Promoting the socialist cause It is simply not the case that there is now no difference between Labour and the Tories, although the Tory move to the centre has meant that it is not as apparent. It must also be said that Labour has never been a socialist party, except arguably in the early 1980s, but has mainly been an alliance of socialists with progressive reformers and trade unions.

The criterion for membership however is surely whether it is likely to be the best means for promoting the socialist cause and facilitating the building of a socialist party. But if Labour has moved significantly to the right, as it did in the mid 90s, why should continued membership be more likely to promote the socialist cause than membership of one of a range of other left wing parties? The answer, in a nutshell, is that Labour can still claim to be and is still regarded by many as a party that represents the less well off, and still has within its membership large numbers of socialists, many of whom are active in producing left wing ideas and policies. Other left wing parties, by contrast, have very small memberships, and virtually no representation or influence.

Labour's reputation as a party of the less well off has of course suffered, particularly because of the disastrous abolition of the 10% tax band, the failure to promote greater equality, the failure to build, and the consequent shortage of, council housing. But Labour can claim to have protected the least well off through the things listed earlier.

It is also the case that large numbers of members , and particularly those who are active, consider themselves as socialists and would certainly support left wing policies. This can be reasonably said to apply to about 50,000 members. Moreover, there is a lot of thinking and discussion by groups within the party. The Compass group are currently producing some excellent stuff, as to a lesser extent are the Fabians and the LRC (Labour Representation Committee), and all these groups are able to attract substantial numbers of people to their meetings and conferences.

Labour also remains closely linked to the trade union movement, despite some defection and the growing gap between their respective outlooks. Left outside the Labour Party All this has to be contrasted with the deplorable state of the left outside the Labour Party. The collapse of the USSR saw the effective disintegration of the Communist Party of which the CP and their newspaper the Morning Star is a much smaller survivor, while the neo- Trotskyist SWP (Socialist Workers' Party) has become the largest group, although it has failed to wrest 'Respect' from the clutches of the supreme opportunist, George Galloway. There are a few other small groups on the Trotskyist fringe. The Arthur Scargill fan club continues as his Socialist Labour Party, while perhaps the most promising group, the Scottish Socialist Party ( SSP ), has split in a welter of recrimination over its former leader's private life.

The point is that this left is tiny, numbering a few thousand at most. Much of it is ultra left and sectarian, some of it espouses an insular anti - Europeanism which is a blind alley and it is almost completely without representation at any level. Some may think that it is possible to build the sort of broader socialist party that exists in a number of European countries, most notably Germany where 'The Left' (Die Linke) currently gets 15% of the vote and has 50 deputies in the Bundestag. But parties like this can only exist if there is PR, and the attempt to form such a party here would be futile in the absence of PR. That is why I have argued previously in Chartist that it is essential that we achieve PR, and that we support the Compass proposal for a binding referendum on PR at the next election. Although it does not currently look likely that this will happen until after the election and only if the Tories lose.

Watching and waiting The Green Party is different. It has growing membership, support, influence and representation at various levels. But it remains at the level of an environmental campaign rather than a political party, although it denies this. While we may support much of its general message it is not, and can never be, a substitute for a genuine party of the left. If these arguments are correct and we cannot build a viable party of the left until we have PR then the only alternative to belonging to the Labour Party is to not belong to any organization of the left, on the grounds that none of them, including the LP, provide a basis for any serious advance for the left, and it is a question of watching and waiting until circumstances change.

The grounds for not belonging to the LP would be that it has largely lost the tribal loyalty it once had from its traditional working class supporters. In many places it is moribund and many of its activists have left, that it is undemocratic internally, meaning that it is impossible for the left to wield any influence and that it has gone too far down the road of free market capitalism to make it reformable into a progressive social democratic party that could be the nucleus of a socialist party when PR is finally achieved. This may turn out to be true, but for reasons given earlier I believe that Labour remains potentially the best, or indeed the only vehicle for advancing the socialist cause, and for those now outside the LP to join or rejoin it could well make all the difference.

There is no alternative. To do nothing is negative and pessimistic and could mean conceding the case by default. If Labour, probably in opposition, continues as a Blairite type party (probably under the leadership of Peter Mandelson) it will then become irrecoverable for the left and probably merge into a centre party with the Lib-Dems (which many of the Blairites wanted all along) This will then necessitate the formation of a new party of Labour, (but not New Labour!). This will take time and the socialist cause will inevitably have been weakened by it, for at least a few years. But the better course is to try to save Labour for the left. There is a lot at stake.