Article from “The Socialist” , paper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales on our approach towards the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in Britain.
Socialist Party members have received widespread support from trade unionists, anti-cuts activists and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn both inside and outside the Labour Party for our calls for democratising the Labour Party, restoring the collective voice of trade unionists within it, reintroducing mandatory reselection for parliamentary candidates, readmitting expelled socialists, and other steps towards Labour becoming a socialist, anti-austerity workers’ party. Unsurprisingly our positions and proposals are regularly attacked by Labour’s right wing, including using unfounded accusations. Here, in brief, we set the record straight on six distortions.
“The Socialist Party got it wrong when its members left the Labour Party in the 1990s – it should live with the consequences”
As the Labour Party’s leaders moved the party to the right in the 1980s and 1990s, they set out to drive out the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party). In 1982 they drew up a ‘register’ of groups that would be allowed in the party, and excluded Militant from it. The editorial board of the Militant newspaper (which later became the Socialist) was then expelled in 1983 and more expulsions followed – including in 1986 of some of the leaders of the magnificent Militant-led Liverpool council struggle. This was a political witch-hunt orchestrated by the ascendant right wing.
To mask the fact that it was a witch-hunt of ideas, Militant was accused of being ‘organised’ inside the Labour Party. But other sections and groups in the party were allowed to remain organised! And the party had in fact originally been founded as a federal party of trade unions and different strands of socialist opinion across the labour movement.
For those who weren’t expelled in the 1980s, the anti-poll tax struggle of 1989-90, led by Militant supporters, became a turning point. This was because as well as being against the Thatcher-led Tory government, that 18-million strong movement had to oppose Labour-led councils that were pushing ahead with collecting the hated tax, even jailing non-payers, while at the same time Labour was preparing to expel anti-poll tax activists from its ranks.
The Labour Party had increasingly come under the stranglehold of the right wing, which was determined to make the party a safe vehicle for capitalist interests. The anti-poll tax struggle had to be conducted almost completely outside the Labour Party, which showed how difficult it had become by that time to defend the interests of working class people from within Labour – a crucial experience on Militant’s route to working more independently.
Also, discussion and debate on socialist ideas at all levels of the Labour Party was being stifled, so that Labour’s annual conference and other bodies could become politically sanitised forums that would only echo pro-big business interests. The right wing – buoyed up by the period of capitalist triumphalism after the fall of Stalinism – dramatically reduced influence on policy from the party’s rank and file and affiliated trade unions.
Labour’s change into a completely capitalist party, part of an international trend that impacted on all social-democratic parties, made it impossible for socialists in Militant to remain active in its ranks. Our ideas remained consistent – it wasn’t us who moved away from Labour’s historic commitment to the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” as Clause Four of the party’s rules put it, but the right wing that wrested control and eventually erased that clause as part of its agenda.
Only through working independently were we able to continue to be principled fighters fully supporting workers’ struggles against neoliberal attacks, strongly opposing New Labour’s acceptance of capitalist-driven austerity, and always arguing for socialist ideas no matter how difficult the period.
Dave Nellist and Jeremy Corbyn at the Burston rally, 4.9.16, photo Teresa Mackay
“The recent letter sent to the Labour Party to readmit expelled socialists is just a publicity stunt”
On the contrary, the Socialist Party-initiated letter calling for the readmittance of expelled socialists is entirely genuine in its intentions. It is not surprising that it’s dismissed as a stunt by those who think it has no chance of succeeding and who don’t want it to succeed – and who make that allegation as another way of attacking the Socialist Party.
We make the call for admittance because Labour is at a critical conjuncture. It is effectively two parties in one. As a result of the impressive surges that propelled Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership, there is a real and very important opportunity to reverse the Blairite policies and attacks on democracy, and transform Labour into a party capable of implementing Corbyn’s anti-austerity proposals.
To aid this, in addition to the many thousands of new party members who support Corbyn, the party’s left wing would be strengthened by socialists who have a long, tried-and-tested history of leadership in workers’ struggles – both from inside and outside the Labour Party – and who play a leading role on the left in a number of trade unions.
The Socialist Party campaigned for Corbyn’s victory throughout both of his leadership election campaigns. We call for maximum unity across the workers’ movement to provide a politically and organisationally firm, mass base for Corbyn that can enable the movement around him to democratically defeat the Blairites and successfully pursue the programme that its hundreds of thousands of supporters want to see implemented.
“The involvement of Socialist Party members in the Labour Party only damages Jeremy Corbyn’s cause”
Our presence in Labour would damage the cause of the Blairites and not Jeremy Corbyn! Pro-capitalists in the media, in the parliamentary political parties and the right wing of the trade unions were all part of pushing the Labour Party to the right. From those circles comes the chorus of keeping out of Labour what they call the ‘hard left’.
The agenda of which wing of the Labour Party should be satisfied? That of the pro-capitalists in the labour movement? Or those who want to see a working class-based, socialist, vibrant mass party where the best ways of advancing the interests of the majority in society are debated and adopted?
By the mid-1980s, Militant had become the most influential and well-known Marxist organisation in the Labour Party nationally, playing a key role in building the left and reinforcing that wing’s drive for socialist policies. Militant also played an indispensable role in attracting young people to Labour, as shown when it democratically won the leadership of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) at the start of the 1970s and went on to build the LPYS to new heights.
An editorial against the 1982 witch-hunt in one of the Labour Party’s own publications, the New Socialist (September 1982), pointed out: “The Labour Party always has been a broad collection that includes Marxists among its ranks. The Militant Tendency, drawing as it does upon Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism, belongs to this Marxist tradition, and has a legitimate place within the Labour Party… The very existence of Militant and other groups within the Labour Party is a source of strength rather than a weakness. By working for the adoption of alternative policies and candidates, they assist the democratic functioning of the party.”
Now, with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader, the party has the chance to again become a party that has healthy, democratic debate, in which different strands of opinion can be discussed and voted on. To exclude socialists who have a history of leading successful mass movements and who have participated in a great many local and national workers’ struggles in the years since then, would be to weaken the prospect of developing a strong, organised, political resistance to the Tories and the building of a socialist political alternative.
Liverpool city council’s struggle in 1983-87 for more funding from the Thatcher government was an inspriation to workers, photo Dave Sinclair
What about the argument from some that we would be an electoral liability for Labour? History has shown the opposite: Liverpool in 1983 saw a swing to Labour that was against the national trend, and in the 1987 general election Labour achieved its best ever vote in the city – a 57% share – higher even than in the 1945 election that was a landslide victory for Labour nationally.
Labour was made attractive by that council’s creation of thousands of new jobs and homes. Likewise today Labour will only win votes if it firmly rejects austerity and instead delivers improvements to the lives of the majority in society; an outcome the Socialist Party would gladly help to achieve.
“The Socialist Party should dissolve itself to allow its members to join the Labour Party”
Why should the Socialist Party dissolve itself when right-wing and other organisations inside the Labour Party are allowed to exist and fully organise? Labour’s Blairites are happy to allow the existence of right-wing organisations like Labour First and Progress that support their own pro-austerity ideology. They also tolerate left-leaning organisations like the Labour Representation Committee and Momentum, providing these groupings keep within what the right wing views as acceptable political parameters.
Regarding affiliates, there are large independent organisations affiliated to Labour: the trade union affiliates, and also a number of smaller independent organisations, including the Fabian Society, the Co-operative Party and Labour Business. The Co-operative Party reported last year that it has 8,640 individual members and on its website makes clear the extent of its own organisation: “The Co-operative Party is an independent party. It maintains its own membership, staff, national executive committee (NEC) and policy platform, all of which are independent of Labour’s.”
There are no demands for the Co-operative Party to dissolve because it acts to bolster the right’s position, as the Financial Times touched on when it recently reported: “Unions such as Usdaw and Community, as well as the Co-operative Party, are setting up local branches in the constituencies of MPs who are at risk of deselection by Mr Corbyn”. The report went on to explain that these ‘branches’ would try to prevent trigger ballots for deselection.
So the real underlying reason of those who argue that the Socialist Party should dissolve is not that we’re organised, as all the affiliated organisations and other groups clearly are. It is because of our utterly determined opposition to the Blairites’ pro-big business policies and their resulting fear of our ideas and the echo that we could again receive for them within Labour.
There are rightly demands for openness and honesty as well as democracy from the new layers of workers and young people who are looking towards Labour. We have no interest in hiding our meetings and activities – we welcome new participants to our discussions – and we believe that the Labour Party can only gain by allowing different groups to argue for their ideas and then sink or swim depending on the support they attract.
“It’s hypocritical to argue that the Socialist Party should be allowed to affiliate while arguing against trade unions affiliating”
We haven’t argued against trade unions entering into discussion with Labour’s leaders about the possibility of affiliating or reaffiliating. Rather, we’ve warned against them affiliating prematurely to the existing, still undemocratic Labour Party machine – as we argued that the FBU did – because there is much that could potentially be gained from a discussion on how the collective voice of trade unionists can be restored in the party. Under John Smith and Tony Blair through to Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, the influence the trade unions had in the party (originally founded by the trade unions) was cut away piece by piece. To reaffiliate and hand over to the Labour right-wing machine tens of thousands of pounds of trade union members’ money without even a start to this process being reversed is what we oppose .
There is also the crucial issue of the job cuts and attacks on terms and conditions being meted out to firefighters and other public sector workers by Labour-led local authorities. Resisting the demands of the Tory government and stopping these cuts needs to be another vital element of pre-affiliation discussions – the results of which should be made transparent in the workers’ movement.
We’ve had no duplicity on this; our call for the Socialist Party to have the right to affiliate does not mean that we would prematurely affiliate without discussion with Jeremy Corbyn’s office and being satisfied with the outcome. In particular it’s essential to discuss how the ‘surge’ that elected Corbyn can be built on to defeat the right wing at local and national level and propel forward a transformation to a workers’ anti-austerity and socialist party.
“Changing Labour won’t happen overnight. It’s important to keep within the rules and ‘play the long game'”
The Blairite wing has built up a formidable amount of control – both through the anti-democratic, structural changes they have engineered over decades, and having the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of Labour’s councillors, MPs, MEPs and officials. This won’t be changed ‘overnight’, but the important question is: is a process of change underway that can succeed?
After Corbyn’s first election as leader, we called for a conference to take place of the trade unions, Labour Party bodies and other organisations that supported him, open also to individuals inside and outside the Labour Party, to discuss and debate what would be the most effective strategy for transforming the party.
Unfortunately such an event wasn’t organised and neither has a strategy – or deeds – yet emerged from the leading lefts in the party to decisively shift the balance of power to the Corbyn-led wing. Nor have Jeremy Corbyn and those around him gone on a political offensive to voice workers’ interests, for example by calling on Labour councillors to set legal no-cuts budgets, or by clearly supporting the recent walk-out by the POA union of prison officers and allied workers.
The danger inherent in a ‘long game’ is that it will be so long that the opportunity to transform the party will be missed. The right wing will seize the first chance it has to re-take the leadership, and the new influx into the party could melt away until a new prospect for challenging capitalism presents itself.
In the meantime, also at stake are the jobs, pay, homes, services and benefits of millions of people, who are suffering at the hands of the Tory government’s policies and the council cuts being made by all the main parties. So we are right to place urgency on measures to counter and defeat the Blairites – there is much at stake to win or lose.