The Struggle for the future left in Labour

The 2019 general election defeat and the subsequent loss to the right wing in the leadership election has prompted some serious (and often public) soul-searching amongst Labour members on the left of the party. In scaling a mountain, there will be those periods where it is not possible to continue ascending. Our path is blocked, further progress cannot be made on this route, and we must retreat down the mountain to find another way forward. In the history of the working class, where an enormous effort has been exerted only to be forced to turn back, there are always those amongst the ranks who feel emboldened to speak out, call for desertion, for abandoning the project, every socialist for themselves. Then there are those who are demoralised and disoriented but looking to the leadership for some perspective on where to start again and how to reach the summit. Naturally, this is the case. Political judgement is a skill that has to be developed, through the study of theory, as well as direct practice and experience. Very few working class people have the time or means to educate themselves politically, and – just as a drowning man does not learn how to swim – cannot learn the finer points of political strategy and tactics while evading an opponent which has gained an important strategic position and is on the offensive. Without a signal from the leadership this disorientation can quickly become confusion or even despair. In this situation, the remarkable silence from Corbyn during the leadership election – and the complete inadequacy of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign to win that election – created conditions in which a defeat has turned into defeatism amongst some in the ranks of the left. The lack of an obvious leading left in the parliamentary party, or the unions, with the authority to carry the banner threatens to disorganise the ranks of the left further, aiding the right-wing’s attempts to whip the ranks of the party into line – or simply empty them out. It has already allowed space for deserters, sectarians and various wiseacres to wax lyrical about the unforgiveable betrayals of Labour and the need to start again with a pure conscience and a clean banner.

Not infrequently, these same psychological types are never those who give the most to the cause, never those who volunteer for the mundane or even unpalatable tasks; that is if they turn up at all. There are some who joined our ranks with the explicit purpose of causing disorder, of calling for splits in our forces precisely so that they and their grouplet – marching separately – might benefit by recruiting those who desert the main body. There are various pretenders to the title of ‘Trotskyist’ or ‘Marxist-Leninist’ – a corruption of the legacy of both Trotsky and Lenin – whose stock in trade is recruiting young men and women to pay subs and sell newspapers, all to keep their chosen gurus in the manner to which they are accustomed. Then there are those who have simply been waiting for the first opportunity to say “it’s not me, it’s you”; usually the middle class types who speak often and at length in meetings, with more confidence than actual ability or insight (though the ‘stay and fight’ side has their share of these too). These same middle class elements write in outrage that the party isn’t doing exactly what they prescribe, and, deciding that the party has clearly insulted them personally, their only dignified choice is to cancel their direct debit – as they would for any of their other charitable causes which might misbehave.

However, what might have been dismissed as a handful of loudmouths, or isolated sectarians with an agenda, at one point has clearly been more widespread in the party. Widespread enough to prompt various prominent left-wingers in the labour movement – including John McDonnell, Matt Wrack, Sarah Woolley and Laura Pidcock – to pull together a project to bring together left members in the Labour party under the slogan ‘Don’t Leave, Organise’. This is significant in so far as it gives a better sense of the pressure created by the numbers who have either left the party, or were openly speaking of leaving. Alongside this same process, former Labour MP Chris Williamson issued his own appeal, in the pages of the Morning Star, for members to abandon the party in favour of ‘extra-parliamentary struggle’. While Williamson’s decision to stand against the party in 2019 was a serious error, his word still carries weight amongst members both for his unjust treatment at the hands of the party bureaucracy and for his campaigning to democratise the party (the reason for his victimisation by the bureaucracy and PLP in the first place). Williamson puts forward essentially the same arguments as many of those calling for left-wing members to leave, and does so with some critical insights we should take note of. With as prominent a figure as Williamson reflecting the same arguments put forward by left members who have called for resigning from the party there is little choice but to address Williamson’s argument seriously.

However, as we found with Long-Bailey’s gone-but-not-forgotten Guardian article, we are struck by the sheer extent of backsliding in Williamson’s. For someone hailed as a political leader of the left, the ‘plan’ he presents as a way forward is nothing less than a call for a retreat on all fronts, abandoning positions won only after enormous effort over the last one hundred years, and to surrender the Labour party – the banner, the history, and, critically, the financial and material resources invested in the party by the working class – to the right wing infiltrators who have sabotaged it for the last five years. The errors, inaccuracies or plain misunderstandings of history and politics are piled high enough for us to feel embarrassed for Williamson. It pains us to trawl through his work this way, but the task cannot be avoided.

Scottish voters and PASOKification

Williamson’s line of argument starts out by declaring the need for…..something. He’s not sure what. Just “something” which is not the Labour party. The party has fallen victim to infiltrators and saboteurs, yes. The Blairites tore up Clause IV, yes. Starmer will turn the party to the right. Of course, we know this. But, as a group of workers in the party writing and publishing these lines, I hope we can be forgiven for being less than eager to take a leap into the dark. The questions of health and safety legislation, education and healthcare policies, industrial programs, housing policy and much more besides are questions of bread and butter, if not literal life and death. We need a means of defending and advancing these things today, not ‘something’ a year, five years, or a decade from now. A man can keep his head above water with a piece of rotten wood, but will drown with promises of ‘tomorrow and tomorrow’ still ringing in his ears.

Williamson reminds us that there are saboteurs in the party. So, we must root them out. Williamson recalls how the Blairites tore up Clause IV. So, we will write it again. Williamson recognises that Starmer is turning the party hard to the right – as can be seen on Kashmir, and on the demands for a plan to end the lockdown. So, we will remove him as leader, and elect one of our own. If Williamson lacks the spirit for this fight it would be simpler for him to admit that, and withdraw quietly from the scene, rather than spreading further confusion amongst our ranks.

Williamson does confront us with some home truths, of course. The party has suffered severe losses in Scotland, something Corbyn could not reverse. Although it is true, Scottish Labour has long been under the sway of the Blairites and the party there reflected the worst aspects of this, the Corbyn leadership must bear the blame for – again – not getting to grips with the national question in Scotland. In the 2019 election, when questioned about the (hypothetical) demand of an SNP administration in Holyrood for another independence referendum, Labour under Corbyn pushed a unionist program so far that even as basic a democratic demand as the right of nations to self-determination would not be recognised by a Labour government in London (or at least prevaricated over). How ‘something new’, rather than arguing the case inside the party structures, corrects this error is a mystery.

It is also true as Williamson states, there is the potential for PASOKification of the Labour party – in general. In the midst of a deep political, economic and social crisis, the leaders of PASOK – the Greek equivalent of the Labour party – gripped harder to ‘the centre ground’ and ‘common sense politics’ rather than recognising the world had changed. In short, precisely what the right wing of Labour are doing now (and some of their friends tried to do with Change UK). But this is where the analogy ends. To very much simplify a complex process, whereas Britain has one party of the working class, like much of Europe the Greek social democratic party split along reform-or-revolution lines back in the first half of the twentieth century, supplying Greece with PASOK and KKE – the Greek Communist Party. Unlike much of Europe, the Communist Party was born first in Greece, with the reformist social democracy emerging much later from within this formation, rather than the reverse as with many parties of the Second International. These two parties ebbed and flowed at each other’s expense – again like most of the working-class parties of Europe – reflecting greater or lesser politicisation and radicalisation of the working class at different periods. Syriza emerged out of a split in the KKE in its turn, eventually to become the party of government. After years of treading water with around 5% in national elections they won the support of the radicalised workers turning away from PASOK – but not before they had tested the reformists of PASOK. Not because they were ‘new’, but because of their roots in the Greek mass organisations, the partisan fight against the German occupation (Manolos Glezos, a legend of both the partisan and post war democratic struggle, stood as their candidate in national and European elections) and the fight against the military junta of the late 60s and early 70s.

When PASOK prostituted itself to the interests of Greek and European capital, their support and membership collapsed while the Greek workers began to draw increasingly radical conclusions. In 2009 the workers of Greece put PASOK in to power with 160 seats – an absolute majority in the Greek parliament. Papandreou’s government then used this to inflict the ‘Troika’s memorandum – a brutal austerity program – on the Greek workers, overseeing a collapse in living standards, rocketing rates of suicide and a wave of poverty and destitution. Even the staff of the ERT – the Greek equivalent of the BBC – seized control of their workplace in the face of the mass job losses the Samaras government inflicted upon them. They continued broadcasting for months before riot police used force to end the occupation. With this radicalisation, why did Syriza’s support grow exponentially – while PASOK collapsed – instead of any one of the dozens of ‘left’ grouplets each of which had manifestos with equally radical policies? First, precisely because of Syriza’s roots in the history of the working class as a mass organisation built by the class, not by a small group of activists and left-wingers. Second, the ‘Thessaloniki program’ offered the Greek workers a route out of the desperate economic crisis forced on them – critically, it did not propose a complete break with capitalism and the market.

Faced with an enormous economic crisis – deeper than 2008-09 – and the demands for longer, harder work, and yet more sacrifices in the interest of profit, the working class in Britain will draw increasingly radical conclusions about the need for the socialist transformation of Britain and the world. Just as with the workers in Greece, the working class in Britain will move into their mass organisations to take up the fight. Unlike Greece, the workers in Britain have one, not two, mass organisations. The same radicalisation which was expressed through the growth of Syriza, will be expressed in an equally powerful growth in the working class membership of the Labour party pushing it hard to the left and into conflict with the leadership.

The workers in Greece proved time and time again that they were prepared to take radical steps to defend their interests. Did this ‘something new’ (in essence born out of the ‘old’ Communist party) with a pure conscience and a clean banner use the electoral victories and rise to power handed to it by those same workers to sweep capitalism aside in Greece? Or did it capitulate to the same material and class pressures which Labour will one day face in government, and enforce the austerity program demanded by Germany and the European Central Bank? History tells us that after the ‘Oxi’ referendum Syriza surrendered, leaving the workers disoriented and with no clear strategy for advancing, turning a crisis of German banks into a catastrophe for the workers and the poor in Greece.

Williamson comes to us now and is not even ambitious enough to propose a split as a political party from Labour, much less raise the question of how the Labour left could learn from the experience of Syriza in power and the events in Greece during the Eurozone crisis.

Accident or necessity?

Here, we can forgive Williamson’s next mistake – if he were a political novice far from the centre of events. He argues:

Jeremy Corbyn only made it onto the ballot paper by accident, but the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are not going to make that “mistake” again and Labour MPs are the gatekeepers to the leadership ballot.

Williamson wants us to believe – like the right wing of the party – that Corbyn won the leadership election, even got onto the ballot at all, purely ‘by accident’; a freak occurrence that can’t (or is highly unlikely to) be repeated. If this was the case, he might have some justification in saying the task the left faces is impossible – fortune favoured us briefly, and now the moment is lost never to return.

What really happened? Even before the 2015 leadership election started, the questioning of the legitimacy of the right-wing within the ranks of the party was already emerging. The authority of the Blairite cohort of MPs in parliament was being openly challenged in the party, having lost both the 2010 and 2015 elections to a Tory party inflicting a brutal austerity program. From outside the party Labour MPs came under enormous pressure to open the election up to a left winger or have their legitimacy deeply undermined. This ‘accident’ was Labour MPs responding to the pressure they were under from inside and outside the party. In order to maintain their political legitimacy, and control of the party, they allowed a man they mocked and jeered as a fossil of the long gone past into the contest. And it exploded in their faces. Now Williamson would have us cower before the combined might of chapter IV clause 2 of our own constitution. If – as Williamson recognises – we can mobilise an open selection campaign so close to success that it needed our own leader to protect the right wing, is it beyond his imagination that the rank and file is capable of pushing through a change to the constitution to cut the PLP out of the leader election process?

For more than five years, the working class in Britain came under immense pressure from the effects of the 2008 crisis and the Tory-Liberal austerity program. That pressure had nowhere to go, with the trade union leaders pouring cold water on any and every dispute they could, and the Blairites holding the decimated rump of the Labour Party in a political stupor offering diet Tory policies. With Corbyn on the ballot, that pressure burst through the gap – and the right wing in both the unions and the party have tried to wrestle the genie back into the bottle ever since. To say all of this was an ‘accident’ – a freak event that can’t be understood – is to plug our ears and shut our eyes to the truth staring us in the face. The working class brushed the Labour right wing aside with ease, will quite easily do so again, and it will be sooner rather than later.

No path to victory?

Williamson seems shocked by the resistance offered by the ‘triumvirate’ – the PLP, the party bureaucracy and the NEC. Did he expect anything less from the Blairite wing of the party? The witchhunt was widespread, has targeted many comrades – possibly hundreds or more. Some have been slandered in the national media, like comrades in Liverpool targeted by the Jewish Chronicle. Others have faced harassment outside of the party, for example a comrade working as a teacher accused of anti-semitism who turned up to work to find the slanderer had been trying to have them labelled as a racist, and therefore a danger to children in the school and unfit to teach. In short, the right wing have tried to destroy lives and livelihoods to defend their own petty interests. For Williamson, this is somehow proof that the ‘triumvirate’ owns the party. He does not explain how ‘the owners’ found themselves with half a million squatters in ‘their’ house, eating ‘their’ porridge and sleeping in ‘their’ bed. He doesn’t explain how the members were able to elect a majority of Corbyn supporters to the NEC, controlled the general secretary position, dominated conference and forced out the infamous gang which went on to disappear into the dustbin of history under the banner of ‘Change UK’. It might be simpler to say that Williamson bumped heads with the ‘triumvirate’, found they did not give way, and from this empirical evidence concluded that they will not give way anywhere to anyone.

Did we expect anything less of the ‘triumvirate’? If so, then we need to urgently adjust our expectations and re-learn our own history. Working class men and women have been blacklisted, harassed by the police, racially profiled, assaulted in custody, and even imprisoned after they were targeted by the bosses for their union activities. If we lack the courage to face down the threat of personal slander and victimisation, then we should simply walk away now. Nor is it reason enough to abandon the party banner to those who would blindfold and hamstring the working class. This is not to say we welcome or court it – the opposite. If we are properly organised, conduct our work the right way and maintain a strict self-discipline – especially by not courting publicity, as some have – then the mud will not stick.

There’s no doubt in the truth of Williamson’s criticism of the Corbyn leadership on open selection. We have made much the same criticism – Corbyn’s decision to lean on the union vote at the 2018 conference to block the introduction of ‘open selection’ was a critical error, and a turning point in the Corbyn movement. The rank and file movement were prepared to go all the way against the right wing which had bunkered down in the Parliamentary Labour Party – it was the leadership which hesitated and decided to retreat. The question Williamson doesn’t ask is why did Corbyn retreat on the question of open selection? For some, the answer is not a comfortable one. For left reformists in the party the idea of a Labour party without a right wing is as alien as the idea of a world after Throughout their time leading the party we can find examples of both Corbyn and McDonell trying to convince big business that their program was in their best interest; if only they’d see how reasonable it all was! Through all of this the workers should sit quietly, and let the democratic process do its work. Just as with big business, with the rank and file members guided to the seats at the back (‘calling off the dogs’ as Chuka Umunna put it), the same policy was extended to the right wing of the party; convince, cajole, concede one thing after another and gain nothing in return apart from renewed slander and abuse. The price for ‘keeping the peace’ was defeat.

Just as with Corbyn and McDonell, Williamson is a left-reformist. For him, those arguing to stay and fight ‘have literally no means of winning’. The truth is Williamson cannot envisage a strategy for winning because he cannot see beyond this same strategy. The members on the sidelines; a left wing leader convincing, cajoling and conceding in a backroom at NEC meetings or in party headquarters.

One step forward, two steps back

For the errors he makes, Williamson does draw a correct conclusion. He is absolutely correct to say that Labour governments of the past have failed to ensure an equitable share of the economic wealth created by our work, which is instead clutched into the already overflowing pockets of the rich and powerful. Williamson has gained an important insight:

The truth is representative democracy has been failing us ever since the franchise was extended in 1918. Those who wax lyrical about parliamentary democracy should explain how, in the world’s fifth biggest economy, 14 million people are living in poverty, precarious employment is endemic, and thousands have to sleep on the streets.

This is absolutely the right question to pose. The fight for enfranchisement – going back to the Chartists – was a vital part of the process of the working class in Britain developing political consciousness, rather than simply serving as a plaything of different layers of the bourgeoisie to be wheeled on stage where mass pressure was used as a tool in their squabbles with another section of the rich and wealthy. However, the nature of the British state did not fundamentally change with the extension of the franchise. We need only look to the foundational document of Marxism – the Communist Manifesto – to summarise the lesson Williamson has learned here: “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Parliament and parliamentary elections can’t be ignored as a platform to reach the working class, so long as they look to it as a means to solve the questions of poverty, unemployment and both class and racial oppression. But it remains a parliament of a bourgeois state, which extends far beyond the comfortable seats in Westminster into the civil service, the military and the police apparatus. These are, ultimately, hostile to working class people and our interests, and we will face a reckoning with them sooner or later – the hostility of the generals should serve notice of that.

It is beyond question that a powerful idea in the Corbyn movement was that it would be sufficient to elect a Corbyn government, pass a few new laws, hold on to fifty per cent plus one seats in parliament and socialism could simply be declared. The campaign of sabotage and slander – internal and external – was sufficient to prevent an election victory this time. However, the idea that a general election victory alone is sufficient for our objectives is one that we must be disabused of. The threats from the military, in the form of senior generals threatening a coup d’etat if Corbyn ‘threatened Britain’s security’, in soldiers using a picture of Corbyn as target practice, and in the use of ‘former’ intelligence operatives in the ‘Integrity Initiative’ smearing Corbyn and the Labour Party should have been enough to dispel this idea. An actual left Labour government would see the attacks, and resistance of big business, increase a hundred fold in both number and intensity.

Having learned this lesson, we must draw the correct conclusion – our activity as a party must not be limited to parliament. We will only be able to carry out our policies on the basis of becoming a party deeply rooted in the working class itself, as well as the non-party organisations of the working class. This is the only way to take on the resistance of big business, insure against conspiracies in the military, and to carry out in practice what our program calls for in words. To draw the conclusion that non-party work should be done instead of advancing the ideas of socialism in the Labour party, is to take one step forwards and two steps back.

Political consciousness

It seems, however, that it is not enough for Williamson to simply draw the wrong conclusion; he finds it necessary to go from the sublime to the ridiculous. In learning the correct lesson that socialism cannot be achieved through parliament, he decides “to create a new grassroots movement to build capacity in communities and raise political consciousness”.

Implementing grassroots socialism by putting energy into creating new initiatives such as worker cooperatives, neighbourhood action groups, public arts projects and community radio platforms etc is an achievable goal.

We hope we can be forgiven for being insulted by this. This ‘capacity building’ is the language of NGOs, normally reserved for the kind of white-man’s-burden projects sent to countries ruined by decades of colonialism and imperialist foreign policy where the saintly children of middle-class families go to polish their CVs. We neither want, nor need, middle-class missionaries descending on working class housing estates, doling out their ‘benevolence’ – we get enough of those in our schools. To then claim this is ‘grassroots’ socialism is empty phrase-mongering. There isn’t a word here that would be out of place on a bid for public funds from a local council. It is neither ‘grassroots’ nor is it remotely socialist. There are almost 7,000 co-operatives employing over 200,000 workers in the UK – how exactly have these ‘raised political consciousness’ in recent decades? Are we talking the kind of neighbourhood groups which put up bunting and lay out tables filled with cheap cake, or the kind of neighbourhood groups which organise rent strikes and protect each other from police violence and right-wing marches? And how is any of this in contradiction to defending socialist ideas in the Labour party? The simple answer is, it’s not. In fact, it is this very lack of roots within the working class which proved to be critical in both our inability to counter the slanders of the press, and the drift of the Corbyn leadership away from the membership and toward parliamentary manoeuvres and ‘statesmanship’.

What is ‘political consciousness’ if not the recognition by working class people that they need a political organisation – a party – to defend their interests as well as industrial organisations. This is precisely what happened with the birth of the Labour party, with the tipping point being the Taff Vale case. The problem for Williamson is, once this process has taken place it cannot be repeated. Even in those instances where a worker’s party has been crushed by fascism – Italy, Spain, Greece and others – the workers don’t turn to the next ‘new workers’ party’ waiting in line to go from sect to mass organisation. They will go so far as to resuscitate a near dead party, long before they go anywhere near a sect of even 1,000 of the best socialists. We need only look to the rebirth of the Communist and Socialist Parties in Spain (PCE and PSOE), long driven underground and numbering perhaps a few thousand, or the worker’s parties of Italy, where the moment Italian towns were liberated by the Allies or partisans, the Italian workers dug out leaflets and newspapers printed by the old workers’ parties hidden from Mussolini’s police two decades earlier.

Political consciousness cannot be spun out of thin air simply because we recognise the need for it; and all the agitation, leaflets and socialist newspapers in the world cannot ‘raise political consciousness’ if we do not win the ear of the working class. We could descend from the mountain bearing sacred truths carved into stone tablets, but it will do us no good if we have not done the difficult work of earning the trust and respect of working class people in their organisations; we will simply be the usual cranks, standing around a pasting table, ranting at passers-by. Nor can political consciousness in workers be summoned up by force of will. The vast majority of working class people learn from experience, not books or history. It is through class struggle – in the main on the industrial front – that working class people draw political conclusions. If we have earned a hearing in the organisations of the class, and if we have done so by fighting shoulder to shoulder in the same struggles – not shouting from the sidelines – then working class people will at least listen and give weight to what we have to say; our political agitation and political education can then catalyse the process of developing the existing political consciousness of working class people, not before.

Finally, as if to pile irony on top of error, Williamson raises the example (an honourable one) of the Black Panther Party – an organisation destroyed by a far more intense type of infiltration and sabotage which Labour faced throughout Corbyn’s leadership. Williamson wants us to slink away from the Labour party in the face of the difficulties thrown up by a right wing cabal lodged in the party apparatus, and to build a whole new party modelled on an organisation torn to pieces by the infiltration and conspiracies of the American police and intelligence services. He overlooks the need to explain how we can guard against the type of sabotage seen in the leaked report, never mind the efforts of a police force infamous for infiltrating dozens of organisations in Britain for decades now.

We are at a key moment in the life of the party. A large part of the reason for the demoralisation of those lefts in the party who have left is the total investment in the perspective of electing a Corbyn government as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to elect a ‘fairer, kinder’ government. The left reformists in the party are at a loss; they can tell us that we must find a way forward and continue fighting, but have no strategy or perspective for doing this. We are left with empty slogans of ‘left unity’ and ‘keep fighting’. In part, this is because they threw everything into the Corbyn leadership – meaning they made every possible concession to the right-wing of the party, then a few more. It is necessary now to have a clearly articulated perspective for how the movement moves forward, and why, which goes beyond simple calls for ‘unity’ and ‘continuing the fight’ – we require a compass guiding our route forward amidst the storms and strife that threaten to drive us off course. The ideas of scientific socialism, of Marxism, provides that compass.

Stuart Leigh – 1 June 2020

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