More than a century after the formation of the Labour Party, the party still remains rooted in the organised working class. Despite everything, the results of the recent general election confirm the ingrained support for Labour throughout the working class areas of Britain.
“The Labour Party gives one third of the votes in its electoral college to members of its affiliated organisations. The most important of these brother institutions are the trade unions. A century later, the party born out of the Labour Organising [Representation] Committee is still structured as the political arm of the labour movement... The unions’ power is now a problem.” (Editorial, Financial Times, 14/6/10)
Today, however, the party is dominated by the careerists of New Labour, the attorneys of capitalism within the workers’ movement. The Blairites are the new breed of bourgeois infiltrators, creatures of the boom years.
The domination of this trend has resulted in the disillusionment of millions of Labour’s working class supporters. They were responsible for the defeat of the Labour government. While many prominent Blairites jumped ship with golden handshakes and promises of lucrative jobs with big business, a significant number remained behind to ensure that the Labour Party is kept in “safe” hands.
For those who want to change society, especially young people, the thought of joining the Labour Party in the past period has been distinctly unappealing, to say the least. Workers and youth were completely repelled and alienated by New Labour’s pro-capitalist policies, the support for imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the corruption scandals, the introduction of tuition fees, and the general feeling of disappointment. One glance at the Blairite leadership was enough to place a massive question mark over the party as a vehicle for socialist change. The leadership, in the phrase of Lord Mandelson, were completely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich. How could such a party, so dominated by the right-wing carpet-baggers, ever serve to change society?
This view is held by many sincere people on the left. However, for the strategists of capital in the ‘Financial Times’, this is not at all sure. The right wing control over the party was due to certain objective conditions. These conditions, mainly an emptying out of the workers’ organisations and an ebb in the class struggle, were largely determined by a prolonged boom, which has now come to an end. We have entered a period of capitalist crisis and austerity, carried through by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. Labour finds itself in opposition at a time when increasing struggle and social turmoil will be on the order of the day.
Despite the understandable repulsion towards the right-wing leaders, it would be a grave mistake to write off the workers’ organisations because of them. This would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Marxism takes the long view of history. We are not mesmerised by this or that aspect, but seek to uncover the underlying contradictions in the situation which will sooner or later break to the surface. This is the whole essence of dialectics, which sees things not as static entities, but as contradictory processes. The whole history of the labour movement reflects the ebb and flow of the class struggle. In the past period, we have been affected by a prolonged ebb. The period we are entering will be fundamentally different.
Formation of Labour
Ever since the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, there has been controversy on the left over whether or not to participate in the party. To develop a correct understanding of this question, it is important to look at the experience of the past. Our task is to learn from history in order to avoid unnecessary mistakes. History, after all, is littered with the wreckage of small sectarian groups who attempted to mould the workers’ movement into its preconceived plans and failed.
To have a correct approach we need to understand the contribution of the great Marxists. Both Marx and Engels explained that the task of the emancipation of the working class was the task of the working class itself. If the Marxists were going to influence the workers’ movement, they should not set up their own sectarian barriers, but participate in the real movement and go through the experience shoulder to shoulder with the workers. Marx and Engels outlined this clear approach long ago in the Communist Manifesto.
“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties.
“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
“The Communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationalities. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” (Marx and Engels - Selected Works, vol.1, pp.119-120)
Independent party of labour
Marx and Engels welcomed the steps taken by the working class to break from the old capitalist parties and establish their own independent party of labour. Every real advance for the labour movement, explained Marx, was more important than a dozen correct programmes.
In Britain, the Marxists in the Social Democratic Federation (formed in 1881) correctly helped found the Labour Party, along with the trade unions, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabians. Despite the fact that the Labour Party was ideologically weak, it was a real step forward. Its task was seen as simply representing the interests of the working class in Parliament. However, the failure of the SDF to secure a resolution committing the Labour Party to socialism and “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” resulted in them walking out within the first year. It was an impatient childish protest that simply strengthened the hold of the right wing over the Labour Party.
While the SDF (later called the British Socialist Party) “withered on the vine” in isolation, the Labour Party grew in size and influence. The demise of the SDF was the fruit of their sectarianism. Today, they exist as a historical fossil in the form of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, as ineffective and sectarian as they were 100 years ago. Marxism in their hands was reduced to a sterile dogma.
If they were genuine Marxists, they would have stayed and patiently put forward their views. As was later shown, under the hammer blow of events, the rank and file workers in the Labour Party adopted a new socialist Constitution in 1918, containing the famous Clause Four, “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain, the full fruits of their industry based upon the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange...” On the basis of patient work, the SDF could have built up a large influence within the Labour Party. They chose instead to abandon the struggle. It was the mighty events of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that changed the outlook of the British workers and convinced them of their socialist aims.
Even prior to the adoption of Clause Four, the Labour Party had affiliated to the Second (Socialist) International in 1908. The affiliation was accepted by the International Bureau on a proposal of Karl Kautsky, the then leading Marxist theoretician, and supported by Lenin. In the debate, Lenin viewed the British Labour Party not as party based on socialism and class struggle but as representing “the first step on the part of the really proletarian organisations of Britain towards a conscious class policy and towards a socialist workers’ party.” (Lenin on Britain, p.97) Although the party was still tied largely to the coat-tails of the Liberals, Lenin was convinced that this would change following this “first step” on the basis of experience and the powerful class instincts of the British trade unions.
In August 1914 the leaders of the Second International came out in support of the imperialist world war. This betrayal of international socialism came as a devastating blow. In Britain, the Labour leaders entered the war-time coalition government. The horrors and chauvinism of the War was however cut across by revolution in Russia. The October Revolution changed the course of history, provoking revolutionary situations everywhere and serving to bring the War to an end. Unfortunately these revolutionary opportunities - in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere - were derailed by the old Social Democratic leaders. In Germany, the Social Democrats even conspired to murder the Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
The Second International was dead. In order to fight for the socialist revolution, Lenin called for a new Third International to be created and the establishment of new mass Communist Parties. Given the political ferment at the time, mass Communist Parties were created in Germany, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Norway. As you might expect, they were not born out of small sects, but arose from the traditional mass organisations of the workers. For example, in France at the Tours Congress in December 1920, the majority of the Socialist Party voted to change its name to Communist Party and affiliate to the Third International. This was similar in Germany where the Independent Social Democracy (USPD) came over lock, stock and barrel to the new International. In Italy the Communist Party emerged from a mass split – one third of the membership in the Socialist Party in 1921 after the treacherous role of the reformist leaders in the 1920 factory occupation movement. The Social Democratic parties in many countries, either through mass splits or as whole parties, passed over to the Communist International.
One of the key exceptions was in Britain. The British Communist Party did not emerge from the Labour Party. There was no split or mass desertion. The CP was formed out of a small conglomeration of groups and individuals, numbering only a few thousand, many of them with a very sectarian outlook, a left-over from the days of the SDF.
The same problem of sectarianism, but on a much larger scale, had appeared in most of the leaderships of the new Communist parties, which were young and inexperienced. They lacked the theoretical grounding and experience of the leaders of the Russian party. They therefore made mistakes, some serious, mainly of an ultra-left character in the first period.
The weak situation of the British CP was debated at the Second Congress of the Third International in the summer of 1920. On the agenda was a proposal that the British party apply for affiliation to the Labour Party. Lenin gave support to this idea in order for the Communists to get close to and hopefully influence the rank and file of the Labour Party. This position, however, was opposed by many of the ultra-lefts in the British CP, such as Willie Gallacher and Sylvia Pankhurst.
Lenin wrote a book against their arguments entitled Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. These ultra-left moods, reflecting impatience and inexperience, were widespread among sections of the Communist International. The usual manifestations were a rejection of parliamentary work, a refusal to work in reformist trade unions, and a sectarian attitude to the mass reformist parties.
Lenin and Trotsky combated these ideas by advocating the United Front with other workers’ organisations as a means of creating a bridge to the mass of Social Democratic workers who were still a majority in most countries. This meant links with the Labour Party in the case of Britain The split to form separate Communist Parties was not about sectarian principles or an act of salvation, but of winning the mass away from national chauvinism. The point now was to influence the Social Democratic workers who remained behind in the direction of socialist revolution. As we see in the case of Britain, Lenin went much further in this idea, given the numerical weakness of the British Communists, advocating that the CP should try to affiliate to the Labour Party.
Left-Wing Communism was written as an answer to the ultra-lefts, whose arguments re-appear at every stage in the propaganda of the sects – even today. Lenin explained that it was a crime to split away the advanced workers from the mass, and that such tactics, far from undermining the labour and trade union bureaucracy, actually serves to strengthen it.
Willie Gallacher was leader of the Clyde shop stewards and was keen to establish a Communist Party in Britain. He travelled to Moscow for the Second Congress and had personal discussions with Lenin.
“I was an outstanding example of the ‘Left’ sectarian and as such had been referred to by Lenin in his book Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, explained Gallacher in his memoirs. “I was hard to convince. I had such disgust at the leaders of the Labour Party and their shameless servility that I wanted to keep clear of contamination.”
“Gradually, as the discussion went on, I began to see the weakness of my position. More and more the clear simple arguments and explanations of Lenin impressed themselves in my mind.” (Revolt on the Clyde, p.251)
Many in the young CP in Britain (formed in August 1920) had similar ultra-left views to Willie Gallagher. As a result, the CP only voted by a narrow margin 100 to 85 in favour of Labour Party affiliation. Their first application was couched in such terms as to invite rejection. When rejection came, the leadership’s relief was expressed in their paper, The Communist of 16 September 1920: “So be it. It is their funeral, not ours.”
It took the patient intervention of Lenin and Trotsky to curb this ultra-leftism and steer the party on to a correct course towards the unions and the Labour Party. Once corrected, this allowed the young CP to build up a significant base in the Labour Party. While the Labour leaders rejected their affiliation, CP members were allowed to be individual members and participate within the Labour Party, including as delegates to Labour’s national conference.
In elections, the young CP was advised to put up candidates in a few safe Labour seats where there was no risk of splitting the vote and letting in the Tories and Liberals, and giving critical support to the Labour candidate in all other areas. Several CP members even stood as official Labour candidates. Shapurji Saklatvala was elected as MP on a Labour ticket in Battersea North in 1922. By the mid-1920s, despite bureaucratic rule changes to exclude Communists, a whole number of local Labour Parties were under Communist influence.
Where is Britain going?
Leon Trotsky had followed events in Britain and wrote a book called Where is Britain Going? in 1925. The book’s content, which is strikingly modern, has a clear bearing on today’s situation. It deserves to be read by all those who want to understand what is happening in Britain today.
“Throughout the whole history of the British Labour movement there has been pressure by the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat through the agency of radicals, intellectuals, drawing-room and church socialists and Owenites” (early British socialists) “who reject the class struggle and advocate the principle of social solidarity, preach collaboration with the bourgeoisie, bridle, enfeeble and politically debase the proletariat.” (p.48)
However, in predicting events that would unfold over the following six years, including the 1926 General Strike, Trotsky wrote:
“The mole of revolution is digging too well this time! The masses will liberate themselves from the yoke of national conservatism, working out their own discipline of revolutionary action. Under this pressure from below the top layers of the Labour Party will quickly shed their skins. We do not in the least mean by this that MacDonald will change his spots to those of a revolutionary. No, he will be cast out…. The working class will in all probability have to renew its leadership several times before it creates a party really answering the historical situation and the tasks of the British proletariat.” (p.42)
At that time, he explained that:
“The Liberal and semi-Liberal leaders of the Labour Party still think that a social revolution is a gloomy prerogative of continental Europe. But here again events will expose their backwardness. Much less time will be needed to turn the Labour Party into a revolutionary one than was necessary to create it.” (Trotsky on Britain, vol.2, p.38)
While this revolutionary transformation of the Labour Party did not come about, the crisis in the Party at the end of the 1920s and 1930s, especially the ILP split in 1932, provided ample opportunities for such a development. Unfortunately, ultra-left mistakes cut across this potential.
Throughout the book, Trotsky regarded the Labour Party as the “political section” of the British trade unions. The connection was a class issue. So much so, that he regarded the payment of the political levy to the Labour Party as a principled question. He went on to explain that those who refused to pay the levy should be regarded as “political strike-breakers”, who should be forced to pay:
“The struggle of the trade unions to debar unorganised workers from the factory has long been known as a manifestation of ‘terrorism’ by the workers – or in more modern terms, Bolshevism. In Britain these methods can and must be carried over into the Labour Party which has grown up as a direct extension of the trade unions.” (p.101)
The growing Communist influence within the Labour Party during the mid-1920s was completely cut across by the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which played havoc with the still immature leaderships of the Communist movement internationally. The ultra-left zigzags of the Stalinists led to the launching of the “Third Period” and “social fascism” in 1928. It was based on the theory that capitalism was in its final stages and the Communists had to separate themselves in the most ultra-left manner possible from all other workers’ parties. The worst result was in Germany, where the insane policy of “social fascism” split the powerful German labour movement and allowed Hitler to come to power in 1933.
In Britain, the CP denounced the Labour Party as a “social-fascist” party and advocated that its meetings be attacked and broken up. Such hooliganism resulted in the utter isolation of the CP from the labour and trade union movement. Any influence it had in the Labour Party vanished overnight.
The world slump of 1929-33 and the rise of fascism in Germany had a massive impact on the British Labour movement, especially the Labour Party. A minority Labour government had come to power in 1929 and, due to the capitalist crisis, had made cuts in the budget. By 1931 the government collapsed, with the failure to carry out further cuts. Ramsay MacDonald left the party to head a National Government. This betrayal pushed the Labour Party far to the left.
The left wing gathered round the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which had been an integral part of the Labour Party ever since its foundation. Events created a deep ferment and propelled the ILP even further to the left, with its leaders making very revolutionary sounding speeches. The ILP became what Marxists term “centrist” in character, i.e. half-way between Marxism and reformism. In 1932, the ILP tragically decided to split from the “reformist” Labour Party with some 100,000 supporters.
Trotsky, who had been expelled by Stalin from the Communist International, took a great deal of interest in what had been happening in the ILP. Given his leading role in the Russian Revolution he still had tremendous authority internationally. He personally contacted the leaders of the ILP to offer advice. He thought the split from the Labour Party was a mistake, carried out “at the wrong time and over the wrong issue”. Nevertheless, he saw this break with reformism as an opportunity to build a genuine revolutionary party in Britain. As a result, Trotsky urged his British supporters to join the ILP.
“I wrote a series of articles and letters of an entirely friendly kind to the ILP people, sought to enter into personal contact with them, and counselled our English friends to join the ILP in order, from within, to go through the experience systematically and to the very end.” (Writings 1935-36, p.365)
Trotsky’s advice to the ILP leaders was three-fold: 1) work out a genuine Marxist policy; 2) turn your backs on the ultra-left Stalinists and face towards the trade unions and the Labour Party; 3) join the new International.
Even though the ILP had a considerable base amongst the advanced workers, Trotsky insisted that they still face towards the Labour Party, which remained the mass party of the working class. “It remains a fact about every revolutionary organisation in England”, he wrote, “that its attitude to the masses and to the class is almost coincident with its attitude towards the Labour Party, which bases itself upon the trade unions.”
“While breaking away from the Labour Party, it was necessary immediately to turn towards it”, explained Trotsky (Writings on Britain, vol.3, p.94). Brushing aside the objections of the ILP leaders, he went on to argue for work within the party. “The policy of the opposition in the Labour Party is unspeakably bad. But this only means that it is necessary to counterpoise to it inside the Labour Party another, a correct Marxist policy. That isn’t so easy? Of course not!” (Writings 1935-36, pp.141-142) Nevertheless, explained Trotsky, Marxists cannot abandon such an essential task because of certain difficulties being placed in their path by the bureaucracy. If that were the case, then one may as well abandon all attempts to change society using “difficulties” as a pretext for abandoning any revolutionary work.
The centrist leaders of the ILP chose to ignore Trotsky’s advice, making ironic remarks about “dictators from the heights of Oslo”, a reference to Trotsky’s place of exile in 1935. In the meantime, the Labour Party recovered from the 1931 betrayal by MacDonald and moved to the left in opposition. In practice, the mass of workers now could not see a fundamental difference between the policies of Labour and the ILP and, in such a situation, they inevitably rallied to the much larger party. The ILP dwindled in size and eventually drifted back to the Labour Party on a purely reformist basis. The attempt to create an alternative revolutionary party failed.
After the ILP failure, Trotsky advised his supporters to enter the Labour Party. This new tactic became generally known as “entrism”, and was adopted in conditions of acute crisis of capitalism and where centrist currents had emerged. The perspective was one of a rapid movement towards either revolution or counter-revolution and one where the task of building a genuine revolutionary Marxist party was of paramount importance. Such a short-term tactic, based on Trotsky’s perspective of the 1930s as a decade of revolution and counter-, is not suitable for today’s work in the Labour movement.
In all of Trotsky’s writings on these questions we see a rounded-out dialectical approach. He clearly did not view the mass organisations as something fixed and static, but in their real development and internal contradictions. Under conditions of convulsive crisis, it was unthinkable that the traditional mass organisations of the working class could remain unaffected. The tendency towards polarisation between the classes inevitably finds its echo in the workers’ organisations. At a certain point, this process gives rise to mass left reformist currents, even centrist ones as with the ILP. Under these conditions, the ideas of Marxism would find a ready-made mass audience. This is the historical justification for patient work in the mass organisations.
Trotsky’s writings on the mass organisations are an important heritage. They provide so many pointers. “What is ... dangerous is the sectarian approach to the Labour Party”, he explained (Writings on Britain, p.144). Rather than waste one’s time in small splinter groups on the fringes of the labour movement, it was important to get involved in the mass organisations.
“A revolutionary group of a few hundred comrades is not a revolutionary party and can work most effectively at present by opposition to social patriots within the mass organisations. In view of the increasing acuteness of the international situation, it is absolutely essential to be within the mass organisations while there is the possibility of doing revolutionary work within them. Any such sectarian, sterile and formalistic interpretation of Marxism in the present situation would disgrace an intelligent child of 10.” (Writings on Britain, vol.3, p.141)
Despite these essential writings, different “Marxist” groups have made one mistake after another on this key question. Towards the end of the 1960s, a number of left groups abandoned work in the Labour Party in disgust at the counter-reforms of the then Labour government. They wrote off the party and set about building their own independent revolutionary parties, ignoring everything that had been written on the importance of the mass organisations. The more isolated they were, the more ultra-left they became. Rather than connect with the real movement, they continually sought to tear the advanced workers away from the mass. They saw their prime task as to “expose” the leadership through shrill denunciation. This has been the hallmark of all these different sectarian groups. With such antics they end up playing into the hands and reinforcing the position of the right-wing leaders.
Some on the left object to being described as sects, but this is not a term of derision but a scientific definition. According to Trotsky, “Sect is a term I would use only for an organisation of a kind that is forever doomed, by virtue of its mistaken methodology, to remain on the sidelines of life and of the working class struggle.” (Writings 1930, p.383). What is the common error of these groups? “Each sectarian wants to have his own labour movement. By the repetition of magic formulas he thinks to force an entire class to group itself around him. But instead of bewitching the proletariat, he always ends up by demoralising and dispersing his own little sect.” (Writings 1935-36, p.72) This whole approach is the complete opposite of Marxism, as can be seen from the method outlined in the Communist Manifesto. It is also not necessarily a question of size that determines the sectarian nature of a group, but of a correct orientation to and relationship with the working class and its organisations.
The only Marxist group that made any real impact in the Labour Party was the Militant tendency, founded by Ted Grant in 1964. Ted had explained that what was needed was consistent patient work in the mass organisations. We needed to develop a Marxist tendency as an integral part of the Labour Party, as was originally the case.
As a result, and in complete contrast to the sects, the Militant patiently built up its position throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially within the ranks of the Labour Party’s youth section, the Labour Party Young Socialists. Their whole approach was different in that they regarded themselves as part of the labour movement, despite having distinct ideas and programme. As a result, their influence grew throughout these years together with the general development of the left. They were able to connect with the working class, beginning with the active layer in the ward Labour Parties, the shop stewards committees, the trade union branches, and in the Young Socialists. Their consistent energetic work in the party allowed them to go from a monthly paper to a weekly, politically dominate the LPYS, achieve the election of three Militant-supporting Labour MPs, and become recognised as a serious tendency in the labour movement. In Liverpool, by the early 1980s, Militant had established a huge influence in the newly-elected Liverpool City Council.
With success came the orchestrated attacks of the right wing. A witch-hunt was launched by the capitalist media against the “Trotskyist infiltrators” in the Labour Party. Their aim was to use the witch-hunt against Militant to undermine the swing to the left in the party. By 1983, the editorial board of Militant was expelled. After Kinnock’s attack on Militant at the 1985 party conference, further expulsions followed. Along with Lambeth, Liverpool Council was isolated and the councillors surcharged and disqualified. Together with the defeat of the miners, this marked a sharp shift to the right in the Labour movement. This was followed by the effective closure of the LPYS and further organisational measures taken to proscribe the Militant.
In contrast to the militant struggles of the 1970s, the 1980s (with the notable exception of the miners’ strike) was a period of retreat. The workers’ organisations emptied out and the left, which had been powerful in the previous period, collapsed. It is clear that the boom of 1982-90 played a key role in these developments, providing a material basis for these changes.
Revolutionary tendencies do not exist in a vacuum. They are subject to the pressures of capitalism, as with the class as a whole. The disorientation and confusion of the left generally, compounded by the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91, had an effect on the Militant tendency. This led to impatience and frustration amongst a majority of its leaders, who, despite everything, lost their bearings.
They began to look for a short-cut to success and decided to break from the Labour Party and establish their own party, which eventually became the Socialist Party. The idea that a small organisation of a few hundred, or even a few thousand, could compete with the Labour Party was ludicrous. Trotsky considered the ILP, a sizeable organisation with its 100,000 supporters, a sect in the conditions of the British labour movement.
The Socialist Party abandoned its previous orientation and moved towards ultra-leftism, little different from the other groupings on the fringes of the labour movement. Consequently, rather than increase its size, its membership declined significantly. This led them further down the road of ultra-leftism by calling on the affiliated trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and instead form a new workers’ party. This call to break the union-Labour link is sheer adventurism. It mirrors the same call of the extreme right around the Blairites, who wish to see the Labour Party transformed into a bourgeois party. They have in fact written off the Labour Party as simply another capitalist party no different from the Tories or Liberals. They then call on workers not to vote Labour “as they are all the same”. This is a fundamental mistake as, despite its pro-capitalist leadership, the Labour Party rests on the trade unions. This, in the last analysis, defines its class character.
Trotsky answered this argument long ago:
“It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform. For us – yes! But not for the masses, the eight million who voted Labour.” (Writings on Britain, vol.3, pp.118-19)
“The Labour Party should have been critically supported… because it represented the working class masses.” (ibid, p.117)
In the recent period there have been numerous attempts to establish parties to the left of Labour, all of which have utterly failed. Arthur Scargill, the leader of the miners during the 1984-85 strike, set up the Socialist Labour Party in 1996 in protest at the abandonment of Clause Four. Despite the stature of Scargill, the party sank without trace.
In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party was set up, gained six MPs in the Scottish Parliament, but then lost them, split and in effect collapsed. The illusion that it could become the second workers’ party in Scotland evaporated. In the recent general election, it won only 3,157 votes across 10 constituencies, averaging 315 votes per candidate. This was less than the poor showing in the previous election of 2005.
In England, the Socialist Alliance was tried, and then came Respect. All these efforts were based on opportunist politics, either pandering to nationalism in Scotland or to communalism in the Muslim community. Despite claims to the contrary, Respect was consciously trying to present itself as a “Muslim party”. The success in winning a single parliamentary seat in Tower Hamlets was short lived as the party split and then lost its seat in the recent general election, coming third after the Tories. The party has little future, being confined to a few geographical areas.
The SP won a few local councillors over the last decade under the name Socialist Alternative. In Coventry, Huddersfield, and Lewisham, where they held five council seats, they lost them all bar one to Labour. This was held by Dave Nellist because of a personal following based on his past position as the Labour MP in Coventry South East. Now he is on his own on the council without a seconder for his proposals.
This followed on from the debacle in last year’s Euro elections, when the SP along with others stood as the No2EU campaign. Despite backing from Bob Crow and the RMT, they managed to scrape together only 1% of the vote. The programme they stood on was completely nationalistic and reformist. It was an attempt to opportunistically water down their ideas to win more votes, but failed miserably.
In the recent general election, there was the formation of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. This time, there was no national trade union endorsement, only individuals. The result was worse than in 2009. If you take all the votes for the 40-odd TUSC candidates, the combined vote was only half of the vote achieved by left Labour MP John McDonnell in Hayes and Harlington. After all the effort and money poured in, this is what they managed to achieve – 1% of the vote. The Labour Party, despite 13 years of New Labour government, still managed to poll 8,600,000 votes.
According to them, if there was ever a time when the groups standing to the left of Labour should have done well it was now. They said Labour was discredited and offered the true alternative. But when it came down to it, they were completely ignored in the election.
Although TUSC fielded some very good class fighters, this made no difference. In Swansea West, Rob Williams stood. He is the convener of the former Fords plant in Swansea and was victimised last year, but reinstated after threats of strike action. Despite this, he was able to pick up only 179 votes. He came ninth out of nine candidates, bottom of the poll. Labour (described by Rob as the “capitalist party”) won the seat with over 12,000 votes. In Coventry North East, Dave Nellist, the former Labour MP and the most well-known TUSC candidate, managed to scrape 1,592 votes (3.7%), but the Labour candidate got over 21,000 votes (49.3%). The vote for Dave, who was expelled from the Labour Party in 1992, has gone down at every election since. In 1992 he polled 10,500 votes, while today it is down to 1,600, even less than the BNP. This speaks volumes about the loyalty of the working class towards the Labour Party. The attempt to create an alternative to Labour on the electoral front has once again failed.
“But to those who dismiss our small votes, we say that Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party received similar figures and derision in their attempts to break the trade unions from the Liberals at the end of the nineteenth century”, states the SP leaflet handed out at the June UNITE conference. “We will not be deterred from advocating a new mass workers’ party that reflects the labour movement’s aims and policies.”
What the SP leaders fail to understand is that when Keir Hardie stood in elections, there was no established Labour Party. Today a Labour Party exists – whether we like it or not supported by millions of workers as the general election shows. To believe that workers will seek to establish a new party, without at first attempting to reform the old, is to forget all the lessons of history. If after 13 years of pro-capitalist policies of New Labour, workers show no intention of breaking with the Labour Party, this shows precisely the deep roots the party has in the working class. “Mass organisations have value precisely because they are mass organisations”, explained Trotsky. “Even when they are under patriotic reformist leadership one cannot discount them.” (Writings 1935-36, p.294). And again, “If a worker barely awoken to political life seeks a mass organisation, without distinguishing as yet either programmes or tactics, he will naturally join the Labour Party.” (Writings on Britain, vol.3, p.93). And finally, “workers do not leap from organisation to organisation with lightness, like individual students.” (Ibid, p.53)
The first task, as part of attempting to change society, is to understand what is. The ascendency of the right wing in the past period was based on the boom of capitalism, albeit a boom based on credit and speculation. That has now collapsed. A new period of storm and stress is opening up in Britain and internationally. Events will propel the working class into action, at first on the industrial front, then on the political front.
As the Marxist tendency has explained many times, the working class will take the line of least resistance and when it moves politically it will move towards its traditional mass organisations. When this happens, all those groups on the fringes of the movement will be left high and dry. The main struggle for the future of society will be fought within the Labour Party and the trade unions. On the basis of events, the right wing will be squeezed out and the left will be in the ascendency. It is the task of Marxism to “patiently explain” and fertilise this left wing with revolutionary ideas. Before the ideas of scientific socialism can conquer the broad mass of the working class, they need to politically conquer the mass organisations. The mistakes and isolation of the Marxists in the past, due mainly to their sectarianism, has been both a tragedy and a farce. We need to learn from history and understand that there is no short cut to the masses “At all costs we must be careful to avoid either sectarianism or opportunism”, explained Trotsky (Writings on Britain, vol.3, p.138).
The ruling class has maintained a firm grip on the Labour Party through its right-wing agents. Their task was to make the party safe for capitalism. They were able to accomplish this in the past period largely due to the boom built on credit. That has now come to an end. The crisis of capitalism is reflected in the demands for austerity everywhere. As a consequence, we are heading for huge clashes between the classes not seen in generations. Such a situation will radicalise the working class and serve to transform the labour movement. This will also shake the Labour Party from top to bottom.
Enormous opportunities will open up for the Marxist tendency as our ideas increasingly connect with the radicalised workers and youth. They will look towards the mass organisations to solve their problems. We will go through the experiences with them shoulder to shoulder, explaining the need for the socialist transformation of society. Whatever measures are taken by the bureaucracy, they will not succeed in breaking the links between Marxism and the organised working class.
On the basis of, “patiently explaining” our ideas, in a friendly and sober tone, we can win over the majority of class-conscious workers and youth. In doing so, we can help to transform and retransform the mass organisations and change them into genuine vehicles to change society. We appeal to all workers and youth to join us in this fight.
“We are fighting for genuine scientific ideas and principles, with inadequate technical, material, and personal means. But correct ideas will always find the necessary corresponding means and forces…”, explained Trotsky. “There was never a greater cause on earth.”