Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Labour Party - what are we going to do now?

The carping critics of the Labour leadership are full of glee at the prospect that our membership may fall below half a million individual members and our Deputy Leader is on a mission to do all he can to undermine our Leader, but none of this is interesting or important. Labour is larger than it has been for years and our Leader commands the support of the majority of our members. He is hated, and will be undermined, by the media and the establishment. All of this is given.

With the exception of one war criminal, every Leader of our Party in my adult life has been ridiculed and undermined by the media and the more left-wing our Leader is perceived to be, the more attacks they will face. This is only to be expected and, whilst faint hearts may hope for something different, that isn’t going to happen. We face terribly poor opinion polls and the prospect of a General Election in which the combined impact of New Labour’s loss of Scotland and the Tory gerrymandering of parliamentary boundaries presently appear to render the prospect of victory (i.e. a Labour majority), under any Leader and with any policy platform, very remote.

The ruling class and their spokespeople are outraged that in the face of this adversity a Labour Leader holds true to socialism rather than adopting the role which Tom Watson and his supporters would have us adopt, as the pitiable subaltern alternative to the Tories, offering a modest amelioration of the worst excesses of capitalism when and if this can be afforded (in return for political careers for those whose aspirations are so attenuated that they are happy to play that part).

There will continue to be weekly (if not daily) attacks upon the Labour Party under its current leadership, and those attacks will continue to be assisted, tacitly if not actively, by those within the Party who are opposed to that leadership. There is absolutely nothing which can be done about this (and no hope of compromise or accommodation with Watson and his ilk, who include many members of the current Labour Party National Executive as well as the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party).

Rather than respond to every attempt by our opponents to set the agenda for us, socialists need to take the opportunity of a mass Labour Party membership sympathetic to our beliefs to build and organise support for socialism amongst working people. How are we to do this?

Some have placed hope in Momentum.

For my part I shall pay no attention to Momentum, since we need neither a top down fan club for the Leader nor an organisation crossing the boundaries of Party membership in order to do what needs to be done. Local Momentum groups have done valuable work, but the national organisation has no potential other than to run the leadership campaign against the next right-wing challenge.

I don’t say this simply because there are individuals in and around the leadership of Momentum whom I mistrust (although there are), but because the evidence of the past eighteen months demonstrates that an attempt to marry the worst of the undemocratic factionalising of elements of the old Labour Left with the traditions of the extra-parliamentary ultra-left will lead to exactly the sort of messy divorce now being witnessed.

Once we saw an influx of hundreds of thousands into the Party, and knew that these comrades were joining to support a socialist Leader of our Party, we did not need a separate organisation – we needed to organise those socialists within the Party. We still do.

The experience in Brighton and Hove, where this internal Party organising was done (thanks both to long serving activists, including those associated with the Labour Representation Committee, LRC, and newcomers organising under the banner of Momentum) is instructive. The vitriolic response of the marginalised right-wing, which led to the eight-month long suspension of Party organisation and the break-up of the District Party showed that, even though the protagonists of the assault upon local Party democracy knew that all they could achieve was to delay the accession of socialist leadership locally, their priority was to delay what they could not prevent.

What appears locally to be an arrogant sense of entitlement on the part of a small clique who called the shots when the Party was (at best) social democratic, small and in decline is, in fact, only a local manifestation of the desperate attempts nationally of the Tom Watsons of this world to cling to the Labour Party they knew, which would never change the world (although it might change theirs). 

The great majority of those who appear to us now as the right-wing of the Labour Party are genuine and sincere in their belief that, socialism being impossible in the here and now, the Party must retreat to the “centre-ground” in order to achieve such electoral success as may be practicable (there are some bona fide careerists within those ranks, who are protecting their own material interests, but they are a minority and a generally uninteresting one).

We need to work within the Labour Party, patiently and with determination, to mobilise those who support socialism and, where and when we can, win over those who do not yet do so. To do this we need to campaign both as the Labour Party and in the Labour Party. Let me take the second of these two dimensions first.

If we are going to campaign as socialists in the Labour Party we need not to have terrible misjudgements such as occurred at last year’s Labour Party Conference when (thanks to the lack of organisation of the left) the Party changed our Rules in order to prohibit even the consideration of “unlawful” budgets by Labour Councils (that is to say we voted to prohibit support for budgets which are “unlawful” because they don’t attack working class communities sufficiently to “balance” – nothing in our rules prohibits Labour Councillors from setting budgets which (unlawfully) prevent local authorities from complying with their statutory duties in respect of service provision, just as long as the books balance).

We need to put forward socialist policies within our Labour Party branches and CLPs, with an emphasis upon economic issues but without excluding all other questions (for example, in Brighton and Hove it is inevitably important that we propose support for solidarity with the Palestinian people, whose suffering is marginalised by those who insist that opposition to the brutal oppression perpetrated by the Israeli state is somehow racist). 

We must advance our socialist ideas in a positive and inclusive way in order to maximise support within the Party. In so doing we will inevitably identify those committed to changing the world in the interests of the working class, and also identify those who do not share this objective.

As we advance socialist policies within the Party we must also support socialist candidates in every election, whether to local Party office, as Conference delegates or in selections for candidates for public office. Particularly in relation to the last of these we will face the organised opposition of a right-wing which still has great influence and control over the Party machinery (and which is empowered by its rootedness in the “common sense” of the political establishment of our society).

Turning to campaigning as the Labour Party, it is obviously important that we do all we can to support each and every campaigning initiative that comes from the Party leadership. We need to draw our unprecedented mass membership into whichever form of campaigning activity each individual can support, whether that is leaflet delivery, street stalls or the Party’s holy grail of “door knocking” (which needs not to be an exercise in asking people to tell us what our policies should be, but should rather be about trying to win arguments with our people for our policies).

We also need to engage Party members and supporters in the process of policy formation for our Party. The current policy making structures of the Party, based upon the National Policy Forum, were (and are) a Blairite attempt to limit the influence of Party members (and working class people) upon policy formation. Nevertheless, these flawed and undemocratic mechanisms are what we have and we should do the best we can with them. The challenge for socialists in the Party is to engage effectively with the current policy consultations, to propose motions for Conference as far as we can, and to develop Rule Amendments which will give policy making back to the membership as soon as is possible.

The Party, now that it is a mass membership Party as it never was when the right-wing were in charge, needs also to be mobilised as a force within our local communities. We cannot ask working class people bearing the brunt of Tory austerity to await a Labour Government, the arrival of which we cannot promise or predict. Nor can we realistically expect that Labour local authorities, where we have them, which are committed “lawfully” to complying with the cuts imposed by the Tory Government will be any sort of effective defence for our communities.

Therefore. we need our mass Labour Party to mobilise, both directly through our own membership and indirectly, through our connections with the trade unions in particular, to provide assistance and support to working class people in the everyday here and now. The easiest and simplest aspect of this task is to turn up on protests and picket lines (as Brighton Pavilion CLP did for BECTU last weekend) in order to support trade union struggles. Beyond this reactive solidarity we also need to explore how we can use our massive numbers proactively to organise effective support and advocacy for our communities.

Why not Labour Party advice sessions in local libraries or community halls helping people with their benefit rights? Why not such sessions in conjunction with local Trades Councils dealing with employment rights? Why not the Labour Party at the forefront of defending the rights of tenants (and leaseholders, and the tenants of leaseholders)? If our Rules prevent Labour local authorities from appearing to local people as their advocates and supporters then what prevents Labour Party members from taking on this role?

We also need to ensure that our local Labour Parties are at the front and centre of opposition to all forms of racism, which is why the miserable, weak and misguided position of our Party and its leadership in relation to the EU Referendum result is so damaging. It is not the case that everyone who voted to leave the European Union was a racist, but all those who were not were nevertheless voting against the interests of working class people (and it does no good to patronise those “leave” voters by pretending respect for their terrible decision).

The pernicious progress of the cancer of racism which has been at the heart of our country since the Empire has been accelerated by the Referendum result (which will also inevitably deliver economic decline). There cannot possibly be a “People’s Brexit” and the support which all socialists should show for the Party leadership cannot extend to pretending that this fantasy could be reality. Our leadership needs critical friends rather more than it needs a fan club.

Post-Brexit and Post-Trump we are living in a world in which opposition to racism and nationalism is just about the most important principle one can imagine. There can be no doubt that neither the Tory Government nor the right-wing of our own Party have any idea about how to confront this horrific reality (which they themselves have brought into existence) but that does not mean that we as socialists are all-knowing on this subject.

It is clear that the former proponents of a “left Exit” (or Lexit) from the European Union, some of whom remain in denial about the disastrous consequences of the course of action which they made the mistake of advocating, are keen to advance the nonsense of a “People’s Brexit”. If we, as socialists, are to campaign as the Labour Party in a way which advances socialism in our country, we cannot hope to do so by promoting such nonsense.

Our Labour Party must promote and defend the interests of workers who are EU citizens as we defend the interests of all workers, regardless of nationality, and we must campaign for any future relationship with the EU to defend the interests of workers, which include our collective interest in free movement of labour. Our socialism is international, which means it is anti-racist, or it is nothing.

I think that being an officer of a Constituency Labour Party in the next year or so could be quite as interesting as having been an officer or a UNISON Branch has been for the past quarter century…!


Dani said...

"Why not Labour Party advice sessions in local libraries or community halls helping people with their benefit rights? Why not such sessions in conjunction with local Trades Councils dealing with employment rights? Why not the Labour Party at the forefront of defending the rights of tenants (and leaseholders, and the tenants of leaseholders)? If our Rules prevent Labour local authorities from appearing to local people as their advocates and supporters then what prevents Labour Party members from taking on this role?"

I think these are good and worthwhile ideas, but each one of them requires a long-term commitment by activists. I made a weekly volunteering commitment to support people with benefits at a local charity last summer, and I'm only now just about knowledgeable enough to start offering advice to people, having been on a series of training courses run by the excellent welfare rights team at Brighton & Hove council, and shadowed more experienced advisers for a couple of months.

Offering benefits/employment/housing advice is skilled work, involving a serious responsibility to get things right. Advisers/advocates need a structure around them to give backup and supervision, to ensure that the advice and support is good quality. The voluntary advice sector in Brighton & Hove is indeed overwhelmed, and I agree that the Labour Party should be taking practical action by the side of people at the sharp end of austerity. But it needs to be done properly.

Anonymous said...

Some good ideas there but you went off on one at the end with the Brexit stuff. Have you ever thought about joining the Lib Dems?

Arthur Shaw said...

You speak a lot of sense Jon and have some good ideas but I think you lost it a bit Jon on the EU. I voted to leave as I see the EU as a club for the capitalists formed and controlled by them with little benefit for working people. I also think Dani above is right about giving advice on housing, benefits etc, this is skilled work, even if I wanted to do it where could I get the training and find the time if I working full time and have little time for myself as it is? Surely we should be fighting for full time, well paid, impartial advisors in the Job Centres and councils and to reverse the cuts successive Labour and Tory governments have imposed alongside the unions who organise these workers, I don't think we should be replacing these skilled workers with volunteers.

Jon Rogers said...

As to Brexit, I think the Party is moving in the direction of good senses and the interests of the working class, though I think it is up to Party members to develop and accelerate this movement.

Dani, your points are well made and it may be that there is nothing more we can do, even in the medium term, than signpost people and act as advocates to the services which the state ought to be (and to a limited extent still is) providing.

However, the welfare state was built on the foundations of working class self-help and, if we are to face up to the scale of our defeat as the welfare state has been dismantled in front of the eyes (and sometimes at the hands) of those who led our Party before Corbyn it may be that we need to get back to those roots?