65. “Labour a sham”: Steps towards a new party



Friedrich Engels commented about the distinctive characteristics of the British working class and its organisations: “One cannot drum theory into them beforehand but their own experience and their own blunders and the resulting evil consequences will blunt their noses up against theory and then all right. Independent peoples go their own way, and the English and their offspring are surely the most independent of them all. Insular, stiff-necked obstinacy annoys one often enough, but it also guarantees that what is begun will be carried out once things get started.”1

Since Engels wrote these lines the British working class has been renewed many times. Yet his acute observation still retains all its force today. When a fundamentally new departure is called for, involving the abandonment of one outmoded, used-up political party and its replacement by a new one, these characteristics are on display. The idea of a new mass workers’ party was first posed by the Socialist Party in the early 1990s well in advance, as we have shown, of the ill-fated launch of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.

Other countries had witnessed earlier the birth of new political formations. The best-known of these were Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, Die Linke (the Left Party) in Germany, P-SOL in Brazil and, since then, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Yet the British labour movement, with its empirical, almost ponderous traditions, has not as yet followed this path despite big efforts on the part of Socialist Party members and trade unions like the RMT to persuade the more politically advanced British workers to take even the first steps along this path. Nevertheless, they will proceed in this direction as the election to the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has shown. This phenomenon – which took everybody by surprise, including Corbyn himself – developed as a mass anti-austerity mood initially outside the Labour Party. As we write, Labour is now composed of two parties locked in a civil war. It is to be hoped that Corbyn and the new forces will predominate, which could create, in effect, a new party.

The Brown and Blair government, with their blatant pro-capitalist bias, helped us considerably to make the case for a new party. Christopher Beale, chairperson of the Institute of Directors, declared in 2006: “So far, so good. Within reason, we have a business friendly government.” So demoralised were Labour’s ranks that only a third of constituency Labour parties bothered to spend the £500 to attend the 2006 Party conference in Brighton, presided over by Blair and Brown “wielding a neo-liberal club to crush any lingering hopes for a genuine swing towards the left within the party.”

The total disconnect of the Labour Party tops from the working class was highlighted by the disgraceful ejection of the 82-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany, Walter Wolfgang, for daring to shout out “Nonsense!” at Jack Straw’s claim that those who opposed the Iraq war were “pro-Nazi sympathisers”. Walter was held and questioned by police under Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act! We commented: “Twenty years to the month, the Daily Mirror [which objected in an editorial to the treatment of Walter Wolfgang] cheered on Neil Kinnock in his infamous denunciation of Militant (now the Socialist Party). Paraphrasing the words used by Kinnock, who is now a multi-millionaire: ‘You start by expelling Militants for fighting for socialism and you end up with the grotesque chaos of manhandling and ejecting an 82-year-old protester’.”2

Walter stated that the party had been “taken over by a gang of political adventurers”.3 Then somewhat despairingly but ironically, he remarked: “I will remain a member [of the Labour Party] for the simple reason that we can outlive them.” We remarked: “The courageous Walter deserves full marks for his perspectives on his own longevity but not for the Labour Party itself.”4 We had warned in advance that the expulsion of Militant supporters could end up with the destruction of the Labour Party as a genuine working class party. In the disgraceful scenes played out in Brighton this was confirmed.

Even worse was the brutal restatement in Brighton by the New Labour leadership of the neo-liberal mantra of no concessions to trade unions, despite persistent demands for the abolition of Thatcher’s law preventing ‘secondary solidarity action’ by fellow trade unionists. Further privatisation, particularly of the NHS   and schools, would be the calamitous consequences of a continuation of this government’s programme, we said. There was no action proposed to alleviate the desperate housing problem. Support for big business in general was affirmed but particularly the paving of the way for the bosses to get children’s education into their clutches with a massive introduction of academies.

All of this was spelt out in Brighton. In other words, more of the same, only worse, was promised for working class people. Those who hoped that Gordon Brown would be like a ‘socialist’ St George, slaying the New Labour Dragon once he was prime minister, were disappointed by his interviews and speeches at the conference. He restated his enthusiastic support for the New Labour project.

Even Guardian writer Polly Toynbee, once of the right-wing split from the Labour Party, the Social Democratic Party, wrote: “Brighton has exposed Labour as a shell, deserted by members… Labour is in danger of becoming a phantom party – a self-perpetuating oligarchy given absolute power by only 25% of the electorate through a perverted voting system that will, with a swing of the pendulum, deliver the same power to an equally unrepresentative Tory clique.”5 Brian Reade went further: “The Labour Party conference is about as pointless as a surfboard in an ice rink… How to stop collapsing in hysterics when they sing the Red Flag. From mass-produced prompt cards.”6

Yet what remained of the left stubbornly refused to draw the obvious conclusion that Labour as a vehicle for the working class was dead in the water. They pointed to the conference decisions against further privatisation of the NHS and other issues. The reality was, as we pointed out, that there was “less chance today of Blair or Brown repudiating this and the… pernicious anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher than the Liberals… in 1906.”7

That Liberal government, under pressure from the newly created Labour Party, did repudiate the House of Lords anti-union Taff Vale judgement, which awarded heavy damages against unions taking industrial action. Yet the equivalent of Taff Vale today was precisely the prohibition of ‘secondary action’, which seeks to effectively neuter workers from taking industrial action in support of their brothers and sisters fighting against pernicious bosses and slave-like conditions and wages.

A similar well-known example is the austerity programme proposed by Ramsay Macdonald in 1931 which came up against the rock of working class and organised trade union resistance. Macdonald could not push his programme through and therefore broke with the Labour Party and established the ‘National Government’. The Blair government did not need to do that for two reasons. Firstly, this was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘national government’, the best that the British capitalists could expect at that stage. Secondly, the trade unions were effectively politically neutered while the Blairite iron grip was exercised over the party at all levels.

Politically superficial commentators smugly point to the history of the labour movement with examples of where the Labour leadership ignored conference decisions, at a time when it was a genuine working-class party at the base. However on decisive issues, particularly those which directly affected the working class, the specific weight of the trade unions was sufficient to force the leadership either to back away or be broken, as mentioned earlier over Labour’s own anti-union proposals, ‘In Place of Strife’, in 1969.

The Tribunite left demonstrated in article after article that the New Labour project was unreconstructed Thatcherism. This applied not just to Blair but to Brown also. He had declared before the conference: “The programme of reform [read counter-reform – PT] and modernisation will continue when Tony steps down.”8 Brown wanted “more home ownership, more asset ownership. He wants – some claim – to be more Thatcherite than Blair,” commented Jackie Ashley.9 It began to dawn on more and more of those genuine socialists who remained in the Labour Party that there was little possibility of arresting this pro-capitalist development.

This was underlined by, amongst many, Colin McCabe, a representative of the artistic intelligentsia who had gone along with New Labour up to then. He announced his resignation from the Labour Party following the conference after 41 years of membership. He simply wrote of Blair: “You lie as you breathe.”10 He was ‘answered’ by Denis McShane, the Blairite former minister, later jailed for fiddling his expenses: “Please think again comrades.” McShane defended Blair: “I was in France and Germany. Both countries would die to have a Tony Blair leading them out of high unemployment.” We commented that only a matter of months previous to this, the French and Dutch working class showed in EU constitution referenda what they thought of ‘Blairism’! The massive ‘No’ votes were as much a vote against Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism, symbolised above all by Blair, as against even the EU constitution itself. The German working class at this stage had also seen what Thatcher and Blair had inflicted on the British workers and wanted none of it.11

The Campaign Group of MPs also held the forlorn hope that the Labour Party could be transformed. It had been suggested that they would put up a ‘stalking horse’ against Blair that could trigger an electoral contest for the Labour leadership in 2006. Even if this had succeeded, the victorious candidate that emerged would likely be Brown, “the replacement of Tweedledum by Tweedledee”. We also warned: “The disappointment of the last eight years of Blairism will be compounded by an epoch of Brownism. It could pave the way for the return of the hated Tories, perhaps given a facelift by some kind of Cameron-Clarke duumvirate.” This prognosis was born out to the letter, although ‘Brownism’ lasted much shorter than we anticipated, and also Cameron initially shared power with the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg – which amounted to the same thing! We also pointed out: “The daily drip feed of attacks on the working class, which can be enormously aggravated by a new world economic recession or slump, will continue apace.”

At the same time we supported Bob Crow’s suggestion that we could call a conference in early 2006 of organisations and parties to discuss the idea of a new party. Naturally the Socialist Party welcomed this because it gave some industrial and trade union basis for the first steps towards a new party. However, we warned against a repetition of Respect which “was unlikely to make a significant breakthrough amongst broader layers of the working class”. We also pointed to the recent success of the left alliance in Germany which became Die Linke winning 8% of the vote and 50 MPs in the 2005 federal election. The repercussions of this development would be felt throughout Europe and not least in Britain. It is true that the Left Party did not develop in a straight line but a start had been made towards a genuine left party (not yet fulfilled).12

The crucial difference between the two countries was that in Britain there was no major left figure or trade union leader apart from Bob Crow who had called for action to create the conditions for a real new mass party, as Oskar Lafontaine had in Germany. We therefore pressed the leaders of the left, particularly the left trade union leaders, to come out boldly for such a party. There appeared to be every chance, given the disillusionment with the Blair government, that this was likely to develop at this time. Those who still clung to the Labour Party in the hope that it could be ‘reformed’ were just recycling the arguments of those adherents to the ‘LibLab’ philosophy who tried to capture the Liberal Party for the working class in the latter part of the 19th century.

When the RMT’s political conference was held, despite expectations and a large attendance, it became quite clear that while Bob was in favour of taking the initiative, in his opinion the RMT was not yet quite ready. He therefore proposed that in preparation for such a party a conference should take the initiative of establishing a shop stewards network. The result was the founding of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) which was destined to play a crucial role in the industrial battles that developed under both New Labour and Conservative-led governments from 2007 onwards.

There was undoubtedly disappointment, once more, that the first step towards a new mass party was further delayed. This necessitated us launching the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP). At its conference in March 2006 Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist reported that more than 1,300 people had signed its ‘Declaration for a New Workers’ Party’ from 25 different trade unions and a whole range of community campaigns. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil servants’ union PCS, congratulated the organisers of the event on a “magnificent turnout”. He pointed out that in the previous six months 14 unions gave more than £1.6 million to New Labour yet “many of those unions are having to take strike action to defend their members against the government’s attacks on their pension rights”.

Claus Ludwig, a councillor for the new party in Germany ‘Election Alternative for Work and Justice’ (Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit – Die Wahlalternative – WASG) reported on its success and the discussion about a possible merger with Die Linke, which had been in the Berlin regional government and had carried out neo-liberal attacks on the working class. The CWI in Germany opposed this and he commented: “Talking about socialism on Sunday and carrying out cuts during the week was no way forward.” There was some debate at this gathering on what would be the character of a new party, an ongoing issue in Britain, the Socialist Party favouring the development of a party which is federal in character with the affiliation of trade unions, socialist parties and groups.13

Shortly afterwards it was reported that the number signed up in support of a new workers’ party had reached more than 2,000. The character of this campaign was largely propagandistic at this stage, preparing the ground for developments later, particularly in the trade unions. A second successful conference took place in 2007 and subsequently other gatherings maintained the momentum for a new party. However, it met with resistance from those such as the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and Respect. Labour MP John McDonnell was the only leading figure behind the LRC. He had considerable influence and respect beyond the Labour Party’s ranks, particularly with trade union leaders. However, there was no clear strategy by him or the LRC beyond calling for trade unionists to become party members. At its conference in 2006 one delegate pleaded: “I’m not asking you to be happy about joining the Labour Party; it pains me every time I write out a cheque for my subscription.” John argued that it was wrong to found a new party and instead the aim should be to “re-found” Labour. He said he would like to see the RMT and the FBU back in the party. Ironically, as Bob Crow pointed out, none of the unions backing the LRC at this stage was affiliated to Labour. On the other hand, none of them was taking the necessary step of giving union backing to the idea of forming a new party either.14

Despite this, John McDonnell threw his hat in the ring for the leadership of the Labour Party but he did not even get the backing of the 45 Labour MPs necessary to get on the ballot paper. Bob Crow also stated that his members and many other trade unionists did not see New Labour “in any sense as ‘their party’ and would not join”. This was vindicated by the fact that wherever workers had taken strike action, it had tended to increase demands for unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Nowhere had strikes led to an influx of workers joining New Labour to change it, as was the case when the Labour Party was a workers’ party. Despite our differences with John McDonnell, we nevertheless gave critical support to his leadership campaign. In the course of the debates and discussions around his candidature we hoped to be able to get our message through to a wider audience.15

A new volume of Tony Benn’s diaries appeared in 2007: More Time for Politics, Diaries 2001-2007. In them, he took a pop at the Socialist Party and others on the left: “The setting up of a new Socialist Party is a waste of time.”16 In our review of the diaries, we posed the question “What is his alternative to the Socialist Party’s idea of a new mass workers’ party?” Tony Benn’s answer was: “There is a vacuum and that’s what the Labour conference has to do, fill the vacuum, because you cannot have a democratic system without a serious alternative, and people want a Labour government.”17 This was naive to say the least; Labour, as Tony freely admitted throughout his diaries, was now mainly stuffed with Blair and Brown’s toadies, right-wing councillors who carried through cuts and sheep-like MPs who trotted into the division lobbies of the House of Commons to back them up.

Then there was what actually happened at the conference where Tony expected there to be an alternative: “New Labour is more violently anti-union and anti-left than for many, many years… Constituencies are no longer on the left, because all the decent socialists have left, so it’s a Blairite romp.”18 As if to put the concluding arguments for a new party, unconsciously it might be added, Tony wrote: “What Blair is doing is privatising the Labour Party. He wants to get rid of the trade unions. After all, 7 million trade unionists give £7 million, and 10 million people contributed nearly £14 million and some end up in the Lords. My dad left the Liberal Party because Lloyd George was so corrupt in his use of patronage.”19 Very good advice which, unfortunately, the late stalwart of the left did not follow with actions. We concluded: “Sadly, Tony Benn rejects this path. It will not stop the march of history, which will see in Britain, as in other countries, new political formations of the working class.”20

Mark Serwotka wrote an article at this stage for The Socialist indicating his support for a new party: “We need to do more than mount an effective industrial campaign. We need to consider what can be done in the political arena to challenge the new pro-business, anti-welfare state consensus between all three main parties… This has led to a growing debate within the trade unions about political representation. When this debate takes place, the question quickly turns to the existing political choices that we have.” This was the reason why, he explained, the PCS was using its political fund on ‘Make Your Vote Count’ to further the campaign for new political representation.

He pointed to the recent successes of the SSP in Scotland and George Galloway, elected as a Respect MP, despite the difficulties of the electoral system for new parties. We recognised that these represented limited advances. He also pointed towards what he called the “split nature of the left… On 17 November last year, I found myself speaking to three competing left events in London – the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Party and the Respect conference.” He also argued in favour of incorporating “the left in the Labour Party”, which he claimed had an important role. He recognised the positive role played by John McDonnell, as the chair of the PCS Parliamentary group, in assisting his union amongst others.21

This contribution of Mark led to a debate in the Socialist. I answered some of Mark’s points: “Unfortunately, Mark, while making some useful suggestions, has not set out a strategy to create such a force [a new party] in Britain. The Socialist Party, and particularly Socialist Party members in the PCS who have a considerable influence, support the union’s initiative ‘Make Your Vote Count’.” Moreover, Mark recognised by implication that the idea of a new mass workers’ party was popular: “I am in no doubt that the 2005 PCS ballot on setting up a political fund was won, in part, because we would not donate to, or affiliate to any political party – including Labour.” We posed the question to Mark: “Why not then suggest that those unions still tied to Labour should immediately disaffiliate and join in the campaign for a new party?”

He made a plea that we should accept the “important role” of the left in the Labour Party. We recognised that Labour MPs such as John McDonnell and ex-MPs like Tony Benn “still have political authority but one that can diminish in the stormy events that impend in Britain if they insist on clinging to the battered wreckage of the Labour Party. We are prepared to work with the Labour left on resisting attacks, the need to repeal anti-union legislation, etc. But we will also criticise them.” We also recognised that the PCS was correct to utilise left MPs to support and enhance its campaign and its position in Parliament. Before the formation of the Labour Party, the unions utilised sections of the Lib-Lab MPs in a similar role. But this did not prevent the pioneers of the Labour Party from criticising these very same MPs for propping up the Liberal Party, a bulwark of capitalism. Left MPs “imprisoned in New Labour, [are] reduced to smuggling out protest notes through the bars”.22

We followed this up with discussions with others on the left, like Respect and the Socialist Workers Party, despite our differences with them. We have set out our differences with the SWP in our book Socialism and Left Unity which is both of an historical and contemporary character. Our criticisms of Respect were mentioned previously.