The Socialist received a letter over the summer from a reader questioning our application to work with the Labour Party in an inclusive federation.
Socialists always welcome serious debate on the strategy and tactics we should employ, and so we asked Dave Nellist, the former Labour MP who is now a member of the Socialist Party national committee, to make a contribution.
As a Labour Party member who subscribes to your newspaper, I must take issue with page 4 of issue 952. “Readmit the socialists with the right to organise in an inclusive federation.” The above is a party within a party and exactly the reason Neil Kinnock expelled Militant [forerunner of the Socialist].
I would love to have my socialist friends as members of the Labour Party on the understanding that their drive and ideas further the interests of the Labour Party, which is at a point on the left not seen since Michael Foot. Labour is now popular and relevant to voters. A fact for which we must be grateful.
Please rethink your policy?
Adrian B Rimington, Chesterfield
The Socialist Party wants to see the battle against Tory austerity strengthened, and socialist measures taken to improve the lives of millions of working class people. It was for those reasons we welcomed the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.
In addition to the welcome changes Jeremy started to make in Labour Party policies, particularly during the general election, we think there are organisational changes needed if Labour is to be transformed into a party that represents the interests of the working class. One of those should be the expansion of Labour’s federal structure to invite affiliation of organisations such as the Socialist Party.
Adrian is worried that our campaign for affiliating the Socialist Party to Labour would be creating “a party within a party” and that’s why “Neil Kinnock expelled Militant”.
Even with the space of this article, it’s not possible to explain fully the background to the 20-year battle big business and its supporters in the press and the Labour Party itself waged against Marxist and socialist ideas, which had been part of Labour’s structure and history from its very foundation. We would seriously recommend a reading of “The Rise of Militant” by Peter Taaffe which covers this in detail.
The attack on Militant supporters was fundamentally ideological, not organisational. It was started by the Observer newspaper in 1975, when Harold Wilson was party leader, and was because of growing support for socialist and Marxist ideas in the Labour Party – in particular for the idea of widespread public ownership, and of workers having greater control and management of publicly run industries. This was a challenge to the control of society by big business and its supporters.
The first expulsions, of the paper’s editors in 1983, were the beginning of a fundamental change in Labour towards becoming a party that would be sympathetic to, and eventually representative of, big business.
Labour’s right-wing leadership also thought that if Neil Kinnock could show the press he could take on the left, he could then be trusted by the establishment as a prime minister capable of taking on the trade unions in the interest of that establishment.
Militant was just the beginning, and as we forecast the real target was much wider: the establishment wanted the exorcism of socialist ideas from Labour. In fact the day after Labour’s national executive took the decision to begin proceedings against myself and Terry Fields (as Militant-supporting MPs) the London Evening Standard published photographs of 30 more Labour MPs (including Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn) and demanded that Neil Kinnock now take action against those as well.
The irony was, of course, in relation to the right-wing view that expulsions would be ‘electorally popular’ that, having achieved a 24-point lead in the opinion polls in April 1990 (a week after the so-called Poll Tax riot in Trafalgar Square and yet based on the huge antagonism against the Thatcher government by millions of ordinary working class people fuelled by the imposition of the Poll Tax), Labour threw that lead away by spending two years attacking Marxists and socialists and incredibly lost the subsequent 1992 general election!
The Labour Party is already a federation – of individual members, and of affiliated trade unions and societies. Groups such as the Fabians have their own membership, policies, and conferences – and yet are allowed to affiliate and take those politics into debate within the Labour Party. Other groups on the right – Progress for example – certainly have external funding, and policy discussions (some open and some not).
Journalists such as Paul Mason have argued in the Guardian that Progress, Momentum and others should be allowed to affiliate to Labour; his colleague, Zoe Williams, has argued that the Greens “need structures and organisations within Labour, from which to pursue their agenda.” She has further suggested that it should be possible to stand as a joint candidate, Green and Labour, or Women’s Equality Party and Labour. Why, then, not the Socialist Party?
One party has had precisely that relationship with Labour for 90 years. Since 1927 Labour and the Co-operative Party have had an agreement to stand joint candidates for parliament. At that point both were “united in their aim to displace capitalism with common ownership.” In the 2017 general election 38 MPs were returned who are joint members. Why shouldn’t a similar arrangement work on the left?
The original founding of the Labour Party (as the Labour Representation Committee) came about from a successful motion at the 1899 TUC congress moved by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (today’s RMT) to invite cooperative, socialist, trade unions and other workers’ organisations to set up a party of Labour.
At that first congress, on 27 February 1900, trade unions representing 545,000 members, the Independent Labour Party 13,000, the Social Democratic Federation (an influential, though essentially sectarian, revolutionary organisation) 9,000, and the Fabian Society 861, discussed the setting up of a party. The party that was founded was to be a federal body of those organisations (and later others).
We think that model could work today with a broader body which expands on the remnants of Labour’s existing federal structure and brings together all those organisations who want to fight cuts and austerity – clearly Labour would be the biggest component of that, but there are many thousands of good activists who could be drawn into a democratic federal relationship, including socialist, anti-cuts campaigners, a range of single issue campaigns (such as anti-fracking) and ourselves.
That should include those who have opposed right-wing Labour in the past, not least those many hundreds of active trade unionists who have stood for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition at local and general elections.
Under the rule of the Blairites, defectors from Tory to Labour such as Shaun Woodward have been welcomed with open arms, even with cabinet positions, yet workers who have stood in elections to oppose austerity are currently barred from Labour Party membership!
The proper proportionate influence of the trade unions should be restored in Labour Party decision-making, so the Labour Party can become a real vehicle for the organised working class.
Jeremy Corbyn should put his full weight behind a programme to democratise the Labour Party. Just as in the general election he appealed to Labour’s membership and to the working class over the heads of the right-wing party machine, he should do the same on these issues.
He should put his own democratic constitution to a referendum of all Labour Party members – full and associate – which would have at its heart mandatory reselection and the replacement of the bureaucratic machine, with power resting in the hands of the membership, particularly new members and the trade unions.
Adrian says we should only join “on the understanding that (their) driving ideas further the interests of the Labour Party”; well, up to a point.
We are first and foremost socialists, who want fundamental change in society, to one run for the millions not the millionaires. A society that would use the resources and wealth of this, the fifth richest country on the planet, for the benefit all. We want to work with others to make that happen.
Jeremy Corbyn is attracting large numbers of people who have seen a glimpse of a different society – of a £10 an hour minimum wage, of an end to tuition fees, of public ownership in rail, post and energy, of taxing the rich to make society fairer.
We fight for all those demands and would like to do so as members of the Labour Party – but the strength we would bring is not just with individual records or experience, but the collective experience and understanding we have, not least from successful battles such as the socialist council in Liverpool, and against Thatcher’s Poll Tax.
Adrian says that “Labour is now more popular and relevant to voters” – well, again, to a point. A substantial section of the working class supported Brexit, their support for Labour could be weakened if the right-wing trajectory on that issue, spearheaded by Keir Starmer, continues.
And while millions look favourably to Jeremy changing Labour at the top, many millions’ only direct experience of Labour is actually on a local level. And it’s there that little has changed in the last two years, particularly with Labour councillors implementing Tory austerity.
If the Socialist Party were allowed to affiliate, campaigning within Labour for serious resistance to Tory austerity would be one of our main priorities.
One of the key jobs is to change the composition of councillors representing Labour to those who will stand up to the Tories’ austerity agenda, not implement it on the government’s behalf.
In Birmingham, in order to head off any possibility of internal challenge against those councillors implementing such cuts, Labour’s Birmingham board decided that no member of the Labour Party could take part in selection meetings for council candidates for the 2018 municipal elections unless they had been a member before July 2015 (two months before Jeremy was first elected leader).
That position has now been changed (following Jeremy Corbyn’s intervention) to a waiting period of six months. However, as yet Jeremy has not come out to oppose the strike-breaking actions of Birmingham Labour councillors, or to pledge that they will be barred from standing next year and replaced by anti-cuts councillors.
The Socialist Party would also campaign for the return of mandatory reselection of MPs (a democratic procedure won by the left in the 1980s) to make Labour more reflective of a new, anti-austerity membership. Indeed, we already have been doing so – it was a Socialist Party member who moved the successful resolution at Unite’s annual conference to commit that union, Labour’s largest affiliate, to support mandatory reselection of MPs.
If Labour were to win an early general election it would face gigantic pressure from the establishment and big business desperate to retain the business-friendly government policies of the last 40 years. That Labour government would face a choice – break with big business or be broken by it.
And the more Jeremy were to challenge austerity – the more he were to push the boundaries of what the capitalist system would allow – the more he would need a serious movement from below capable of mobilising millions.
It’s not enough just to support the Labour leadership’s welcome (though still minimal) steps in a socialist direction. Such is the scale of the last 40 years’ theft from working class people, the scale of poverty, the housing crisis, the lack of decent employment, that what is really needed is a fundamental change in society: from capitalism to socialism.
That is going to have to be fought for and it will require much stronger forms of organisation in the Labour and trade union movement than currently exist. Key to that will be restoring the Labour Party as a vehicle for the organised working class.