This article was commissioned as a discussion item for Stroppy Blog and as such only represents my own opinions, not necessarily those of anyone else from The Commune – David Broder.
The turnout at the Labour Representation Committee conference on November 15th reflected the role of the current economic crisis in pushing people long involved in the left back into activity: numbers were up from 200 last year to around 270 (not as reported on our website), even though the number of young people involved has declined.
There were several positive steps made at the conference that could breathe fresh life into the organisation, not least its call for a series of discussions on workers’ self-management, social ownership and what we mean by socialism – developing the work begun by the Left Economics Advisory Panel on breaking from Old Labour and Stalinist conceptions of socialism – and the LRC’s affiliation to Hands Off the People of Iran. Hopefully both steps will allow the membership of the LRC to be more involved week-to-week and month-to-month.
Indeed, the LRC has suffered from a lack of regular activities in between conferences, and despite the relatively large number of people signed up (as high as 1,500) it currently lacks enough of the character of an activist organisation, or indeed one where people come together to develop their ideas. A large number of individuals are involved in their own trade unions as well as campaigns such as Stop the War, Feminist Fightback, Campaign Against Immigration Controls, HOPI, etc., but the LRC itself neither mobilises its members for such initiatives nor has much “profile”. Chris Ford and I were elected to the National Committee at the 15th November conference, and will be looking to encourage far more activities and using the LRC banner more prominently, including building union rank-and-file networks. (As an aside, it wouldn’t hurt the LRC to produce more materials, such as a newsletter, to encourage people to take part in discussions and participate in events organised by LRC affiliates).
Most importantly, we will be encouraging a re-evaluation of the politics which dominate the left of the labour movement, and hoping to overcome the current vogue for left-Keynesian “answers for the crisis” as opposed to developing our case for an alternative society. These are fundamentally incompatible – to say that a series of “policy changes” are the answer to the economic crisis (e.g. the Socialist Appeal slogan “Labour: socialist policies, now!”) implies a vague albeit top-down understanding of “socialism” wedded to the continuing existence of the nation-state.
Clearly posed too in terms of what the LRC does next is the question of our broader strategy as regards the Labour Party and Labourism. This question must be answered by the whole left, not just the LRC. Unfortunately, the fault lines in this discussion are not really over what politics we should advocate and organise for, but rather whether we want to keep a foot in the Labour Party or instead create a Labour Party mark II. Although I am more adamant than anyone else that it is totally illusory to believe that we could “reclaim the Labour Party”, i.e. take it over, and so utterly disagree with Socialist Appeal, the CPB etc., the alternatives suggested by some others are also a dead-end. The Convention of the Left initiated in Manchester in September may lack the decision-making powers necessary to actually create a new organisation, but certainly there is a strong current of opinion arguing that the “big” Trotskyist groups, the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy and some Labour lefts ought to set up a new left party. Sect competition there may be, but to the extent that they have real existence, such a formation is the dream of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, Left Alternative, Respect Renewal, etc. It is clear that a party based on national trade union affiliations or national trade union funding would necessarily rest on the bureaucracy. Not only current weak participation in unions, but the institutional control of the bureaucrats and the lack of democracy within trade unions, would guarantee this.
This question arises when we read Sean Matgamna writing an open letter to Tony Woodley (‘Why won’t the unions fight for a workers’ party?‘). Of course this article’s tone is light-hearted and he is not really trying to “win over Brother Woodley”, but nonetheless everything he writes talks in such terms, e.g. “The unions need to act: if not the unions, no force in the labour movement can do it”: quite why a workers’ party ought to be based on trade unions wanting political representation (rather than people who have common political aims uniting around a specific project/programme) is not clear. Throughout history such formations have been very rare, except the British Labour Party and parallel organisations in former British colonies.
For all of the criticisms I personally would have of its (more or less Trotskyist) politics, I think a formation like the French LCR’s New Anti-Capitalist Party, which has won a section of the union rank-and-file, unemployed, disabled and retired people, youth etc. to local committees arguing for a fairly specific political project, is a model far more susceptible to democratic culture and member-control of the organisation than one created by (and as a result expressing the interests of) trade union bureaucracies. If such a formation came about it would be foolish to ignore it or stand aside – which is why at the conference we voted for the LRC to be open to supporting certain socialist or trade-union backed candidates who stood against New Labour – but why should we positively go about arguing for its creation?
Furthermore, when thinking of our broader strategy, we must also take stock of the question of the current lack of democracy within left groups: this problem, after all, means that their participation is subordinated to the leaders’ desire to hold their own organisations in hand, as was the case when the Socialist Party clique abandoned the Socialist Alliance for fear of their own group’s dissolution.
Therefore it seems that the argument poses false alternatives and only seeks to answer the question ‘ought the unions back the Labour Party, or ought they establish a new one?’ Tweedle-dum or Tweedle-dee? This is linked to the left’s failure to take serious stock of the changes that have taken place in the trade union movement and left as a whole, rather than just (however correctly) proclaiming the death of the Labour Party. The current state of the left leaves it in no position to establish a real alternative to Labourism, and indeed the next few years are bound to see yet more social-democrat electoral slates and initiatives to create Labour Party mark IIs which have no real existence beyond Trotskyist groups and their periphery.
What can the LRC do about this? To ask this question is to ask other fundamental questions about what the left exists for, not merely the organisational question of “in or out” of the Labour Party. We need to discuss what politics socialists should argue for; our attitudes to the trade union bureaucracy; the value of placing demands on the government; the value of left “programmes for the crisis” and programmes for alternative governments, and so on. Bottom-up rethinking is necessitated by the left’s continuing loss of numbers and weak ideas and tactics. LRC members will be better able to answer all these questions if we sink roots in trade union rank-and-files, have a much stronger orientation towards campaign work, and participate in the forthcoming forums on what we actually mean by socialism. We should encourage self-organisation in our movement, building unity “from below” on a principled political basis, not sit waiting for the existing left group leaderships and left trade union bureaucrats to thrash out a deal for yet another Labour Party mark II.