So you’ve decided to become a socialist. What political vehicles exist in Britain today to further this cause? While looking through the list of socialist political parties that are technically in operation in Britain today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were spoilt for choice, and that Britain was home to a vibrant and diverse left-wing political culture. There are a bewildering array of socialist parties in existence in Britain, although no more than a handful have a substantial number of active members, and only the Labour party can claim to be a mass, mainstream political party. How did it get to be this way?
This series of articles seeks to untangle some of the history and political intrigue that has led to the various parties, groups and sects that we are confronted by today. It may seem like frivolous navel-gazing to dedicate so much time to the inner workings of such groups. Some of these small political groupings are of no political significance outside of whichever room they happen to be meeting in. However this is not indulgent history, this back-story has a tangible effect on everything we do on the left, and the success of every political intervention we hope to make in the future will be determined as much by the organizations that carry it out as the beliefs and actions themselves. This article is the last of three parts analysing the history of the Labour party.
The final crushing defeat of New Labour was the election of Ed Miliband as leader. Ed ran as the trade union candidate, beating off competition from his brother David who was the Blairite candidate favoured by the PLP. In an incredibly close round of voting, the support of large trade unions such as Unite and Unison proved to be crucial, and tipped the balance in Ed’s favour. Ed’s election victory took the Labour party out of the hands of the Blairites, sending them into a state of panic that still endures. It also means that for the first time in nearly thirty years the Labour-affiliated trade unions are in a relatively strong position, as their support was so crucial to Ed’s victory. The trade unions are now the largest financial contributor to the Labour party, and this also worries the remnants of New Labour. Expect New Labour to work alongside the Tories in trying to limit the trade unions political influence in the future.
Ed Miliband has gone out of his way to distance himself from being portrayed as the puppet of the unions, and has tried to placate the restless and disgruntled Blairites who support his brother David by moving politically to the right. Recently, Ed Miliband publicly admitted that Labour would do nothing to reverse the coalition government’s austerity measures, and his lack of support for striking workers during the biggest round of industrial action in a generation was simply unforgivable. Under attack from the familiar combination of the tory press and the Labour right, Ed Miliband appears lost, trying follow the Tories instead of trying to lead Labour. He now risks alienating his trade union support. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey’s recent article in The Guardian, expressing the frustration many people feel with the party, is a stark warning to Ed Miliband about taking his union support for granted.
McCluskey makes the claim that Labour is committing “electoral suicide” by refusing to oppose the government austerity measures, a claim that has also been made by Mark Serwotka of the PCS. It shows how far deeply embedded the logic of New Labour is that the language used to articulate this discontent appeals not to principle, but to the same shallow electoralism that has defined New Labour. He may be right, but it shows that the argument must revolve around parliamentary politics to even be worthy of New Labour’s consideration. The number of seats in the House of Commons, as Keir Hardie said many years ago.
Reading David Miliband’s thinly veiled attack on his brother in the New Statesman, and witnessing the Labour right engage in an arms race with the Tory party over who can be the most reactionary and right-wing, it is hard not to recall the warning Ralph Miliband gave of “the kind of slow but sure decline which – deservedly – affects parties that have ceased any distinctive political purpose.” What is the point of a Labour party that merely attempts to follow the Tories into the gutter? The Blairites are clinging onto a political outlook that was shaped in the 1980′s, whilst circumstances today are quite different, something even the Daily Telegraph understands. They still claim socialism is unelectable, despite themselves being unable to win elections inside the Labour party, let alone in the country. They claim that Britain is as inherently conservative as it was in the under Thatcher, despite the fact the Tories have not won a parliamentary majority in over 20 years. They claim it is impossible to succeed in the face of the right-wing press, despite the emergence of the internet and social media, not to mention the recent phone hacking scandal that has brought disgrace to the British wing of Murdoch media empire. But most of all they cling onto the neo-liberal consensus despite the current financial crisis that has left neo-liberal economics utterly discredited.
Where does this leave the prospects for the left in Labour today? In some ways, the current state of Labour provides at least some opportunities for the left within the party. Labour membership has been on a downward trajectory for a long time, hitting a low in 2009 of 170,000. Ed Miliband won support by addressing this in his leadership campaign, and now claims to have opened up the Labour party to 60,000 new members. Could this increase, other than the hordes of Lib Dems trying to flee their sinking ship, be partly down to left-wingers returning to the party? The Alliance for Workers Liberty, for example, have begun to gravitate towards the orbit of the Labour party, and the trade unions financial control over the party gives them big opportunities in this area. However despite this, the prospects for the Labour are grim. The Labour party has yet to show any willingness to challenge the Tory cuts agenda, and has waved through billions of pounds worth of cuts in local councils with no opposition.
The Labour Left has been powerless to stop the Tories. Even Tribune magazine, which is of such importance to this movement, folded in 2011 with less than a thousand remaining subscribers. The remnants of the Bennites, in John McDonnell’s LRC, are reduced to a mere handful, and as history shows, even if they were by some miracle to become a force within the party, they would end up hitting the same brick wall that Benn and Bevan ran into. We wouldn’t be in this position in the first place if the Labour left was in a viable state. Owen Jones, writing on the blog LabourList makes this clear:
“It’s easy, too, to castigate Ed Miliband personally for the concessions the Labour leadership has made to the Tory cuts agenda. But, again, it is in large part a product of the weakness of the left (which barely exists as a coherent political force).”
Jones is correct in his diagnosis, but what he overlooks here is one of the reasons the left has become so weak in Britain is that much of its energy has been occupied with fighting factional battles within Labour for nearly a hundred years. Leo Panitch, editor of Socialist Register and personal friend of Ralph Miliband, makes a similar point in The End of Parliamentary Socialism:
“For its part, the Labour new left contributed to its own defeat through some major weaknesses. The most important of all was, evidently, that in concentrating on trying to change the Labour party it became trapped in that struggle. It never solved the problem of having to fight for its goals through unending party committee’s and conferences without becoming absorbed by them. For many it was a point of principle to try and win the party over to a new democratic socialist project by persuasion and the fullest use of the party’s existing democratic processes. But the bitterness of the right’s resistance prolonged the struggle over so many years that almost a whole political generation consumed their energies in this way.”
Working within Labour, socialists can easily end up swamped in bureaucracy and endless tribal warfare. Continuing to ride this political merry-go-round will do nothing except demoralise an entire generation of the left, and the task this generation faces is too important to be lost within Labour. It is proof that history has a sense of irony that it would end up being Ralph Miliband’s children who hammered the final nail into the coffin of parliamentary socialism. The only way forward for the left today is to organize not just outside, but against, the Labour party.