Labour’s Electoral Rise – A Tepid Reformism Reconsolidates

07 May

Ed Miliband

The victory of the Labour Party in the local elections has consolidated Ed Miliband’s leadership of Labour and set the political direction of Labour for the next period. For the first time since the death of John Smith in 1994, Labour has a leadership whose politics can be broadly characterised as social democratic, albeit very tepidly and timidly so.

The first hesitant blow against the Blair/Brown legacy of aggressive privatisation at home and imperialist wars abroad was struck by trade union members in the autumn of 2010, when they overruled the purged, cowed and largely middle class ‘aspirational’ Labour Party membership and installed the Green-tinged soft-left former Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, as Labour leader, defeating his brother David whose entire political profile was as a clone of Tony Blair. David Miliband, as foreign secretary in the later New Labour years, is personally culpable in such crimes as ‘extraordinary rendition’ – i.e. illegal kidnapping (with torture) of Muslims suspected of Al Qaeda activities or even just sympathy, for transport to the United States or its then client regimes like Libya or Syria, in contradiction to even formal legal norms.

Ed Miliband, though not in parliament at the time, claims to have been opposed to the Iraq war as waged by Blair, Brown, his elder brother and the entire Labour leadership. It is typical of Ed Miliband’s vacuity that there seems to be no credible evidence that he ever said or did anything in opposition to that criminal invasion. Not a single speech or article can his supporters produce to substantiate this claim of opposition. His claims on this are not really credible at all – probably the most that can be said for Ed Miliband is that he wishes that he had had the courage of his claimed convictions and spoken out against the war waged by his own party leadership. But he didn’t.

However, in judging whether or not Miliband should be regarded as a reformist misleader of the workers movement, or something worse in the Blair/Brown mode, whether or not he had the guts to oppose an imperialist war that he now admits was wrong is hardly a decisive political test. In fact, reformist politicians who come to lead bourgeois workers parties such as the Labour Party are not generally renowned for courageous opposition to imperialist wars. There are exceptions of course, like Ramsay MacDonald, who had a pacifist stance on the First World War and less than two decades later committed the kind of betrayal of that made his name a curse-word in the British working class movement ever since. Even the most ‘left’ Labour reformist leader, Michael Foot, still supported Thatcher’s squalid little colonial war in the South Atlantic in the spring of 1982. Reformism in general has an appalling record of support for imperialist wars, and that is in the very nature of reformism in imperialist countries like Britain.

What’s really crucial is whether a party like Labour is perceived by the working class as in some very minimal way as standing up for the interests of working people against the depredations and attacks of the capitalists. An indicative illustration of how the Labour leadership was seen under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is shown in the video clip below.

Whatever the failings of Ed Miliband’s leadership, and they are many, it is hardly credible to say that Labour today is led by fans of Margaret Thatcher and her ilk. Labour is utterly opposed to bringing down this government by class struggle means, that is to be sure, and as I have pointed out before it is refusing to make any specific promises to reverse the Coalition government’s cuts even if it were to win the next election. It also supports the government’s public sector pay freeze, a treacherous position that has produced much anger and disappointment from trade unionists. It is supportive of making draconian cuts to reduce the budget deficit, but it demands a slower rate of cutting combined with an economic stimulus – borrowing more money to restart growth in the British economy to allow the deficit to be reduced more gradually and, it hopes, sustainably.

This strategy has produced fury from government supporters, particularly directed against the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, but in fact it is notable that in the US where something similar has been implemented, there is at least some slow economic growth taking place, as opposed to the situation in the UK where the economy is now in a (probably shallow) double-dip recession. Balls is warning of a Japan-style ‘lost decade’ of economic stagnation if a stimulus is not soon applied to jump-start the British economy, and by taking that stance, Labour again appears as an advocate of a policy that appears of some benefit to working people under the cosh of the Cameron/Osbourne cuts regime.

One thing Miliband’s Labour rules out is an overt attack on capitalism. Instead we have a call for “responsible capitalism” emanating from Ed Miliband, and indeed being echoed by David Cameron. Cameron’s homily echoing Miliband is an index of the damage to the previously rampant capitalist triumphalism that has been done by the advent of the serious capitalist economic crisis signified by the credit crunch. In Cameron’s case, it is actually an attempt at political camouflage and pretty transparent at that, since not just in its cuts regime but even more in such projects as the so-called NHS reforms, it is perfectly clear that it is doing a smash-and-grab raid on as many working class gains it can possibly manage in the comparatively short time it has before its tenous hold on power comes to an end. In that sense, Cameron’s government represents the fag-end of Thatcherism, having come to power not as Thatcher did promising ‘war’ on trade unions, socialism and everything connected with them, but rather under false pretences promising a more liberal kind of Conservatism – using the politically desperate Lib-Dems as political cover – while in fact continuing her class war by stealth and double-talk.

Right-Wing Social Democracy

But actually, Miliband’s call for ‘responsible capitalism’ is classic right-wing social democracy. It is to be contrasted, for instance, with Peter Mandelson’s infamous statement during the Blair regime that New Labour  is “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy-rich”. The fact that Mandelson himself recently felt compelled to repudiate this statement is an indication of the changed ideological climate and how Blairism has been forced onto the defensive by the capitalist crisis that happened on its watch, while it was busy partying and salivating about its hoped for status as the main party of the British ruling class.

There has always been two kinds of reformism, one being the kind that really does aspire to reform away capitalism completely and achieve some kind of socialism through the existing state machinery. This has always been a minority trend in British Labourism, it was the ideology of the Bevanite and Bennite left wing movements post-World War II, as well as the ILP in the pre-war period. But this kind of parliamentary socialism with a capital ‘S’ has always existed, in Britain, along with another trend of utopian reformism that believed that capitalism itself could be humanised, made responsible, controlled, and generally re-modelled in its functioning so that the working class could achieve their emancipation without abolishing the capitalist system itself. This illusion, of taming the capitalist tiger, was in practice the dominant trend of British social democracy right from the foundation of the Labour Party.

Blairism was an exceptional period in British Labour history when an outright bourgeois layer managed to seize control of the Labour Party from the ‘normal’ petty-bourgeois labour bureaucracy and, far from advocating that the capitalist tiger be de-fanged or tamed, instead propagated the idea that everyone, the working class included, would benefit if the same capitalist tiger was effectively allowed to do whatever it liked. Blairism was the product of two linked major defeats for the working class, one real, the other ideological and illusory, but none the less devastating for all that.

Material and Ideological Defeats

The real defeat was the defeat of the miners in 1984-5, which effectively crippled the militant wing of British trade unionism and laid the basis for the capitulation of the British trade union movement and Labour Party to collaboration with the previous Tory offensive to re-shape British capitalism and revive it at the expense of the working class. This defeat was itself largely the result of the treachery and misleadership of old Labour, led at the time by Ed Miliband’s mentors Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley.

This took place in an international context of a similar offensive against organised labour in the US under Reagan. Indeed the Thatcher and Reagan administrations were seen internationally as the vanguard of an entire bourgeois strategy of privatisation, all-out attacks on welfare and the social wage, and economic shock treatment that had previously only been tried out in places like Chile under conditions of fascistic military dictatorship. Now it was being given a serious go in advanced capitalist countries, with Britain in the lead.

If this had happened in a different political context, it might have led to a period of defeat and depression for the working class followed by a renewed angry radicalisation and the re-emergence of class militancy aimed at gaining revenge against Thatcher and the ruling class. But this real defeat in class struggle was then followed by the illusory, ideological defeat of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. A discussion of the real nature of these regimes is beyond the scope of this article: the author believes that they were in fact a form of mutant capitalism.

But what is important from the point of view of this discussion is the effect that this had on the reformist-led working class movement. These regimes, in the eyes of many of the most militant elements, and even many more tame reformists, constituted socialism or at least evidence that some kind of alternative to the capitalist system was possible. Their ignominious collapse meant the collapse of the reformist commitment of a wide layer of both former Stalinists and social democrats, with a number of these renegades from reformism embracing Thatcherism and bourgeois reaction wholesale and being won to a programme that amounted to destroying the working class as a basic political force from withinthe labour movement. They then proceeded to gain power in the British Labour party and finally governmental power, which they maintained for over a decade. This in reality made New Labour indistinguishable in policies and indeed much of its rhetoric from the Tories and other bourgeois parties, and indeed caused it to move to the right of the traditional bourgeois centre party in British politics, the Liberal Democrats.

It was fully appropriate during the period when Blair and then Brown led New Labour to characterise its overall politics as Thatcherite, and to say that when it stood for election on this programme there was no class contradiction to exploit, that the working class had no interest in putting them in power and certainly no interest in keeping them there when they had achieved it. The New Labour project, openly expressed in that Blair publicly regretted that Labour had ever split away from the Liberals in the first place, was to transform Labour into an overtly capitalist party along the lines of the old Liberal Party or the US Democratic Party today. This had considerable traction and a real chance of success for a whole period, but it was never completed, and was ultimately thrown into reverse by the capitalist financial crisis.

A Very Unusual ‘Labour’ Government

Previously in the history of Labour, Labour governments have been fairly short-lived regimes that come to power to head off a restive working class and which are then unceremoniously ejected when their usefulness to the ruling class is exhausted. There is usually some real contradiction between words and deeds; the Labour Party out of power makes some promises to secure gains for the working class which are then either not delivered, or fall short in some fundamental way, producing disillusionment and anger among its supporters. This contradiction gives Marxists the opportunity, by the tactic of critical support to the reformists in the elections while warning of their inevitable betrayal of the hopes placed in them, to drive a wedge between the reformist government and its base of support in the working class.

The Blair-Brown government was fundamentally different, in that it did not betray the aspirations of those who gave it a landslide election victory in 1997. This is because in its overall thrust, this was not a class conscious vote, unlike the election of most previous Labour governments. Its social base was not a politicised working class that had pulled behind it a progressive section of the middle class, but rather a cross class bloc of ‘aspirational’ Thatcherites disillusioned with the ‘sleaze’ of the expiring Tory government, and workers with little in the way of class consciousness, with the class-concious minority generally feeling rather queasy about the whole thing.

There was a social liberalisation on some questions, often quite marked as with gay rights and lip service to fighting racism, and a slight diminution of some of the most provocative aspects of Thatcherism. But on the fundamentals, the Blair government was as overtly anti-working class as its Tory predecessors and always promised to be so. Indeed, it was the absence of a class-conscious working class movement that allowed this liberalisation to happen; in times of more ‘normal’ class polarisation, these are the kind of issues that would be used to foment divisions in the working class.

There was no disillusionment of working class supporters who believed that Labour stood up for their interests as a class, because those types of illusions were largely absent. Hence the very peculiar, and indeed unprecedented fact that Blair’s ‘honeymoon’ lasted for the whole of his first term in government, 1997-2001, with the only slight blip in that picture being during the 2000 fuel protests, which were most certainly not a working class protest or anything like it.  Its longevity was thus a product of its cross-class character. Indeed New Labour was also elected with a massive majority in 2001, going from a majority of 178 seats in 1997 to 167 seats in 2001 – hardly any significant difference!. This was a very unusual ‘Labour’ government indeed. Much of the British left, trapped by a political schema that saw critical support to Labour as something that must exploit a class sentiment, spent the entire first term pining after a ‘crisis of expectations’ that never materialised. Finally the entire issue was decisively overtaken by events with 9/11 and the outbreak of the ‘war on terror’ with all that that led to.

A United Front In The Form of a Party Project

The temporary eclipse of reformism within the Labour Party, and its being led by elements overtly hostile to the whole gamut of reformist working class aspirations upon which the Labour Party was founded, gave birth to a historic opportunity for the revolutionary socialist left to gain a degree of influence over Labour’s working class base by a historically-specific implementation of the united front tactic. Many working class supporters of the old Labour Party with a basic reformist socialist consciousness were deeply traumatised and disillusioned by the capture of the Labour Party by Thatcherites, and a significant number were open to support an attempt to draw a basic class line in elections by standing on a programme that expressed the idea that ‘this is what the Labour Party used to be like’, or ‘this is what Labour ought to stand for’.

Thus there were several attempts made in the period of Blair/Brown ascendancy to create this kind of united front party, and it was completely principled for revolutionaries to help such elements to try to establish such a party. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill left the Labour Party in 1996 and founded the Socialist Labour Party to confront the Labour Party in elections. Such were the bureaucratic weakneses of Scargill and the people around him, however, that after a brief flurry of recruitment the party was destroyed by Scargill’s extreme controlling bureaucratism, and rapidly became a shell.

The Socialist Alliance, initially the initiative mainly of Militant/Socialist Party, which really took off when the Socialist Workers Party joined and Liz Davies, a very well-known Labour leftist, defected from Labour, began to make some steady progress and achieve some reasonable votes. Though in a sense it was pulled apart just as it began to achieve some successes. First of all Militant/SP walked out after the 2001 election, objecting to the SA voting to adopt a straightforward single membership structure, one person one vote on policy at conferences etc, as opposed to the previous federal structure where individual members had little influence. They did this because they feared that they could be outvoted by another organised group in the SA – the SWP – which had considerably more individual members than they did. This damaged the SA, but not fatally. Liz Davies was also lost to the SA in a particularly stupid way, the product of the hubris and arrogance of the SWP.

Subsequently the success of SWP member and SA candidate Micheal Lavelette in Preston, in winning a council seat by tapping into Muslim discontent at the Iraq War and Islamophobia during Blair’s second term exposed some of the weaknesses, backwardness and divisions, not simply of the reformists but also of the far left. A hostile reaction among some in the SA to Lavelette’s victory and even more to the prospect of joining up with George Galloway when he was expelled from Labour over Iraq, meant that the issue of how to address the issue of radicalisation of Muslims and their openness to alliances with the left, effectively split the SA.

Respect and its Potential – then Squandered

This in turn gave rise to the most successful of the three attempts to form a new broad left party, including reformists and revolutionaries, against Labour: Respect. As Blairism reached its nadir with the conquest and rape of Iraq as junior partner of US imperialism and the Zionist neocons, the anti-war movement was in a sense defeated, or at least ignored, on the streets but struck back politically with George Galloway’s election victory in the 2005 General Election at Bethnal Green and Bow.

To put it in context, this was the first time that a party to the left of Labour had won a Westminster seat standing under its own name since the two seats won by the Communist Party in 1945. Subsequently, Respect won a dozen council seats in Tower Hamlets, a couple of seats in Birmingham, both in areas with preponderantly Muslim-Asian electorates, reflecting a real radicalisation and openness to the left and the anti-war movement among that oppressed section of British society, increasingly targeted by Islamophobic bigotry.

It also showed real signs of being able to appeal beyond that constituency, in particular when in May 2007 Ray Holmes, a former miner, was elected as a Respect councillor in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, a depressed former mining area of mainly white working class people. This victory, little commented on by both sides of Respect’s subsequent tragic split, is indicative of the potential that Respect embodied at its peak. A full exposition of the decline and fall of Respect is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that it was the organisational sectarianism and political incompetence of the SWP which blew it apart and doomed those around George Galloway who tried to carry on with it after the SWP split it to a slow decline and further fragmentation. Galloway’s own weaknesses and foibles did not help, but these would have been less of a factor in a larger organisation with a proper party structure and proper collaboration on a common project.

The SWP’s insistence on not only building primarily their own ‘revolutionary party’ as the main priority, but also simply treating Respect as an arena to recruit out of, limited the influence that revolutionary politics could have had on those attracted to Respect who were undoubtedly susceptible to intelligent expositions of revolutionary politics, if such had been put forward. That they declared war on Galloway when he merely expressed reasonable criticisms – shared by many all over the left – of the SWP’s organisational functioning just isolated them and actually brought about one of the biggest political crises in the history of the SWP.

Unfortunately, though Respect’s recent victory in Bradford West was a welcome surprise, and evokes sympathy, at the same time it looks much more shaky politically than the original Respect, and may well be another false dawn. Some of George Galloway’s actions and pronouncements since his election point to a possible change of views, and apparently not for the better. I hope not, but if so this could be a disaster in the making, though again that is beyond the scope of this article.

Marxist Tactics and Critical Support

Critical support for a mass bourgeois workers party, such as the Labour Party, is a tactic and only a tactic for Marxists. It is not any sort of obligation: when such a party is openly promising simply to attack the working class on behalf of the capitalists, it become necessary to adopt the tactic of conditional opposition. I.e refusing to support any candidate who has not shown in some meaningful way that that they support those resisting the anti-working class actions of the dominant trend. There has to be some kind of contradiction to exploit, some kind of promise of gains for the working class, or at least some posture towards fulfilling working class aspirations.

The aim of critical support in elections is not to show solidarity with the reformist leaders and their ideology, but to put them, and their programme to the test in front of their working class supporters and expose its inadequacy in practice, with the aim of convincing their followers that only revolutionary socialism can bring real gains to the workers.

Despite its wretched, and typically Labourite, capitulation in refusing to promise to reverse cuts, its support for slower and more measured cuts, its typically reformist support for the United Nations fig-leaf for NATO in the recent Libyan war, etc, there has been a distinct shift away from the thrust of New Labour under Miliband’s leadership. So much so, in fact, that there has been an ongoing campaign of sniping from unrepentant Blairites such as Charles Clarke, Peter Mandelson and even his initial stop-gap choice of Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson. But Miliband’s victory in the local election will probably, if not shut these people up completely, at least marginalise them.

Combined with the advocacy of ‘responsible capitalism’ – which is obviously a coded attack on the neo-liberal market fundamentalism that was dominant in New Labour, the advocacy of an economic stimulus and borrowing to kickstart growth by Ed Balls, and the recent very effective attacks on Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, which was a mainstay of Thatcherism and New Labour, this amounts to a low level posture of improving the lives of working people. Labour is now once again seen by significant numbers of workers as a weapon, however feeble, that they can use to defend themselves against the attacks from the bosses. From that, some potentially authoritative Labour figures are emerging, the likes of Chris Bryant and Tom Watson are likely to be important figures in the Labour Party and national politics in years to come.

There is no need to overstate this or prettify anything, Labour councils around the country are acting as agents of the government in implementing the cuts, though they may claim that within their own wretched legal framework they are seeking to limit the impact as much as they can. In fact they are implementing the cuts because to resist them would mean a break with the logic of reformism, which they are utterly unwilling to do. In a formally democratic state in a major crisis like this adhering to reformist legality means upholding the ‘rule of law’ even when that ‘democratic’ nostrum is used to attack the working class. And that is aside from their acceptance of the logic of capitalist financial ‘prudence’, even though they now want to modify it somewhat.

A United Front Undercut by Events

In this context, of a labour party that is once again dominated by a right-wing reformist form of politics, more Hattersley than Blair/Brown, the possibility of a united front bloc with those outside the Labour Party who want to maintain traditional Labour positions by opposing Labour in elections, is decisively undercut. Such people will in the main gravitate to voting Labour again, and probably already have in many or most cases judging by the very low votes achieved by many Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidates in the recent elections. In a few places, TUSC got decent votes, for instance in Preston, Walsall, Coventry and Sheffield, Though Dave Nellist unfortunately lost his seat, depriving the Socialist Party/Militant of all its elected representatives, he still got a decent vote. But all of these high votes without exception were the legacy of previous projects where some real local base had been built, either from Respect or the Socialist Alliance, or even earlier Militant Labour.

The basic problem is that with the re-adoption of a right-wing form of reformism by the Labour Party, there is little or no traction for an initiative that pushes politics that are not that fundamentally different to Labour’s reformism. Reformist ideas have very deep roots in the working class movement in this country and they will not be easily overcome, and it is correct to support any initiative, even by reformists, that seeks to give a partial expression to independent working class politics. But now that Labour is led by someone who in his leadership campaign called for Labour to address the ‘crisis of representation’ of Labour’s traditional working class base, and has acted since as a tepid reformist, then initiatives like TUSC don’t look that much different from the Labour Party.

They do not stand out any more, even though they may be much more militant. “No to all cuts” is much better than “slow down the cuts” or “we need some cuts but they must be fair”, as Labour advocate. But the solutions that are advocated to flesh this out are in the end Keynesianism, economic stimuli and taking privatised industries back into public ownership – ideas that some are again beginning to imagine could in time be achieved through the Labour Party – then TUSC just looks like a more left-wing version of the same thing. Hence its potential appeal was undercut by Labour.

A Shift in Marxist Tactics is Necessary

So what is the future for those leftists involved in projects like Respect, TUSC, and indeed the bits and pieces of their predecessors that still litter the political landscape? It should be realised that, contrary to a sectarian, wooden understanding of these initiatives, they were not and should not be dismissed as being inevitably reformist. Intelligent tactics by Marxists could have won large numbers of them to revolutionary socialism. Why?

Because New Labour was not something fortuitous or accidental. It was a reactionary answer to an obvious fact – the bankruptcy of social democratic reformism, its incapacity to advance the interest of the working class in the face of a capitalism of declining profitability and a resulting boss-class offensive against all social gains. This bankruptcy resulted in New Labour, it also today results in the feeble, pathetic servility of the Ed Miliband leadership before the bourgeoisie, which in itself is likely to generate opposition in the labour movement that could at some point go beyond reformism.

If the supposedly Marxist left had saved the energy it expended in idiot Toytown sect wars, and instead used that energy in study, and the elaboration of revolutionary socialist ideas and perspectives on economics and a whole range of other important questions, and fed these into the various united front party type formations such as Respect and the Socialist Alliance as simple contributions to the political life and culture of these bodies, something solid and political would have been achieved. You would have seen the growth of the influence of Marxism on the broad left, and indeed a transcending of the limitations of the concept of ‘broad left’ in favour of a dynamic, Marxist influenced left.

From the starting point of a united front initiative with those with a militant reformist consciousness to maintain a basic working class political expression could have emerged an important Marxist trend, with the potential to become hegemonic, a party in its own right, growing out of this specific historical form of the united front. That can still happen. Labour still needs to be confronted politically, including when it becomes possible to do so in a real way, in front of the working class in elections. We need above all a broad party, with a democratic, non-sectarian internal regime and the right of public disagreement on matters of analysis.

But the basis for the particular united front that was possible during the New Labour period has been decisively undercut. One important tactic in undercutting this new, tepid reformist development is to seek to put it to the test of office. Critical support for the Labour Party in elections can now be a principled tactic, for the first time for nearly two decades, a subordinate tactic in the strategic aim of building a genuine working class party as an alternative to the bourgeois workers party that is Labour. The centre of gravity of such a party will have to be fully Marxist, or it is likely to be completely non-viable as a competitor to the reformist Labour Party. As well as being basically pointless. Bodies such as the Independent Socialist Network, affiliated to TUSC, or even the membership of Respect now that it apparently has been revived by the “Bradford Spring”, need to become forums for the development of a politics that goes way beyond all forms of reformism. Only then will such bodies have a viable future.


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