A SPIN TOO FAR
An edited and updated account of Liz Davies's contribution to Sign of the Times seminar 24 February 2002
Liz Davies was a member of the Labour Party for over 21 years. During that time, she was elected for two terms as a Labour Councillor and elected by grassroots Labour Party members twice into the National Executive Committee. In 1995, having been democratically selected as Labour's Parliamentary candidate in Leeds North East, she was denied endorsement by Labour's National Executive Committee on the grounds that she was too left-wing for New Labour. In 2001, she left the Labour Party and subsequently joined the Socialist Alliance, which she chaired for nine months in 2002. She has been actively involved in the Stop the War Coalition since its formation in September 2001. In 2001, she published "Through the Looking Glass", an account of her experiences on Labour's National Executive Committee.
The build-up to war has confirmed that we desperately need a new electoral and political vehicle to challenge New Labour from the left. Single-issue campaigns, no matter how urgent and necessary, as the anti-war movement undoubtedly is, are not enough. One of the reasons why Blair feels that he can go to war with so little public support is because he knows that New Labour does not face a serious electoral challenge.
As I write, Blair is on the verge of declaring war without a UN second resolution. His position is certainly beleaguered, and he may fall. But Blair's political demise will have come about not as a result of a struggle within the Labour Party but from the expression of public opinion against the war.
Since 1994, New Labour has systematically destroyed the Labour Party's democratic structures. They were riddled with political fixing and arm-twisting but were at least formally democratic and transparent and allowed for real grass-roots pressure to be exerted. Ordinary Labour Party members have been prevented from exercising any meaningful influence on policy. Meanwhile, New Labour's policies of favours for big business, privatisation, assaults on trade union rights and on civil liberties, its scapegoating of asylum-seekers, its support for US global domination, have alienated a substantial proportion of Labour Party members. Over the years, they have voted with their feet - leaving the Party or dropping out of activity. There can be no doubt that the vast majority of Party members are opposed to the war, but that reality hardly enters Blair's calculations. Despite the efforts of Labour against the War, there are no substantial signs of Party members voicing that opposition through Party structures. Instead, they protest through the broader anti-war movement. 15 February demonstration must have been attended by many thousands of Labour Party members, but there were hardly any Labour Party banners to be seen.
Labour Parties at the grass-roots these days are often little more than empty shells. Even before this war, the Party faced real difficulties in attracting candidates and activists to work in local elections. When Party members fundamentally disagree with the direction of the government, and are denied the opportunity to express that disagreement within the Party, why should they bother going to meetings, working in elections, or even renewing their membership? As a result, the empty shells are disproportionately dominated by Blairite loyalists and, since 2000, we have seen a trend at Party conference of the constituency parties loyally supporting the leadership, whilst discontent emerges from the trade union delegations. That was true of last year's Conference vote on the war - a major difference from the past.
New Labour has also bred a generation of docile Labour MPs, and, until these recent momentous times, too many Labour MPs have confined themselves to private mutterings of discontent. The rebellion of the 122 was a welcome departure from reliance on private mutterings. What binds the dissenting MPs together can be endlessly dissected (it is worth noting that a significant proportion of them are from the Vietnam War generation), but without doubt, those MPs were emboldened to rebel not from pressure on them within Labour Party structures, but from the pressure of public opinion.
Trade union members are even more disenfranchised than other Labour Party members. New Labour is now actively attacking employment rights. During the first term of government, Labour Party members and trade unionists clung onto the introduction of the minimum wage and the Employment Relations Act 1998 as suggesting that maybe New Labour was responsive to their priorities. Blair had had no choice in 1997 but to implement those reforms. They were both long-standing Labour Party commitments, adopted before his leadership, and reiterated at Labour Party Conference year after year, and Blair was simply not in a position to renege on them. The same can be said for Scottish and Welsh devolution. Blair was saddled with those promises - even so, he took the opportunity to water down each commitment, making it more acceptable to big business. He also made it clear in 2001 that there was to be no more of the same. The 2001 manifesto emphasised privatisation of public services above all else. Blair used the opportunity of a general election that he was not at risk of losing to claim a mandate for privatisation. Since then, privatisation has been even more enthusiastically implemented, the government threatens to ban firefighters from taking industrial action, and its recently announced White Paper on employment rights rolls back some of the limited reforms brought in 1998. It's hard to see how the trade unions can continue to justify feeding the hand that bites them to their members. The sight of all the candidates for senior trade union positions desperate to portray themselves to the membership as anti-Blairite confirms the discontent with New Labour at the grass-roots of the trade union movement. No wonder that calls for an alternative to New Labour are beginning to resonate with some leaders and ever more members of trade unions.
Can the Labour Party be "reclaimed" for socialist or social-democratic values, or at least for democratic values? If I thought that it could be, I would not have left the Party after twenty-one years of active membership. Appeals for socialists to join the Labour Party in order to reclaim it sound unrealistic - what young enthusiastic socialist is going to join the Labour Party these days? With Party members leaving and no new blood to take their place, the movement to reclaim the Party relies on an ever-dwindling band of the Labour left, trying to speak out in a vacuum. The left MPs, particularly those leading the anti-war movement (Jeremy Corbyn, George Galloway) speak out mainly not as representatives of the Labour left (though they are that), but as representatives of the discontent voiced through public opinion.
So, if Blair goes, it will not be because Party members or the trade unions have made his position untenable, or because Labour MPs have suddenly developed a principled opposition to Blairism. His position will have become untenable amongst the public and he will be subject to a palace revolution, much as Thatcher eventually fell when Tory MPs had to face widespread opposition to the poll tax. If his fall forces Britain out of the US camp, at least temporarily, we will all be cheering. It would be a huge victory that would boost dissent on other fronts. But his fall will not represent the end of New Labour or the reclamation of the Labour party. Brown or any other probable successor will continue New Labour's policies of privatisation, assaults on trade union rights and on civil liberties, and, in the end, its neo-imperialist foreign policy.
So what are the alternatives? I left the Labour Party in 2001 because I wanted to be part of the construction of a viable broad-based long-term electoral alternative to New Labour. I did not leave the Labour Party in order to join the Socialist Alliance, but, given that I was going to leave, the Socialist Alliance in 2001 appeared to have some potential to build the alternative I believe is necessary.
Building an electoral movement is not an easy task. It takes sustained, serious work in local communities, engagement in a multitude of grass-roots campaigns, as well as disciplined electoral activity. The only immediately available resources are the commitment of supporters to work and to raise money (unlike New Labour and the Tories who can rely upon substantial donations, media interest and full-time Party officials). Given these realities, a new socialist electoral alternative can only survive if it respects and implements democratic structures and practices at all times. There are no short-cuts to electoral success, and no short-cuts around democracy.
During the general election in 2001, the Socialist Alliance brought together a number of disparate groups on the left, together with many individuals who were not members of any organised groups. There seemed to be a consensus that the way forward was for all of the groups, and individual members, to refrain from insisting on every dot and comma of their ideological programme; we worked together on the basis of our common socialist values, and respect for each other's differences. There was a sense of excitement. The indications were that the glaring disenfranchisement of many Labour voters (and non-voters) by the big business consensus of the major political parties could, over time, result in votes for a socialist alternative. The commitment of all the different groups to that process was obviously key; any one of the groups had the potential to sabotage the Alliance by engaging in sectarian practices. Above all, the SWP, the largest group on the left in England and Wales, had joined the Socialist Alliance in 2000. In 2000 and 2001 (when I joined), non-SWP socialists were frequently asking: "can we trust the SWP?". And that was a question put directly to the SWP leadership in public debate.
The SWP leadership assured its Socialist Alliance partners that it understood the need for serious long-term engagement at the grass-roots if an electoral project was to succeed, and understood that the Alliance must operate in a democratic manner, and develop an autonomous life of its own. Given the SWP's history of pursuing separate paths from the rest of the left, and of concentrating on front campaigns, the question "can we trust the SWP?" continued to be raised. But the prospect of creating a democratic, socialist and non-sectarian alternative to New Labour seemed worth grasping and the risk worth taking. And, on the ground during the general election, SWP members threw themselves into the campaign and, overall, worked co-operatively.
Unfortunately, the SWP leadership appear to believe that their members can only survive on a diet of instant gratification. Increasingly, the SWP leadership treated the Socialist Alliance as a mere front organisation. Every initiative that emerged from any other sector of the Alliance was downgraded or sabotaged. Conversely, every initiative that came from the SWP was prioritised. The Alliance was not to be built by long-term serious work in local communities; instead SWP members were instructed to jump from one topical subject to another. The Alliance was put in a box labelled "elections" and taken out and dusted down by the SWP leadership a few weeks before each election campaign. Elections were increasingly seen as propaganda opportunities, rather than the opportunity to lay the foundations for a long-term electoral presence.
It also became apparent that the SWP leadership did not understand that accountability and transparency are non-negotiable. There was an extremely casual attitude toward telling the truth to our members, even to members of the Alliance executive. There was, at best, a casual attitude from the SWP leadership to the Alliance's financial affairs and the movement of money between groups and individuals. Elementary standards of financial accountability were flouted (I resigned as Socialist Alliance chair in October 2002 when I discovered a serious pattern of deception and financial malpractice and a refusal to acknowledge or tackle it).
After September 2001, Socialist Alliance activists, both SWP members and others, devoted huge amounts of time and energy to building the anti-war movement. And contrary to the claims made by some in the SWP, it was not a question of a choice between building the Socialist Alliance and the Stop the War Coalition. After all the SWP has not ceased to build the SWP, but on the whole it has stopped building the Socialist Alliance.
The lesson of New Labour is that members remain, and are active, when they feel that their voices count. Within the Socialist Alliance, it became increasingly clear that the only voices that really count are those of the SWP leadership. An effective electoral alternative to New Labour - in light of the war, more necessary now than ever - has to offer its supporters meaningful political participation.
This is a critique of the leadership and direction of the SWP, not of its members at the grass-roots, many of whom work tirelessly for the anti-war movement and for other campaigns, and many of whom have put considerable effort into the Socialist Alliance. And the SWP leadership is not alone on the left in engaging in sectarian and anti-democratic practices.
So where does that leave people like me - independent socialist who believe that electoral activity, along side many other forms of political activity, is necessary?
The Socialist Party has elected a number of candidates in local elections, and local groups in Leeds and elsewhere, many of which emerged from witch-hunts within the Labour party, continue to stand candidates and build local bases. And a small number of independents, notably in Wyre Forest, have succeeded in challenging New Labour. But for various reasons, none of these can provide - and many would not claim to provide - a basis for a nation-wide alternative.
The Green Party has been the electoral resort of many disenfranchised socialists. It has taken a principled stance not just against this war, but previously against the Afghanistan war and the Kosovan war. Its MEPs, Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert, have been consistent voices for peace. There have been calls for a Green-Red electoral alliance for peace (raised, among others, by the former Labour MEP Ken Coates) and, if such an alliance were to materialise, it would undoubtedly represent a step forward for the left. To create such an alliance would take huge political will and a flexible approach from both sides, and at present, that's hard to envision. Green Party members work closely in some single-issue campaigns, particularly on the war, with socialists (and there are a number of socialists among its members). But an effective Red-Green alliance would have to adopt a democratically agreed political programme that goes beyond environmental sustainability and includes commitments to the redistribution of wealth and strong support for trades unions in struggle. There are sections of the Green party for whom all this is anathema.
So where does this leave socialists searching for an alternative? If we are to start to build any sort of alliance to achieve that, we have to overcome a number of entrenched habits on the left. First, let us move away from a discourse that assumes that there is a revealed truth. We need to admit - all of us - that we do not have all the answers and that we can learn from each other. Second, in our structures we must insist on and practice, democracy, transparency and accountability. Third, we must abandon sectarianism which is endemic across the whole of the left and labour movement. Our ideas and policies will develop in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, and some shared doubts.
Without treating them as blueprints, we can learn something from the Rifondazione in Italy and the Scottish Socialist Party. They have very different histories. The PRC sprang from the old PCI base, and then transformed its political ideology away from both Stalinism and from Euro-Communism. It was able to retain some of the old networks whilst building new ones. In particular, it threw itself into a new way of working in the anti-globalisation movement and earned respect from that movement by not behaving as a vanguard party and by not behaving as though it had all the answers. Fausto Bertinotti, the PRC leader, has made it clear that the left can learn from the anti-globalisation movement. The SSP as a party came from the commitment of the then Scottish Militant to work inside (and lead, but also respond to) the Scottish anti-poll tax movement, and then other community campaigns. They combined campaigns around bread-and-butter anti-poverty issues with active support for the Faslane peace protest and they threw off the shackles of the London revolutionary left. From the grassroots to Tommy Sheridan MSP, they have articulated working-class and socialist priorities: against poverty and debt, better housing, support for asylum-seekers, free school meals, peace, the environment, legalisation of cannabis. They are confident of reaping the benefit in the May elections to the Scottish Parliament.
Neither party can offer a blueprint, or a model to follow simplistically. Crucially, both parties benefit from proportional representation. But we can do a lot worse, on the English and Welsh left, than learn from their approaches.
Of course, if a significant section of the trade union movement were to make an open break with Labour and not only call for but help establish a new party, then the possibilities would change dramatically. In the meantime, as socialists, we have, I believe, a duty to oppose New Labour's big business, authoritarian and now murderous agenda. We have to do so in the electoral arena as well as through single-issue campaigns. But we can only succeed in building such an alternative - and in encouraging trades unions to take the lead - if we drop the habits of sectarianism, and practice the values of democracy, honesty and participation that we so often preach about. Our immediate task is to start grappling with these challenges, and discussing the problems together openly and honestly.
17 March 2002