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Labour, the SLP and the Election

Fight the Blairite Tide!

Tony Blair’s massive election victory on May 1st was described by the Guardian (3rd May) as a ‘revolution’. The Guardian went on to add:

‘The single most important thing to say about the election result is that it transforms virtually every possibility on the political landscape. It doesn’t just redraw the map, it alters what the map itself can actually be about. . . . Whatever happens in the years ahead – and who knows after such a turnaround how many of those years there will be – it is vital that they never degenerate into Conservatism with a more human face. The mandate from the electorate is for change – big, systematic and thoroughgoing change.’

The main characteristic of this election has been the almost complete banishment of working-class politics from the mainstream. That has been Blair’s most significant political achievement and why he is hailed so universally by middle class voters in the more affluent areas of ‘Middle England’. Sections of the capitalist press that were among the most rabid Thatcher supporters came out in support of Blair.

In many ways, the symbol of the ‘classless’ election campaign was the white-suited figure of Martin Bell, effectively a joint Lib-Lab popular front candidate, humiliating the shifty-eyed Tory crook Neil Hamilton in Tatton. The thrust of Blair’s campaign, and that of the Lib-Dems who also made a significant breakthrough in this election, was not to seek an alternative, even a reformist one, to the capitalist system, but rather to ‘cleanse’ the Westminster body politic of a corrupt, arrogant Tory caste that had outlived its usefulness to the ruling class.

The social base of Blair in England at least is very similar to the social base of Thatcher – those sections of the working class and middle-class ‘professionals’ who have benefited from the growth of such industries as electronics, information technology and other so-called services, at the expense of more traditional proletarian sectors such as mining, shipbuilding and steel. The British ruling

class has increasingly divested itself of its ‘heavier’ industries, many of which were basically bankrupt and heavily subsidised by the bosses state, in favour of strengthening such ‘service industries’ as the new main bulwark of British capitalism. A whole new aristocracy of labour has grown up in Southern England on the basis of this, while many areas in the North, Wales and Scotland, which were much more dependent on older forms of heavy industry, have been simply devastated.

What is now happening is that these extremely non-class conscious newer layers, many of whom benefited from Thatcher’s privatisations, have heavily moved onto more liberal bourgeois terrain, as a result of the deep early 1990s recession which for the first time really hurt them, with record ‘white collar’ redundancies and house-repossessions generating seething resentment of the extremely myopic, arrogant and unashamedly corrupt Tory incumbents. Blair’s unashamed political project has been to ‘reassure’ these people that while his government will ‘clean up’ bourgeois politics, it will at the same time maintain the same hostility to and repression of organised labour and workers struggles as the Tories. Thus Harriet Harman, the new Blairite Social Security secretary, wasted no time in warning unemployed youth that benefits are ‘no soft option’, continuing the Tory attacks on the victims of mass unemployment.

‘Lesser Evils’ and Class Collaboration

At the same time some of the more traditionally class-conscious layers of the class who have basically been abandoned by Labour have voted for Blair, not out of any belief that Labour will stand up for their interests as a class, but rather out of desperation and a desire to punish the Tories, even if it means voting for an openly pro-capitalist ‘lesser evil’ in the absence of a working-class alternative.

The coming together of these two disparate bases of electoral support means that, Martin Bell notwithstanding, the Labour Party itself played a role of class collaboration, suffocating any impulse among its working-class base to class independence. In Scotland and Wales, the combination of this with widespread nationalist resentment that the Tories’ English-centred arrogance has given rise to, led to a complete and utter ‘wipe out’ of Tory MPs in both Celtic nations, at the hands of the Blairites, Liberals and Celtic nationalist parties.

Many sections of the left, including some members of our own party, were swept up in the emotional landslide of the New Labour campaign. Outrageously, the position of several left groups was to call for a Labour vote, even against Socialist Labour and Socialist Party candidates (with the odd exception here and there). They did so on the basis of the unavoidable fact that the mass of the working class voted for Blair, but this misleadership means that they will themselves bear a part of the responsibility for the attacks on the working class that will follow his election victory.

Despite Blair’s enormous popularity right now, socialists had to maintain firm and outright opposition to Labour in the general election, and stand up for class independence of the workers from all sections of the bosses. We have to warn the working class that, notwithstanding its more liberal rhetoric, the ‘New Labour’ government that has just been elected is just as much an enemy of the organised labour movement as the Tories ever were. Socialist Labour, despite the unfavourable conditions, laid down an important marker for the future in this election, which we must develop to play a crucial role in reviving the workers movement in Britain on a new, revolutionary basis.

A Courageous Campaign

Socialist Labour’s election campaign, standing over 60 candidates against New Labour, was an important and courageous stand for the working class, against this burial of class politics in a welter of ‘national reconciliation’. Our candidates were, of course, very much swimming against an enormous Blairite tide, and were largely marginalised.

Only three Socialist Labour candidates saved their deposits: comrade Arthur Scargill, standing in Newport East, received 1951 votes (5.23% of the vote); comrade Imran Khan in East Ham in London’s East End received 2687 votes (6.74% of the vote), the highest SLP vote, and comrade Terry Burns in Cardiff Central received 2230 votes (5.28% of the vote). In fact the party received an average of 1.83% of the vote in the 61 seats in which we ran. This rather low average figure represents the fact that the party stood in seats in which we had no real chance of making an impact, for reasons of obtaining a television broadcast and, it is suggested, qualifying for state funding of political parties if and when New Labour introduces such a scheme. The NEC’s excessive preoccupation with ‘paper’ candidates to bump up the numbers led to our average vote being considerably reduced, and to votes as low as 0.31%.

Squeeze on the Left

It was always likely that, given the enormous false consciousness in the British masses that produced the New Labour landslide, our principled pro-working class party would be squeezed. Other left parties standing in the election felt this too – even such established national figures as Tommy Sheridan (Glasgow Pollock) and Dave Nellist (Coventry South) for the former Militant Labour (now the Scottish Socialist Alliance in Scotland and the Socialist Party in England/Wales) suffered reduced votes in this election. Sheridan was down from just under 20% in 1992 to just over 11% this time – still the biggest vote for any left candidate in this election.

The election programme of the Socialist Party was in many respects similar to the Socialist Labour manifesto, and certainly deserved the vote of Socialist Labour members who were not able to vote for one of our own candidates. It is unfortunate that there were cases where candidates from the two organisations stood against each other.

In the post-election period, it is important that we enter into discussions and joint work with the Socialist Party and other socialist organisations to build on our similarities and thrash out our differences. We need to develop the strengths of both organisations and their roots in the militant sections of the working class, and transcend the weaknesses. To the basic demands put forward in the election by both parties, we must add a clear strategy for achieving a revolutionary transition to a socialist society.

Self-inflicted Wounds

Despite the flaws of a first election campaign, the SLP is still in a potentially good position to take advantage of inevitable disillusionment with New Labour, providing we reverse the tendency towards paranoia and bureaucratism that the leadership has exhibited in the past year.

Such self-inflicted wounds as the disbandment of Vauxhall branch in South London for refusing to enforce the undemocratic ‘voiding’ of Barry Biddulph, who was falsely accused of breaking the constitution, have not so much led to the wiping out of these comrades as damaged the unity and political culture of the party itself. Despite their ‘de-recognition’ as members by the NEC, and the threat of expulsion hanging over them, the Vauxhall branch waged a creditable and energetic election campaign which produced a result very much above the national average – comrade Ian Driver, the properly selected Vauxhall candidate, received 983 votes (2.52% of the vote), which compares very favourably with several other London candidates.

The second highest percentage vote in the country, outdoing comrade Scargill himself, was achieved by Cardiff Central candidate Terry Burns, polling 5.28% of the total. Since Cardiff branch has apparently also been under attack for advocating policies within the SLP that comrade Scargill disagrees with, we will hope this result will have a sobering effect on the leadership.

Attacks on comrades such as those in Vauxhall and Cardiff involve a very big risk of damaging the party and even destroying it by means of some unclarified split over organisational issues. In the opinion of the supporters of the Marxist Bulletin, this would be a severe setback for the project of building a new working-class party, and would play right into the hands of the enemies of the SLP, primarily New Labour.

An Alternative Manifesto

Another candidate under attack from the SLP leadership was Stan Keable, standing in Brent East, who has had his membership terminated, again without appeal, and is not recognised as the SLP candidate by the party. Unfortunately, Keable responded to this by playing straight into the hands of anti-democratic forces in the party. He stood under the Socialist Labour name but explicitly on a programme separate from that of the SLP, a programme almost identical to that promoted in the CPGB’s paper, the Weekly Worker, and also used by a Scottish Socialist Alliance/CPGB candidate in Dundee. Keable’s vote of 466 (1.32%) was below the SLP average – but irrespective of the success or failure of such a venture in the short term, in practice this kind of sectarian stunt amounts to a split with the SLP, and hardly gives him the right to claim to be a party candidate.

While in some respects superior to the national SLP manifesto, the alternative presented by comrade Keable was itself flawed. For example, like the Socialist Labour manifesto itself, it exhibits a softness on Irish nationalism, with the suggestion that ‘self-determination’ for the whole of the Irish people is possible under capitalism, without opening up the very real danger of simply reversing the oppression to the disadvantage of the Protestant workers. Keable’s manifesto did, however, show a subjective commitment to the interests of the working class as opposed to the interests of the capitalists, and as such deserved the vote of all socialists.

Potential and Dangers

The SLP has the potential to become a real, fighting alternative to Labour in this new period, and in particular to become both a leadership pole in workers struggles and an electoral pole standing in the inevitable by-elections that will come up. There is a real possibility of conflict between Blair and what remains of the Labour left, which should provide us with a steady stream of disillusioned recruits.

Attacks on the working class will come under different cover. The links between Blair’s government and the trade union bureaucracy will lead to increased attempts by that bureaucracy to hold back strikes and other action by organised workers.

It is crucial that we extend the base that Socialist Labour is already developing in the unions by building SLP fractions and organising to fight attacks on the working class from any quarter. We have had some success in winning trade union leaders – now we must substantially increase our recruits among the rank and file. Our strategy in the unions must centre on the need to break the union movement from the Labour Party, not on passive calls on Blair to ‘keep the link’ – a connection to this Labour Party with its capitalist programme can only hold us back.

There are dangers posed also – for instance, if the organisational stupidities that have happened recently are allowed to continue, the party’s own standing in the eyes of such potential recruits could be damaged, and a far messier situation could ensue, with more than one split from the Labour Party that would not necessarily simply unite with us.

We have a responsibility to forge a credible, revolutionary socialist alternative to Labour for another reason also. Many people remember the sinister rise of the fascist National Front during the last Labour government. If our party is not able to intersect disillusionment with Labour, other reactionary forces, maybe the BNP, maybe a regroupment of the Tory far right, or whoever, may fill the gap and succeed in leading the disillusioned in a racist and reactionary direction.

Such a happening is not inevitable. With the right democratic organisational methods, and with proper discussion to allow the party to develop genuinely revolutionary, socialist policies, our party has an excellent chance of filling that gap and offering a real alternative to the millions of victims of capitalism abandoned and reviled by Blair.