Peter Lawrence writes:
Some 35 years ago, I wrote a book chapter entitled ‘Is the Party Over?’[i] which was an attempt to critique the idea and relevance of the Leninist vanguard party. As the title implies, it argued for the demise of the vanguard party (the model for the then highly influential Communist Party to which I belonged, as well as for its various Trotskyist competitors on the Marxist-Leninist left), in favour of one which would coordinate socialist and other progressive activists involved across a range of struggles. In so doing, it would provide a home for many who had hitherto felt excluded because of a lack of interest in the issues that concerned them. (One example I gave was the Ecology Party, the earlier name of the Green Party.) A party which would be inclusive, coordinating and democratic in organisation might also, so I argued, lead to similar developments within the Labour Party which would begin to shed its suspicions of movements it did not dominate and turn it much more into a campaigning organisation to mobilise public support for sustained progressive change.
Fast forward to 2015, and the Communist Party has morphed into a minor Stalinist sect, while the other ‘vanguard’ groupings such as the SWP, remain small and marginally influential. The Green Party has grown in membership and influence, gained 1 MP and three MEPs and now threatens Labour. It is both a campaigning and electoral party now having to come to terms with the diversity of its appeal, which gives it campaign strength, and a set of divergent policies which reflects its diverse appeal. In Scotland, the SNP threatens to wipe out Scottish Labour MPs while the Labour Party, on the other hand, remains an electoral organisation whose performance in government has differed marginally from that of the Tories, still its main competitor, and continues to shy away from becoming a campaigning party which seeks to mobilise popular support for progressive policies.
Prior to 1966, voting Labour felt like a positive act in the cause of building a democratic socialist society. However timid the Labour governments were, the leadership spoke about planned economies, distribution of income and wealth and the importance of protecting workers against unscrupulous employers. Even when Labour came back to government in 1974, there was a sense such a government was a necessary if not sufficient condition for building democratic socialism. Even more so in 1997, after 18 years of Tory rule, there was no question about where a socialist would put the X on the ballot paper – vote Labour not least to get the Tories out, but also because this was the nearest we could get to a socialist government. In the intervening period socialists have found it increasingly difficult to put that X by the Labour candidate. Holding your nose and voting Labour for fear of something worse was the most positive thing that could be said in favour of such an action. In 2015, the smell associated with the Labour Party is becoming so strong that holding your nose will not be enough. Labour has become another political career path to high office and then to co-option by the corporate sector with commensurate financial rewards. Yet still we will agonise until the last minute about whether to desert Labour and vote Green (the only realistic alternative) and risk another five years of a government dedicated to advancing the interests of the plutocracy and impoverishing a large proportion of the 99%, or whether to vote Labour to avoid the worst excesses of the Tories.
But will Labour in government, avoid the worst excesses of the Tories? Maybe. Labour, having bought the fiction that austerity is the only way out of the crisis, has already promised to cut public expenditure and eliminate the budget deficit, but not as fast as the Tories. So what would this mean in practice? Maybe the removal of the ‘bedroom tax’, maybe a slower rate of cuts, maybe a marginal reduction in unemployment, maybe some capital expenditure on infrastructure, though even the Tories plan the latter, possibly a higher rate of tax for the rich, possibly a version of the mansion tax that actually hits those who engage in property trading for speculation. Well, better than nothing, and for some people and families, critical, but still not addressing the key problem of British capitalism – its domination by large financial corporates, who effectively determine what governments can do.
The current fuss about whether Labour is pro or anti-business is a case in point. The current crisis was, at its root, caused by the Tory financial liberalisation of the 1980s. Financial corporates gambled away huge amounts of depositors’ money and took control over the non-financial sector. So what did the Labour government do but rescue these failed institutions and now they are back gambling with our deposits which if they lose the bets, are anyway guaranteed by the Government! Miliband has talked about ‘predator capitalism’ which is certainly what it is, but he hasn’t said what he plans to do about it. Meanwhile the very business friendly shadow chancellor Balls has been heard to say at a private business function ‘You might hear anti-City sentiment from Ed Miliband but you’ll never hear it from me.’[ii] Yet it is the City itself that is and has always been the key problem for the UK economy and it is the activities of the banks and finance houses that populate the square mile and that Thatcher liberated with the Big Bang, over 30 years ago that caused the crisis.
So here we have it. The coalition has provided Labour with an open goal which the party constantly misses. Is it because they are afraid to shoot for fear of alienating voters who are unlikely to vote for them anyway? Is it because they don’t want to shoot because they believe in a strong financial sector? Or is it because they know that they need the financial sector onside because it can bring governments down and they don’t know how to mobilise popular support for a policy that would bring the City under control. If there is a lesson from the past, it is that appeasing the City simply strengthens it, and getting the City out of trouble, as Labour did in the financial crisis, loses you elections because the City has plenty of opinion formers who can shift the blame onto the Government and get away with it.Must Labour die or must it change in order to stay alive? If there is a lesson from what is happening in Greece and Spain, it is that it is possible for ‘left wing’ political formations of a new type to emerge from popular activity involving different groups and movements. In the case of Greece, it can win an election, and start to implement its policies, though the forces of financial rectitude opposed to it, led by the ECB, are trying to prevent this. But a governing party that remains a campaigning one can retain its popular support by doing what it said it would do and mobilising the population to ensure it is done. Labour could learn from this and start to do things differently, not be afraid to take sides with the unemployed, the working poor, the inadequately housed and the food bank dependent, and link up with progressive movements which seek systemic change. That would include the Greens. But for that to happen Labour would need to be a different party and I’m not optimistic, after all those years when it missed the chance, that it can become one now.