Socialist Worker

Does it matter who leads Labour?

Issue No. 2204

Socialist Worker has consistently argued that the best way forward for socialists lies in organising outside the Labour Party.

Yet we are also unequivocal in our support for left wing MP John McDonnell’s campaign to become the new Labour leader.

We also agree with many of the points put forward by Diane Abbott, the other left candidate in the leadership election.

Is there a contradiction between these two positions? If we want an alternative to Labour, does that mean that what goes on inside the party is of no significance and no interest?

Of course, a left wing Labour leader would not replace the necessity for workers to fight collectively to change society.

Nor would it suddenly mean that parliament had become transformed into a vehicle for introducing socialism.

The whole history of the Labour Party shows it is deeply committed to working inside capitalism.

This means that time and again it sacrifices the interests of ordinary people to the interests of big business and the bankers.


But, nevertheless, a socialist being elected leader of the Labour Party would have a very big impact.

It would be a step forward to have someone who says that there is an alternative to the free market as Labour leader.

If they argued that immigrants are not to blame for low wages or the lack of housing, and opposed the right of powerful nations to attack weaker ones it would help open up a much bigger audience for left wing ideas.

The retreat and then collapse of the Labour left in the 1980s was a central part of the creation of a pro‑market, pro-war consensus in public debate in Britain.

Breaking this stultifying atmosphere would create a much more favourable ideological environment for all socialists, inside and outside the Labour Party, to operate in.

It would be a boost to everyone who wants to resist the coming onslaught on the public sector, support strikes like those at BA, or oppose attacks on immigrants.

But a left leader could also help boost the most direct and central source of change – struggle by workers themselves.

If John McDonnell was Labour leader, workers would know that they would get support from Labour during disputes, not a cold shoulder or condemnation.

That would probably lead to an increase in strikes and protests of all sorts.

Alternatively, if Labour’s new leader is one of the various former ministers who are standing, it will encourage an atmosphere where struggle is spurned.

A Labour Party moving leftwards would create greater opportunities for socialists outside Labour to work together in common struggle with socialists inside Labour.

The different strategies of revolutionaries on one hand and Labour supporters on the other would be argued out in front of thousands of activists.

The debate would take place in the light of the real experience of various campaigns and struggles.

But in truth any socialist who even looked like a serious contender for Labour leader would come under tremendous pressure from the ruling class.

The press would launch a hysterical campaign of demonisation and smears, while the bosses would warn darkly of the threat of economic ruin.


When left winger Tony Benn stood for deputy leader of the party in 1981 against the candidate of the Labour right, Denis Healey, he evoked tremendous enthusiasm from thousands of activists.

But the press vilified him.

Even the Daily Mirror claimed it would be the end of the Labour Party if Benn won.

Revolutionaries want to be part of a big and growing left.

We should always take sides with the left against the right inside the working class movement, whether inside the trade unions or inside the Labour Party.

That is why we strongly urge every trade unionist to do all they can to get MPs to nominate John McDonnell so that the debate can continue.

None of that means that we stop arguing, even as we work with people in the Labour Party, that the best way to fight is through waging the class struggle more effectively rather than looking to parliament.

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Tue 1 Jun 2010, 18:54 BST
Issue No. 2204
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