Socialist Worker

Should socialists break from New Labour?

Issue No. 1687

Should socialists break from New Labour?

SHOULD SOCIALISTS leave the Labour Party? That is the question raised by the contest for London mayor. Many Labour members are questioning if they have a future in the party. What does it mean to leave Labour? Would it spell political death? Socialist Worker provides its answers.

Haven't socialists always been inside the Labour Party?

NO. NEW Labour is so bad today it is easy to don rose-tinted spectacles about the Labour Party in the past. But throughout the Labour Party's history there have been members who have become disillusioned. Many of the early Labour MPs were poodles of the Liberal Party in parliament, more interested in gaining "respectability" than fighting for workers' rights and socialism. In 1907 (just seven years after the formation of the Labour Party) Victor Grayson stood in a by-election as an independent Labour and Socialist candidate.

He was elected, and raised important issues like unemployment-much to the embarrassment of Labour. Labour Party members have been involved in many struggles outside parliament. But at key moments, particularly when struggle has been on the rise, people outside the Labour Party took the initiative. That was true of the Great Unrest wave of struggle between 1910 and 1914. Many of the movement's leaders, such as Tom Mann, were socialists who regarded Labour with contempt. In the 1930s there were militant demonstrations against unemployment. But figures who led the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, like Wal Hannington, were members of the Communist Party. Labour officially did not even support the most famous demonstration against unemployment-the Jarrow hunger march-even though it was led by Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson.

Labour's Daily Herald newspaper opposed the Cable Street mobilisation against Oswald Mosley's fascists in the East End of London-despite the fact that ordinary Labour members and supporters took part.

What about in more recent years?

SOCIALISTS OUTSIDE the Labour Party have been part of organising vitally important protest movements, such as the demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s or the fight against the Nazi National Front in the 1970s. In the 1980s Labour Party members were involved in building solidarity with striking miners. But so too were thousands of people outside the party. Moreover, many of the leaders of the miners were not members of the Labour Party.

In the 1990s socialists outside Labour fought against the Gulf War and NATO's bombing of Kosovo, campaigned against the Criminal Justice Bill and the Asylum Bill, and raised solidarity with the fight of the Liverpool dockers. Many ordinary Labour Party members were part of these fights-but this was in spite of the stance of Labour leaders.

The key is to understand that change does not come through parliament, but from fighting outside parliament. Thatcher's poll tax, for example, was defeated by a mass campaign and huge demonstrations organised by ordinary people.

Would socialists be isolated if they left Labour now?

NO. THE opposite is true. It is easier to relate to the mood for change in the country outside the Labour Party. Opinion over many issues is way to the left of New Labour. For example, recent opinion polls show 73 percent want the renationalisation of the railways and 87 percent want more controls over the government's selling of arms. New Labour's betrayals have also led to Labour supporters voting for nationalist parties, like Plaid Cymru in Wales or the SNP in Scotland. Plaid Cymru, for example, has won control of staunch Labour areas like Islwyn, the Rhondda and Llanelli.

But it need not be forces like Plaid or the SNP that benefit from the anger against Blair. Where socialists put forward a clear left alternative to Blair they get support. In the elections for the Scottish Parliament last year socialist candidates outside the Labour Party got 23,000 votes across the city of Glasgow. Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party was elected to the parliament. So too was Denis Canavan, the left wing MP who New Labour refused to select as a candidate. He stood as an independent socialist and trounced New Labour.

Won't it help the Tories if socialists break from Labour now?

NO. IT will help the Tories if socialists don't break now. The failure to build independent organisation to the left of Labour under previous Labour governments always allowed the Tories to benefit. This is what happened after the "great betrayal" of Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. The Tories also gained at the end of Attlee's 1945-51 Labour government and after the 1964-70 Labour administration under Harold Wilson.

A good example is what happened under the last Labour government of 1974-9. Labour introduced cut after cut in public spending, and unemployment soared. Workers were desperate for an alternative, particularly in 1976 when Labour announced huge public spending cuts and restrictions on pay. Union leaders went along with the government's attacks, as did many on the left who could see no alternative to "their" government. Even Tony Benn, who was in the cabinet at the time, refused to openly attack the government and did not break with Labour. The lack of a focus for the disillusion with the government paved the way for the victory of the Tories in 1979.

The left inside the Labour Party did not organise and rally until Benn stood for the deputy leadership of the party in 1981. His campaign undoubtedly reinvigorated the left and created a new layer of socialists. But by then it was too late. Workers were sapped by Labour's attacks. They felt demoralised and defeated, and the Tories were in office.

What about figures who have broken from Labour in the past?

JOHN PRESCOTT claims they all ended up right wing, such as Ramsay MacDonald and Oswald Mosley. Is he right? Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps are often presented today as heroic Labour figures from Labour's past. But Bevan and Cripps were both expelled from the party in the 1930s. They had refused to withdraw their criticisms of the way Labour was ineffectively resisting the Nazis. They did not move to the right. Their mistake was not building an independent organisation of socialists around them. That meant both moved back to the Labour Party as soon as the Labour leadership would readmit them.

Should socialists stay in the party and fight to change it?

NO. WHY bang your head against a brick wall? Blair's "modernising reforms" mean there is scarcely a democratic avenue in the party to voice discontent through. Many decent socialists have been expelled. New Labour councils are pushing through cuts and disciplining anyone in their own ranks who criticises them.

It is vital to provide a focus for the discontent with New Labour. The danger is that people see the debate around the London mayor as an internal Labour Party matter. But that means missing the opportunity to put the argument to the huge numbers of people outside the party who are crying out for an alternative. Now is the time to break from Labour.

The party cannot be changed into a vehicle for genuine socialist change. At the core of the party is the belief that you have to work within capitalism, and cooperate with business to make the system more profitable. If that means squeezing workers, then so be it. For 100 years the party has been held together by people who want to change it but who have always failed. They have been changed by it instead.

What should socialists do?

IT IS vital that socialists provide a focus for the discontent with Blair. Otherwise there is a danger that people can become cynical about the possibilities of change. That cynicism could help create an atmosphere where racist ideas or the scapegoating of refugees can begin to find an echo.

In London socialists can actively campaign for the London Socialist Alliance in the next few weeks. That can bring together people both inside and outside the Labour Party. Socialists everywhere can build local campaigns against the effects of New Labour's pro-market policies, such as against council house privatisation or local NHS or education cuts. Beyond Labour's ranks are thousands of people furious at capitalism's destruction of the environment, Third World debt, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and NATO.

Socialists need to draw together people disgusted by every aspect of the system and those who were enthused by the protests in Seattle against the WTO. They can be convinced that socialist ideas are the only basis on which to create a better society.

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Sat 11 Mar 2000, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1687
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