An important discussion took place at the Momentum event in Liverpool last weekend on Parliamentary Socialism in the 21st Century. It was billed as an exploration of the ideas of Ralph Miliband, the father of Ed and David.
He wrote brilliantly about the barriers to achieving change through the parliamentary system.
Leo Panitch, the co-editor of Socialist Register, was one of the speakers. He argued a position that is increasingly popular with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. He said that the old-style reformism pushed by most social democratic parties across Europe, including Labour, has failed.
But so, he argued, has the idea of insurrection and overthrowing the capitalist state. Instead we need a combination of parliamentary struggle carried through by a Corbyn-led Labour Party backed up by a strong movement outside parliament.
It seems attractive. Why not support strikes, protests and campaigns but also work for a Labour victory and then use the movement to shape a Labour government?
This isn’t a novel idea. It has been around for a century or more, and was very popular during the rise of the movement around Tony Benn in the 1970s and 1980s.
Certainly it’s an improvement on the Labour right’s idea that only parliament matters and that strikes and militant protests are a distraction or harmful.
But it avoids a crucial issue. The reality is that, at every point, either the parliamentary struggle or the struggle outside parliament dominates. One disciplines the other. For the Labour Party, in the end parliament rules.
Why this week was Corbyn-supporting Clive Lewis allowed to make a speech praising the Nato imperialist alliance and supporting Trident nuclear missiles?
Perhaps Lewis believes some of this stuff. But the greater pressure on him, and Corbyn, is the belief that Labour needs unity to win an election. That means gigantic concessions to pro-Trident trade unions and to mainstream opinion in favour of Nato.
Labour’s leaders can march against Trident, but in the end they will grudgingly put the parliamentary struggle first. The Labour left lacks any alternative to the present state structure and the very limited democracy of parliament. So they fear openly challenging the belief that they must “defend Britain”.
Such pressures would be intensified 100 times if Labour were in government. Then extra-parliamentary struggle would be ruthlessly subordinated to maintaining “our government”. This is the lesson of every previous Labour government and of governments today from Syriza in Greece to the African National Congress in South Africa to the Workers’ Party in Brazil.
Each were carried to office on high hopes. Each systematically separated itself from its base and governed in the interests of “the nation”—which has meant bowing down to big business.
Once you accept that parliament is the prime method of achieving change it engulfs, in the last instance, everything else. In truth there will always will be a tension between campaigning movements and Labour. Labour will always put its electoral performance first.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was right to denounce Lewis’s speech, however warm its leaders may feel towards Corbyn.
Labour will not become the social movement we need.
None of this should stand in the way of constant and intensified cooperation and united activity between Labour members, campaigns, and activists outside the party. Indeed, with the Tories on the attack we need it more than ever.
Everyone should take part in the mobilisations that Corbyn and his supporters call for. But it’s also right to insist that parliament is not the key arena of struggle and that we need an independent revolutionary movement.
That’s why the man who was the subject of the Momentum meeting, Ralph Miliband, wrote in 1976, “The belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone”.
He called for a new socialist party.