By John Rees
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Election: The Verdict on the Blair Project

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Respect's national secretary John Rees explains why 5 May is so important to the further revival of the left in Britain.
Issue 296

If Respect is successful in this election it will break the entire policy on which New Labour has been fashioned. It borrowed the idea of ‘triangulation’ from Bill Clinton. Triangulation means that New Labour doesn’t worry about its core support – it takes them for granted on the basis that they’ve got nowhere else to go. That leaves it free to chase the middle ground. Labour follows the Tory agenda, adopting policies it thinks will be favourable to the right wing press, to the middle class voter, and it ignores the values of the people who built and sustained its organisation.

Triangulation can only work so long as the people who are suffering from it have no one else they can vote for. But as soon as a significant group of voters – and it doesn’t have to be all voters everywhere – say, ‘Triangulation isn’t working for us,’ the whole policy of New Labour begins to shatter.

Fire starter

This is happening already where Respect is strong. Oona King wasn’t interested in the campaign to stop the fire engine being cut from Bethnal Green fire station until we started to campaign around it. Then she found a sudden desire to join the campaign and to save the fire engine. Ignoring traditional Labour supporters was no longer an option.

This is also true over the question of the war. Whether Labour MPs were pro or anti-war, they wouldn’t have had to pay attention to this issue had not some people in the anti-war movement decided to form an electoral alternative to New Labour.

It’s the same with the crisis that’s just blown up over MG Rover. New Labour can weather any number of these crises, it can witness any level of disruption of working class communities, so long as no one stands against it who articulates a different point of view. That’s no longer the case in the constituencies where Respect is standing. At stake is the ability of the left to create a pole of attraction which is not only successful in itself, but which has the effect of dragging the entire political spectrum back to the left. If we don’t, we can all see from the Tory agenda where this can end – with a drive to the right led by Michael Howard over questions like asylum and immigration.

We’re targeting a relatively small number of seats because we’re not just flying the flag. If you just want to use the election to propagate left wing ideas in the most abstract way – which in certain circumstances is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – you can stand in as many places as you like. It’s a different question if you want to build a real alternative.

If you want to do this you have to be able to do serious mass work. You need to deliver material that expresses your point of view through every single door in a constituency two or three times. In most constituencies we’re talking about 60,000 to 70,000 households. You have to be able to properly engage with the electorate, which means canvassing your own support – and that means knocking on every door of those 60,000 to 70,000 households. That requires the concentration of resources.

Any new party has to do this. The Labour Party, when it first broke the Liberal/Tory stranglehold at the beginning of the last century, had certain places where it was strongest – some of which were the same places where Respect is strongest now, for instance in the East End of London. It concentrated on those areas, made a breakthrough, and generalised on the basis of that breakthrough. That’s what we’re trying to do.

The situation has gone beyond tactical voting. If you look at all the opinion poll studies, including the evidence that Paul Whiteley gave to the last issue of Socialist Review, it shows that there is a massive decline in the support, especially the stable support, for the two main parties. When an institution like the Tory Party which is centuries old, and an institution like the Labour Party which is a century old, begins to erode in this way, it creates an incredibly fluid and volatile electorate. Millions of working people think that their traditional home has been taken from them and aren’t certain about what the alternative is.

We hope that a significant proportion of them will find a home with Respect. When there is a social phenomenon as deep as this, which has existed for as long as this, and is taking place in such a profound register, it’s unlikely that it will flood towards a single alternative in one election. Leon Trotsky said that ‘the working class comes to consciousness through the method of successive approximations’. There is no reason to think that this is different in the electoral field than in other fields. So some people who desert Labour will inevitably look to a major established party like the Liberal Democrats. A much smaller number will look to a longer established minor party like the Greens. Some will, quite rightly, be backing independent anti-war candidates. But the full audit of the haemorrhaging of the Labour vote will only be possible after the election. I expect it to be a fluid and complex mosaic. I’m sure that Respect, the stable left wing pole, which is the most consistent and has the greatest long term prospect of success, which groups together the greatest available forces on the left will come out of this election in the strongest possible position.

What happens after that will depend very much on the result. If we’re successful Respect could grow dramatically and quickly. In the council elections the following May Respect could elect a serious number of councillors around the country. If so, we will have made a significant step towards creating a mass left wing alternative to New Labour.

Whatever the outcome on 5 May, the fundamental fissure in the labour movement will not go away because it’s rooted in the nature of capitalism today. It’s produced by the accumulated hurt that working people feel after a generation where the welfare state consensus that dominated the 1950s and 1960s has been in decline. The establishment parties no longer represent that consensus, even though it’s the opinion of the overwhelming majority of working class people, who’ve suffered a generation of privatisations and attacks on trade unions. This bitterness is now fused with anger at the attempt to re-order the globe by US imperialism and its allies. These pressures are building to produce earthquakes in the electoral sphere.

Whatever the outcome of this election these structural pressures will not cease to operate on the body politic. Respect is one of a series of such projects internationally, which also include the Left Bloc in Portugal, Rifondazione in Italy, the Wahl Alternative in Germany and the SSP in Scotland. These have all been much more successful than anything that the left attempted for 20 years previously. It’s worth stressing what a radical project this is. More conservatively minded people on the left make judgements on these organisations simply and solely by programme and label. These are important, but they aren’t the only criteria, and often not the most important. We need to look at this as a historical process, and at the social forces involved.

Respect has managed to bind together some of the social forces that have the most radical charge in this country – the anti-war movement, the left of the unions and some of the best people who were on the left of the Labour Party, plus a revolutionary organisation of some size in the SWP. To be able to create around that core a mass audience for radical anti-war, anti-privatisation, pro trade union, pro working class, anti-racist politics will be a significant achievement for the left. It will open up all sorts of radical potential which is now limited by the establishment political system.

It will have an interaction with wider mass movements. The significance of this was clear after the 15 February demonstration. What else could the anti-war movement have done to stop the war? There are two possibilities. Large scale industrial action plus a mass movement on the streets could have broken the government at that point. And obviously strengthening the industrial struggle remains critical. But it’s also true that if the fissure in establishment politics had been wider – if there had been more people on the left of the Labour Party, like Jeremy Corbyn, and like George Galloway was at that time – or, better still, more left wing figures independent of the Labour Party, like Tommy Sheridan was or George Galloway is now, the mass movement would have hurled itself against a more divided opponent. There would have been a bigger fracture in the wall against which it was throwing itself. There would have been a greater voice reaching over the heads of establishment politicians to a mass audience, and not a voice of the centre ground of anti-war opinion, but of the radical left of anti-war opinion.

This would be equally the case in a strike wave, in a mass protest around pensions, in any extraparliamentary movement. The critical thing is not to, as some people with long memories will claim we are doing, regurgitate the Labour left formula of the early 1980s: ‘We want a left outside parliament and a left inside parliament.’ When they articulated this view, the left were attached to the Labour Party and through the Labour Party to the government, and through the government to the ruling class. But Respect is organisationally independent of Labour. Therefore the chain of links which bound the left of the Labour Party to the establishment is broken. This can break the chain of loyalty between the working class and the establishment at a higher level than it would otherwise be broken. That maximises the forces on our side and minimises the forces on theirs, divides their side and increases the unity on ours. This raises the probability of victory in any given struggle.

Radical breaks

Anybody who believes that we need a fundamental transformation of capitalist society cannot imagine that this will happen without movements and organisations like Respect. Britain has a very old trade union movement of millions of members, an established trade union bureaucracy of a very conservative nature, and a hundred year long tradition of reformism. It is impossible to believe that in such a country we will arrive at the total transformation of the country without all sorts of partial, but in themselves quite radical, breaks from the establishment. Anyone who believes that this will happen by cumulative single defections from their camp to that of the far left simply has no understanding about how working class consciousness develops as a process and over time.

If you take Trotsky’s point seriously – that workers don’t suddenly, in a road to Damascus fashion, transfer their allegiance from reform to revolution – then the logical corollary of accepting that is that there will be all sorts of frameworks in which we operate which bring us into a common home with people who are beginning to make that transformation. Indeed, the very body that has traditionally been the vehicle for such attempts to transform society fundamentally – the workers’ council – is not a simple extension of the revolutionary organisation. It is a body that incorporates all the different trends within the working class movement. It’s essential that it does so, otherwise it couldn’t form the basis of a new society.

In a period like ours an effective far-left organisation can only exist in cooperation, in organised forms, with other people in the working class movement. This is not an aberration: it is the desirable norm within the working class movement for a revolutionary organisation. It is only the peculiar and aberrant circumstances of a downturn which throw a revolutionary party back into isolation in order to defend a particular current of ideas. The situation now, the era of the united front work of the Stop the War Coalition and Respect, is situation normal.

Many people on the left, because of the long downturn, found it very hard to understand that you can both maintain your principles and analysis of the way capitalist society works and what is necessary to transform it and at the same time cooperate with people who may not share all those ideas but who are willing to advance in very long term projects the capacity of working class people to fight collectively. That’s exactly what we’re involved in with Respect.

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