The looming general election and the possibility of a Tory government have reignited debates about the nature of the Labour Party and whether or not socialists should call for people to “hold their nose” and vote for it. From privatisation and the MPs’ expenses scandal to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, New Labour has betrayed the hopes of millions of voters. But do these betrayals mean that Labour is now just the same as the Tories?
Lenin argued 90 years ago that “whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men who lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat… The only correct point of view is that the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers.”
Even in 1920 Lenin had the measure of the Labour leadership – and the description still holds up pretty well. Labour has been riddled with contradictions since its birth. Whenever in power, its commitment to the “national interest” has led it to attack living standards, support foreign intervention and even develop the nuclear bomb. Despite this, millions of workers have looked to the Labour Party as “their party”.
The New Labour project has seen serious changes in the relationship between Labour and the working class. Membership of the party had risen to 405,000 in 1997 when Tony Blair was elected. By 2007 it had fallen to 176,891. It might now be as low as 110,000. Its roots in the working class have never been shallower.
But it would be a mistake to write Labour off because of this. In 2005, after the invasion of Iraq, over 9.5 million people voted for Labour. Millions are affiliated to Labour through their trade unions. Labour’s ability to continue, even when it behaves so disgracefully, is rooted in working class consciousness. Most workers want to see a better world but, at best, think that it cannot be delivered overnight. The ruling ideas of society are, as Marx argued, those of the ruling class. But these are constantly challenged by workers’ experiences.
Reformism is not simply an attachment to an organisation but a reflection of workers’ position in capitalist society. As Lenin said, socialism must be built “not with imaginary human material, or with human material specially prepared by us, but with human material bequeathed to us by capitalism”. We have to relate to that.
Revolutionaries don’t believe that real change comes through elections. But we have to relate to the millions of people who do, especially during a general election that will dominate politics for months. Our position on any election is a tactical one. Whether standing ourselves or calling for a vote for another organisation, one of the key issues is how it relates to raising workers’ self-confidence. In this election the electoral challenge from the left of Labour is far smaller than in the previous two, and there is a serious danger of the Tories winning.
If Labour and the Tories were no different then we could take a position of “a plague on both your houses” and let them fight it out. But, if we return to the issue of workers’ confidence, there is a clear difference. If Labour wins the election, there will not be enthusiasm but relief – relief that the Tories have not got in. If the Tories win, there will be enormous demoralisation amongst workers. Arguments about how Britain has “turned to the right” will grow.
It is true that some workers, particularly those who have been at the sharp edge of Labour’s attacks, have said they will never vote Labour again. But it is also true that millions of workers will vote for Labour because they still see it as their party and millions more will decide that they have to vote Labour to stop the Tories.
In order to relate to both groups, we need to take a clear position. By arguing for a left vote where possible, we are making it clear that we need something better than Labour. But the majority of voters will be in constituencies where there is no alternative. By calling for a vote for Labour in these areas, we are also standing alongside millions of workers casting a class vote.
Whatever the result of the election, Labour will be gripped by a debate about the way forward. Calling for a Labour vote where we have no alternative will make it much easier for us to relate to workers engaged in these arguments – some of them are going to be the very activists we need to work with in the fight against the effects of the crisis and building initiatives like the Right to Work campaign.
If calling for a Labour vote in some areas will make it easier to encourage resistance where it counts then we must hold our nose and vote, no matter how much it stinks!
Daniel Gott: “Ask me to vote Labour? Never again!”
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