Friday, December 20, 2013

Labour's power struggle (1980)

From the November 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard


The squalid battle which presently dominates the Labour Party is nothing but an unprincipled power struggle. The newspaper headline writers may endeavour to convince their readers that profound political issues are at stake, but the back-stabbing and the vote-rigging of the Conference floor at Blackpool last month fully justify the mistrust and hostility which socialists feel towards the Labour Party. Since 1904—two years before the formation of the Labour Party—the Socialist Party of Great Britain has stood opposed to the conservatism and gradualism of Labour. This open letter is not intended as a means of advising Labourites how to settle their internal disorders, but is simply meant to make clear the nature of the present conflict and to offer some advice to any workers who still believe that the Labour Party can get society out of the mess it is in.

We are told that what went on in Blackpool last month, and will be continued elsewhere in January, is about party democracy. It is not. Not a single voice in the Labour Party has been raised in favour of real democracy. Democracy means the absence of leadership; it means equality between members; it means completely open meetings and no internal secrecy; it means freedom to speak openly without fear of persecution; it means common control of party finances. Now then, who in the Labour Party is advocating that?

Who has advocated that in order to democratise the Labour Party they should no longer have a Leader and a bunch of platform chiefs? If anyone did, the leaders who are currently participating in the mock battle would soon tell them where to get off. What the so-called democrats in the Labour Party want is a say in who will lead them; that is quite different from not wanting to be led at all. The truth is that the sheep of Labour's rank and file accept the old myth that nothing can be done without leaders. It is pathetic to see adults, claiming to be socialists, fighting for power—not for themselves and their class, but for a crowd of Labour Leaders.

There is no equality of membership in the Labour Party. The weighted votes which are given to the trade unions are a blatant political bribe in return for money to pay for the party's upkeep. Local activists cannot and do not have a significant say in the party's policy-making. Year after year a fresh-faced new delegate is seen to alight the Conference rostrum to put in a desperate plea for "socialist policies". These are sincere young workers whose cries of hope are treated with derision by the men of power in whom they have placed their trust.

Who in the Labour Party has demanded that their National Executive Committee meetings be open to the public? The EC of the SPGB is open to anyone, member or non-member, at 52 Clapham High Street at 7.30pm any Tuesday evening. Which Labour "democrats" have suggested that their conference be modelled on the scrupulously democratic form adopted by the SPGB—a model of party democracy in action? When has a Labourite ever suggested that half-yearly accounts of party finances should be presented for the scrutiny of the membership? That is how we do things in the SPGB. A socialist party need keep no secrets from its members or from the workers in general.

The TV pictures of the Blackpool Conference showed just how much the majority of the delegates cared about democratic principles. When Sir John Boyd of the AUEW refused to consult his fellow delegates about how to cast the union vote on a non-mandated motion, when Leftists from the constituencies shouted down the Callaghan sycophant, Andrew Faulds, when Eric Heffer moved a resolution on 2 October and said "I formally move this motion, but I haven't got a clue what I'm moving"—was that what Labour Party democracy is all about?

It is claimed that the future of Labour Party policy is at stake. Anthony Wedgewood Benn says that the so-called Right wing of the party want to turn it into a second Tory Party. But is already is a second Tory Party insofar as most of its members support the same social system that Thatcher stands for. Shadow Defence Secretary, Bill Rodgers, has said that the party must be saved from extremism, whatever that may mean. Rodgers warns against the dangers of Benn, Benn poses as the guardian of some non-existent principles, the members clap their hands together, some for one leader, some for another, but none for themselves.

The Labour Leaders stand for one common principle and that is the principle of getting power by any means. They want a share in the running of British capitalism. They need votes to get them power. They need active suckers to go out and get them votes. Not one of the combatants in the battle for power wants an end to capitalism. The argument is about how to run it. More or less power for the state—nuclear arms or conventional warfare—higher or lower taxes—alliance with America or Russia—these are the petty issues that workers are being asked to get steamed about.

In recent weeks and months there has been a concerted effort to portray Anthony Wedgewood Benn as an uncompromising socialist. His friends have painted him as the leader of a socialist tradition in the Labour Party; his enemies have warned that should he succeed Jim Callaghan as leader of the Labour Party British capitalism would be under threat. Let one thing be clear: Benn is no more of a socialist than Callaghan. Both are committed to the continued administration of capitalism. They do not oppose production for profit, nor do they stand for the common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution. It is not only the leaders who support capitalism; so do their followers. It is quite wrong to blame the leaders for Labour's anti-working class record, for it is the followers—the workers themselves—who gave Labour the stick with which to beat them.

The SPGB has no leaders. That does not mean that we are unorganised, but that we are organised along democratic lines. Workers can only join the SPGB if they understand what it stands for. Once in their party, their say is as important as the next comrade's. Our Executive Committee is only empowered to carry out the wishes of the membership. The Socialist Standard is owned and controlled by the party as a whole. The SPGB does not just talk about democracy, we practise it.

The Labour Party is in a mess. While capitalism's latest crisis produces tragic consequences for the working class all the Labour Party can do is debate amendments to its constitution. Rhetoric is abundant, but solutions are scarce. What has Labour to say about unemployment? They foolishly blame it on Thatcher, when it is clear that unemployment doubled under the Callaghan government. The Left asks for more government money to be spent on jobs. But the state, just like any capitalist concern, will not put money raised in taxes into unprofitable industries. The Left reacts to the threat of war by calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament, just as they did twenty years ago. But pleas to governments to disarm will do no good so long as the cause of war remains.

The Labour Party has no answers to basic working class problems because it is ignorant of their cause. Socialists are concerned with causation, with how capitalism works, what socialism means and how to create a new order of society. This requires a reasoned, analytical approach based upon the method of materialism. The SPGB urges our fellow workers to seriously consider this alternative approach to politics.

Unless you take the revolutionary alternative you are likely to be forever locked within that Broad Church called the Labour Party. Maybe it will be reformed. If it is, what possible difference will the reforms make? If they let you choose your own leader—or if they let the NEC have a say in writing the manifesto—or even if Benn abolishes the House of Lords and closes down Eton—what difference will this make to the future of capitalism? In a few years' time you can be sure that there will be a new crowd of rank and file radicals complaining that the leader has betrayed them and if only they could appoint the man (or woman) of their fancy socialism would be around the corner.

But chances are that the Labour Party disputes will end in dull compromise. In a few years Labour will be back in office repeating the anti-working class crimes that all Labour governments have committed to ensure the smooth running of capitalism. Come the next Labour government, whoever is Prime Minister, there will be Labour Lefties whining that principles have been betrayed; they will not have been, for Labour has no principles to betray.

The arch-opportunist leader of the Liberal Party has invited the "Labour moderates" to join his tuppeny circus. The SWP has urged the Labour Trots to come and join them on the make-believe barricades. Reg Prentice is signalling to ex-colleagues who fear for their jobs in the light of changes in the constitution to join him in the rich man's Capitalist Party. The hacks of the unions call for unity, although they do not know for what or with whom. The dogmatic time-servers of the old constituencies mouth the old Labour slogans like Orwell's sheep in Animal Farm. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of decent working people support the Labour Party like their predecessors used to be loyal to the Church: because they think it is their only friend. Instead, it is their enemy.
Steve Coleman

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