Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Labour's Left-wing (1968)

From the March 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party is a party of capitalism; one of the two political machines that the working class in Britain regularly elect to control the government in the interests of the capitalists. Of this there can be no doubt. The Labour Party have never had Socialism as their aim. It is true that in the past they did use, or rather misuse, the word socialism more than they do today. But to them Socialism meant nationalisation or state capitalism. Now they prefer to speak of the New Britain — a fact which we Socialists welcome as it means that the name of Socialism will be dragged less through the mud by being linked with the war-making, strike breaking, anti-union laws and wage freezes of the various Labour governments.

The Labour Party is organised to run the machinery of government. Their programme and policy is decided by the Leader and the leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is controlled from the top downwards. In other words it is not a democratic party and the membership do not lay down its policy. The aftermath of the 1960 Scarborough Conference decision in favour of unilateral disarmament is a glaring example of this. The parliamentary leaders and the Leader refused to accept this decision and justified this refusal on the ground that they were responsible not to the Party but to the electorate. As the electorate did not in fact back unilateral disarmament this was a telling point. In fact it gives us a clue to the reason for the ineffectiveness of the Labour Party generally and of its left-wing in particular.

Labour MPs are elected on the votes of people who are not Socialists and so are effectively their prisoner. They cannot go much further than those who voted for them are prepared to go, and certainly they can do nothing for Socialism. For Socialism cannot be established over the heads of a working class who do not understand it. Socialism can only be established by people who understand and want it and who democratically set out to get it. The Labour Party does not—and never has—seek support at elections on a Socialist programme. It has always done so on a programme of trying to reform capitalism. The left-wing also suggest a reform programme, only one less practical than that of the parliamentary leaders. But they are elected, not on their own programme, but on that of the leaders—a fact which gives these leaders the whip-hand. They can use the passive voters who backed their programme against the programme suggested by the parliamentary left-wing and the constieuency activists.

The parliamentary left-wing, of course, have a well-earned reputation for ineffectiveness. Many put this down to the peculiar atmosphere of the House of Commons which is supposed to entice them away from their principles. This is not the case at all. They have been elected on the official Labour programme and not on one of more nationalisation, less defence and the like. They are the prisoner of those who elected them, and also of those who share the views of those who elected them. They know this, and so do the parliamentary leaders who thus can treat them with utter contempt. To repeat: it is not the fact that they are in parliament that makes leftwing MPs spineless. It is how they got there. The lesson is clear: if Labourites are forced even to water down their reform programme, to expect Socialism to be established through the Labour Party is just plain stupid.

Despite the antagonism between the left-wing and the parliamentary leaders and the odd situation where the Leader is really hated by many members, the left-wing does play a useful and essential role for the Labour Party. That role is to persuade doubters that the Labour Party does have the interests of the workers at heart. When talking to party activists even the official leadership will talk of Socialism. Once again this is to reassure doubters who may be beginning to see through the Labour Party.

Seeking support on the basis it does, when elected the Labour Party has no choice but to run capitalism. And capitalism cannot be made to work in the interest of those who work for a wage or salary. It can only work in the interests of the owning class. Any party which takes on the task of running capitalism is sooner or later brought into direct conflict with the working class. The economic forces of capitalism smash the grandiose social reform schemes to pieces. This has happened with every Labour government. After the war troops were used to break down strikes; strikers were put on trial; production of the atom bomb started and the Korean war backed. Labour governments act only as they can: as caretakers for capitalism.

Socialists would never think of joining such a party as Labour any more than they would the Liberal or Tory parties. Labour has always in practice stood for capitalism and even its theory of how to improve the lot of the working class was hopelessly mistaken. Once again, Socialism can only be established by people who want it. No gain can come to a Socialist party from opportunism or compromise. To achieve Socialism a Socialist party must seek the support only of convinced socialists. This is the policy of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It is the only sound way to build a Socialist party, as the history of the Labour Party well shows. 
Adam Buick

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