Labour’s Shadow Cabinet: collaborating with the enemy

September 22, 2015

Goethe famously said “All theory, dear friend, is grey, but the tree of life springs ever green.” Life sometimes throws up the unimaginable or the seemingly impossible. Even when Jeremy Corbyn miraculously got on the ballot paper for Labour leader nobody imagined that he might actually win the contest. Late in the day it was decided that he should stand in order that the views of the Labour left could be aired, otherwise the grey ones would have been left to bore everybody to death, and put forward their variants of New Labourism. However, once he was on the ballot paper there was a large scale influx of new members into the Labour Party (some of them returners), ‘affiliated supporters’ through the unions, and those who paid £3 to be able to participate in the election. This marked an attempt to shake the Party loose from its Blairite, New Labour moorings, and to strive for a government which breaks with the economic and political consensus which gave us the great crash of 2007/8. (Download a PDF here afterwinning or read on below) Read the rest of this entry »


Ending right to buy “full stop”

August 8, 2015

Tackling the Housing Crisis, produced for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership stands in stark contrast to New Labour’s housing policy. The document recognises the need for a large scale council house building programme to tackle the crisis. It’s a welcome contribution which would have been unthinkable coming from a Leader, or potential leader, of the Labour Party prior to Jeremy’s nomination. I’ll comment on the document in due course, but here’s just one important point of difference with it.

Tackling the Housing Crisisis disappointing in one important respect: its failure to call for an end to ‘right to buy’. It says that “we should be reducing the harm it causes to our affordable housing stock”. To that end it proposes giving local authorities “in areas of high housing stress” the power to suspend right to buy “in order to protect depleting social housing assets”. It also says that the discount could be reduced. Read the rest of this entry »

Labour Representation Committee conference

November 21, 2007

 I attended the Labour Representation Committee conference last Saturday. Here is my report.

The LRC, although it failed to get John McDonnell enough nominations to stand against Brown for Labour leader, was given something of a boost by the tireless campaigning that he did over many months. However, the failure to get on the ballot, together with the closing down of one of the last remnants of Party democracy (the right to put contemporary resolutions to the LP conference) has forced it to make an assessment of the balance of forces and the prospects of work in the Party.

At its recent AGM the LRC discussed its orientation and future activities. The debate on strategy centred on two resolutions; one from the Scottish Labour left Campaign for Socialism, the other from the AWL (Alliance for Workers Liberty). The logic of the latter resolution led in the direction of supporting candidates other than Labour ones in Parliamentary elections. It was overwhelmingly rejected. The CfS resolution was passed with little opposition. It said that the Labour Party had ceased to be a vehicle through which you could fight for “progressive and socialist policies”. It concluded: “We have to refound Labour as a party of radical change”. In the light of this the LRC determined to become a campaigning organisation (rather than just an internal Labour Party grouping) seeking to work with other organisations and campaigns, including ‘social movements’ outside of the LP.

Graham Bash, from Labour Briefing, in supporting the resolution from the Campaign for Socialism said that “we do not have a Party of Labour, the task is to build one”. However, the caveat was that only the Labour Party could be a vehicle for doing so. Others weren’t so sure. Owen Jones from the Youth Network declared that he did not know if the Labour Party was reclaimable.

It was ironic that the conference had a speaker from ‘Die Linke’ the left wing breakaway from the German social democratic party.
The LRC did recognise that a watershed had been reached, and it had to turn out beyond the LP. It voted to abandon the rule that only Labour Party members could be voting members of the LRC. It had previously had a category of ‘associate member’ for people outside the LP. However, this opening is limited to people who are deemed to be not members of organisations which stand candidates against Labour in elections. To join the LRC you have to tick a box saying so. This will limit the potential influx of members (the LRC has around 1,000 members I believe) since even individual activists who are not members of left wing and socialist groups will not want to sign up to a position the logic of which is that no support should be given to candidates other than Labour ones.

The position of the LRC is contradictory. Why impose a condition on individuals which is not imposed on the RMT and the FBU, both of which have supported candidates standing against Labour? I guess the answer is that these two unions would not affiliate to the LRC presented with such a condition of membership. They obviously have the weight that individuals do not.

From a tactical point of view the LRC may consider this to be a step too far which could open them up to attack by the New Labour apparatus, with the possibility of being a proscribed organisation. Yet the affiliation of the RMT and FBU provides sufficient basis for New Labour to move against the LRC. The fact that they haven’t is because they do not consider it to be a threat.

The dilemma and the limits of the LRC were posed sharply in a speech by Mark Serwotka to the conference. He mentioned the case of Bob Wareing the left Labour MP from Liverpool who has been dumped in favour of ultra-Blairite Stephen Twigg. Mark said that if he was in Liverpool he would vote for Wareing. This was reinforced when John Leach, the RMT president (the RMT is an affiliate of the LRC) pledged that the union would support Bob in his campaign. He will stand as an independent against Labour following the coup organised by the New Labour machine. Does the LRC call for support for all official Labour candidates under all circumstances? Would it call for a vote for Twigg? Will Bob Wareing put himself outside of the LRC by standing against the official Blairite?

Mark Serwotka said in his speech that:

I haven’t come here to tell you to leave the LP – we need the Labour left to fight. But if you think that calling for people to join or rejoin the party to reclaim it is a strategy then I’m afraid we have a disagreement.”

He called for “unity around what we agree on.”

The line of divide between many activists who supported the John4leader campaign and the LRC is thus the electoral question. Support for Labour candidates as a principle would mean supporting Twigg against Wareing, a position that not many activists could swallow.

For these reasons the LRC cannot be a vehicle for regrouping the left, despite its efforts to build local LRC groups. It currently has five with another three in the process of being set up. This shows the limits of its base of support.

So the ‘outward turn’ of the LRC has its limits. Nevertheless, John McDonnell said that “we are prepared to work with anybody who is prepared to work with us”. We know John means this. However, there is an ambiguity in the LRC’s position which needs clarification. John described this change of direction of the LRC as “the united front we have needed for years”. But the LRC cannot itself be a united front. John envisages the LRC linking up with the union Broad Lefts and campaigns and ‘social movements’. It can, of course, be involved in any number of united fronts in relation to specific issues or campaigns, but not an over-arching united front which seeks to unite socialists inside and outside the Labour Party.

The fact that the two Respect conferences took place on the same day as the LRC one, and the split in the SSP, has reinforced the conviction amongst LRC members that that their strategy of ‘reclaiming’ the Labour party is right, even if the current balance of forces makes it a very long term perspective. Indeed the LRC believes that it is “the only organisation capable and with the credibility of working both within the Labour Party structures whilst being the (my emphasis) link to the wider movement and the emerging radical social movements.”

I don’t agree with this. However, the problem remains that the left in Britain is fractured and fractious, that its efforts are often dissipated rather than concentrated. We must find the means of socialists working together in collaborative ways in building resistance to the Brown government’s neo-liberal programme. The LRC is a component of this fightback, and strategic differences with it do not present an obstacle to building resistance to the government and discussing an alternative programme to New Labour’s market fundamentalism.

One question that was not discussed was union sponsorship of Labour candidates. Even if you support a position of ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party, the money which is given to Labour candidates does not necessarily have to be given to them indiscriminately. The GMB, for instance has a policy of only supporting Labour candidates who support the fundamentals of union policy (at its heart opposition to privatisation). Whilst this has not been rigorously applied in the GMB as yet, those who are opposed to the government’s programme and union adaptation to it, should campaign to implement this policy by not supporting supporters of privatisation. The same principle should be fought for in all the affiliated unions. This would be a means of leverage in demanding a shift in policy (e.g. The right of councils to build council housing again). So long as Labour automatically gets our money then they will continue treating the unions with contempt.

Dear John – an email to John McDonnell

May 29, 2007

John McDonnell failed to get sufficient nominations to get on the ballot for Labour Leader. His campaign was not a personal vehicle but a challenge to the neo-liberal programme of the government. Where does it go now? John is producing a consultation paper. Here is an email I sent him dealing with the question of how socialists inside and outside the Party might continue to work together.

Dear John

I will be interested to read you consultation paper referred to on your latest blog entry. I think there have been two types of response to the fact that you failed to get on the ballot paper. On the Labour Left we have heard something along the lines of ‘we did all right, keep on keeping on’. Outside the Labour Party it has been seen as confirmation that you should all leave, e.g. the letter in the Guardian from Dave Nellist and the CNWP.

As somebody who is not about to rejoin the Labour Party, I still believe that a socialist alternative to Labour is necessary. However, such an alternative is not a prospect in the short term, owing to the sectarianism of the main socialist groups (such as the SWP and the SP) and as a result of the collapse of the electoral base of the Scottish Socialist Party. That is a discussion which no doubt will continue.

However, I think the most productive approach in the current situation, is to examine ways that socialists inside and outside the Labour Party can work together to build resistance to the attacks of the government on the working class.

At the same time the fact that the overwhelming majority of union sponsored MPs nominated Gordon Brown, the author of the government’s neo-liberal ‘reforms’ of the public sector, raises the question of why they are sponsored, and what the unions get in return. This surely highlights the need to be more selective in sponsoring MPs and candidates. The GMB policy for instance, even if not yet vigorously applied, is that the union will not automatically sponsor Labour candidates, but only those who support the broad outline of union policy; above all, opposition to privatisation. I believe that this is a key issue on which socialists in the unions (be they Labour Party members or not) can collaborate.

What is the point of our members’ money being handed over to MPs/candidates who do nothing to further their interests, but support job cuts, privatisation, and refuse to support even the not very radical Trade Union Freedom Bill? We require a major campaign across the affiliated unions on this. Let’s only support candidates and MPs who support our members.

What framework is there for socialists inside and outside the Labour Party in which to work together? I’m not sure that the Labour Representation Committee is the vehicle for the simple reason that you have to be a Labour Party member to join it. OK, you can have associate membership (but no vote). This presents an obstacle probably to some thousands of socialists who are not members of the groups, would like to work with you, but will not join/rejoin the Labour Party, especially since most local parties are empty shells.

Ironically, the RMT and FBU, both of which are affiliates of the LRC have supported candidates standing against Labour, yet they remain as participants. If this is no obstacle to these unions why present an obstacle to individuals? It does not make sense.

To attract such people you would either have to turn the LRC into an organisation which was not an internal Labour Party group, or consider another organisational vehicle.

Ironically, within the Labour Left there does exist some sectarianism in which acceptance of the ‘correct’ position on the Labour Party (to ‘reclaim’ it, or turn it into a vehicle for socialism) is seen as the key test for socialists. Those who ‘fail’ this test are seen as hopeless people who tend to be lectured.

Real life is different. You said in your last blog posting, assessing your campaign:

“More importantly the vast majority have expressed real determination to continue the campaign for socialist advance within and beyond our movement.”

The last phrase recognises the need to reach out beyond the Labour Party. Just as many people outside the Labour Party supported your campaign, they would be happy to continue to work with you and the left in the Party. However, if they are presented with the ultimatum that they must agree on the Labour Party question, then all the Labour Left will succeed in doing is isolating itself. We must find a means and a framework for uniting socialists in campaigning activity in order to rebuild the labour movement and to challenge the neo-liberal policy of the Brown government, and most importantly developing policy alternatives to neo-liberalism.


Martin Wicks

John McDonnell Campaign

July 28, 2006

Left wing Labour MP John McDonnell has declared he will stand against Gordon Brown for Labour leader when Blair departs. You would imagine that given his record of campaigning for the trades unions and opposing the whole Blairite agenda that the affiliated unions would obiously support John McDonnell’s. Can they really support Brown who is driving the government’s neo-liberal agenda, privatising public services and destroying public sector jobs?

The experience of 9 years of a right wing Blair government has driven vast numbers of members out of the Labour Party. So much so that most local parties are empty shells. Having promised to create a party of one million members Blair has merely succeeded in halving the membership. Many socialists will view the question of who takes over from Blair with indifference, not least because either Brown or any candidate supported by Blair’s clique will continue with the neo-liberal ‘free market’ programme of the current government.

John is appealing to people to return to the party to take part in the campaign. It remains to be seen how many do, but it will probably not be that many since nobody believes that he stands a chance of getting anywhere near winning. However, it would be a mistake if socialists in the affiliated unions took the view that the change of leadership is of no consequence. So long as the unions remain affiliated to Labour then we should demand that instead of collaborating with the Blair/Brown leadership they should argue for a fundamental change of political direction. To support Brown (as ‘the only serious candidate’) or to sit on their hands and passively await his ‘coronation’ would be a grave disservice to union members who are daily being attacked by this government.The affiliated unions should oppose any attempt to rig a ‘smooth transition’ from Blair to Brown. In the first instance they should insist on a democratic process in which a discussion takes place on policy questions. Secondly, if any of the trade union critics of the government accept a ‘coronation’ of Brown then union members could only draw the conclusion that their criticism of government policy was mere hot air. Brown was one of the authors of PFI and is the main driver of privatisation throughout the public sector. John McDonnell’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party should be seen as a welcome (if somewhat belated) challenge against the whole political programme of ‘Blairism’. One does not have to be a Labour Party member to support the campaign. Any member of an affiliated union has the right to demand that their union declare its support for McDonnell. We should not watch with disinterest if the union leaders line up behind Brown.

Writing on the Labour Representation Committee conference which agreed to support his candidature John McDonnell talked of the choice which should be presented to party members in the leadership election:

• between promoting public services or continued privatisation.
• between free education or trust schools and tuition fees.
• between increasing the state pension and restoring the link with earnings or forcing more people onto the means test.
• between allowing councils to build council houses once again or high rents, escalating housing costs, homelessness and overcrowding.
• between energy from green power sources, conservation, and British clean coal or the costs and risks of nuclear power.
• between promoting civil liberties and trade union rights or reactionary incursions into the right of free speech, assembly and trial.
• between a government committed to peace, withdrawal from Iraq and nuclear disarmament or backing Bush’s wars and wasting £24 billion on Trident.

With the exception of the question of nuclear power the unions are fundamentally in conflict with this government’s policy. What sense would it make to support a candidate who would continue with the policies which the unions are opposed to and for which their members are paying a heavy price? Campaigning for the affiliated unions to support McDonnell is necessary to challenge the conciliators of New Labour at the top of the unions, who have given the Blair government an easy ride.

The latest example of union leaders facing both ways – criticising the policy of the government but acting as if they were friends of the working class – was the GMB Congress. The Congress took some positive decisions, including breaking with the ‘partnership’ agenda so beloved on New Labour. Yet when Blair spoke he was given a standing ovation by many delegates, whilst the top table uttered kind words about this reactionary ‘free market’ fanatic whose government is privatising across the public sector and supporting a right wing Republican President in the international arena. You cannot stand up for union members and stand up for Blair.

Many union leaders will no doubt say that John McDonnell is not a ‘serious candidate’. If they can find a more serious one then let them. But this is not the basis of their relectance to support him. They do not want to oppose the leadership of New Labour. Do they seriously believe that their powers of persuasion can miraculously transform New Labour into a union friendly party? This is self-delusion. Even Brendan Barber has said that a ‘fundamental change of direction’ from New Labour’s agenda is necessary. Pretending that the New Labour leaders are our friends is at complete variance with nine years experience. Year after year the unions have won policy at Labour’s conference, defeating the privatisation agenda. But, of course, the government has simply ignored those votes. Good arguments will not convince people who are ideologically committed to privatisation that they must abandon the entire rationale of their policy.

Perhaps the calculation of some union leaders is that if they support a candidate against Brown this will burn bridges with him and mean they have no ‘influence’ with him. Such ‘influence’ is nothing more than self-delusion. The government has given away a few crumbs, but it’s overall political direction is fundamentally opposed to the interests of union members and the working class in general. Union leaders may see such an approach as ‘realism’. In reality it is the worst opportunism.

It is the collaboration with the government which the union leaders have for the most part carried out, which has allowed it to get away with a programme of abandonment of the welfare state, privatisation of public services, and support for a right wing republican administration in the USA on the international level.

In return for the Warwick Agreement the major union leaders have effectively agreed to restrain their members in order not to ‘risk’ the prospects of a fourth term for Labour. That has meant compromise in the pension dispute, abandoning the new generation of workers who will be on worse terms and conditions of service than existing staff, and failing miserably to develop any serious campaign against the government’s fracturing of the NHS and opening up of it to big business.

Writing on his blog CWU leader Billy Hayes wrote:

“Problems of disengagement from Labour are linked to the Government’s support for Bush’s foreign policy, and the neo-liberal attacks on the welfare state. Change the policies and make our Party worth joining again.”

Billy has been one of the most vociferous proponents of the ‘stay in and fight’ line amongst the trade union leaders. It will be interesting to see, especially since the CWU is affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee, whether he seeks to win the CWU to supporting John McDonnell’s campaign. So far he has remained silent. But all of the union leaders are being put to the test now because the camapign for the leadership of the party puts them on the spot.

Of course, the campaign has a very difficult job on its hands for it has to win the support of 44 Labour MPs in order for John to become a candidate. It is questionable as to whether such a large number can be pressured to openly support a campaign for a break with the political direction of New Labour. If it fails to get John on the ballot then even those such as Labour Briefing, which hangs doggedly to work in the Labour Party, may well draw the conclusion they have resisted to draw for so long, the need to build a socialist alternative to New Labour. That is the expressed view of Graham Bash, one of its leading lights.

“If there were simply a coronation of Brown – without even an attempt to mount a left challenge – this would be yet another nail, possibly a final nail, in the coffin of not only the Labour left, but also the Labour Party as a class party. John’s brave attempt to raise the banner of core Labour and socialist values is either the beginning of the fightback or, if it makes little impact, the beginning of the end for the Labour Party itself.”

Whatever the outcome, socialists in the affiliated unions should not allow their union leaders to talk out of both sides of their mouths, criticising the government but failing to seriously organise a struggle against it.

Supporting John McDonnell’s campaign does not mean agreeing with the perspective of ‘winning back Labour’, it simply means that we do not allow the union leaders to go unchallenged should they propose to support Brown or some other creature of the Blairites. If they support the line of ‘staying in and fighting’ let them show us they are serious about fighting the government. If they were serious about overturning the politics of Blair they would have organised a candidate themselves. As it is John McDonnell offers the only chance within the Labour Party of challenging the political agenda for which our members are paying such a high cost. Brown is as much as enemy of the labour movement as Blair is.

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