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THE themes at Tom Watson’s Future Britain gathering on Monday night were familiar.
Convener Darren Jones denied the group was a faction before stating it was a coming together of factions.
Peter Mandelson helpfully elaborated, saying it was “a coming together of the TB-GBs” — supporters of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown whose rivalry dominated internal Labour politics from 1994 to 2010.
Mandelson makes it clear that this grouping is aimed at returning Labour to the politics of that period. The differences between the two factions were often exaggerated: if Blair is more associated with launching foreign wars and Brown more with lumping the NHS with disastrously expensive PFI contracts, both leaders backed both.
An anonymous “former cabinet minister” sounded a familiar theme when he declared that Labour had been “asset-stripped and seized by the leadership.”
As Andy Beckett argued in this week’s Guardian, this shows a revealing attitude to the Labour left: its victory in two leadership elections is not seen as valid, but as “seizing” power.
Its pursuit of policies overwhelmingly endorsed by the membership (and overwhelmingly backed by voters) such as higher taxes on the wealthy, reversing privatisation in the public sector and more money for public services is seen as illegitimate — not meeting serial election-loser Neil Kinnock’s definition of “achievable, possible and affordable policies.”
Future Britain seeks to restore policies rejected democratically by the party (and repeatedly by the electorate). The hostility of a large set of MPs to the enormous influx of new members to the Labour Party isn’t new but it’s still revealing.
Hundreds of thousands of predominantly young people wishing to get involved in politics for the first time have been met by powerful Establishment insiders with ridicule and slander.
The attacks have often sought to delegitimise the Labour left by associating it with a supposedly unacceptable non-Labour left. In 2015 and 2016 the mass membership were often accused of being Trotskyist infiltrators. More recently attacks have focused on whether Corbyn is a Marxist and which of his allies can be accused of being communists.
To state the obvious: the anti-capitalist left in the form of the Communist Party and various other socialist parties has not been large enough in the recent past to have significantly infiltrated Labour or be responsible for either of Corbyn’s victories. And yes, some allies of Corbyn who are now in Labour have come from those traditions.
Some of the responses to accusations of Marxism from the right are to indignantly refute the idea that Corbyn or his allies are Marxists or communists. Without addressing whether individuals are or not, we should reject this approach.
At times the left seems to be trapped in a sort of reverse Spartacus mode: under attack from a ruthless right wing, there’s a tendency to distance ourselves from the accused. “They’re awful, we quite agree, we’re nothing like them.”
This is self-defeating. It does not trouble the Labour right — Blair himself has recommended tactical voting against Labour many times, and the Independent Group are happy to pal up across parties. More importantly, it is a bid to disarm Corbyn and the left within Labour.
The British left is not confined to the Labour Party. Corbyn has always been Labour. Over the years, on the causes he has fought for, from confronting the National Front to ending apartheid in South Africa to international disarmament to opposing the war in Iraq, he has fought as a Labour Party member. He has fought alongside many who are not in Labour. And there is everything to be proud of in that.
Far from the foreign-backed infiltrators of right-wing myth, the communist movement in Britain’s contribution has been influential and at times heroic. Its most famous achievement was probably as the chief organising force in rallying resistance to Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the East End Jewish community in the 1930s, particularly the victory over the blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street.
That contribution was acknowledged earlier this year at a memorial service to lifelong Jewish communist and Cable Street veteran Max Levitas, at which Corbyn as well as Unite leader Len McCluskey, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and the Communist Party’s Mary Davis all spoke.
But from winning the Right to Roam the countryside with the Kinder Scout mass trespass to the campaign to establish comprehensive education to playing a leading role in the anti-apartheid, anti-racist and anti-war movements into the current period, the Communist Party has many other achievements to its name. The same is true of members of many other parties. The bid to mark these parties as illegitimate, sinister forces, association with which must be shunned, is a bid to further isolate the Labour left by cutting it off from allies.
During the 18th-century war of the Spanish succession, France, battered by successive bruisings at the hands of the English, Dutch and Austrians, sued for peace. It was ready to cede swathes of territory, but the allies demanded more than that — that France itself deliver the coup de grace they had failed to do, and invade Spain to remove Louis XIV’s grandson from the throne in Madrid.
This proved too much: “If I have to fight,” Louis XIV remarked, “I would rather fight my enemies than my grandchildren.”
Labour might think about that. Getting the leadership itself to disown, suspend and expel supporters is a win-win for the right. The left is weakened and the leadership takes much of the blame. Labour members bewildered by arbitrary suspensions become demoralised and inactive or walk away.
This isn’t helpful, since it weakens Labour and weakens the left within it. Nor is a growing attitude on the non-Labour left, that these reverses were inevitable, what could we expect from the fatally compromised Labour Party, a “party with socialists in it” but never a socialist party. No point in working with such an organisation.
It’s important to recognise the limitations of the Labour Party, but it’s equally important to recognise that the revival of socialist politics in Britain has largely taken place within a mass Labour Party and we are closer to having a socialist and anti-imperialist in Downing Street than we have ever been in Britain.
We need to strengthen what remains a fragile advance by broadening our perspective to that of the labour movement. We need to develop areas of union militancy to ensure the movement as a whole becomes more combative: the New Deal for Workers initiative promoted at the TUC by the CWU, Unite and GMB unions can do exactly this.
We need to fight together in community-based anti-austerity campaigns like the People’s Assembly, making it a visible presence in towns and cities.
And we need to be pushing for local Labour parties and allies to ready themselves for elections, whether local or general, by mobilising the membership around the many excellent policies Labour has — without saying that they are enough or there are not still weaknesses in its programme — to begin addressing our broken economy and refusing to allow contempt and abuse from Westminster to divert us from our purpose.
The Morning Star is trying to report on and agitate for that labour movement advance. Despite the abuse we received for a free distribution (thanks to support from the CWU and Unite unions north of the border) at Scottish Labour conference — abuse which included a Times columnist offensively comparing it to the Conservatives allowing distribution of a BNP paper — we remain a paper of the movement, with 10 trade unions — representing a majority of Britain’s trade union members — on our management committee. And that movement needs to fight in unity. At the moment we are under siege.
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