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We Can’t Just Wish and Hope: Why the New "Unity" Coalition Must Be Considered

John Haylett

This article, by the editor of the Morning Star, was originally published in the 20 December 2003 issue of the paper, as part of a debate within the Communist Party of Britain as to its attitude to the Respect "Unity" Coalition. A special congress of the CPB on 17 January 2004 voted against participation in the Coalition.

GEORGE GALLOWAY’S recent call for a "unity coalition" to contest next June’s Greater London Authority together with English and Welsh lists in the European parliamentary elections has excited a level of discussion within the labour movement.

To some people, it is seen as a divisive move that is in conflict with the efforts of those still in the Labour Party, including affiliated trade unions, to reclaim the party for the labour movement.

For others, who have enthusiastically welcomed Galloway’s proposal, it is a fresh opportunity to build an embryonic replacement for the Labour Party, having already failed with the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance or the Socialist Party’s Socialist Alternative.

However, there are others in the movement who, while remaining committed to the strategic goal of taking back the Labour Party from the new Labour cuckoos squatting in its nest, are supportive of the unity coalition initiative.

The Morning Star shares the strategy of winning back the party for the labour movement. It bases its political approach on the need for maximum unity of the left and the organised labour movement and it continues to see the Labour Party as the mass party of Britain’s working people.

However, Marxists do not arrive at a political conclusion simply on the basis of repeating traditional formulas. In all circumstances, it is, necessary to analyse what changes have taken place, what is new and where the current balance of forces lies.

This involves analysis of the role played by the new Labour government, the capacity for democratic change within the Labour Party and the level of mass mobilisation of the trade unions and other mass organisations, especially the phenomenal growth of the anti-­war movement over the past year and a half.

The trade unions, which gave birth to the Labour Party, have always played a key role in its finance, organisation and political development at all levels. This role has not always been played out in a progressive manner, with a small group of right-wing trade union leaders acting as a bulwark within the party in the 1940s and 1950s against an active constituency left wing.

However, even when the post-war Attlee government was engaged in colonial wars, supporting the US in Korea and secretly agreeing to develop nuclear weapons, unions could point to their achievements in the shape of the return to full employment, introduction of the NHS, a welfare state and a massive council housebuilding programme. Policies agreed by the unions were, at the very least, taken seriously by the Labour Party.

It is only with the advent of the new Labour clique to the leadership of the party – with the blessing, it must be said, of a number of key union leaders – that a Labour Prime Minister has displayed not only his hostility and contempt for trade unionism but also his disagreement with the decision taken over a century ago to set up the Labour Party.

After 18 years of Tory governments, trade union leaders and a majority of the party were so intent on not allowing the Tories to return to power on the back of internal Labour divisions that they agreed to a centralisation of power and decision making in the hands of new Labour.

The result has been a downgrading of conference from a decision-making body to little more than a succession of leadership rallies, as this year’s spectacle of a seven-and-a-half-minute standing ovation for a warmonger, who had spat out his defiance of every demand from organised labour, testified.

Concentration of power at party HQ has also resulted in restrictions on the right of local parties to choose their own candidates for elections, with approved lists imposed on Constituency Labour Parties or pressure applied to secure support for the new Labour favourite.

The logical conclusion to this can be seen with Labour lists for the European parliamentary elections. On June 10, every Labour candidate in a winnable position will be a new Labour-approved proponent of the euro, an EU constitution, EU-wide neoliberal economic policies and an EU rapid reaction force.

Britain’s anti-euro majority will be faced with a choice of voting for Labour eurofanatics or right-wing anti-EU parties such as the Tories, UK Independence Party and the BNP nazis – or not voting at all.

Elections in the past couple of years, including by-elections, have indicated a growth of abstentionism, plus a level of backing for the nazis, who have won support not only on the basis of their traditional racism and xenophobia but as a reaction to the neglect of working-class communities by a pro-business Labour government.

All previous Labour administrations have criticised the gap between rich and poor in society and taken steps designed to narrow the gap. In contrast, Tony Blair sees no problem in inequalities increasing and he has presided over a widening of the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

His government’s hostility to trade unionists’ aspirations to a just share of the wealth that working people produce and a higher level of social justice – most notably with regard to the fire­fighters’ pay claim and the pensioners’ call for restoration of the link between earnings and the state pension – has accelerated demands to cut union funding of the party and, in the case of Seottish branches of rail union RMT, to apply to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party.

The Morning Star opposes so-called "democratisation" of the unions’ political levy, believing that splintering of the unions’ collective voice will lead to confusion and division.

It insists that, rather than withdrawing from the Labour Party, the trade union movement should affiliate to the limit and, most crucially, should punch its weight within the party, ensuring that its views count for more than the fair-weather corporate friends who have bought influence and favours from the corrupt new Labour clique.

The key question is how the unions, together with Labour MPs and the remaining party membership – half of which has abandoned Labour sine the 1997 election – should reclaim the party from the new Labour clique that has colonised it and taken an iron grip on its organisation and decision making.

Beavering away in national policy forums and attending Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO) meetings are unlikely to affect government policies. Nor is Blair likely to be swayed by the closeness of recent parliamentary votes on the war or foundation hospitals.

As former government adviser David Clark says, "Victory, however marginal, will simply encourage him to find more extravagant ways to shock and appal the faithful".

The blunt truth is that the only way for the Labour Party to divest itself of Blair and the rest of the new Labour group is by opening up, from a progressive standpoint, an election front against new Labour and showing that Blair and friends are not only inimical to Labour’s historical values but are also, despite all the accepted wisdom of the political soothsayers, an electoral albatross round the neck of the Party.

A few decades ago, the Communist Party would have reacted to a comparable situation by putting forward a significant number of election candidates, not in the expectation of being elected and certainly not with the intent of damaging a Labour government’s re-election but of putting forward a coherent policy alternative that would be taken up in the movement and contribute to reversing the government’s drift to the right.

Not only is the Communist Party smaller and weaker since that period but its financial resources could not bear such expenditure.

However, the "unity coalition" proposals on imperialist wars, opposition to the euro and an EU constitution, defence of public services, the manufacturing sector and jobs and rejection of privatisation and environmental vandalism are indistinguishable from Communist Party policies.

The Communist Party is to hold a special congress on January 17 in London to decide on this following an inconclusive meeting of its executive committee.

If it does decide to back the unity coalition in the European parliamentary and Greater London Assembly proportional representation list, it would be on the basis of using these polls as a referendum on the misdeeds of the new Labour clan and of precipitating its demise through an electoral setback.

Positive aspects of this strategy are that, because both polls are based on proportional representation, every vote would count – making it more likely that previously alienated voters, including hundreds of thousands of people who voted with their feet against the invasion of Iraq, would participate – and that new Labour’s defeat would not affect Labour’s majority in Parliament.

The alternative is of soldiering on under a Prime Minister who not only rejects any suggestion that he may not be the fount of all wisdom but who actively glories in spurning all labour movement concepts of solidarity, wealth distribution and social justice.

Reclaiming the Labour Party for the labour movement and its allies cannot simply be a case of wishing and hoping. It requires decisive action for real change.