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The Illusion of Failure: A Reply to Jim Dye

Dave Osler

IF SOME of the articles in the last edition of What Next? are anything to go by, there must be a clandestine current of sensible Bob Pitt types in some readily accessible parallel universe, clocking up noteworthy gains for Marxism inside New Labour.

How else to explain the repeated condemnation of the only socialists in Britain enjoying even limited political advance right now, combined with dogged insistence that they should instead adopt tactics visibly seen to fail even when the Labour Party was a damn sight more open and democratic than it is now?

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, one of Britain’s most prominent revolutionary socialists has been elected to the Scottish Parliament; an independent left-winger was also victorious; and the far left achieved a vote of 9% across Glasgow and almost 5% in Edinburgh.

The Welsh assembly elections saw a huge swing to Plaid Cymru in deeply proletarian Rhondda, Islwyn and Llanelli. This is not the upshot of a sudden surge in support for Welsh nationalism, but rather working class opposition to New Labour policies. Subjectively a shift to the left, it represents an impulse on which socialists can build in future, despite their disappointing showing in Wales last May.

For probably the first time in British history, a Trotskyist organisation is winning local government seats under its own colours. Or to be strictly accurate, under the colours the Socialist Party has been forced to adopt by the (Labour-controlled) registrar of political parties.

Lists to the left of Labour in the recent Euro-elections scored over 4% in Scotland and the West Midlands, and polled 200,818 (over 2%) nationwide. That despite the abysmal incapacity of the English left to get its act together. A co-ordinated slate would doubtless have done rather better.

All of which indicates that comrade Jim Dye is perhaps being rather too bold when he brashly asserts: "The working class is not abandoning its traditional adherence to the Labour Party" ("Electoral Challenges to Labour: The Failure of Illusion", What Next? No.13).

For a start, this so-called traditional adherence has never been as overwhelming as entrists have usually liked to paint it, by way of justification for their political tactics. The Tories have always enjoyed a sizeable proletarian base, not least during the Thatcher years. Likewise, many Labour voters hail from the conscience-stricken petit bourgeoisie

By the same token, there always were pockets of electoral support for the left, as the sporadic election of Communist MPs even under first past the post system illustrates. This is the case today in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Coventry. It would have interesting to see how much support a United Socialist ticket, linked to a genuine labour movement campaign, would have secured in London on 10 June. We might even have surprised ourselves if the SWP – and others – had not simply bottled it.

Nevertheless Jim still insists on blasting electoral challenges to Labour as "the failure of illusion". As failures go, these look suspiciously like limited successes. For illusions, they seem pretty concrete. I’ll drink to many more of them, anyway.

True, they are modest achievements one and all. Absolutely piddling, even – until one compares and contrasts them to the impact of socialists in the Labour Party in recent years. Let’s talk about some real illusions, Jim. Yours.

What political weight does the Labour left as a whole enjoy? Little. What political weight do revolutionaries exert within that Labour left? Less. Which Trotskyist projects have been successful? Which constituencies have generated a substantial number of revolutionaries? None, and none either. What prospect is there of reversing this situation? Zero.

With even groups wholeheartedly committed to entry work in the ’80s now questioning that orientation, it seems that only Labour left activists of Trotskyist origins still believe that a socialist current can be created in New Labour.

But for those that advocate building a new socialist party, the ball is now rolling. We have concrete proof that we can – in certain circumstances – win at the ballot box. It’s official: recompositionist politics is now open for business.

From the limited bases we have so far won, we can expand. I have every confidence that Tommy Sheridan will make a model socialist parliamentarian. That is something that cannot now be said about even the best Labour MPs. The Scottish Socialist Party can only grow in influence as a result.

That might even inspire comrades south of the border to get their house in order. Attempts at building a party of recomposition in Britain have so far been fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, it remains a far more viable option for socialists than attempts to turn the clock back in the Labour Party. An additional factor, but one that cannot be ignored, is that there are now small currents coherently committed to working for just such an outcome.

Thanks to the deeply ingrained sectarianism of the English left, Jim points out, there are massive problems within the Socialist Alliances. Yet it cannot be denied that the ideas of the pro-recomposition left are gaining ground.

The Socialist Labour Party – as Jim rightly maintains – is indeed now no more than "a Stalin/Scargill appreciation society". He goes on to ask rhetorically: "would ’we told you so’ be too harsh here, comrades?"

No harsher than "we told you so" would sound from the mouths of those who have consistently warned of the continuing rise of the Blairite project and the consequent dangers of "business as usual" entrism. While New Labour is still a bourgeois workers’ party on the traditional Marxist definition, it is on a clear trajectory towards becoming an outright bourgeois party.

What is more, it is well past the point of no return. The union link – in terms of political input rather than the cheques still gratefully received – is now purely formal. Scotland is now acting as the harbinger of future Lib-Lab coalition politics at Westminster.

Yet, despite the direction in which New Labour is heading, Jim goes on to demand that socialists take on "a strategic orientation to the Labour Party". What’s that when it’s at home, then? Naturally, revolutionary socialists seek ideological hegemony for Marxist ideas. We want to influence wider layers in the social movements, the unions and the social democracy. But that cause would be better served by the construction of an external pole of attraction. That is probably the only way that Marxists can prove that their ideas are worthy of consideration.

It’s not even as if there remained a sizeable Labour left reformist milieu that revolutionaries could seek to influence. Where now the Tribunites and Bennites?

If "strategic orientation" – in plain English – means entrism or fraction work, then it has to be said that both tactics have proved a comprehensive failure over the past decade. I speak as someone recruited to Trotskyism through the Labour Party Young Socialists in the early 1980s. But that was then and this is now.

I have yet to see any of the groups, or even individuals, currently working in the Labour Party put forward a convincingly argued perspective for maintaining this stance in conditions where meaningful internal democracy is a dead letter and the Campaign for Labour Party Plutocracy reigns unchallenged. Jim’s article noticeably travels light on positive reasons for sending a hard-earned fiver to Millbank.

Socialists working inside the Labour Party now surely constitute the most conservative (and I do mean with a small "c") section of the British left. Worse, they are now an actual impediment to the construction of a party of recomposition, which in the current circumstances appears to be the sole possibility of securing socialist advance in this country.

C’mon, comrade Dye. Don’t just lecture the new party left on its "moralist" principles. You owe it to us incorrigible sectarian dunderheads to point the way forward. Spell out exactly how you are going to secure the construction of a revolutionary socialist current in Britain through Labour Party work. If you can, that is.

Interestingly, Jim concedes that his position is now a minority viewpoint, admitting that "most of the left" has now turned to the ballot box as a direct result of the "low level of struggle by the class". In that case, "most of the left" at least has the not inconsiderable merit of actually attempting to do something in a period of deep reaction.

Yet Jim patronisingly dismisses our praxis as "waving little red flags". Would he rather we were waving little white ones instead? The low level of class struggle is hardly an excuse for keeping your head down in the Labour Party until kingdom come. Those that are not waving are probably drowning.

Jim condemns "most of the British left today" as mere sect builders. He may even be right on that point. Yet there remains what might be called a regroupment left, committed to the construction of a pluralist mass socialist party, and a revolutionary Marxist wing inside such a formation. It is still small, but it is growing. Think about it next time you are sitting bored witless in a ward meeting as some braindead Blairite pillock lectures you on the glories of the Third Way.

From What Next? No.14 1999