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Is the Party Over?

Mike Phipps

IT IS NO exaggeration to say that for the last eighteen years the Labour Party has been moving unremittingly to the right. If socialists within it are to avoid responding impressionistically to events, they need to develop an ongoing assessment of the extent to which the party is changing its character and the long-term implications of this for working towards a genuine break with capitalism and the opening of a road to socialism.

Recently, however, developments have moved at unusual speed. The Blair government has dropped more bombs after just two years in power than the Conservatives managed in eighteen years. In May and June of this year, Labour voters deserted the party in their millions in the local and European elections, despite Labour’s continued big lead in the opinion polls. Five years after Blair became leader and two years after "New Labour" took office, the question whether socialists can achieve more outside the party than by continuing to work within it seems to be posed with a new urgency.

Logically we should start by re-examining the theoretical reasons for working in the party. What has given the Labour Party a unique place among social democratic parties in general is the fact that it was the creation of the trade unions, and the only party to which those unions with political links are affiliated. This, combined with the effects of the first past the post electoral system for parliamentary elections, has historically meant that a government based on the support of a majority of the working class cannot be anything other than a Labour government. Thus the fact that large numbers of core Labour voters were willing to vote for other parties, in particular in the European elections in June where the existence of a majority Labour government was not itself at stake – note, for example, the high vote for the Greens in London and the South East, or for the Scottish Socialist Party in Scotland – is a testament to their political maturity.

The centrality of the Labour Party to political activity can also be demonstrated negatively. Every attempt to construct alternative parties has hitherto resulted in sectarian failure. Since its withdrawal en masse from the Labour Party at the end of the 1980s, the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), which had some 5,000 members in the mid-1980s with two MPs and control of Liverpool Council, is estimated have declined to 300 members in England and Wales, with newspaper sales of 1700 and political divisions that have led to the suspension of its flagship Merseyside organisation. More recently, we have had the experience of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. At its inception it attracted hundreds of former Labour activists who subsequently left the SLP in protest at the party’s monolithic internal regime and its sectarian refusal to work in alliance with other organisations to the left of Labour.

So what is new about New Labour that might call into question these historic verities? Not the slavish advancement of pro-capitalist and imperialist policies, for which, sadly, many precedents exist under the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments. Nor, indeed, the administrative measures that have been used to witch-hunt the left in the party, which remain localised and partial compared to the wholesale persecution of the left at the height of the Cold War, for example.

There are two distinctive differences with New Labour. The first is a clear ideological shift. In five years the party has gone from abandoning Clause IV, its historic commitment to common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, to Blair’s "Third Way", which has little in common even with traditional reformist discourse. It owes more to a meritocratic liberalism that underpins Blair’s project to heal the historic rift with the Liberal Party and bring all reformers in politics under one roof, thus putting an end to independent class politics. This is why for socialists the principal divide within the party currently is not between the ever-evolving left and right wings, but between the Blair project on the one hand and on the other those who seek to maintain the Labour Party as an independent organisation committed to some sort of redistribution of wealth and power in society.

Whilst a rapprochement with liberalism may be at the heart of Blair’s political strategy, his project is above all one for society as a whole. Considered from this standpoint, it constitutes a toxic brew of: (a) social conservatism, evidenced in the government’s disdain for civil liberties (witness the draconian 1998 anti-terrorism legislation or the virtually meaningless proposals in the Freedom of Information Bill) and its punitive approach to single mothers and asylum seekers; (b) political authoritarianism (the December 1998 bombing of Iraq was a typical example – no vote in Parliament, no discussion in the party’s National Executive nor indeed in the full Cabinet); and (c) economic liberalism, clearly demonstrated in the government’s approach to tax, welfare, rights at work and privatisation, including that of council housing.

At the same time, Blair’s "Third Way", some believe, constitutes a de-ideologising of politics where everything is reduced to the appearance of a consensus based on common sense. Using US-style pragmatism, politics is transformed into a series of technical problems to be solved by unelected "experts" – education, and the government’s emphasis on "standards not structures", is a case in point. This depoliticising of major areas of political life opens the way for "big tent" politics – the bringing into government of discredited figures rejected by the electorate, such as Paddy Ashdown’s inclusion in a Cabinet Committee on constitutional issues or Michael Heseltine’s involvement in government business projects.

Meanwhile, in a regime which asserts the primacy of "leadership" over democracy, the valuable input of ordinary people active in local or sectoral politics is deliberately excluded. Small wonder that US-style estrangement from the political process has followed, reflected in plummeting turnout in recent local and European elections. What happens when the "Third Way" meets its demise, as eventually it must, is all too predictable: the years of attempted mass depoliticisation and "politics by experts" could reap a populist and/or nationalist backlash.

The crucial question is: how secure, how permanent is this ideological shift? To what extent has it infected the entire party? Here there may be more grounds for optimism. To be sure, Blair’s position as Prime Minister is decisive, as the Thatcher experience ultimately proved, however weak her initial hold on her party may have been. But beyond this there are important nuances.

The dismissal of Peter Mandelson for financial impropriety at the end of 1998 was an important blow to the Blair project and at the same time highlighted divisions within the government itself. Among Labour MPs there are clearly differences with the trajectory of New Labour. The government faced its biggest backbench parliamentary rebellion so far earlier this year when over 100 Labour MPs either voted against or abstained on government proposals to cut benefits for the disabled. Away from the attention of the whips, MPs have exhibited a greater tendency towards independence: had the 1998 ballot of the Parliamentary Labour Party for the National Executive been conducted on a genuinely secret basis, it is widely believed that the long-standing left-wing backbencher Dennis Skinner would have been elected. Similarly Socialist Campaign Group member Alice Mahon was elected by MPs last year to the National Policy Forum after resigning from the government over cuts in benefit to lone parents.

Certainly the membership has not been Blairised. There is growing discontent among activists, for example, over the government’s failure to address the tight fiscal framework for local government, which partly explains the shift away from Labour in local elections this year, clearly discernible amid the low turnout, which was complacently attributed by a leadership spokesperson to a "culture of contentment" More significantly, the 1999 victory for three of the left-wing Grassroots Alliance candidates in the members" ballot for the NEC represented in key respects an improvement on last year’s results, where the left captured four out of six of the posts elected by rank and file members. The two most left-wing of those elected, Liz Davies and Christine Shawcroft, both members of the editorial board of Labour Left Briefing, actually improved their share of the vote, despite a lower turnout overall, partly to be explained by the leadership’s decision to bring forward the ballot and seek to minimise media coverage.

Likewise the trades unions remain relatively unconvinced by the new ideology. Whilst the political climate in many unions has shifted to the right over the last decade with the onset of neoliberalism and its consequences in terms of casualisation, job insecurity and the erosion of workplace rights, this has hardy been embraced with the enthusiasm the government has shown. Rather the consistent support from trade union leaders for Blair, particularly at party conferences, has invariably been given out of simple loyalty and in the expectation of a few crumbs in return.

One highly significant indicator of a growing exasperation within the unions at New Labour was the recent election of Mick Rix, a member of the Socialist Labour Party, as General Secretary of ASLEF, and the attainment of 34% of the vote by Socialist Outlook supporter Greg Tucker in the ballot for RMT General Secretary. Another was the vote at this year’s Fire Brigades Union conference, against the wishes of the union leadership, to enable members who contribute to the union’s political fund to veto their contribution being used to finance the Labour Party. The success of this unprecedented move, initiated by supporters of the Scottish Socialist Party, indicates the strength of feeling among firefighters, many of whom have in recent years been in dispute with cost-cutting Labour local authorities and may soon face a statutory ban on industrial action, courtesy of New Labour.

On this basis, it would be inaccurate to say that the ideological Blairisation of the party as a whole had been even partially achieved. Indeed, it is due to the very fragility of the project that the leadership has felt it necessary to push through so rapidly a series of major organisational changes.

The five years since Blair took over the leadership of the party have witnessed a huge erosion, not just of the advances in democracy made following the fall of the Callaghan government in 1979, but also of all the long-standing channels of accountability since the party’s foundation. The autonomy and scope of the party’s conference has been severely downgraded, with its agenda now filtered through a Byzantine structure of Policy Forums, tightly controlled by the leadership. These Forums have also supplanted the democratic functioning of regional delegate conferences. Local constituency management committees have also been downgraded, and in at least one case – Enfield Southgate CLP – abolished altogether. The party’s National Executive Committee has had its scope and frequency of meetings greatly cut. There is also a sustained attempt to liberate the party from its reliance on trade union funds at election time – the latest in a series of measures aimed at reducing trade union involvement – thanks to a combination of seeking more donations from business and wealthy individuals, and a commitment to state funding for parties. Lastly there has been an unprecedented level of ideologically vetting potential candidates.

New central vetting panels have been used to prevent local constituencies from even considering possible candidates for the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the new Greater London Authority. Dissident Labour MEPs were given unwinnable positions on centrally-determined slates for the European Parliament, and in Scotland the long-standing MP, Dennis Canavan, was barred as unsuitable for being a candidate for the Scottish Parliament (He ran anyway as an independent, beating the official candidate by a big majority.) Logically it is only a matter of time before these procedures are extended to parliamentary candidates for Westminster, allowing the leadership to cull the twenty or so hardcore left-wing MPs. Just the threat of this has contributed to a further decline in internal opposition.

These last two measures – loosening the union link and centralising the selection of candidates – are wholly new and call fully into question the influence activists can have inside the party. But all of them aim to weaken the transmission of pressure from the rank and file to the leadership. The result has been a palpable collapse in activity across the party – inquorate meetings, a decline in local campaigning, demoralisation at the base, and this against a backdrop of rising aspirations among Labour voters and strength of feeling on issues such as health, benefits, workers’ rights and public services.

The centralised vetting of candidates in particular has given impetus to the process of splintering and fragmentation, which necessarily proceeds in a locally differentiated fashion. The expulsion from the party of MEP Hugh Kerr, for example, together with the development of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, contributed to the establishment of the Scottish Socialist Party, with large-scale Militant involvement, which won a seat in the new Scottish Parliament and 2% of the overall vote. This doubled to 4% (nearly 40,000 votes) a month later in the European elections, when the party beat the Conservatives and Liberals to third place (behind Labour and the Scottish National Party) in its Glasgow City stronghold.

This contrasts with a generally poorer showing for a number of local independent campaigns by deselected ex-Labour MEPs and others. Perhaps the most impressive was 4.3% of the vote for expelled former Labour MEP Christine Oddy in the West Midlands. However, in the same Euro-constituency the Socialist Alliance, drawing in ex-Labour councillors and members of left groups such as the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, won only 0.8%. The Socialist Labour Party, which as usual ran independently rather than in alliance with other left currents, polled a mere 0.6% nationally.

The next big test seems likely to occur in London. If the former leader of the Greater London Council Ken Livingstone is barred from being a possible Labour candidate for London Mayor and decides to run independently (highly improbable, although opinion polls show he could still win on this basis), then large numbers of Labour activists and supporters would be tempted to campaign and vote for him. At the time of writing, it is difficult to measure how far Livingstone’s left-wing credentials have been undermined by his wholehearted support for the NATO attacks in Yugoslavia.

These emerging developments to the left of Labour are fragile and as yet there is no real national framework that can rally the growing numbers increasingly alienated from the Labour Party. Thus, the long-term contradictions remain. Much as the Labour leadership may try to free itself from trade union and rank and file influence, as long as it remains a party based on the votes of the working class, then the pressure from the base will find mechanisms to make itself felt, even if traditional democratic channels are increasingly closed off to it.

Furthermore, if we are right in our analysis of Blair’s ideological project, then his government will be driven not simply to abandon the favourite policies of the left, but to frontally attack many of the gains of the whole movement won over half a century – the welfare state, the remaining public sector, workers’ rights and so on. This will not merely intensify the process of estrangement at the base of the party but is likely to set the bulk of its voting support – not just the left, but moderates, traditionalists, and even former Blair supporters – on a collision course with the neoliberal agenda of the government. In this context, socialists in the party need to resist subjectivist pressures and think very carefully before lightly abandoning their very real influence among the mass of ordinary members.

From What Next? No.14 1999