This statement, in Q&A format, appears in the present edition of the AWL paper, Solidarity and on the Workers Liberty website. We reproduce it here for the information of readers, but please note that not everyone associated with Shiraz is a member, or even supporter, of the AWL:
In almost every constituency, Workers’ Liberty favours a Labour vote in the general and council elections in 2015. But the Labour Party is committed to maintaining austerity, just like the Tories. Why vote Labour?
It’s not true that there’s no difference. While Labour’s current policy would leave the framework of neo-liberal austerity intact, the Labour Party has been forced to shift on issues like the NHS, zero-hours contracts, the Bedroom Tax, and even public ownership of the railways. On all of those issues, its policy is far less radical than socialists would like, but it is not “just like the Tories”. The Tories are committed to extending anti-union laws; Labour aren’t.
A left that insists there’s no material difference between a government committed to at least partially reversing NHS privatisation and one committed to extending it is a left disconnected from the reality of working-class life.
Those policy differences are empty promises. We’ve been here before.
Working-class social pressure is the key factor. If they do not feel under any pressure, Labour’s leaders won’t implement even the minimal policy commitments it has already made. If there is enough pressure from their trade-union base, they will move. A bit.
Only a tiny bit. Democrats are a lesser evil than the Republicans in the US; Chirac was a lesser evil than the fascist Le Pen in the French presidential run off in 2002. Workers’ Liberty doesn’t favour a vote for the Democrats, and criticised those on the French far-left that supported a vote for Chirac in 2002. Why is this different?
Although its leaders have always had pro-capitalist politics, Labour is not just a capitalist, or “bourgeois”, party. It has historic roots as an attempt by a section of the industrial labour movement to create a political wing that would act for workers in politics as the Liberal and Tory parties acted for employers, and a continuing structural link to the majority of unions in the country.
The Labour-affiliated unions (most of the big ones) can at will change Labour policy by putting proposals to Labour conference and voting them through. Mostly they don’t. Or they do, but stay quiet when Labour leaders ignore the policy. But we should call for the unions to use that political clout, not to walk away and give up.
The US Democrats, or the French UMP (Tories), are, by contrast, straightforwardly capitalist parties. Although the Democrats enjoy funding and activist support from large sections of the US trade union movement, there is no structural link through which rank-and-file trade unionists could even hope to hold Democratic politicians to account or influence the Democrats’ political direction.
The Labour leaders have contempt for the unions. They’re happy to take union money, but won’t do anything in return.
Labour’s leaders want us to see the relationship in purely financial terms : “You (the unions) give us (the Labour Party) money, and we’ll give you a slightly-less-bad set of policies than the Tories.” That’s the relationship the US Democrats have with the unions in the USA; and it’s the way many union leaders see it. But we should change that, rather than passively accept it.
Some on the left like to imagine that the history of the past few decades has been one of Labour-affiliated unions struggling hard for working-class policies, but finding themselves blocked at every turn by the pro-capitalist Labour leaders. In fact, union leaders have blocked themselves by consistently failing to stand up for their own policies within the Labour Party.
In one recent example, Unite delegates to Labour’s National Policy Forum helped defeat a resolution that would have committed Labour to an anti-austerity platform. All the major unions supported the “Collins Review”, which will make Labour Party structures less democratic. Union delegates on the Labour Party Executive, including the RMT’s Mick Cash (now the union’s general secretary), failed to vote against the launching of the Iraq War in 2003.
Surely it’s better to give up on Labour and try to build something new?
Severing, or reforming out of practical existence, the link between the Labour Party and the unions is a long-held dream of the Blairites. Why allow them to fulfil it without a fight?
Our perspective is to transform the entire labour movement. That is, to make our unions fighting, democratic organisations controlled from below, which are responsive to our day-to-day struggles at work and in the community. If it’s possible to make our unions more industrially combative, then it’s possible to make them more assertive in the political sphere too.
The never-affiliated unions are in general no more left-wing or militant than the affiliated ones. Demanding that the unions disaffiliate, rather than demanding that the union leaders fight using every avenue available to them, lets the bureaucrats off the hook.
In the AWL, we are building something new! Only, we do that within the struggle to change the whole labour movement, not by opting out.
Labour leaders have progressively chipped away at union and grassroots influence within the party. The recommendations of the Collins Review, due to come into effect in 2019, will be the final nail in the coffin. The game is up.
If the recommendations of the Collins Review come into effect and are allowed to bed down, the nature of the Labour Party and its relationship to the unions may have to be reassessed. But five years is a long time, and a lot could be done between now and then.
If the unions asserted themselves seriously, the Labour leaders would just expel them, just like they expelled the RMT in 2004.
Possibly. To be honest, the RMT more or less chose expulsion; and if a number of unions asserting themselves politically as a bloc, the Labour leaders could not just expel them.
Maybe the Blairite core of the Labour machine would hive off, perhaps to fuse with the Lib Dems or even the Tories. Maybe the Labour leaders would sever the union link. Labour would split, with the unions taking some left-wing MPs, dissident CLPs, and a minority of grassroots activists with them.
Through a campaign of consistent political self-assertion backed up with industrial direct action, we strive to push the relationship between the Labour Party and the unions to its absolute limits. A split that resulted from such a campaign would provide an immeasurably more favourable platform for the refounding of a labour-movement political party than individual unions disaffiliating one-by-one without any kind of fight.
Even if you want a Labour government, why not at least encourage people to vote for socialist candidates like TUSC and Left Unity (LU) where they can?
Our attitude to Labour is determined by its structural link to the fundamental organisations of our class — trade unions. We have different criteria for assessing far-left propaganda efforts.
Socialist propaganda candidacies are important in building up the activist minority which can then act as a lever to transform the wider labour movement. But then they have be judged on the basis of the quality of their propaganda, whether they do build up a minority, and whether that minority is a positive factor in the movement. TUSC and LU candidates will not so much be making propaganda for working-class socialism as for lowest-common-denominator anti-austerity politics.
If TUSC or Left Unity were:
•meaningfully democratic, with functioning local groups
•explicitly working-class socialist, foregrounding policies about expropriation, social ownership, and working-class rule
•open about their function as propaganda candidacies aimed at raising the profile of radical socialist ideas, rather than pretending to be mass-parties-in-waiting
•clear about the need to get a Labour government to kick out the Tories, and therefore did not stand in marginal seats
… then Workers’ Liberty would be involved. We helped initiate the Socialist Alliance from 1999, and attempted to resist it being sidelined by the SWP when it cooked up the “Respect” project with George Galloway. Some TUSC and LU candidates tick some of those boxes. But, on the whole, their campaigns fall short.
You’re telling left-minded people to vote against their own beliefs, for a Labour Party with neo-liberal politics.
People also vote on the basis of what kind of government they want. A Labour vote for many working-class people on 7 May will not be a vote for Labour’s neo-liberal agenda, but a vote against the Tories, for a party they see as at least minimally connected, if only in a historical sense, to working-class people and our interests. We should not be cynical, or stay aloof from, that entirely legitimate aspiration to kick the Tories out.
True, defeats and setbacks have led increasing numbers of us to see politics (which, for many people, is basically reduced to elections) as an essentially individual, atomised process, a consumer choice.
We want to change that. We want politics — not just elections, but the entire processes of how society is organised and governed — to be a collective experience, which people engage in in a permanent and collective way, through mass organisations. Fundamentally for working-class people those organisations will be trade unions — the only genuinely “mass” organisations in British society, and the only ones which organise workers, as workers, at the point of production.
Getting a Labour government on 8 May will be the beginning, not the end, of a renewed fight for working-class political representation. If, in the campaign to win that government and kick out the Tories, socialists have been able to build up a caucus of workplace and community activists who want to push Labour much further than its neo-liberal leadership wishes to go, we will have used the election time to good purpose.