This article is by SCLV supporter James Doran, a Unite member in Darlington.
Growing up under New Labour governments, I was never in the position of saying, like many socialists “I never left the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me”. When the global economy entered a crisis in 2007-8, the material foundation of New Labour – an expanding global economy and a non-aggression pact with the City – was threatened with disruption. I could see that a Tory-Liberal coalition would be the most likely outcome given the balance of forces.
So I joined Labour in 2009 without illusions it could be “reclaimed” as a vehicle for social transformation unless there was a near-miraculous mobilisation on the part of the broader labour movement. I also the party joined without the skills, experience or contacts to make much of an impact, despite being fully aware of the obstacles faced by the broader movement in relating to the party’s structures.
In the last few years I have given a priority to working through my union, the local trades council, Teesside Solidarity Movement, the People’s Assembly in the North East, and 999 Call for the NHS campaign against health service privatisation. Despite being worthwhile in their own right, such activism constitutes a form of “exitism”: an attempt to influence Labour policy from without (though I am still a member of the party).
The crisis of European social democratic parties
For the last few years I have been banging on about something I call Pasokification – to warn other members of the Labour Party what will happen if the leadership of the party do not reject austerity.
The Greek equivalent of the Labour Party is Pasok. The party came to office in the midst of global recession and responded to the demands of domestic, European and international financial institutions rather than mobilising against them. As a consequence, the party fragmented, liquidated its politics into a coalition with the opposition, was replaced by a conservative-led coalition, and has now been overtaken and seemingly replaced as a party of government by its radical socialist rival Syriza.
Greece is the extreme example. But across Europe, Labour’s sister parties have struggled to cope – the electoral cycle of social democratic and conservative parties has been disrupted by anti-migrant and anti-austerity parties.
In France, the anti-migrant National Front have grown as the Socialist Party caved in to ruling class demands for austerity. In Germany, the Social Democrats have joined a grand coalition with the conservatives in the federal parliament rather than challenge the trajectory of Europe by forming an anti-austerity coalition with the Left Party and Greens.
In Ireland, the Labour Party became the junior partner in a conservative-led austerity coalition. As a result, Sinn Fein is the main opposition and stands a chance of riding a wave of protest over water charges to defeat the coalition. This would be the second of the Eurozone countries to be led by parties portraying themselves as anti-austerity – with Podemos in Spain possibly becoming a third.
Britain is not in the Eurozone – a Labour government would have a greater degree of control over the state’s monetary policy. Britain is one of the major economies of Europe, and like France and Germany is in a much stronger position than Greece, Spain, or Ireland.
A Labour government could afford to take the banks into public ownership under democratic control, tax the rich, reverse cuts, and restore the NHS. But already, Labour is being hurt by the Pasok-ups of its leadership.
The third way leads to a dead end
Take the independence referendum in Scotland. There was an independent campaign by the Labour Party, but it wasn’t strong enough politically and was easily overshadowed by the well-funded Better Together campaign, which united Labour with the Tories and Liberals. As a consequence, there looked for a brief moment before the vote that the outcome would be independence as opinion polls showed that strongholds of Labour support were shifting to Yes.
Then, after the no vote had been secured, as the victorious Better Together celebrated, the Tories ripped up the promised “vow” made by the leaders of the three major UK parties. And tens of thousands of people, some of them former Labour voters and activists, joined the SNP and other pro-independence parties.
In Scotland, the SNP have already overtaken Labour in the devolved parliament and now threaten to do the same amongst Scotland’s representatives in the UK parliament.
In England, the “Green surge” followed the huge growth in party membership in Scotland, with tens of thousands of people joining the Greens. Many of them former LibDem members or voters, but a substantial number are former Labour members or voters. And the growth of support for the LibDems under New Labour resulted from Labour voters switching in protest.
The Green surge can be understood as exitism – because there is no immediate prospect of the Greens replacing Labour as a party of government, the expectation is that Labour will have to change to match the competition for its core vote.
But this is based on assumptions about the ability of the Greens to mobilise in Labour strongholds and that a “UKIP of the left” could be created without the immediate support of major trade unions.
Where do socialists stand in the general election?
The stance of the Labour leadership over the coalition’s austerity programme – especially over the co-ordinated strikes by public sector workers – has succeeded in alienating many within the workers’ movement.
But as the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory asserts, the basic organisations of the movement, the trade unions, are for the most part supportive of Labour – and a majority of politically-active trade union members will view the toppling of the Tory-led coalition as a step forward, even if they have reservations about aspects of the Labour platform.
Though socialists will be standing in the general election for parties other than Labour, there is not yet a strong enough network of socialist candidates for there to be the same kind of pressure on the Labour leadership as UKIP exerts on the Tories. Thus, non-Labour socialist candidates are spread between the Greens, Left Unity, TUSC and other formations like the National Health Action Party.
The Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory has the correct approach towards the 2015 general election. It will be a blow to the workers’ movement if the Tory-led coalition is not defeated in May.
If Labour lead the next government, the unions affiliated to the party will very quickly face a confrontation with it. In which case, socialists will be in a position to make demands of a governing party which will have won office on the basis of making the economy work for working people.