This article, by SCLV supporter and RMT activist Daniel Randall, was originally published on novaramedia.com.
1. We need to get rid of the Tories.
Five more years of Tory rule will mean new restrictions on workers’ rights to organise, the continued carve-up and privatisation of the NHS, renewed attacks on benefits, concessions to Ukip around an EU referendum and probably on immigration policy, cuts to local services, and more.
Labour’s policies on all of those things are not the same as the Tories. In some areas, they are only a little different. In others, more substantially so. Whether Labour can be forced to keep their promises is a different question, but to decide in advance that they can’t be is to abandon hope of the broader labour movement exerting any political and social pressure on the government.
There’s no doubt that Labour’s policy is based on maintaining the framework of neoliberal austerity, and on issues like immigration it has not only failed to challenge, but substantially gone along with, racist narratives peddled by Ukip, the Tories, and the right-wing press. On those issues, Labour’s policy needs to be fought (in government or in opposition). But a left which sees no difference in government by a party committed, for example, to continuing the Bedroom Tax, and one committed to abolishing it, is a left disconnected from the realities of working-class life.
2. Labour is structurally linked to workers’ fundamental organisations: trade unions.
It would be massively overstating things to talk about Labour as ‘the party of the working class’.
It has never straightforwardly represented working-class interests in politics, and as such cannot be ‘reclaimed’ for socialism. To imagine that Labour is necessarily ‘the party of the working class’ would also write out of the picture the millions of workers who aren’t members of unions, including unemployed workers and many migrant workers.
But trade unions are the only genuinely mass movement in British society. And around half of all organised workers in Britain are members of unions which are affiliated to the Labour Party. Even many unions which aren’t affiliated to Labour – such as the RMT – maintain substantial links to the party; the RMT’s Parliamentary Group is chaired by a Labour MP (John McDonnell) and is made up almost exclusively of Labour MPs, and the union is backing dozens of Labour candidates across the country.
Unions represent workers’ organisation in the place where capitalism most fundamentally ‘happens’: the workplace. Even the most right-wing-led, bureaucratised union is structurally locked into class struggle. If the unions themselves are sites of struggle, then the party to which the majority of them are still linked is a site of struggle as well.
Labour’s link to the unions still represents a means by which working-class people can attempt to pressure and subvert Labour MPs and councillors. That successive Labour leaderships have attempted to reform that link out of practical existence, rendering the Labour Party much more like the US Democrats (partially funded by organised labour but with no structural link to it), shows that the link could still be used to threaten their power.
3. The left-of-Labour electoral efforts aren’t up to much.
From any radical point of view, the political landscape in Britain is woefully inadequate.
A ‘British Syriza’ – a broad coalition of the working-class left with real weight in workplaces and communities, that could sideline the old ‘official’ social democratic party – would be preferable. A mass (anti-Stalinist) communist party rooted in a substantially more radical labour movement than the present one would be more preferable still.
But that’s not where we are, and we won’t get there by declaring this or that organisation or electoral project to be either of those things in embryo. Neither Syriza, nor mass revolutionary parties (such as the German SDP, until the First World War), had their roots anything even remotely resembling, for example, TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) or Left Unity.
Here and there, where individual TUSC or Left Unity candidacies have real roots in a local labour movement, and run campaigns in an open, democratic, non-sectarian way that makes them organising centres for the local class-struggle left, they might do some good. But those initiatives don’t address the fundamental question posed by the election: who governs?
In response to that question, the radical left can either say “we don’t care” (as TUSC has, by irresponsibly deciding to stand in some marginal seats), or we can conclude that organising through the unions to put concerted political pressure on a Labour government is positively preferable to five more years of Tory rule.
4. If we want to change the balance of class power in this country, that means going through our existing organisations, not around them.
If we want politics to be more than an atomised, individual process of five-yearly passive support for parties, or candidates, with which we have no permanent or structural engagement; if we want politics to be an ongoing, collective process of mass social and economic self-assertion of working-class people, then this requires the thoroughgoing, top-to-bottom transformation of the entire working-class movement as it currently exists.
Fight in your union for it to take on Labour, to demand it keeps, and goes beyond, its promises where its policy is more progressive than the Tories, and push it back on those issues, such as immigration, where its policy is reactionary. Fight to hold the union leaders, who have, in large part, facilitated the Blairite takeover of the Labour party, to account. Fight to force your union to assert itself within and against the Labour party. Fight to transform your union, to make it more democratic and radical. If you’re not in a workplace, engage with the broad labour movement through working-class community campaigns, and work with trade unionists to demand that Labour reflects working-class demands.
If done right, this would almost certainly explode the relationship between organised labour and the Labour party. It would almost certainly cause a split, perhaps with the Blairite MPs hiving off to fuse with the Lib Dems or even the Tories – or (more likely, given the current balance of forces), the Blairites in the Labour leadership would rush through measures to sever the Labour-union link, with a few left-wing MPs and maybe some dissident Constituency Labour Parties going with the unions.
Bring it on. That is a much longer-term perspective, that requires much more patient, hard work than the more superficially-conscionable, keeping-our-hands-clean options offered by much of the left in this election (i.e. vote Green/TUSC/Left Unity/SNP, or don’t vote). But if we want to transform our movement, that’s the fight we have to have. The momentum generated by such a fight would be an infinitely more favourable platform for the development of radical working-class politics in this country than attempting to duck it.