Labor and Class
By Mike Calvert
There can be no doubt that the recent election results in Great Britain have caused some interest. The victory of George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow against Blairite Oona King was an impressive result, although the result in Blaenau Gwent was actually far more impressive, with the overturning of a huge Labor majority at the expense of Dave Prentis’s apparatchik, Maggie Jones. Ms. Jones initiated the expulsion from the Labor Party of the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport union). Her reward: the safest Labor seat in Britain, over the heads of the local membership who revolted en masse, as did the local people. But this was not a victory for the left, so much as the defeat of the Blairites.
Let me be absolutely clear: if the possibility of the conditions for the creation of a mass workers’ party to the left of Labor were to materialize, then it is my view that all socialists should participate. But these election results do not even remotely presage such a development.
RESPECT, the acronym for Galloway’s party, standing for: Respect, Equality, Socialism, Peace, Environmentalism, Community and Trade Unionism) is at best an amalgam of particular sections of the community particularly animated by the war against Iraq in alliance with George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party [UK].
This is no bad thing, but the anti-war movement was more than RESPECT. It was led by Galloway, CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and the millions of ordinary folk, and other left-of-center Labor MPs like Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, Jeremy was as significant a leader of the movement as “gorgeous George” Galloway! Jeremy spoke several times at the large rallies in the USA.
In many ways George is as Laborite as “old Labor.” He is still in parliament and his victory was stunning, but his views on issues like abortion—well documented by other correspondents like Louise Whittle—show that he is anything but the “great leader” RESPECT portrays him as. Enver Hoxha, he is not!
There are still outstanding issues about his position in relation to the previous Ba’athist regime in Iraq, the one that committed genocide against the Kurds and put down internal dissent with mustard gas, etc. Just because he boldly helped to lead the anti-war movement doesn’t remove those issues overnight. With Jeremy Corbyn there has never been any doubt over things like that. Nobody can question that he is a principled and committed socialist and just because he didn’t get round to responding to the Weekly Workers’ questions does not make him any less a socialist than George Galloway or than he was before the election.
The left cannot replace Labor, because it is incapable of understanding that the Labor Party and the (British working) class have grown up together. The specificities of the conditions of the workers’ movement in this country preclude such a development outside of huge organic developments. There needs to be a movement into action by the class on the industrial front, as there was in the 1960s and 70s for this to happen. There was also a moment when a left group was in a position of incredible authority and was a household name.
Who has heard of the Communist Party of Great Britain? (CPGB, the group that publishes the Weekly Worker) Does its name appear on TV game shows? One group, the Militant Tendency, was so famous in the 1970s and 80s that that did happen and it is in fact this that makes what happened to them even more of a crime! In my view there has only been one group that was capable at a certain historical moment of forging that forward movement and they lost it: the Militant Tendency, which was, for all its programmatic inadequacies, in a position to change and influence events—it had almost 10,000 members (a number we can all today only fantasize about! )
They led real, actual struggles in Liverpool and against the poll tax, but even then these were at a time of defensive actions. The Militant had thousands of cadres. Its main leader, Peter Taaffe’s crime was especially harmful because he threw away it’s promise to play a major role in the leadership of a mass revolutionary workers’ party!
One last point: the conditions that are needed for the creation of a new mass party are ones where the trade unions (still the bedrock defense force of the working class) are in a position of advance and mass mobilization. There needs to be a wave of strike actions, and so on, in order for those conditions to materialize. We are a long way from that, as we are still fighting defensive struggles to stop the erosion of workers’ rights.
But this is why there needs to be a two-pronged approach, in my view—of communists and socialists working together within and without the Labor Party. While socialists continue to leave the Labor Party in pursuit of building something that material conditions predicate against, there will be little hope of anything changing.
The left on its own is hopelessly inept at understanding the axiomatic place of the Labor Party in the psyche of the British working class and labor movement. They have shown themselves over and again to be incapable of grasping that planting-your-flag, auto-proclamatory gestures are pointless and a waste of energy. RESPECT did well in a number of places, but that was largely based on an appeal to a specific audience on a non-socialist, non-radical ticket.