Dave Osler kicks off an occasional column with an iconoclastic look at the Labour Party and the left.
‘After a decade as an intransigent ultra left sectarian, joining the Labour Party wasn’t easy,’ the late Terry Liddle used to quip. ‘Staying in it is harder still.’
As someone who has been involved in leftist politics both inside the Labour Party and out, I certainly get the joke. Like many Labour activists who still believe in socialism in the strong sense of the word, I do sometimes wonder whether or not I am in the right place. These moods of self doubt are sometimes exacerbated when I bump into old buddies from Trot groups of which I have previously been a member. ‘What are you doing politically these days?’ they invariably ask, and then fall about laughing when I tell them.
My marked ideological degeneration is then uncharitably attributed to obvious personal failings. I’m selling out, moving right as I get older, suffering from demoralisation, and all the rest of it. Sometimes I even get treated to a refresher course in basic Leninism; don’t I understand that reformism never changes anything, comrade?
The thing is, I am sufficiently well read in theory and history to know that both the potentialities and limitations of Labour and similar parties in other countries are by now well established, and their track record is far from universally dismal. At its best, social democracy has been responsible for substantial reforms that have transformed the lives of ordinary people, in Britain most obviously the National Health Service and the welfare state. By contrast, the concrete achievements of the far left in this country since its inception 130 years ago barely rise to a level that deserves being designated as nugatory.
Additionally, social democracy’s radical variants are relatively uncompromised by either support for authoritarianism or apologetics for it. The post war Labour left has been consistent in its opposition to imperialism, including the brutal imperialism frequently overseen by Labour governments, and in its majority, did not buy into the idea that the Stalinist Soviet Union represented something to which the British labour movement should aspire.
Finally, Labour leftism is thankfully far more cuddly than the rest of the socialist milieu. LRC members can pretty much argue any political position they like, at any time of year. They can even disagree publicly with the leadership, without risk of intimidation or expulsion. Feminist and environmentalist insights are integrated rather than derided. The cult-like mentality that culminates in kangaroo courts for serious criminal offenses is just not there.
But if you are going to be a socialist in the Labour Party, what can you possibly hope to achieve there? Not only is the standard far left assertion, that no reformist organisation has ever transformed a capitalist society into a socialist one, plainly unrefuted, but the Labour Party has over three decades been transformed to the point where its ties to its original tradition are substantially diminished. While the trade union link formally remained in place, and some worthwhile reforms such as the minimum wage and Sure Start were introduced, there is no doubt that New Labour in government was functionally speaking a neoliberal formation.
There were times when the organised left within it was close to extinction. Even now, the socialist Dave Osler kicks off an occasional column with an iconoclastic look at the Labour Party and the left. presence remains few in numbers, and perhaps even more importantly, intellectually all over the place. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Labour left based itself around a programme of sorts, centred on the Alternative Economic Strategy, ideas drawn from socialist feminism, and party democratisation. Those positions certainly can be criticised with hindsight, but unlike now, at least we were thinking about what we wanted to do.
One of the drawbacks of the LRC is that its range of constituent parts is so heterodox that political agreement on much beyond commonplaces must prove difficult to obtain. Even if a positive platform could be reached, it’s not clear what we could do with it. The setbacks have been such, the expression ‘back to square one’ doesn’t even cover it. Frankly, the 1970s square one – a Labour Party with mechanisms for ordinary members to influence policy – would be a pretty good place to get back to, in comparison to where we are now.
Nor are we in a conjuncture in which the ruling class is in a concessionary mood, as it was after World War Two. Any revival of the left’s fortunes is going to require struggles on a scale for which our side is sorely ill-equipped.
In short, the last thing I am saying is ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’. That many leftist organisations and individuals will not be convinced is entirely understandable. That’s fine, and maybe we can work together in united fronts, provided they are not dominated by sectarian interests. All I would maintain is that much like being middle aged, the Labour Party is a pretty grim place for socialists until you start thinking about the alternatives. A return to route one football at least merits consideration.
David Osler is a journalist and author. He has a widely read blog at www. davidosler.com and his book, Labour Party PLC: New Labour as a Party of Business, is available on Amazon.