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Whatever does it take?

The sooner the left gives up on Labour, the sooner it can begin to organise for real change, says John Nicholson

October 2, 2007
5 min read

I agree entirely with Liz Davies. When Blair became Labour leader and abolished Clause 4 of the party constitution, he not only scrapped the last remaining vestige of socialism to which the party had aspired, but also removed any democratic means of challenging this from within. As Liz says, what can any remaining Labour left-winger possibly achieve by staying in the party?

It isn’t just a question of ‘Whatever happened to the labour left?’ but (admittedly less snappy) ‘Whatever can anyone who was once in the labour left make happen?’

This is because there are thousands of comrades who have left Labour since Kinnock/ Smith and then Blair/Brown turned the party into its current Christian Democrat form – a safe pair of hands for big business. The question of whether (or when) to leave Labour has in fact dogged the left ever since its formation. I recently came across a Labour Briefing pamphlet from 1991 – ‘Why socialists should stay in the labour party’ – and recognised some of the same arguments as posed today.

I was then arguing to ‘stay and fight’ – advocating neither leaving nor burying our heads in the sand (it makes you go blind but it doesn’t stop the right wing). A trade union comrade was arguing that we should leave – all together – after the next election (1992); either because we would have lost, and right wing election policies would have been shown to be counter-productive, or because we would have won, and the leadership would rapidly desert its alleged commitment to peace, public ownership and redistribution of wealth. (He was right, of course.)

Since then the fact is that people have left, wave after wave, and have found there is still life outside the party. And while the SWP has continued to make a pitch to the ‘Labour left’ for as long as I can remember, the truth is that it almost doesn’t exist any more. There is a whole generation of younger politically active people who have had the good fortune never to have been forced to experience life within Labour. Better by far to ask: whatever is happening to those who never joined the ‘Labour left’?

I don’t for one moment wish to be unkind to the few (very few) comrades who have remained as left Labour elected representatives – and who have done what good they could. But, as Neil Gerrard rightly says, these Campaign Group members would have had more problems getting selected today as compared to 15-25 years ago.

It would be better to define the various strata of ‘Labour left’ more accurately. I can think of at least six layers, past and present:

1. Those MPs who have survived as individual campaigners and used their platform (up to a point);

2. Members of local Labour parties, often in areas without representatives in parliament, who have managed to keep their ‘Old Labour’ activity going with limited interference from on high;

3. Trade union activists who have sought office in their unions (for whom Labour membership has given respectability?);

4. Revolutionary organisations who have dug in so deep that they have forgotten why they were digging (or found they enjoyed the fruits of office?);

5. Those who stayed until Blair abolished Clause 4; and

6. Those who stayed until Blair went to war (or till he next went to war …).

In addition, there are all those who left, or just didn’t renew membership, for one or more ‘single issue’ commitment that New Labour has single-mindedly ditched. The only exception, I suspect, has been an influx of members as a result of the legislation giving lesbian and gay equality – but then, having won this important issue, being gay doesn’t require you to be, or to stay, on the left.

Meanwhile, the ex-Labour left may not have gained the same media publicity once departed that we did while undergoing the processes of being vilified, witch-hunted, and expelled. But we have been repeatedly responsible for setting up and maintaining campaigns – on the streets – against war(s), against deportations, against privatisation, against the fascists. And we have not stopped trying to bring the extra-parliamentary, extra-Labour left together in attempts to overcome the sectarianism that has also dogged the left in this country for the last century or more.

Now it may be unkindly asked ‘Whatever happened to the Campaign for Socialism, Labour Party Socialists, the Campaign Group Supporters Network … or indeed the Socialist Alliance?’ (Was ‘Respect’ the answer?) People staying in Labour may say ‘there is no alternative’ to Brown (surely not without irony?). Could they have more influence on the inside than by risking the dissipated existence of the dis-organised left – seemingly perpetually fated to re-live the Life of Brian?

There is no definitive answer to this. It’s one of those half-full/half-empty discussions that have taken place between optimists and pessimists, United and City fans, throughout history. I can only say that while there is no possibility of individuals in Labour changing it back to what it was (and it was never socialist anyway), there is always going to be room for people to join in the struggle for socialism in the wider movements outside.

The more that the ex-Labour left – of each and every generation – can learn to work together, in practical action for peace and public ownership and against racism and ecological disaster, the more easily we will all be part of ‘whatever’ it takes to make change ‘happen’.

John Nicholson is the former Labour deputy leader of Manchester City Council

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