This article is intended to build on the framework laid down by Nick Wrack in his article of January 2015, “Labour: mass resistance can win”. I endorse the perspectives in that article and think it takes us a considerable way forward in establishing the building blocks of an orientation for socialists in the Labour Party – and especially those who have joined in the wake of Corbyn’s victory.
The impact of the cuts to local government and services will be disastrous and felt for a generation. Conservatives are now able to float the idea of an effective end to local government itself within our lifetime, without the media batting an eyelid. Such consequences, and most especially the specific harm which will be caused to working class communities, must be avoided if at all possible.
But underneath this specific situation we find ourselves in, there’s a general principle which we stand by. No socialist elected to office should ever vote for or otherwise support anything which reduces or eliminates gains made by the working class. If they do so, they are supporting the wrong side in a struggle which is already overwhelmingly weighted against us. In order to make gains, we have to organise, campaign, scrape together meagre funds, and either pressure the ruling class to make reforms or elect our own representatives to do it. By contrast, all the ruling class has to do is bide its time, wait until our mass movement is demobilised, and use a moment of vulnerability or crisis to recapture elected positions and undo everything that had been achieved. The difference in terms of pains taken and relative costs incurred is enormous. For a representative of the working class to vote for measures like cuts to local services is in a way a more serious and generally demoralising error than (for example) undermining a strike in a workplace – something which would be more likely to draw condemnation in present conditions.
We need to mobilise opposition and fight a political battle on the basis of the political substance rather than of form. Choosing the occasion of a cuts budget to unleash a tirade on the right allows them to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to pass. Clearly there is a basic level of resentment against cuts, but equally we must not assume that the general public – or even Labour members – have merely been waiting for someone to “show them the way” and come up with a plausible sounding plan for a no-cuts budget. The level of political debate is nowhere near that advanced. As a direct consequence of Labour’s previous accommodation with Osbornomics, the party was all but silent on the actual social consequences of the cuts. Still less were there any serious attempts to unite the various struggles of those impacted, as this would inevitably have drawn charges of hypocrisy and forced this contradiction out into the open.
As a result, because the former Labour leadership saw no political advantage in proclaiming even a token resistance to the cuts, none of the groundwork of building a coalition of resistance has been done in any substantial sense either. We will all have no doubt experienced local anti-cuts groups with dwindling membership, all of whose members conceive of themselves in one way or another as part of the left. We are so far away from the point of heightened awareness that we need – where homeless people and youth centre users see the point of making common cause with care home residents and library bookworms.
In the context of a resurgent Labour Party, the fate of local government is not separate from, but actually intimately bound up with the hazards of parliamentarism and the temptation to take office. When backed into a corner as councillors are, no-one should be expected to assure victory when the only possible outcome is defeat. But equally, we should expect internal consistency. If the labour movement’s representatives on the frontline of local government take the stance that they cannot pursue a policy of confrontation with the powers that be [in Westminster], and their only option is to ameliorate the effects of the government’s programme as best they can – what then should we expect from a Labour government in 2020? Presumably a shrug, and an apologetic admission that they can only act within the parameters set by international capital; a confrontation with the bondholders in Frankfurt will be strenuously avoided, although we should not rule out the possibility that a perceived need to crush the anti-austerity movement will mean that it is the ruling classes themselves who will be spoiling for a fight come 2020.
Of course, this was exactly the approach taken by the Tsipras government in Greece – and the similarities would probably extend beyond a superficially similar tactical predicament. The trajectory of the Tsipras position in negotiations with the Troika shows that the more abject the submission to external diktat, the more seamlessly a formerly anti-austerity stance can segue into “left-wing austerity” – that is, a commitment to responsible management of the national capitalist economy in general, balancing the books, etc; coupled with attempts to make at least some cuts and efficiencies fall on the broadest shoulders. Seen in this light, the McDonnell flip-flop over the budget charter and his latest commitment to “iron discipline” seem less like temporary aberrations or tactical foul-ups, and more like a foreshadowing of future developments.
At the heart of this problem is the fact that Labour is not a political party like others – and certainly not like others which socialists have attempted to build historically. Even two fundamental elements in our stance of refusing cuts on principle would be contentious at present, as many who are currently members of the Labour Party do not see themselves either as socialists, or with being tasked to represent the working class. This is a fundamental dilemma which would need at least an article of its own to examine in any depth; but suffice it to say that we are in a fundamentally different position to our comrades elsewhere in Europe, who will generally be active in parties like Germany’s Die Linke. Far smaller and with a clearer ideological standpoint (though not unaffected by the challenges and temptations of entering government), an openly socialist pole of attraction within them could expect to have far more purchase than we can expect in the immediate term.
In spite of all this, I believe that the slogan of a “needs budget” is not one which will necessarily help us build an opposition. It leads us into a series of ritualised set-pieces in which the right formulate the budget, while we shout and blow on whistles outside the council chamber. Budgets are set once a year and quickly forgotten. Making the setting of the budget and the individual actions of councillors a focus for our campaigning will probably meet with little purchase among Labour members – just like the strategy of mounting a superficial electoral challenge against Labour to elect “anti-cuts” councillors.
The goal does not change. We want a mass mobilisation of resistance to austerity, both on the front line of its local implementation and on the national political stage. But the road to a big victory would need to be paved with many smaller ones.
Democratic control over candidate selections is essential. But let’s be under no illusions. The [usually] incumbent position of right-wingers means that replacing them will become an unavoidably bitter, personalised and – for onlookers – quite alienating. Even if we replaced the entirety of every General Committee of every Constituency Labour Party with Momentum members (for example), this would scarcely be the end of the matter. For one thing, Momentum is vulnerable to infiltration, requiring nothing more of members than lip-service to supporting Jeremy Corbyn as leader. From a more long-term perspective too, it is still unclear whether Momentum will become a viable home for the left of the party.
We should of course seek to replace those who want to bomb Syria, or waste billions on Trident, or privatise local services – but deselection must be linked explicitly to the cause of democratising our party and movement. Without this, if the Corbyn leadership is removed or otherwise liquidated then an 18-month deselection drive could leave us with little more than a stronger foothold for the “left” in the layers of the party bureaucracy – which unfortunately would not exactly encourage the sort of atmosphere in which communist ideas could flourish.
If it is not feasible to actually remove a rightwinger from office – in the meantime there is a lot to be said for instead rendering them politically toothless. Imagine if we could compel councillors to vote against the closure of local amenities; or they were informed by local campaign forums that support in a bid for re-election was contingent on them voting against a particularly wasteful vanity project in the council chamber. To be forced to toe the line and act in the interests of the working class could potentially be a more demoralising experience for a rightwinger than being deselected and thereby allowed to play the martyr. The shock of their newly straitened circumstances might even lead them to stand down of their own accord.
A proper engagement with the new mass movement in and around Labour clearly has to come in at the ground floor and engage with those ideas which currently hold sway, i.e. the ideas of a renewed interventionist state, of Keynesian stimuli, of wealth taxes, and the Trade Union bureaucracy’s attempts to protect jobs while simultaneously discouraging militancy. We must defend the inchoate “left” against the right, and engage with them politically, while at all times emphasising the distinctness of a communist position.
We want to win the Labour Party first to a consistently pro-working class orientation, and then by extension to communist principles. This of course entails the removal of at least the party’s most reactionary and careerist elements – but careerists are skilled and still enjoy considerable support, so replacing them will be a significant drain on our time and energy. We have to do it right. I would argue that an all-or-nothing approach isn’t the only way forward – and with a more varied set of tactics we might be able to avoid a lot of demoralisation when (not if) we suffer setbacks.