At a special conference in July 1932 the Independent Labour Party voted to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Aneurin Bevan described their decision as “pure but impotent”. True to form, its membership fell to less than a third of its level at the time of disaffiliation, quickly withering away into political obscurity.
This factionalism remains a persistent problem in the organised British Left. We have a large number of small groups of activists, who shift backwards and forwards from split to fusion to split. This is extremely damaging for the Left as a whole.
This trend takes place within a wider story of the disintegration of the European Left. In Germany, social democrats split to the Left and remained organised in die Linke, future realignments within the SDP is still a possibility. In Italy, the Left has been comprehensively disarmed, institutionally and ideologically. In France, the PS has failed to recover as a national project from the disappointment of the Jospin years.
Judging from the past few decades, it’s clear that the consequences of this factionalism have been grave – societies have been plagued by all manner of preventable social ills – unemployment, stagnant wages, rising inequality, war, environmental degradation and a democratic deficit that has reached such sinister proportions that a significant proportion of the democratic world do not see the point in the vote.
I can only despair at the prospect of twenty more years under neo-liberal hegemony. There must be an alternative to this desperate state of affairs.
It has always been possible to unite the British Left for common goals such as fighting racists through Unite against Fascism, taking over the GLC and Tony Benn’s campaign for the Deputy leadership. It has been possible, and it still is possible.
Perhaps it is naïve to suggest that Left activists now put aside their various disagreements and embrace the spirit of unity and comradeship that must be the essence of any true left-winger’s aspirations. It is naïve but not quite as naïve as to think that we can stop this Con-Dem government’s destructive policies without co-ordinated action.
The terms of this unity should be based on rational principles, and I will offer some suggestions on which to premise any productive political action.
First, there will be no new mass workers' party. The arguments proclaiming the end of the Labour party as the party of the labour movement are not convincing but rather grounded on sectarian wishful thinking. See beyond the present faces. It is certainly possible that huge shifts in public opinion towards the fundamental issues could be achieved were the bulk of the Labour leadership, a large chunk of the PLP, the unions and activists moving together to campaign for radical socialist policies.
I believe this rallying point for the Left is the Labour Representation Committee, chaired by John McDonnell and affiliated to countless trade unions.
Second, the Labour Party’s almost exclusive reliance on the “white working class” is a great weakness. It’s true but trite to say that parties can only win when they represent a coalition of social forces large enough to defeat those in power. This is the reason why the trade unions set up the Labour Party in the first place. We now need a broad coalition which includes skilled and unskilled workers, the unemployed, women and ethnic minorities as well as the sexually oppressed in our society. This means us changing. I’m opposed to attempts to co-opt different movements just because we can get votes from them. The Labour Party must listen to what they are saying and then change itself.
Finally, the argument that we need to make is that we need to control the flow of capital and the control of the banks and finance houses. This means curbing the speculators in the City of London and an extension of public ownership into the financial sector. It shouldn’t be difficult to explain to people that a Labour Government intends to use the billion pounds a month that currently leaves the country to rebuild the economy and the welfare state. Indeed, everyone I have spoken to has responded overwhelmingly to such a suggestion.
This is just a brief outline of one strategy needed not only to win back those 5 million mainly working class votes that were lost as a result of New Labour’s neo-liberal policies, but also to create a radically different, more equal and humane society.
If we are to bring about this radical social change, then what we need is unity. The alternative is political impotency the price of which no-one on the Left should countenance if they are truly serious about what they believe to be right.