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Issue 55, April 2001

Socialists and the election

AS NEW LABOUR'S first term in office draws to a close, it's clear that millions of workers and young people are deeply disillusioned. How should their discontent be channelled in the general election?

In seats where the Socialist Alliances, Socialist Alternative, Scottish Socialist Party and other socialist candidates are standing, working-class people will be presented with a clear alternative to Blair's pro-market, pro-big business agenda. They will have the opportunity to voice opposition to New Labour in a positive way by voting socialist.

This marks a step forward for working-class people, many of whom would simply not bother to vote without an alternative. But it cannot completely overcome the crisis of working-class political representation which exists at the present time. Workers and young people need a new mass party to represent their own interests.

Potentially, effective Socialist Alliances that are able to involve new layers, could play a role in the future development of a new working class party. In the meantime, however, a vacuum exists which cannot be filled in this election. There will be hundreds of seats where no socialist alternative will be on offer. In that situation, what should they do?

In the March edition of the magazine, Socialist Review, John Rees, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), argues that "the choice for those who do not have a socialist candidate to vote for will be this - either they vote for the open, unashamed representatives of big business... Or they vote for a party which is certainly pro-capitalist, but is funded and supported by working-class people, including the majority of class-conscious workers". Having characterised the Tory party as a capitalist party and New Labour as a capitalist-workers' party, the SWP draw the conclusion that working-class people should vote New Labour to 'keep the Tories out'. 'Vote Socialist where you can, vote Labour where you must', is one of their election slogans.


We would disagree with both their analysis and their conclusion. New Labour is not just another right-reformist government following in the footsteps of the previous Labour governments of Callaghan, Wilson etc, but with some policies slightly further to the right. In the last decade Labour has been qualitatively and decisively transformed from a party with a pro-capitalist leadership and working-class base into an open, 'unashamed' capitalist party.

The process of disintegration and final collapse of the Stalinist states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after 1989, against the backdrop of an economic boom in the West, played the decisive part in New Labour's political metamorphosis into a bourgeois party. While those bureaucratic, planned economies remained intact, they provided an alternative, albeit a grotesquely distorted one, to capitalism internationally. Once that alternative was removed, pro-market ideology reigned unchallenged and this was reflected in the political evolution of the former workers' parties throughout the advanced capitalist countries.

The fact that the formal link between New Labour and the organised trade union movement has not been broken is not in itself decisive in defining the character of the party or in deciding what approach to take towards it in elections (or at any other time). The key questions are: do the majority of workers perceive New Labour as 'their' party, representing their own class interests; and will active sections move into the party to reverse the 'bourgeoisification' which has already taken place?


It's true that eight million workers are still affiliated to New Labour through their unions and the majority of those will vote Labour in the next election. And although Blair has been fairly successful in persuading big business millionaires to part with some of their cash, the party itself still relies on the trade unions for a third of its income.

Blair's 'modernising' reforms, however, have effectively undermined any influence workers previously had over Labour Party policy. Trade unions no longer have any say in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Decision making has been removed from the delegate-based annual conference in favour of toothless policy forums. Last year's party conference voted (by virtue of the union votes) to restore the link between pensions and earnings. But chancellor Gordon Brown arrogantly dismissed the vote saying, "it is not for a few composite motions to decide the policy of this government". (Guardian, 28 September 2000).

In reality, the relationship between New Labour and the unions in Britain is fundamentally no different from that in the US between unions and the big-business Democratic Party. The trade unions are not affiliated to the Democratic Party yet they still contribute millions of dollars to the party's election war chest. Last year six of the ten biggest donors were unions. John Sweeney, leader of the AFL/CIO trade union federation, pledged $48 million in union resources to support Al Gore while every major union, except the Teamsters, backed his presidential election campaign.

Unions send delegates to Democrat conventions and 'advise' the party on policy bodies. Democrat politicians listen politely, take the unions' money, and carry on attacking the working class in the interests of the big corporations. Occasionally, under pressure, they will make radical sounding pro-worker speeches at election time, as Gore was forced to do in response to Nader's challenge from the left. But this in no way alters the fact that the Democrats are an out and out capitalist party.


Like workers in the USA, British workers now face two main big business parties vying for their support in elections and attacking them once they get into power. The task facing workers and young people today in Britain is not to choose the lesser of the two capitalist 'evils' but to fight for a new mass party.

top     Towards a new workers' party

THE PROCESS OF building a new working class party, however, will not be a straightforward one. There are undoubtedly some sections of workers who still maintain an electoral allegiance to the Labour Party. This is especially true of an older layer of trade union activists. Most feel betrayed and angry that New Labour have pursued a 'Tory' agenda - holding down public spending, speeding up privatisation, and presiding over a widening gap between rich and poor. At the same time, they cling to the hope that maybe things will change, maybe Mandelson's resignation or Brown's increases in public spending on health and education, are signs that the tide is turning and 'New' Labour could become 'Old' Labour once again.

A second term New Labour government would undoubtedly help to dispel these misplaced illusions and speed up the 'fragmentation' of the party. Brown's spending plans will be blown apart once the US recession impacts on the British economy. Mass redundancies, draconian attacks on welfare and public services, and the other devastating consequences of an economic crisis, will have a powerful effect on the thinking of this layer of pro-Labour workers.


There is likely to be a speeding up of activists breaking with New Labour and future left-wing splits could play a part in the formation of a new mass party. But it would be wrong to conclude from this that socialists should call on workers to vote Labour in areas where no socialist candidates are standing.

The Labour left can play a role, but, as even an Editorial Board resolution from the Labour Left Briefing magazine to their AGM last year points out, "the left in the Labour Party remains small and isolated". In reality, it will be the new, fresh layers of workers and young people moving into struggle in the workplaces, communities, single-issue and anti-capitalist campaigns who will comprise the main forces in the building of a new working-class party - together with those who consciously understand the need for such a party and who today are arguing the case for building it.

The experience of four years of a New Labour government has not resulted in workers moving into the Labour Party to 'reclaim' it for the working class. On the contrary, the opposite has been the case. Nationally, fire fighters, railworkers and communication workers have all discussed the question of disaffiliation from New Labour. And locally, where workers have taken strike action recently, such as local authority workers in Hackney, Ealing and Birmingham, and health workers in Dudley, they have considered standing candidates in elections in opposition to New Labour councillors and MPs. The same has been true in community and environmental campaigns. Campaigners against the downgrading of Kidderminster hospital, for example, have been elected to the local council.


Under a second-term Labour government, under conditions of deepening crisis, these processes will intensify and lay the basis for a new mass party. Our role is to speed up that process and prepare working-class people for the struggles ahead. To call for a Labour vote at this election, however, would have the opposite effect. It would confuse and disorientate workers and youth who are looking for an alternative to New Labour and delay the important task of building a new workers' party in the future.

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