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Proletarian issue 25 (August 2008)
Labour’s meltdown and the crisis of revisionism
The end of Middle England’s electoral support for Labour may be a wake-up call for some, but others on the so-called ‘left’ are still flying in the face of reality with persistent fantasies of ‘reclaiming’ the party for the working class.
The by-election in the parliamentary constituency of Haltemprice and Howden took place on 10 July 2008. This election had been forced by David Davis, former Tory Home Affairs spokesman, who resigned his seat in protest over the Labour government’s success in forcing through the House of Commons legislation making it possible to hold terror suspects in detention for 42 days (instead of the existing 28 days) without charge.

Labour’s surveillance society

Mr Davis stated at the time of his resignation that his action was motivated solely by his desire to highlight the “slow strangulation” of civil liberties in the UK over the past decade. During his campaign to win back the seat he had resigned, he also highlighted other aspects of our surveillance society, such as the uncontrolled proliferation of CCTV cameras and the government’s plans to introduce national identity cards.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, though livid with Mr Davis, had little choice but to support him. The LibDems, who voted against the 42-day legislation, quite rightly refused to put up a candidate against Mr Davis.

The Labour party, meanwhile, showed the courage of its convictions by opting for the cowardly course of not contesting the seat. Surely if, as was the Labour government’s assertion, the overwhelming majority of the British population support the extended period of detention, the Howden by-election offered a perfect opportunity to prove the point.

That this was not the case, however, soon became clear. At least two Labour MPs – Bob Marshall Andrews and Ian Gibson – disgusted by their own government’s stance, offered to help Mr Davis. In the end, Mr Davis won back his seat with a majority of more than 15,000 on a turnout of 34 percent, which was high enough considering that the electorate of the constituency regarded the outcome of the elections – a victory for Mr Davis – as a foregone conclusion.

Although the government could have been attacked on a host of issues, Mr Davis concentrated his campaign on the erosion of civil liberties.

It says a lot about the Labour party, which some disgraceful outfits – renegades professing to be communists – characterise as the ‘party of the British working class’, that a Conservative like Mr Davis, a former SAS reservist with impeccable right-wing credentials, should put this allegedly working-class party and government on the spot on, of all issues, the question of the civil liberties of working people.

No less a representative organ of British finance capital than the Financial Times, which, incidentally, disapproved of Mr Davis’s resignation that triggered the Howden by-election, was obliged to admit the following in its editorial of 13 June:

“On the substance of these issues Mr Davis has right on his side. Pre-charge detention of up to 42 days remains unjustified … Similarly, the case for curtailing personal freedoms to introduce ID cards has simply not been made. Too many civil liberties have already been taken away.” (‘Distracted by Davis’)

Labour – an imperialist party

The truth is that the Labour party does not represent the working class, either in the area of civil liberties or on any of the other issues of domestic and foreign policy. It has always been, is now, and will always be, a party of British imperialism.

Its record in government, as well as in opposition, over the more than 100 years of its existence furnishes eloquent proof in this regard.

As for the present Labour government, even Robert Griffiths, General Secretary of the social-democratic fossil that goes by the name of Communist Party of Britain (CPB), is on record as characterising it as the “client regime of the most reactionary, most aggressive and most imperialist elements of British state monopoly capitalism”.

Citing Georgi Dimitrov’s definition of fascism as the “open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital”, Griffiths implies that the current Labour administration is essentially indistinguishable from a fascist regime. (Morning Star, 16 April 2008)

Confining ourselves to the latest period of Labour in office, namely, from May 1997 to the present, we can justly say that this period has been one of British imperialism’s incessant war against oppressed people abroad – from Yugoslavia to Iraq and Afghanistan, from Ireland to Somalia and Sierra Leone – and attacks on working people at home. It has presided over the wholesale bombing and destruction of Yugoslavia, the slaughter of over a million innocent Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans.

At home, it has continued the erosion of civil liberties in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’, while supervising a vast programme of deregulation and privatisation – including privatisation of swathes of health and education provision.

Under the Labour government’s watch, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and continues to widen. Child poverty and pensioner poverty are on the increase. Official statistics of income distribution reveal that between 2004/05 and 2006/07, incomes fell for the poorest third of households, including manual workers, unskilled workers and the unemployed.

Even for those occupying a middle position in the income distribution spectrum, income growth has been markedly weak. While the income of this group grew by 15 percent more than inflation between 1996/97 and 2001/02, it grew by only 4 percent more than inflation in the five years between 2001/02 and 2006/07. (See ‘Falling earnings add to ministers’ woes’ by Chris Giles, Economic Editor, Financial Times, 11 June 2008)

And this is happening at a time when the prices of food and fuel are rising on a daily basis and the increased costs of servicing a mortgage, courtesy of the latest crisis of imperialism, are straining family budgets, especially those of the poorer sections, to their limit.

While applauding the filthy rich, Labour reserves its attacks for the poor, as in the case of the abolition of the 10p tax band, which left 5.3 million of the poorest Britons worse off than before.

Hazel Blears, the so-called Communities Secretary, says that Labour needed to be, as if it was not already the case, “the party of the affluent” as well as the party of the poor (it has never been the latter, notwithstanding contrary assertions of its spokesmen and of its shameful apologists on the ‘left’, namely the counterrevolutionary Trotskyites and the revisionist renegades).

John Hutton, Business Secretary, has told the Labour party to celebrate, as if it had not already been doing that, people who have become extremely wealthy.

And yet, flying in the face of reality, the New Communist Party (NCP) attempts to frighten working people into supporting the imperialist Labour party with this flourish:

“All but the most dogmatic and sectarian sections of the ultra-left now recognise the fact that if Labour falls it will be replaced by a thoroughly reactionary Tory administration”, adding that “that’s what will happen unless workers mobilise to put mass pressure on the Brown Government to force it to respond to the legitimate demands of the organised working class”. (‘Legitimate demands’ New Worker editorial, 27 June 2008)

Our answer to the NCP’s above assertion is that only ignoramuses who stopped thinking a long time ago, and whose language is devoid of all content, can fail to realise that Labour’s defeat by the Tories at the next election will amount to the defeat of the most reactionary government of post-war Britain by a “thoroughly reactionary Tory administration”.

By the reckoning of ordinary and normal individuals, possessed of normal human reasoning, such a result would not be the blood-curdling disaster that the NCP will have us believe.

Labour’s coalition in tatters

With Labour’s attacks on the poor, combined with the effects of the credit crunch (which is only a manifestation of the crisis of overproduction), rising food and fuel prices, and a steady snowdrift of disastrous news from the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the voting coalition that Labour had built – a coalition that brought it into office in 1997 and has kept it in government since then – is collapsing.

Labour’s core vote has defected in droves. To use the terminology of bourgeois sociologists and marketeers, the Tories have overtaken Labour among the crucial ‘C2’ skilled working class for the first time since the 1980s.

Presently, the Tories have a seven-point lead among these voters, whereas in 1997 they voted for Labour in preference to the Tories by a ratio of almost two to one. Even among the ‘DE’ social groups, ie, the unskilled sections of the working class and the unemployed, traditionally greatly dominated by Labour voters, Labour is now just level with the Tories. Labour’s lead among this section, which had fallen from 37 percentage points in 1997 to 12 points in 2005, is now statistically insignificant.

In addition, the C1 lower-middle classes (the ‘Pebbledash People’, or the white-collar ‘Mondeo Man’, as the pollsters contemptuously characterise them), who were part of Blair’s widened coalition and key to his election victories, have deserted Labour.

Though Labour has slipped badly among ‘ABC1s’ (the upper and middle-class voters), worrying enough for its electoral prospects, it is the slippage among lower-middle and working-class voters (‘C2DEs’) that lands the party in the arena of total collapse.

The result of these defections was clear during last May’s local government and London Mayoral elections, followed by Labour’s crushing defeat at the Nantwich by-election, hard on the heels of which came Labour’s humiliating rout in the Henley by-election on 27 June.

In Henley, Labour came fifth and polled fewer votes than the openly racist British National Party (BNP) for the first time, securing a derisory 3 percent of the vote and losing its deposit.

After the result was announced, several Labour MPs claimed to have felt physically ill or suicidal.

Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, said: “My first reaction was to head to the library with a glass of whisky and a revolver.” Lord Levy, Blair’s notorious fund raiser, urged the Labour party to “seriously consider ditching Brown”.

Meltdown causes divisions

Labour is facing a meltdown at the next general election. With a 25 percent poll rating, it is trailing 22 points behind the Tories in opinion polls, when only a year ago it had a 10-point lead over them. There are now deep divisions within its ranks over the question of how the Brown government should respond to Labour’s worst poll rating.

While the so-called left-wing Labour MPs and some union leaders are urging Brown to opt for higher taxes on the rich, Blairites argue that to abandon Middle England would be tantamount to an electoral suicide.

The Blairites, including Brown, not surprisingly, are determined to rebuild a broad coalition including the middle classes and push on with the agenda of privatisation, tough policies on crime and immigration, and tax cuts for the well-off, hand in hand with attacks on the poor, as demonstrated by the efforts to abolish the 10p tax band.

The Blairites, including Brown, well understand that the coalition that they built for Labour’s electoral success over the past decade has at its centre British monopoly capital; attacking this centre will spell total misfortune for Labour, which after all is one of the two major parties of British imperialism.

Troto-revisionist apologists of social democracy

With the general election barely two years away, the usual apologists of social democracy – liberal commentators, Trotskyites and revisionists – have come forward in an attempt to rescue Labour from the impending shipwreck.

Seumas Milne, Guardian journalist, has called on Labour to accept policies that “reverse its haemorrhage of support and lay the ground for a better future”. (Guardian, 22 May 2008)

The Trotskyite SWP’s John Rees says that “Labour can help to save itself it if begins to defend those who elected it”, arguing that Gordon Brown can reverse Labour’s decline by declaring an end to privatisation, the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and by initiating a programme of council housing. (Socialist Worker, 24 May 2008)

So as not to lag behind its social-democratic Trotskyite cousins, the NCP, as ever chasing will-o’-the-wisps, demands the inclusion of “a whole raft of progressive demands in a [Labour] manifesto that can win back the millions of working people who expected so much from Labour when it returned to power in 1997”. (‘Facing the abyss’, New Worker leader, 11 July 2008)

That millions of uninitiated workers expected “so much” from Labour is one thing, but that those who call themselves communists should, by fostering such illusions, act as air-raid shelters for social democracy is nothing short of obscene and disgusting.

Historical revisionism

In its zeal to defend counterrevolutionary social democracy, the NCP is not ashamed to indulge in wholesale historical revisionism and present the history of this bloodthirsty bourgeois party in bright and beautiful colours.

“The Labour Party”, it says in the editorial cited above, “was established to represent the unions and press for progressive reforms for the benefit of working people throughout the country”.

The truth, however, is that the Labour Party was formed to defend the interests of the privileged upper stratum (at the time composed of skilled workers organised in craft unions, which embraced a tiny minority of the workforce) of the working class; and that since the privileged position of this upper stratum depended on the loot from the empire and the extraction of imperialist superprofits from abroad, Labour from its birth was committed to the defence of the British empire and British imperialism alike.

Labour has, therefore, throughout its existence, as its record over a century amply proves, been an imperialist party – a “bourgeois labour party”, to use Engels’s remarkably profound expression.

The NCP, while saying that the first two Labour administrations in the 1920s “achieved next to nothing [yes, they achieved nothing for the working class at home and the oppressed people abroad, but they achieved a lot for British imperialism] goes on to sing the praises of the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments.

The Attlee government, we are told, “provided free education; established the National Health Service and created a vibrant public sector that underpinned the prosperity in the 1950s and 60s”.

However, the NCP writer ‘forgot’ to add that the provision of the welfare state was underpinned by the intensified exploitation of the colonies and was a product of the special conditions in the aftermath of the second world war – the victories of the Red Army, working-class militancy and the post-war reconstruction following a devastating war.

The post-war Keynesian consensus was embraced by all bourgeois parties, not only in Britain but also in Europe.

The writer of the NCP’s editorial also ‘forgot’ to add that the Attlee government took a leading part in the establishment of the war-mongering imperialist Nato alliance; that it participated in the genocidal war against the people of Korea; that it helped to defeat the Greek revolutionary movement; that it brutally suppressed the war of liberation of the Malayan people; that it restored the defeated Dutch and French to their colonies in Indonesia and Indochina respectively … the list goes on.

In a manner typical of all ‘socialist’ opportunists, the NCP prize the achievements of the Attlee government’s welfare state above all things – even if they are the product of wading through the blood and corpses of hundreds of thousands of colonial slaves and oppressed peoples.

Not being content with praising the achievements, alleged and real, of the Attlee government, the NCP writer goes on to say that far “from being some sort of dark age, the Wilson and Callaghan governments pioneered more reforms for organised labour, and working people enjoyed unparalleled prosperity … during the 1970s”.

In its enthusiasm to prettify the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s, the New Worker ‘forgot’ to add that the Wilson government maintained complete trade links with the apartheid Pretoria regime and supplied the latter with fighter bombers.

At the end of 1966, Wilson offered the white minority leader, Ian Smith, terms that would have guaranteed white minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for decades to come. Only utter stupidity on the part of Smith’s regime prevented these generous terms from being accepted, thus preparing the ground for its own destruction at the hands of the Zimbabwean liberation movement a decade later.

Wilson’s government fully supported US imperialism’s barbaric war against the Vietnamese people and continued and intensified the suppression of the nationalist community in the occupied six counties of Ireland, putting troops on the streets of Belfast and Derry in 1969.

In the field of race relations, Labour proved its racist credentials through the Immigration Act 1968, which took away the rights of East African British passport holders, almost all Asians, to enter Britain. In 1969, the Labour government barred Asian women from bringing into Britain their fiancées and husbands. In 1979, the Callaghan government instituted virginity tests for Asian women coming into Heathrow and, in the same year, sent 5,000 police, in the name of ‘free speech’, to protect a National Front ‘election’ meeting in Southall and terrorise the local Asian population.

As regards working-class struggles, Labour was as vicious when in power as any Tory government could be. The thrust of its policy was to drive down working-class living standards through a raft of measures such as productivity deals, statutory wage restraints, incomes policies and the notorious social contract, which justly came to be called the ‘social con-trick’.

Finding itself resisted, Labour published its In place of Strife manifesto in an attempt to control strike activity. Working-class opposition forced the withdrawal of these union-busting proposals. Not only did Labour attack the working class directly on the wages front, but also indirectly through a reduction in state expenditure, which as a ratio of the GDP fell from 49.35 per cent in 1975 to 43.25 per cent in 1978, with its all too harmful effect on the poorest sections of society.

Labour’s attacks on wide sections of the working class produced the 1978 ‘Winter of Discontent’, with poorly-paid council workers striking and uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets. In the general election of the following summer, abstentions on the part of a sizeable section of the poorer workers, combined with the defection from Labour to the Tories by a significant section of skilled workers, brought the Tories to office under Thatcher’s leadership.

The above, briefly, is the real history of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour governments – a history completely refuting the fairytales about these governments told by the NCP.

Flying in the face of reality, then, the NCP is today calling upon unions affiliated to the Labour party to demand a commitment from the Brown leadership “to sweep away the reactionary Tory laws that obstruct free collective bargaining”, to scrap the pay freeze in the public sector, to “revitalise the ailing health service” through increased taxation of the rich, to restore the link between earnings and pensions, and to bring back all the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The theoreticians of the NCP might just as well go into the business of flying pigs, and to this end open an institute, admission to which would ideally be strictly reserved for those who are incurably blind to reality.

To achieve the above, or any other reformist demands, the working class needs to put up resistance to the incessant and daily attacks of capital on its standard of life and conditions of existence. And if that resistance is forthcoming in sufficient strength, then any bourgeois government, Tory or Labour, would have to sit up and take notice.

Simple petitions by the pliant leadership of the trade unions, accompanied by large infusions of cash into Labour’s bankrupt treasury, are an exercise in futility and worse. This is being increasingly realised by the membership of the unions and a minority of their leaders.

That is why, with increasing frequency, the unions are being compelled at their annual conferences to discuss the question of disaffiliation from the Labour party, for the unions emerge from this relationship having merely strengthened the very party that attacks them and which in reality is as much the enemy of working people as is the Conservative party.

Crisis of revisionism

Recognising this reality, a section of the CPB, led by its General Secretary, Robert Griffiths, has begun to entertain the question of jettisoning their long-held shibboleth of ‘reclaiming Labour’ for the working class and, instead, setting up an ‘alternative’ ‘mass party’ of the working class.

Undoubtedly, it is a narrow, reactionary, vision because, being unable to cut its umbilical cord with reformism and social democracy, being unable to get along without some reformist social-democratic outfit, which alone, according to it, can be the ‘mass party of the working class’, it dare not entertain the idea that the communist party must strive for hegemony in the working-class movement; that through a correct programme and policies, through dedicated, persistent and honest work, it must win over the masses and thus itself become a real mass party of the working class and lead the latter in the accomplishment of its historical mission – the establishment of socialism through the overthrow of capitalism.

But for all that, by perilously attempting to move away, no matter how hesitantly and haltingly, from the stance that the Labour party can be ‘reclaimed’ for the working class, Robert Griffiths and his followers have registered an advance over their previously-held superstitious belief and faith in the Labour party as the instrument of socialism.

It is this move, albeit at a snail’s speed, of theirs which has driven the NCP to denounce (without naming) them as “those chasing the mirage of yet another social-democratic electoral ‘alternative’ to Labour”, while “our task is to fight for a democratic Labour Party that carries out the demands of its affiliates”, and, it adds by way of a sop to its few members who still cling to the correct ideas about the role of a communist party, to “argue for the socialist alternative by building the communist movement up and down the country”. (Ibid)

This is merely a flourish around the writer’s assertion that “the Labour Representation Committee’s efforts to rebuild Labour’s rank-and-file base” are all that is needed to articulate the socialist alternative; the mention of “building the communist movement” is a mere eyewash.

In any case, even if the task of building the communist movement is taken very seriously, it is hamstrung from the very start, for, according to the NCP, the chief function of this “communist movement” is to propagate, rebuild and strengthen the Labour party as the mass party of the British proletariat.

To transfer their stance to the sphere of commerce, it is as if the owners of Sainsbury were to put out an advertisement to the effect that Tesco was the best grocery store, to which shoppers should flock to purchase their groceries. If it did that, Sainsbury would not stay in business too long – and would not deserve to.

Life has passed by the NCP’s beautiful theory of the Labour party as the mass party of the working class, refuting at each step its delirious fantasy of reclaiming this blood-thirsty imperialist party for the working class and as an instrument of socialism.

By its failure to learn from reality, the NCP has condemned itself to oblivion and extinction. Those comrades still in its ranks who believe in communism and the cause of the working class should quit the sinking ship and join our party.

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