British Election 2001: Vote SA/SLP/SSP!

No Vote to Labour!

The following statement was distributed during Britain’s 2001 general election campaign.

Labour’s bid for a second term on 7 June pits it against a divided and demoralised Tory party, whose xenophobia over Europe and attempts to play the race card have failed to give it significant traction. Labour’s hostility to asylum seekers, its commitment to privatisation, and its antagonism to anti-capitalist youth, trade unionists, poor people and racial minorities, have made it difficult for William Hague to distinguish his party from Tony Blair’s. Under Labour, Britain’s army of occupation has remained in Northern Ireland, British bombers have continued to attack Iraq, and British soldiers are still deployed as neo-colonial gendarmes from Bosnia to Sierra Leone.

Blair has described Labour’s ‘third way’ as a ‘centre-left’ response to the destruction of the USSR (Guardian, 20 February [2001]). For three generations the Soviet Union provided a living, if bureaucratically deformed, demonstration of the possibility of organising a modern industrial economy on a basis other than the pursuit of profit. With the supposed ‘death of communism’, social democracy lost much of its value to the bosses as a hedge against the growth of more radical currents within the working class. Blair’s ‘third way’, premised on the permanence of capitalist ascendancy, is designed to reinvent the Labour Party as the most efficient social manager for the monied elites.

Big Brother’s Little Helpers

Rather than repealing the Tories’ repressive anti-union legislation, as ‘Old Labour’ might have, Blair’s government has pushed things further and turned Britain into one of the most tightly controlled societies on the planet. In an infamous May 1999 speech, Home Secretary Jack Straw bragged that the government now has a million cameras in public spaces across the country. On an average day most individuals in Britain’s major urban centres are videoed several hundred times. Straw concedes that Big Brother’s omnipresent eye means a loss of privacy, but considers it ‘a price worth paying’ for heightened security. To complement state surveillance there has also been an explosion of private networks which now monitor roughly half the workforce, and routinely track company vehicles with satellite systems originally developed by British intelligence for use against the IRA.

At the pinnacle of this edifice of high-tech repression sits Labour’s new ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, which defines terrorism as ‘serious damage to property’ or interference with ‘an electronic system’. Anyone committing or encouraging such acts, or even associating with those who do, can be jailed. In Labour’s Brave New World it is illegal not to report suspicions of prohibited activity, or to wear a T-shirt or badge that might ‘arouse reasonable suspicion’ of sympathy for ‘terrorist’ causes. Under this legislation, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and other suffragettes whose protests occasionally resulted in property damage ‘for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause’, could be jailed for life as ‘terrorists’.

Terrorist activities have not been on the rise in Britain in recent years, but there has been a wave of anti-capitalist protest, and this is Blair’s real target. Under Labour’s draconian legislation, the police can make arrests even when no offence has been committed. They are also empowered to cordon off any area in which they suspect an ‘illegal’ action is about to occur and to arrest those who do not immediately disperse. The law eliminates the necessity for companies to go before a judge to get injunctions to limit pickets or demonstrations — the police are now free to impose whatever limitations they see fit without judicial oversight. The outrage on Mayday, when heavily armed riot cops trapped thousands of peaceful protesters in Oxford Circus for hours, photographing and videotaping them and making selective arrests, is just the latest instance of the intrusive ‘in your face’ style of policing promoted by Labour.

Labour: Still a Right-Wing Bourgeois Workers’ Party

Labour’s connection to the TUC has thus far enabled Blair to get away with anti-democratic outrages without serious resistance from the trade unions. Blair also found the union bloc vote handy during the squabble over the selection of Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. ‘New Labour’ is a very right-wing bourgeois workers’ party with a leadership that clearly aspires to break its links to the union movement, but has not (yet) been able to do so.

Blair’s sometimes hidden reliance on the union bureaucracy was illustrated during last year’s fuel tax crisis when a spontaneous bloc of farmers, self-employed truckers, oil company executives, Tories and working-class motorists briefly challenged the government. The protest was derailed when the TGWU leadership ordered drivers to break the blockades around the petrol depots.

A majority of British trade unionists may still vote Labour, but they do so either out of habit or with clenched teeth. Many who voted Labour in 1997 did so despite Blair’s neo-conservative programme, in order to end 18 years of Tory rule. Increasing numbers of working people (particularly youth) are not bothering to vote at all.

The task for revolutionaries in this election is to channel plebeian discontent into a conscious political break with Labourism. This can best be expressed through votes for the slates to Labour’s left. The Socialist Alliance (SA), an electoral bloc of various ostensibly revolutionary organisations — including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the International Socialist Group, the Socialist Party (SP), the Communist Party of Great Britain and Workers Power (WP) — is running close to one hundred candidates in England and Wales. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is contesting all 72 constituencies north of the border. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) has announced plans to stand in ‘more than 100 constituencies’, including Blair’s and those of Labour ‘lefts’ Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. The Socialist Party, in addition to having several candidates on the Socialist Alliance slate, is also fielding candidates in two seats under a ‘Socialist Alternative’ banner.

The SA/SSP campaigns, taken together, represent Labour’s most significant left-wing electoral challenge for many years. Yet Blair’s claim that leftists who criticise his government are engaging in ‘a curious form of self-mutilation’ (Guardian, 20 February [2001]) can only be interpreted as a macabre joke. The problem with the Socialist Alliance is that it represents only a very partial break, even in organisational terms, from the abject Labour loyalism that has hobbled the British left for so long.

Most of the constituencies contested by the SA are considered ‘safe’ for Labour, seats in which a few thousand votes are unlikely to affect the outcome. While standing candidates against prominent Blairites and cabinet ministers, the SA is steering clear of Labour Party ‘lefts’. The SA’s electoral manifesto also carefully avoids the question of who workers in England and Wales should vote for if they live in any of the 400-odd constituencies where the SA is not standing.

Voting for Blair ‘With a Heavy Heart’

The SWP, the SA’s majority shareholder, welcomed Labour’s 1997 election victory. While striking a more critical posture toward the Blairites today, the SWP still advises workers to vote Labour where the SA and SSP are not standing:

‘we still prefer a Labour victory to a Tory (or for that matter Liberal Democrat) one, and in marginal seats make it clear that we want to see the Tories beaten.

‘Our central slogan should be “Vote socialist — build a left alternative to Blair”, and we should use the slogan “Keep the Tories out” only as a subordinate slogan.’
Socialist Worker, 3 March [2001]

John Rees, a leading SWPer, explained:

‘we must be able to say, “We only called for workers not to vote Labour where there was a socialist alternative.” Where none existed we, with a heavy heart, said, “Don’t let the Tory in — vote Labour but build the socialist alternative so that next time we don’t face the same lousy choice.”’
Socialist Review, March [2001]

Rees postpones a full-scale break with Labour to some point in the indefinite future when the construction of a ‘socialist alternative’ is complete. But if the SA were running a full slate of ‘socialist’ candidates in this election, it would increase the ‘danger’ of Tories picking up marginal seats. The SWP shrinks from telling the simple truth: workers have no more interest in enduring another four years of attacks from Blair than from the Tories. Those who call for a vote to any candidates running on Labour’s ticket must, to quote the April issue of Workers Power (WP),

‘justify doubling the prison population; the most repressive anti-union laws in Europe; racist asylum laws; attacks on civil liberties.’

We fully agree. Yet, strange to say, Workers Power, which like the SWP supported Blair in 1997, is once again following the SWP in (very quietly) advocating votes to Labour where the SA and SSP are not running. While the SWP at least attempted to provide a political rationalisation for its craven Labourism, the special election issue of Workers Power (May) simply proposed:

‘If you live in a place where the SA/SSP is not standing we recommend you cast your for Labour [sic]. But get involved in your nearest SA/SSP campaign.’

In typically centrist fashion this right-wing policy is concealed behind slogans advising workers to ‘Break with Labour’.

Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party correctly observes:

‘To call for a Labour vote at this election... 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.’

Yet this is based on a false premise:

‘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.’
Socialism Today, April [2001]

In place of Lenin’s view of critical support as a tactic which revolutionaries can use to split the pro-capitalist leadership of mass reformist parties from their proletarian base, the SP (like the SWP, WP et al) treats electoral support to Labour as obligatory as long as it retains an organic connection to the workers’ movement through the labour aristocracy. Because Taaffe and the SP leaders can no longer bring themselves to vote for Blair, they conclude that Labour must be a capitalist party.

Sometimes it is necessary for revolutionaries to critically support Labour. In 1974, for example, when the election was in effect a referendum on the Tories’ assault on the miners, Marxists called for workers to vote Labour while warning that the social-democrats would inevitably betray once in office. Labour won the election and then proceeded to impose the infamous ‘Social Contract’ which pushed down working-class living standards by almost 20 percent. In the 1979 election Labour campaigned on its strikebreaking record and its ability to control trade union militancy more effectively than the Tories, yet the SWP and the other ‘revolutionary’ Labour loyalists dutifully called on workers to re-elect the Callaghan government in order to ‘Keep the Tories Out’.

In 1997 we called for votes to the Socialist Labour Party, and within the SLP our comrades fought hard against proposals for voting Labour in any constituency. The Socialist Alliance suffers by comparison with the early SLP in several respects. Firstly, most of its components are advocating votes for Blair. Secondly, unlike the SLP, which was a left split from Labour, the Socialist Alliance is a reformist electoral umbrella created by a variety of ostensibly revolutionary organisations. Arthur Scargill and his immediate coterie at least believed in the reformist programme they espoused, unlike the ‘Leninists’ of the Socialist Alliance who are putting forward an explicitly non-revolutionary programme.

Last year we voted for the Socialist Alliance candidates in the elections for the London Assembly despite their overtly reformist programme, and their abject support to Ken Livingstone’s popular frontist mayoral campaign. We did so because the SA campaign provided an opportunity for workers to cast a ballot against the Blairite union-bashers. This time, for the same reason, we are again calling for votes to the Socialist Alliance, as well as to candidates of the SLP, SSP and Socialist Alternative, despite the fact that none of them are campaigning on a programme that even roughly approximates a socialist option for workers.

Reformist Tinkering vs. Socialist Programme

Labour cynically claims to champion the interests of poor and working people, but even columnist Polly Toynbee, who is generally supportive of Blair’s social policies, admits:

‘the gap between the rich and poor has still widened under Labour. It always happens in prosperous times, but Labour made no attempt to claw back any of the extra income flowing in to top earners — let alone taxing their growing capital wealth.... The big picture is still that the rich are getting richer faster than the rest and the poor are still being left behind.’
Guardian, 8 March [2001]

Toynbee mocks the Socialist Alliance as impractical ideologues who: ‘think blue sky and green field and dream of a world that is a better place than this’ (Guardian, 2 March [2001]). But the SA’s election manifesto is really just standard issue left Labourism. It calls for increased public spending and higher corporate taxation, the repeal of anti-union legislation, reduced military spending and the re-nationalisation of rail and utility companies. The manifesto also proposes the takeover of ‘all companies threatening closure and redundancies’, and ‘the major transport, construction and manufacturing industries, as well as banking and financial institutions’. Why only the financial giants and the duds? While calling for ‘no compensation to the fat cats’ and for public services to be ‘democratically controlled by those who work in and use them’, the manifesto gives no hints about how to counter the inevitably violent bourgeois reaction to such measures.

The capitalists would only concede the sorts of utopian reformist demands proposed in the Socialist Alliance programme in order to play for time to defuse a social crisis and/or assemble the forces necessary to reassert control through naked repression. In such circumstances, with the possibility of a socialist breakthrough acutely posed, the half-measures of the SA programme would be counterposed to the urgent necessity to disperse the capitalists’ armed gangs and proceed with the wholesale expropriation of industry, transport and communication. ‘A world that is a better place than this’ can only be created if the working class is won to a programme that decisively breaks with left Labourist reformism.

At the SA conference in Birmingham on 10 March [2001]where the election manifesto was finalised, attempts to introduce left-wing amendments were rebuffed. Chris Harman, Lindsey German and other SWP leaders argued that only an overtly reformist programme could provide the ‘possibility of drawing together wide numbers of people rebelling against New Labour’. An East London nun, who would be offended by excessive radicalism, was used as an example of the kind of person the SA should be seeking to attract. The implications, if any, for the SA’s pro-choice position on abortion were not spelled out by the SWP.

Rejecting a Workers Power proposal ‘for disbanding of the police’, the SWP-led majority instead called for the SA to:

‘support all reforms that make the police accountable to democratically elected bodies and stop their use against workers in struggle, black people, progressive demonstrations and young people’.

This is pure, unadulterated, social-democratic reformism. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Marxist tradition the SWP claims to represent. The job of revolutionaries is not to promote illusions that the capitalists’ armed thugs can be reformed, but rather to uphold the necessity for organised self-defence by the working people and the oppressed against strikebreaking, racist attacks and every other sort of capitalist violence.

Another Workers Power amendment addressed the class character of the state:

‘We would have to break up the bosses’ state, abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, dismiss the generals and the police chiefs, break up its machinery of power and repression, its undemocratic institutions and its armed forces and police. To do this [we] would have to base our government on the mass democratic organisations of the working class, on elected councils of workers in every workplace and community, on the armed power of the defence organisations of the working class.’
—‘Agenda and order paper for National Network of
Socialist Alliances policy conference’

This motion was roundly rejected by the SWP and most of the other assembled ‘revolutionaries’ because it was not likely to go down well with voters who retained illusions in a parliamentary road to socialism. Workers Power was hardly surprised by this rejection:

‘the Socialist Alliance’s two largest components the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (SP) have already indicated that they favour advancing a programme that falls well short of being revolutionary. In a bid to capture the votes of discontented Labour supporters they argue that we cannot go “too far” and should limit our programme to a series of radical reforms, combined with vague platitudes about socialism in the future.’

‘We are certain that the longer we keep quiet about the revolutionary programme — in the false hope of coaxing people to our side and then trying to convince them by stages — the less likely we are to break reformism’s ideological hold. In short, we will not make lasting gains for socialism.

‘At best, we will create a sort of permanent non-aggression pact between disparate forces of the socialist movement that is incapable of advancing a united and decisive solution when faced with crises in the class struggle.’
Workers Power, February [2001]

Despite the fact that Workers Power knew in advance that its attempts to provide the SA with a more left-wing facade would be rebuffed, they dared not flatly reject the classically social-democratic programme and meekly abstained on the vote to approve the final manifesto.

SSP: Taking the Low Road

The SA in England and Wales is in an informal electoral alliance with the left-reformist nationalists of the Scottish Socialist Party. While revolutionaries recognise the right of the Welsh and the Scots to form their own independent states, at this point we do not advocate that they exercise this right. Scottish, Welsh and English workers face an integrated British ruling class and, unless national antagonisms become so bitter that they seriously impede joint class struggle, dividing the workers’ organisations along national lines can only strengthen the hand of the exploiters. The SSP advocates an ‘independent socialist Scotland’, but ignores the fact that a seizure of power by the Scottish proletariat can only be secured by spreading the struggle south. Otherwise, the full weight of the British state, backed by its US and European imperialist allies, deployed against an isolated Scottish insurrection would likely result in a bloody replay of the crushing of the Paris Commune.

There is little reason to think that Tommy Sheridan (who now sits as a member of the devolved Scottish parliament) or the other leaders of the SSP intend anything so heroic. Their idea of an ‘independent socialist Scotland’ seems to chiefly involve the SSP making it to the government benches in Edinburgh. Sheridan’s speculations about future manoeuvres with the bourgeois Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) were recently reported in the SSP’s paper:

‘In the 2003 elections [to the Scottish parliament], we can expect to win six or eight seats, which will give us a platform to spread our socialist ideas, so that by 2007 you could not rule us out on taking 20 to 25 seats. On that basis the SNP would be looking for a group to form a coalition with. We would not enter a coalition government, but that does not mean we cannot support a referendum on independence, policies for progressive taxation and proposals designed to tackle poverty.’
Scottish Socialist Voice, 2 March [2001]

This is the SSP’s ‘left’ face. In an earlier interview, Sheridan refused to rule out a coalition with the SNP after the next Scottish election in 2003:

‘The SNP, I think, will gain and Labour will lose, the Liberal Democrats will lose. You might have the SNP then looking to form an administration with some of the smaller parties. If that happened then our demand would be that our redistributive policies are on the agenda. That’s a price the SNP would have to pay. Whether they’d be willing to pay it I don’t know but we wouldn’t be easy negotiators.’
Observer, 13 August 2000

The reform of ‘redistributive policies’ by an SNP/SSP coalition is as close to ‘socialism’ as these aspiring parliamentarians are likely to get. Yet in this election the SSP, by standing against the bourgeois parties and Labour, at least provides Scottish workers with the opportunity to vote against Blair’s anti-working class agenda.

Four Years of ‘Hard Labour’ is Enough!

The recent defection of Liz Davies, a former member of Labour’s NEC who was de-selected as a parliamentary candidate in 1997 by the Millbank machine, provided the SA with some favourable media coverage. In an interview published in Socialist Worker on 31 March [2001], she explained her decision:

‘I have concluded that there is absolutely no possibility of bringing the Labour Party back to values of redistribution of wealth and of civil liberties. These are values that most Labour Party members believe in, but New Labour doesn’t.’

For Davies, joining the SA does not mean cutting ties with ‘Old’ Labour; she has openly declared her support for several ‘lefts’ on Blair’s slate including Diane Abbott in her own Hackney North constituency.

If enough disgruntled Labour members follow Davies’ example and join the Socialist Alliance, the influence of the ‘revolutionary’ groups would be significantly diluted. This, paradoxically enough, would be likely to push the SA to the left, particularly on the question of re-electing Blair, which is what voting for Labour where the SA or SSP are not running amounts to. Ordinary working people who finally decide to break with Labour are not likely to be impressed by the sophistic rationalisations of Blair’s various ‘Leninist’ backers.

Why should socialists want to see Labour re-elected, when, in the words of the SWP’s Lindsey German:

‘We already know what the second term will look like.... There will be the same privatisation even in hospitals, schools and housing which attacks the very heart of the welfare state. There will be the same attacks on workers.... There will be the same trend towards authoritarianism, with the attacks on civil liberties such as the right to jury trial. There will be the same scapegoating of refugees and asylum seekers.’
Socialist Review, April [2001]

The main headline of the March issue of Workers Power characterised Blair’s government as ‘Empty, corrupt and capitalist’. In February, WP observed, ‘After four years in government Labour has dashed the hopes of the millions who voted for it in 1997’ and predicted: ‘it will launch many more attacks on the working class in a second term government’. So why tell workers to give Blair a second mandate?

The traditional Labour loyalism of the British ‘far left’ is a form of political adaptation to the existing (bourgeois) consciousness of the working class. The Labour Party has always functioned as an ideological agency of the capitalists within the proletariat, but under Blair it no longer makes any pretence of representing working-class interests. This has forced Millbank’s most craven ‘revolutionary’ apologists to strike a more critical posture, yet the strength of social-democratic sentiment within the SA is evident in its formal programme (which is a facsimile of the Labour lefts’ muddled reformism), as well as the insistence on voting for Blair’s nominees in the majority of constituencies.

In this election, class-conscious workers should vote for candidates of the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alternative and even the desiccated Socialist Labour Party, despite their reformist programmes. The larger the aggregate vote for the candidates of the left, the greater the impetus for sections of Labour’s working-class base to move to the left.

The realignment of a sizeable number of traditional Labour supporters could initiate a period of debate and regroupment through which the most advanced layers of the British working class are able to connect to the Marxist heritage of the Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky. This would lay the basis for the emergence of a mass workers’ party prepared to fight the bosses, rather than collaborate with them.

Break with Labour—Vote SA/SLP/SSP!
Forward to a Revolutionary Workers’ Party!

Published: 1917 No.24 (Feb 2002)