Fiddling and Fudging while the City Burns

Report on ‘The Convention of the Left’, 21 September 2008

As the Labour Party gathered for its annual conference in Manchester amid collapsing financial markets, falling polls and calls for the head of prime minister Gordon Brown, a counter-conference, The Convention of the Left, met nearby.

The Convention had modest aims – 'We are not saying that this means the construction of another political party. But we do resolve to find ways that the Left as a whole can co-ordinate action both nationally and locally wherever we can' (Statement of Intent) - and did not exceed them. It comprised four days of themed discussion on Politics, Planet, People and Public Services, and Peace, endorsed by a host of groups including Respect, the Communist Party of Britain, the Green Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), Permanent Revolution and Workers Power. The first day, devoted to Politics, held discussions on 'left unity', women's rights and trade unions, and a final session which, without taking amendments, adopted an insipid statement resolving to ... go back to local areas and build left forums, and to hold another conference in November. That'll show ’em.

What this day of discussion illustrated above all was the inability of most sectors of the British left to tear themselves away from the Labour Party, despite everything they have witnessed over the past 11 years of Labour government. A handful of MPs as well as other Labour delegates took a break from their own conference to put in an appearance. Warmly welcomed was John McDonnell, the Labour MP who failed in a bid to contest the leadership of the party last year. McDonnell was still distributing his manifesto, Another World is Possible, which calls to ‘extend the parliamentary democratic process through the creation of new forms of direct, participative and representative democracy’ and for modifications to capitalism such as a ‘Land Value Tax’ and a ‘Ministry for Peace’. The sentiment of many present was summed up by Respect leader Nick Wrack who said he wouldn’t call for a new party immediately because he doesn’t want ‘to no longer be in the room with John McDonnell’.

McDonnell’s campaign for Labour leader in 2007 was supported by nearly every organisation on the British left, including those groups that work within the Labour Party and those that declare Labour a spent force and advocate an alternative. Workers Power attempted to place themselves in the latter camp, but they could not resist jumping on the McDonnell bandwagon:

‘So, while we call on Labour Party members and members of trade unions that remain affiliated to the party to vote and campaign for McDonnell if he gets on the ballot paper, we will not hide our criticisms of his policies, nor the central flaw in his strategy.

‘Further, we will pose a clear question to both McDonnell and his supporters: what will you do when you lose? Will you call on us to vote for Brown? If so, we will condemn you and call on others to break with you.’
(Workers Power, October 2006)

The idea that McDonnell would do anything but call for a vote to Brown’s Labour is pure fantasy. But perhaps the prospect of losing the crucial Workers Powers vote – after an unsuccessful bid for leadership – was enough to cause him a few sleepless nights?

McDonnell has recently proposed a 10-point programme, one of several charters in circulation at the meeting that included supportable reforms such as building more social housing but provided nothing that could even begin to lay the political basis for creating a mass revolutionary movement to overthrow capitalism. The Convention was broadly divided into those who wanted to unite around one of these charters (or some combination of them), those who wanted to form a party immediately (programme to be determined), and those who simply wanted to co-ordinate different campaigns and issues.

The session on ‘Women and Equality’ was addressed by two Labour MPs, Katy Clark and Linda Riordan, praising Labour's record on women's rights. Many speakers responded to discuss different aspects of women's oppression and the failures of Labour in addressing them. An IBT comrade intervened to point out that while we can work together to fight for immediate issues such as abortion rights, housing, equal pay and childcare, any gains won will always be subject to reversal under capitalism because the fundamental problems of social oppression require the working class taking power.

Trade union leaders from the RMT rail union, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and others spoke in the third session, provoking debate on the issue of trade union affiliation to the Labour Party. Organisations such as the AWL and Permanent Revolution, which would no doubt claim to be the left wing of this gathering, still call for support to Labour, with the AWL arguing against RMT and FBU disaffiliation.

Workers Power, although they talked further to the left, were distributing their own 10-point programme of non-controversial reformist demands which ended with a vague call for a new workers’ party. With misplaced enthusiasm they called on FBU leader Matt Wrack to issue a call here and now for a new party. Wrack declined – on the grounds that his name on a piece of paper would not solve anything. Earlier he had told the gathering that the working class and trade unions need a political party (pause for applause) – ‘whether Labour or something else’. Both Wrack and the RMT’s Pat Sikorski spoke enthusiastically of their work with union-supported Labour MPs.

Wrack also praised the recent strike carried out by the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) – an organisation which should have no place in the workers’ movement (see ‘Which side are you on? Screws out of the TUC!’). McDonnell is another supporter of the screws’ ‘union’, and is thanked for his help by POA general secretary Brian Caton: 'John McDonnell has been one of the most serious advocates to return full trade union rights to Prison Officers throughout the UK’ ( If Wrack were to form a party as requested, how would Workers Power feel about the POA being invited?

Ultimately almost all the organisations present, despite some ‘revolutionary’ speeches, signed up to the Convention's ‘Statement of Intent’ , which disappears programmatic differences and omits any mention of class.

The IBT comrade who addressed the session on 'left unity' observed:

'What all this talk of unity often obscures is that there is a historical split in the working class movement, in Britain and internationally, between those who advocate reform of capitalism and those who advocate the overthrow of capitalism. There is good reason for this split and I'm not in favour of papering over it now just because our forces are small and our forces are weak. There are also profound differences about how to overthrow capitalism....

'It's fair to say that capitalism hasn't been doing too well this week. But comrades, we are nowhere near being in a position to take advantage of that.... We need a party with a programme that can do so.'

Our comrade argued that the revolutionary party we need to build should have no association with the Labour Party, which betrays the working class and cannot be ‘reformed’. We must seek to break workers from Labourism and should reject schemes of voting for ‘left’ Labour candidates in the hope that this will somehow strengthen the forces for revolution. We should call for the trade unions to withdraw all funding from Labour.

A revolutionary party would not participate in or support popular front coalitions with so-called progressive bourgeois forces, a recent example of this being Respect (see ‘Class Collaboration – At the Ballot Box and on the Streets’).

Revolutionary internationalists favour the defeat of imperialist Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan and call for all British troops out of Ireland. We should defend those states that have overthrown capitalism, China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, while advocating workers’ political revolution against the Stalinist leaderships. We should fight for full rights for all immigrants and against all deportations. A revolutionary party would defend the rights of all the oppressed - racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians, the disabled etc - while combating ideologies such as nationalism and feminism that diminish the primary role of class in society.

Building this party requires full and frank discussion of different views on the left, testing ideas in polemic and in action. Programme comes before unity.

Posted: 26 September 2008