Monday, October 16, 2006

The future of Labour and the future of the far left

How interesting that the argument that Gordon Brown would be ‘an absolute fucking disaster’ as prime minister emanates not from the left but from within the New Labour camp itself.

This blunt - but essentially correct - assessment points to the Labour leadership’s profound pessimism about the future of the Labour Party. He is simultaneously both New Labour's best shot and a guaranteed election loser.

Ideologically, there is no such thing as ‘Brownism’. When the chancellor does finally get to move from Eleven Downing Street to Ten Downing Street, the co-creator of New Labourism will simply take over the driving seat of a political vehicle left with no particular place to go.

That is not entirely Brown’s fault. No-one else in the Labour leadership has developed a coherent '–ism' either. Labour – from its left wing to its right wing - is effectively an idea-free zone.

Blair’s condign revenge for a decade and more of Brownite backstabbing will be to hand over a project in ruins. New Labour has converged with Conservatism to the point where there simply aren’t any good brave causes left.

What – in the twentyfirst century – is social democracy for? By repudiating social ownership, it has ceased to represent a clear-cut alternative even to liberalism.

Unlike previous Labour governments, it would be hard put to deliver meaningful social democratic reform, even if it suddenly discovered the political will to do so. In a neoliberal world, the margin of negotiation for class compromise has been squeezed hard.

The delabourisation of Labour began as long ago as the late seventies, when a Labour government abandoned the post-war consensus and introduced monetarism.

Since then social democracy across the developed countries has consistently moved to the right, because the ruling class has moved to the right. The transformation is rooted in changes in the nature of capitalism itself, and therefore irreversible.

Traditional British labourism was largely the product of the culture of organised blue collar workers – miners, dockers, printers, engineers - that is no longer extant, and will never come back. The Marxist left needs to take that on board to a far greater degree that it has managed yet.

The trouble is, it is this within this culture that my generation - and the generations older than me – were formed as activists. Our habits and training have made it that much harder for us to assess where we are, and how socialists should work around and within the Labour Party.

The old division of labour worked something like this: The Communist Party – and too a lesser extent the Trotskyist movement - provided the ‘brains’, coming up with theoretical justifications for left reformism couched in marxist terminology.

The Labour left then operationalised this set of politics, giving these ideas some purchase inside a mainstream political party. The local level municipal leftism of the early eighties is the clearest example of that.

Meanwhile, the more leftist unions provided industrial muscle where industrial muscle was required.

We thought it was the natural order of things. We thought it would go on forever. But the ruling class couldn’t live with the hard left having modest but real political clout, and consciously set about taking the machine to pieces.

One by one, the options were closed shut. To exacerbate our problems, globalisation has largely finished the job Thatcherism started.

Essentially, the far left conceptualised the defeats inflicted during the miners’ strike, the Wapping dispute, the sequestration of the National Union of Seamen and the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme as a temporary setbacks.

We called it 'the downturn', because we were sure it was just that. A downturn. The implication clearly was that 'the upturn' would follow. The blue collar proletariat would spontaneously regenerate itself in the wake of defeat, as it had done ever since its inception, we told ourselves. Strength would be rebuilt - as it was after 1926 - no matter how long that might take.

The trouble is, this time really was different. This time the pits will never reopen. This time the factory gates are shut for good. The deindustrialisation of the UK is permanent.

Of course the working class still exists. Conditions for many are far more miserable, the exploitation far worse, than in the days of unionised jobs with unionised pay cheques.

But it is a very different working class, with much of the combativity knocked out it, and broken up into much smaller workplaces that do not generate the same degree of class consciousness that factory work tends to imbue. That is why strike activity remains at the lowest since records begun in the 1890s.

This trend is the the pragmatic justification behind the Socialist Workers’ Party’s turn to the Muslim community, even if they haven’t theorised it as such.

The SWP's former tactic of ambulance chasing industrial disputes doesn’t work when there are no longer any industrial disputes to ambulance chase.

The new reality facing the British left also underlines why John McDonnell’s efforts to reinvent Bennism cannot succeed.

There are no ‘back to the future’ scenarios available. Comrades, the upturn isn’t round the corner.

What is urgently needed on the far left is a serious debate about the way forward from our new starting point, and the best way to articulate revolutionary socialism in changed world.

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