Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Who gets our vote in the general election?
The various contributions on the opposition to New Labour (March SR) made interesting reading, particularly that of Mike Marqusee. I do, however, find myself with some reservations regarding the arguments offered by John Rees on the nature of New Labour.
John Rees is of course correct to point out that crude definitions of Labour now being indistinguishable from the Tories hide a more complex picture, and that there are important continuities between Blair's crowd and the way previous Labour governments have behaved. The problem is that if all we can see are the elements of continuity we are in danger of misunderstanding deeper shifts that are taking place.
Yes, Labour has always maintained that the integrity of the capitalist state and capitalist economy is inviolable, but the fact is within that framework it has traditionally promised, if not delivered, reforms perceived specifically to be in the interests of working people. This has meant that during periods of Labour administration there has been some tension between the government and the unelected minority that controls the `commanding heights' of the economy.
John mentions Callaghan's IMF-imposed austerity measures introduced in 1976. Without in any way absolving right wingers like Callaghan and Healy, there was a general perception that it was the cowardice of a reformist Labour leadership that had 'buckled under' to the IMF and the ruling class. Blair, on the other hand, has in no way had to buckle under, nor been 'blown off course' by such ruling class pressure. On the contrary, Blair has deliberately courted big business.
The two examples John uses to back up his assertion that Blair is not the most right wing leader Labour has had actually seem to undermine his case. Ramsay MacDonald and the SDP did, after all, have to split the Labour Party to pursue such an open pro-capitalist agenda, and in terms of policy New Labour is now quite well to the right of the SDP. The ideological shift is important. If Blair was simply another in a long line of right wing leaders it would be unlikely that a phenomenon such as the Socialist Alliance would exist in the first place.
Labour, despite ending up in the pockets of international bankers, went into the 1974 election declaring that `the British people, both as workers and consumers, must have more control over the powerful private forces that at present dominate our economic life'. New Labour goes into the 2001 election committed to privatising everything in sight, a right wing law and order agenda, and a promise to smash up what is left of comprehensive education. That is why many class conscious workers will simply refuse to vote for Labour, even where there is no alternative socialist candidate standing. We cannot dismiss them as ultra-left for doing so.
Unlike Rees, I do not think that the most important task for revolutionaries during the next five years is to prioritise building the Socialist Alliance. I think that if we are to avoid the disillusionment of the 1970s then we need to patiently continue to build the organisational presence of the SWP in workplaces and colleges--that is, to provide an organisational presence which opposes the failures of reformism. We also need to ensure that we do not see the Socialist Alliance as an alternative to building the revolutionary party.
I suppose what I am saying is that I fear we are in danger of pulling the proverbial stick too far in the direction of electoralism, and in the process will miss out on attracting a whole new generation of workers to revolutionary politics. After all, we should be pleased that a significant section of workers are losing their belief in parliament rather than fear it.
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The question of if, when and how the Socialist Alliance should transform itself into a new party of the working class is at the root of most debates that have taken place within the Alliance, and is likely to dominate debate after the election.
Paul Wilcox's position in March SR (that the process should begin soon irrespective of what happens in the general election campaign) has some adherents, but is a minority position. Others in the Alliance have argued consistently against what they see as greater centralisation and executive powers being assumed by the centre, and warn against a creeping process of creating a new party without assent. Some groups who argue this do not object, however, in principle to setting up a new party. They tend to argue that we are not at that 'stage' yet, and that it will require consistent intervention by socialists and development of working class consciousness over a number of years. Unfortunately this approach doesn't allow for the fact that class consciousness can shift decisively in a matter of weeks.
For the SWP an important question which then arises is, why set up a new party when we already have such a party in the SWP? If the working class is passive then such a party could function as a bridge away from revolutionary politics. On the other hand, if large numbers of people are breaking with Labour but have not fully broken with reformism, then it would be sectarian to oppose the formation of a new left party on the grounds that everyone should join a revolutionary party. The key lies in being able to recognise that shift. We're not talking about a few resolutions passed in left-controlled union branches. We're talking about clear and unmistakable signs that large numbers of people inside the mass organs of the working class are breaking with Labour and seeking to build an organisational alternative.
No one can prescribe the exact form that any new party would take if one were to emerge, but here are a few guidelines with which you may agree or disagree. As with the Socialist Alliance, we should be aiming to build a united movement in which conscious revolutionaries are in a minority--it would have to involve much wider forces than us. Of course we would want to produce a party paper, but we could not impose a single party line--there would have to be freedom to disagree over certain fundamental issues. A natural solution would be to adopt some form of federal structure which allows the greatest possible degree of autonomy to affiliated organisations (similar, in principle at least, to the SSP in Scotland). This would allow us to debate policy issues in a democratic, open way while working together.
The chancellor's budget still leaves us bereft of a true socialist policy. So paranoid is our chancellor with regard to the fine details that he is in danger of not being able to see the wood for the trees.
Public services are still being strangulated on the high altar of prudence, with the ultimate agenda of privatisation and the entrenchment of European federalism as the goal.
I am a disabled person, having been born with a congenital heart abnormality in 1938. Despite the prognostications of the medical profession of the day with regard to my chances of survival, my parents refused to accept the seemingly inevitable, and I began many years of fighting not only for my life, but for a life with dignity and independence. I qualified as an accountant and spent many happy years in a working environment with the support of colleagues and fellow trade unionists.
I was, however, aware that my condition was progressively worsening to the point where medical opinion advised that I retire on the grounds of continued ill health in 1992.
My dissatisfaction with the 'Blair project' led me to resign from the party in 1999 after a lifetime of support and a membership of 30-plus years.
Living as I do on Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance, I have noted that the Labour government to which we have entrusted power has done nothing to help those disabled and long term sick, just as they have continually disenfranchised the pensioners of our country.
That which was a right and paid for through years of working contribution is no longer sacrosanct as the free marketeers prepare to advance corporate rule by unelected bodies, ably assisted by New Labour. The present government has betrayed its history and sold its principles for a fistful of dollars.
The socialist movement must take the initiative. The party can never be won back, as the means to do so have been and are being systematically removed. Oligarchy stares us in the face if we fail to mobilise left wing doctrine, and begin to advance the cause of humanity and the destruction of the capitalist system.
In this respect I wish the Socialist Alliance my deepest and heartfelt support. Indeed, were there a true socialist candidate in my ward I would unhesitatingly pledge my vote when Blair calls his election of the so called people's party to a second term.
George R Waddle
Treasurer South Tyneside TUC
Stock market volatility combined with continuing annuity rate uncertainty (eg Equitable Life), highlights the folly of Gordon Brown in allowing the basic state pension to wither and die.
Older folk, no longer able to sell their labour, need a stable basic income to cushion the vagaries of shares and interest rates. This can only be given by the bedrock of a contributory basic state pension linked to earnings, sufficient to give dignity in retirement--a fact acknowledged, and promised, by Tony Blair before he was elected.
The chancellor must listen to the reputable national organisations that speak for pensioners' and change his misguided policy in the long term interests of today's, and future, elderly people. Inefficient, expensive and degrading means testing is not acceptable to people who paid all their working lives for a fair and honourable state pension.
Some years ago--in a kneejerk reaction--the Scottish Prison Service introduced mandatory drug testing (MDT). All the drugs agencies that were involved in the consultation process warned that since cannabis remained detectable for up to 28 days there was a real danger of encouraging heroin abuse, since traces of this drug disappear naturally within six days.
Prior to the introduction of MDT cannabis was the drug of choice in Scottish prisons. Initially most MDT failures were for cannabis, but as prisoners realised that heroin could be washed out of the system in 24 to 48 hours by 'flushing', the abuse of this drug became commonplace. It has now reached such epidemic proportions that of the long term prisoners being released, the majority are addicted to heroin. Sadly, a fair number of those did not use any drugs when they first came to prison.
The SPS have now introduced voluntary drug testing (VDT) on the basis that a VDT failure does not carry any sanctions (such as loss of remission) but merely involves a 30-day downgrade. This has had the effect of lowering the heroin failure statistics.
The overall result of the introduction of drug testing has been to skew drug use in prison markedly towards heroin abuse. It may be entirely coincidental that cannabis use results in very few criminal actions (other than possession) while heroin addiction is responsible for much drug-related crime--thereby perpetuating the function of prisons.
A prison doctor was so horrified by the effects of this policy that he raised his voice in protest--he was quietly got rid of. He does, however, continue to protest in the national press, to the chagrin of the Scottish Executive. The SPS continue to justify this misguided strategy, and turn out addicts in great numbers. A GP interviewed in the press this week states that her greatest fear is when seeing ex-prisoners who demand drugs to deal with the addiction they brought from prison.
H M P Edinburgh
An article on depleted uranium (February SR) suggested that 'we should demand an immediate ban on DU'. I couldn't agree more. Your article and other similar articles, not just on DU but on nuclear weapons in general (especially when in the hands of the US and British, it seems), make me sick. The irresponsibility of such countries is unbearable, and their actions should result in international prosecution, but how can this best be achieved? I would greatly appreciate any advice on the most effective course of action.
Judy Cox says that Peter Ackroyd's book on the history of London is 'wonderful' (March SR). I don't agree at all. It is certainly true that Ackroyd's book is an engaging read, as are his other works, fact and fiction. Historically, however, Ackroyd remains an enemy of the left. In London, for example, he makes trite comparisons between the Chartists who protested at Kennington Common in April 1848 and the fascist Blackshirts who tried to march at Cable Street in 1936. He does the same for the Gordon rioters in 1780s London and the Broadwater Farm uprising in Tottenham in 1986.
At the heart of Ackroyd's work lies a mystical approach to history where he argues that certain buildings and locations and their histories somehow dictate how life goes on today in London. This completely misses out how ordinary working people have actually fought and struggled to make London the city it is today, and how the ruling class have done the same on their side.
Ackroyd can be read with profit by socialists, particularly for the insights that he offers into how everyday life in London was lived. However, a socialist history of London would be a very different book.