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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Why we still say — Vote Labour!

by Theo Russell

THE electoral policy of the New Communist Party (NCP) since its formation in 1977 has been to vote Labour, with the exception of European parliament elections because we believe it has no genuine democratic content. This policy was slightly amended in 2000 to permit support for independent Labour candidates with mass support and the NCP backed Ken Livingstone’s successful bid for the London Mayoralty that same year.

The theoretical basis for this policy, detailed below, supports the belief that in the conditions we face today, modest gains for working people can be achieved under a Labour government and realistically only under a Labour government.

The 1997—2010 Labour government saw increased spending on the NHS and education, devolution in Scotland and Wales, the peace process in Ireland, the restoration of the Greater London Authority (GLA), a massive increase in pensioner winter fuel payments, the extension of bus passes, a renaissance in public libraries, Sure Start and dozens of new children’s centres.

Although the Thatcher anti-union laws were not repealed and Labour reneged on its promise to re-nationalise the railways, trade unions were given the power to force bosses to recognise unions.

These small gains could not have happened under the Tories nor any non-Labour coalition likely to form a government in Britain today.

Of course we opposed New Labour’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PPI [public-private investment] and part-privatisation of the London underground. But despite its imperialist foreign policy and neo-liberal economic doctrine, our position on Labour was maintained because of Labour’s strong organisational ties with the labour movement and because the Labour Party is far more than Blair, Brown or the right wing.

Our members and supporters work with Labour and labour movement activists at all levels. We support and defend left and progressive elements in the labour movement against the right wing, whilst understanding their limitations and being critical when necessary.

We have defended Diane Abbot, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone for their contributions to peace, national liberation struggles, workers’ rights and the public sector.

Our party puts forward the most advanced demands of the day whilst also calling on its followers to work towards the long-term goal, working-class state power and genuine socialism.

We can also see the immense influence of bourgeois ideology within the organised working class, described so well by Engels in his day, which holds the class back from revolutionary militancy, but we work with it in order to educate and win people over to our positions.

The ‘Left’ alternatives

We believe that standing candidates against the Labour Party divides the working-class vote and undermines the loyalty of union, trades council and co-operative society members to the party they affiliate to.

In the current electoral system, which effectively means that only the Tories or Labour can form or lead a government, voting for ‘alternative left’ parties — and indeed tactical voting or abstaining — in effect ultimately benefits the Tories, the only other party likely to win at the national level.

Undeniably a Conservative government, with or without support from the Liberal Democrats, will always be much worse than any Labour government.

Even where Labour candidates have little chance of winning, union members and labour movement activists should still vote Labour simply out of class unity because in most cases they are indirectly affiliated to Labour.

History shows that ‘alternative left’ parties have been rejected time and again by the same working class that they claim to represent. They can never gain more than one or two MPs or a few local councillors.

A vote for these parties, however satisfying it may feel, is actually a win for the bourgeois parties because it is one less vote for Labour, the only realistic option of forming a government more aligned with working-class interests.

These parties may believe they are leading the working class to socialism — but in the years since the Labour Party was founded in 1906 not a single left alternative with the remotest possible chance of forming a government has emerged.

The one possible exception is the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was inextricably tied to the Labour Party for most of its existence. Many ILP members were elected as Labour MPs and several later became ministers, including Ramsay MacDonald. But the ILP’s candidates actually stood as Labour candidates.

The NCP is not necessarily hostile to left parties who stand candidates, and in most cases is happy to work with them on commonly agreed campaigns, but we disagree with their electoral strategies.

Lenin’s analysis in 1920

Our electoral strategy also rests on Lenin’s guidance in his 1920 speech On affiliation to the British Labour Party.

“The British Labour Party is a highly original type of party, or not at all a party in the ordinary sense,” Lenin says. “It is made up of members of all trade unions, and has a membership of about four million, and allows sufficient freedom to all affiliated political parties.

“It thus includes a vast number of British workers who follow the lead of the worst bourgeois elements [our emphasis], but it has let the British Socialist Party into its ranks, whose own publications openly declare that the party leaders are social-traitors.

“In such circumstances it would be highly erroneous for the best revolutionary elements not to do everything possible to remain in such a party. Let the Thomases and other social-traitors, whom you have called by that name, expel you. That will have an excellent effect upon the mass of the British workers.”

Of course in Lenin’s day other parties could affiliate to the Labour Party and put forward candidates, a practice which ended in 1924; but we believe Lenin’s description of the Labour Party as “a highly original type of party” still stands.

In our view Labour is still unique amongst social-democratic parties in Europe, if not the whole advanced capitalist world, because of its unbroken organisational ties with the organised working class.

Many European social-democratic parties have seen their electoral support collapse, or in the case of the French Socialist Party virtually disappear, after surrendering to neo-liberal doctrine.

The direct input of unions into Labour’s policy-making, and the fact that many party members are also trade union members, forms a living, dynamic connection between the two.

With its organisational ties to the trade unions, local trades councils and the co-operative movement still unbroken after 113 years, the Labour Party offers the best option for the working class {in the current period of bourgeois parliamentary democracy}.

So although many on the left claim that Labour is just another bourgeois party purely on the basis of right-wing policies adopted over its history, this is simply untrue. It does not primarily represent the business, finance and landed interests, nor is it funded by them.

This confusion arises from the penetration of agents of the bourgeoisie into the Labour leadership, as well as that of many trade unions. But that does not make Labour a bourgeois party according to any scientific definition.

In 2017 the unions contributed 45.6 per cent of Labour’s funds, with the rest coming from local branches and donations, and Labour’s general election campaigns are almost entirely funded by the unions these days.

During the first week of the 2017 election campaign, as the Daily Telegraph lamented, Unite the Union donated almost £2.4 million, money collected from working-class union members.

The Labour Party and the unions may not be totally democratic structures, but they are far more democratic than any of the main bourgeois parties. The reforms under Blair’s leadership greatly undermined Labour’s internal democracy but we have consistently supported those fighting to reverse those changes.

Another plank of Labour’s strength is that, unlike most other capitalist countries, Britain also has only one main national trade union federation, the TUC [Trades Union Congress]. Although not all trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party or the TUC, the vast majority are affiliated to both.

After Corbyn became leader Labour’s membership increased from 388,000 to 544,000 in two years (it has since fallen slightly), as trade unionists, socialists and activists against austerity, Britain’s imperialist wars and Trident, returned to the party.

Many of the new members were young, making Labour’s current membership profile far younger than that of the Tories or Lib Dems.

Under Corbyn, Labour is fighting to restore the welfare state and part of the public sector that Labour established after the second world war. Hence the attempts to portray Corbyn and McDonnell as dangerous ‘Bolsheviks’!

The bourgeois parliamentary period

To understand the conditions in which we are currently operate, we can turn to the writings of Lenin and Stalin on the strategy and tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks in a similar period.

In the chapter Strategy and Tactics of Joseph Stalin’s work The Foundations of Leninism (a series of lectures at Sverdlov University in 1924), he writes: “The period of the domination of the Second International [before the creation of the Comintern] was mainly a period of more or less peaceful development when parliamentarianism was the predominant form of the class struggle. Class conflicts, preparing the proletariat for revolutionary clashes or achieving the dictatorship of the proletariat were not on the order of the day” (our emphasis).

A period when “class conflicts… were not on the order of the day” seems a fairly accurate description of the situation in Britain today. The class struggle hasn’t ceased altogether, but compared to the 1920s, 1970s or 1980s levels of strike action, union organisation and militancy have clearly declined sharply.

This is concrete reality and it can’t be ignored or wished away, so as Marxist-Leninists we have to adapt our tactics to it.

Stalin says of the period 1907—1912, when the Czarist autocracy had the upper hand: “The Party was compelled to resort to tactics of retreat; for we then experienced in the revolutionary movement, the ebb of the revolution, and tactics necessarily had to take this fact into consideration.” This meant participating in the Duma, partial economic strikes, “or simply a lull in activities”.

Looking back at these tactics now they seem timid and distinctly un-Bolshevik! But when the Russian working class was at “the ebb of the revolution”, they were infinitely preferable to no activity at all.

In Britain, one of the world’s most stable countries thanks to its colonial history and highly developed monopoly capital, the current ebb in the class struggle has lasted at least since 1985 (the end of the miners’ strike), whilst the current period of stable bourgeois parliamentary democracy has lasted over 150 years.

In the last 40-odd years the capitalist class has adopted new tactics, not just in Britain, and arguably outwitted the working class tactically. This period of unfettered neo-liberalism has seen defeat after defeat for the working class.

Compared with the 1920s or ‘30s, when communists were elected as Labour MPs and there was mass pressure on the leaders of the labour movement, in this period of a ‘low ebb’ we too have to trim our sails, to work with the labour movement as it is and to be content with minor victories.

As Lenin put it: “You must strive for daily success, even if small… and at all costs retain the ‘moral ascendancy’”.

In such conditions our expectations must be limited. Even at the heights of working-class militancy there were {limited} gains, which have since been reversed, including many of the great advances of 1945—51 and the more modest ones of 1997—2010.

At such times, small gains and small victories not only boost morale, but the working class learns valuable, even basic lessons that are carried from generation to generation.

Even during such times of ‘low ebb’ no-one can deny that the labour movement has far greater influence under Labour.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto is indeed limited: reversing a fraction of the spending cuts since 2010, restoring only the post-2017 benefits cuts, and proposing tax increases on the wealthy far lower than those of 1964—79.

But if it can carry out its plans for public ownership, social housing and social investment, after so many defeats and setbacks, it would still be a major victory and a huge boost to morale for working people!

The ‘reformism’ accusation

There is one more criticism levelled at our electoral policy we need to answer, that by supporting the Labour Party we are merely supporting reformism and only seek to tinker with, rather than change, the capitalist system.

Not only is this false — our publicly stated long-term goal remains socialism — but the fact is that contrary to widespread belief, neither Lenin nor Stalin opposed reforms outright.

In The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin says: “Some think that Leninism is opposed to reforms, opposed to compromises and to agreements in general. This is absolutely wrong [our emphasis]. Bolsheviks know as well as anybody else that in a certain sense ‘every little helps’, that under certain conditions reforms in general, and compromises and agreements in particular, are necessary and useful.”

He also quotes Lenin: “To carry on a war for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, a war which is a hundred times more difficult, protracted and complicated than the most stubborn of ordinary wars between states, and to refuse beforehand to manoeuvre... is not this ridiculous in the extreme?”

This merely reinforces our position, that when the working class is the weaker class in the balance of forces — clearly the case at present — is essential to continue to work side by side with the organised labour movement, which is organically connected with the Labour Party, in our workplaces, on the streets, on the picket lines and in our communities, for whatever small victories we can achieve.

The alternative is to stand aloof from the mainstream of the labour movement, like those irrelevant sects that adopt a hostile, ultra-left position towards Labour and union leaders whilst claiming they are wiser, more advanced and ‘revolutionary’ than them.

The fight for socialism

As for the long-term goal of socialism, Marxist-Leninists have to be incredibly patient and accept that whilst we may achieve small victories from time to time we may also lose them, and we have no way of knowing when major changes might come.

However much we would like to see a militant, fighting and revolutionary class, we don’t have one right now. Such a class only emerges extremely rarely in history during a sharpening of the class struggle, such as in Europe in 1848 or 1917—19.

This is not defeatism or weakness, it is the correct application of theory to reality. Those who can’t see this have been shown again and again that their tactics may produce a lot of hot air, but nothing in terms of concrete, lasting results.

So whilst we support limited advances in this period, the NCP fights for genuine socialism as the only way to end exploitation, unemployment, poverty, economic crisis, endless wars, pollution and climate change. But the reality, whether we like it or not, is that realising that goal lies in the indeterminate future, not the predictable future.

Supporting limited advances doesn’t mean turning our backs on the immediate demands for social justice and state welfare advanced by a labour movement that represents millions.

So for us in the present conditions a Labour government remains the best possible outcome for working people, the best way to take forwards the fight for socialism, slowly and patiently.