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Where is the Agency, John?

3:14 pm - May 18th 2008

by Alan Thomas    

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There is an article by John McDonnell published in yesterday’s Morning Star, which I feel at once encapsulates the reasons why people on the left feel a lingering affection for the Labour Party and also why that Party is in reality a no-goer. And indeed I think McDonnell himself is emblematic of that same duality.

In the article, McDonnell begins with his ususal rallying cry “New Labour is dead” and seeks to take us forward via the construcation of a new set of economic policies (dare one say an Alternative Economic Strategy?) based on left-wing and socialist politics. He appears to be offering the notion that thus we will be able to take control of the Labour Party’s political direction via victory in a sub-Gramscian war of ideas.

There is a great deal of descriptive content in his article that is entirely true; attacks on the poor by the Government, rising household debt, public sector pay capping, etcetera. McDonnell has been one of the most consistent and honest opponents of the Government in areas such as these, and concern for those most vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of a neo-liberal economy formed the basis for his courageous challenge to Gordon Brown last year, of which I was proud to be a supporter.

And I have no reason at all to doubt the sincerity behind his appeal for people to attend the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) conference on May 24th at Birkbeck College, in order to further the alternative strategy for the left that he seeks.

However, with the best will in the world, that’s all it is: a conference. McDonnell (like Labour leftists responding to my previous article on a related subject) offers no means via which these ideas could actually find their way into the Labour mainstream, other presumably than that they’ll just be so good, and New Labour so bankrupt, that the party will have to accept them. If he believes that, then he’s living in a land of cabbages and kings, or at the very least a now similarly remote world of resolutions and accountability.

Marx was always very concerned not only with what should be done and why, but also with how and by whom. In other words with agency as well as concept and structure. Unfortunately there is no remaining mechanism within the Labour Party via which new, progressive policies can take hold, other than by convincing the (right wing) hierarchy that they’re a good idea.

That is highly unlikely to happen, and even if it were possible I very much doubt whether that would be the sort of politics that anyone on the Labour left would want to promote. Progressives are not about back-room deals and baronial supporters, after all.

Again therefore, I’m bound to wish people well with no hope whatsoever that they’ll succeed. Until someone can show me a realistic way for the sorts of ideas that will be talked about on the 24th to take hold within the Labour Party, then I can see no point in the exercise unless it is treated as a more general forum. For all that, I wish all the participants in the conference well, and if something specific and focused does come out of it then I’ll be the first to hold my hands up and retract the contents of this article.

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About the author
Alan Thomas is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a blogger, a political activist and a lay member of Unite-TGWU. His main interests outside of UK left politics are in Turkey, Kurdistan and the USA. And is also always delighted to write about wine and fine food when he's in less of an intellectual mood. Also at: Shiraz Socialist
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Debates ,Economy ,Labour party ,Lib-left future ,Trade Unions ,Westminster

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Reader comments

I’m not clear of an obvious alternative method for McDonnell to advance his ideas other than through the Labour Party.

I don’t think the Labour Left realistically believe the Party as a whole is ever likely to adopt their policy programme but being Labour MPs gives them a position to advocate Left positions at a national level.

How else are they to get anywhere, though? It’s hard enough to shift the Labour Party leftwards, but there to try elsewhere would be harder. The choice would be between creating a new party, or finding another existing national platform for their policies. Neither is a hugely practical option.

Building a new party up from the ground could take twenty years, if not more. The party would lack funds, a ready pool of activists, a significant platform in the press or experience in local government. Even accepting that voters continued to vote for those MPs who broke away, they’d be limited in number, and vulnerable to the more established Labour. In that time it took to establish the party, the very problems which the break-aways sought to challenge would essentially reign unchecked. Hardly a positive shift.

This is always assuming the new party would ever get off the ground. There’s little evidence that it would do, I fear. Non-Labour socialists have been trying to build a new worker’s party for years – and every time they’ve tried, it’s died in a glut of splitting and internecine fighting. Even if the ex-Labour activists managed to hold it together, there’s a strong chance that groups like the SWP would enter the party and, voting en-bloc, destroy it in much the same fashion as they did Socialist Alliance.

Forming a new party might well be useless, in the short term especially. Finding somewhere else might be just as difficult; where would they go? Virtually every non-Labour, purely socialist party is a basket-case. Beyond that pit of internecine viciousness, the Greens would take them, I imagine, but even that’s a limited group in terms of media access and funding at present. It’s a more attractive prospect than working all the way from scratch, for sure, but still possibly ineffective.

I’d argue differently if there was a prospect that some of the unions might break away with the Labour leftists. That’d tackle the problems of organisation and funding, up to a point. But until then, any attempts to foster socialism outside of the Labour party are likey to be slower outside than in. Getting onto Labour’s platform might be difficult; creating a new one would be even more so.

If you truly want to put a serious case for anything close to a ‘left-wing’ ideal then you’d be better off getting involved with the co-operatives and trying to get the Co-op MPs to formally separate themselves from their subservient alliance with Labour.

I’m guessing that would require a few too many compromises, but the stars won’t ever be closer in alignment to winkle a splinter into the gap than now.

Ok all… but nobody has yet given a way (and I mean a mechanism) via which these ideas can be advanced in the Labour Party. LP members need to be giving a reason to get a membership card, not a reason not to join anything else.

Wise, wise words, Mr. Thomas.

The problem of the ‘New Party’ is a recurrent one but it is really only a problem because socialists insist that it has to be an exclusively socialist party.

It would be better to start with the model of a one member one vote coalition of democrats, socialists and liberals (even centrists), aiming never to get less than 51% of the popular vote, and then work back from that.

This might be a coalition to get electoral reform so that future coalitions might be formed from shifting components (including a democrat socialist one) or it could mean a single entity, analogous to a European Socialist Party, in which socialists have a leading role as pragmatic organisers of others.

Either would be infinitely preferable to the current situation of a federalised machine comprised of a very few special interest groups (including the political wing of the trades union movement) supporting a machine for a rather dim self-recruiting political class – which is precisely what we now have.

The reason John McDonnell is doomed to failure is because his plans can never really be much more than the capture of a bit of the State through a tribal political formation that is in terminal decline unless it reforms along the lines I have suggested – while the structured belief system of him and his followers results in them going pale at the thought of necessary compromises, not compromises of value but compromise even of tactic and rhetoric.

The bottom line is that the 1996 Partnership in Power reforms meant precisely what Alan has suggested – you cannot get anywhere without the patronage of the machine and that machine is only ever going to grant access in extreme conditions where it is likely to be losing power in the country. The Left is thus in a lose/lose situation by remaining within the machine. It either is apparently influential when power is slipping away or marginalised as access to power grows.

Best re-think everything and take the necessary twenty years (actually, I would say fifteen) to get it right …

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