Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'll get my raincoat - a riposte

I loathe and despise blog rows where one blogger denounces another at length and it goes round in circles until everyone feels sick. However, just for once I'll use this space to disagree with Carl at Raincoat Optimism over 'sectarianism' because, hopefully, it will be a friendly disagreement. And anyway, "it's good to talk" as Bob Hoskins used to say on that advert encouraging us run our phone bills up.

Carl wrote earlier today a post that is a hybrid between a history lesson on the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and an opportunity to say that "refusal to work in the Labour Party, from the ILP back in the thirties to the Greens and the SWP now, is the scourge of left wing politics."

If he'd written about a refusal to work *with* the Labour Party I might not have bothered, cooperating with people you disagree with on specific points of agreement is healthy, but working *in* it? That's different.

But first the history. I'd like to defend the ILP from Carl's assertion that it as a "small, inadequate left wing part[y] shout[ing] in the wind, by the sidelines". I think this is far too harsh.

Firstly the ILP left the Labour Party in 1932 when it was in crisis Labour having played an utterly shameful role in government. Although a smallish organisation (with less than ten thousand members) it provided a strong left current outside of Stalinism, provided trade union militants who were not in the pockets of the large political organisations and, crucially, aided the Spanish revolution organisation aid and volunteers to fight in the POUM.

I think all of that was worth while and were a real contribution to the political moment quite distinct from Labour, who were a shower at the time. While I've no intention of defending every action of the ILP inside Labour they would have found making this contribution more difficult not less.

Which brings me on to today. For Carl we need to be inside "the Labour Party, currently in opposition to a government demanding ideological cuts over jobs and growth", but I think this ignores something pretty basic, which is that people like myself are for things as well as against them.

The current Labour position is that the deficit should not be halved in three years but in four. My economic position is that we should not be cutting public sector spending, but rather investing in the future. If I joined Labour it would be harder to argue that case for investment, not easier, so why should I spend my time campaigning for candidates who think the opposite of what I think?

There is a basic principle here - my politics are not the same as Labour's. Labour have consistently gone into General Elections saying that the market should have a greater involvement in public services, saying that the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were good and, while I have collected money for strikers, they have denounced them. I don't think Labour wants me anymore than I want to join them.

There's loads of people in Labour I have a real respect for, mainly the grass roots activists, but while I love and hug and kiss left Labour MP's like John MacDonnell I could never do what he does. Going to the polls on a manifesto that I disagree with from the header on the front page to the "printed and published" on the back he doesn't agree with a word of it.

It just doesn't feel honest to me. Voters deserve candidates whose politics match their parties, at least in general.

Now, it's all very well saying people on the left are sectarian for not being members of the Labour Party but what if I don't want to support candidates in favour of war? What if I think the economy needs to be regeared towards the ecological crisis? Is it sectarian to have political disagreements. Surely it would only be sectarian to refuse to join even though I agreed with their policies? But I don't.

Members of the SWP want a workers' revolution and think Parliamentary democracy is shit. Seeing as there is a very clear dividing line between that position and the position of every Labour leader and manifesto since its inception it seems pretty sensible for them to go elsewhere for their political sustenance.

Political pluralism does seem to annoy many in Labour, which is one reason I guess they've never tried to introduce proportional representation, but I'm afraid it's a fact of life - they really are other ways of thinking than inside the Labour/Tory horse race.

None of this means small parties are better than big ones. It doesn't even mean having different politics means being 'purist'. Labour don't think a watered down version of what I think, they actually think the opposite - at least on the big things like war, privatisation and ecological devastation. It's not purism that stops me being a Labour Party member but the fact I don't agree with their policies. Seems pretty reasonable to me.


Salman said...

My sentiments exactly, Jim. Personally I think Labour 'my party right or wrong' clingers on have done far more harm to left wing politics than people who choose to support a party in line with their beliefs.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you over Carl's position, but I think you've got a number of things wrong.

You frame the choice of what political party to *join* in the same way you should choose a political party to *vote* for: on the basis of manifesto policy.
I think that in joining a political party you're making a commitment that extends "for the foreseeable future" and recognises that policy and leadership of a party changes over time, so principles, priorities and sentimental sympathy are better guides. If you find a party where these three things are closely matched then it makes sense to work within that party for electoral victory and to improve/change policy. I would recommend a bias toward the established parties in a system (provided you can square this with your principles) because the cost in time and money involved in building a minor party into a party of government is so large - it may take 20 years, it may never happen. Of course, if you wish to change government policy on a single issue, then joining UKIP or the Greens in the UK may be the most efficient way to do this.

I'd also say on Labour specifically, that you are confusing the Blair-era leadership with the whole of the party, past, present and future. It may be that the Labour party will change quite significantly in the next 5 years, becoming more influenced by the Co-op party and turning against interventionism in foreign affairs - this MAY happen, it may not, and the policy that the labour leadership is willing/able to pursue in government if elected is as always in a representative democracy another issue again.
If there are people inside the Labour party who are effective advocates for socialism (inside and outside the Labour party) then is left wing change more or less likely to happen?

I'd also add the fact that of course you know - most of the current Labour activist base is against market involvement in public services, was against the war in Iraq and is usually FOR any strike anywhere regardless of whether it's justified or not.

Political pluralism doesn't annoy Labour people - it's the sanctimonious tone in which it is/was delivered by people in other "left" parties, whose leadership had never been tested by government so had never had the chance to fail, compromise or make mistakes - or needed to build the broad coalitions of voters that you need to win a parliamentary majority and in consequence have never achieved anything.


raincoatoptimism said...

fyi I've posted a long reply on my blog []



Jim Jepps said...

Cut and paste of reply to Carl I just posted at his place;

Hi Carl, thanks for the reply.

I absolutely agree that it's up to those who support other parties to make the argument for those parties. I'm sure you'll understand that in one post I only really had room to take on the specific charge of purism.

On whether this is Labour's politics. I can look at it's record in government and it's manifestos for a good idea of where it stands politically but I think it's a bit of a myth that most members are cut from different cloth - those members are long now.

If we look at the last leadership election the *members* endorsed David and Ed Miliband overwhelmingly. Diane Abbott got 2% was it? I can also look at the behaviour of labour councillors, who are far too numerous to control from the centre... now while respect all decent hard working councillors I don't see any sharp political contrast with the leadership there.

I certainly agree that healthy parties do not have homogenous politics. One reason why I would not join an organisation like the SWP et al is the insistence on one political line which you must accept or leave. I think that's a position that's guarenteed to keep them a minority party forever. However, just because the Tories are not homogenous I do not feel remotely inclined to join them. Likewise Labour.

Jim Jepps said...

Hi David, thanks for this.

I like your distinction between voting for and joining a political party.

While I think there's a truth in "policy and leadership of a party changes over time, so principles, priorities and sentimental sympathy are better guides." we do have one hundred years of history to judge Labour on, and the last thirteen years are extremely important.

If I saw a genuine desire for a change of direction in Labour it would be something but, as fare as I can see, what talk of renewal there is it amounts to window dressing.

Now, I'm not taking issue with people who agree with Labour's ideals but are disappoiunted in its performance joining up and working for its victory. That seems sensible - the specific point I'm hoping to make here is that it is not purist or sectarian to join a smaller party if its politics fits yours more closely.

Totally agree that many people feel the weight of 'realism' and join a party that is more likely to get elected even when it doesn't come as close to your politics. But I think there's two important things here - if you're hoping to change Labour into a socialist party that in itself is a huge task that may never be completed. Also joining a party changes your politics over time and so it can end up that instead of moving labour to the left, say, it moves you to the right.

But I think you're right to say that the existence of smaller parties effect the policy of governments if they can demonstrate they have a constituency - and it's one of the reasons why I think it's important to articulate your own politics not someone else's because they are more likely to win.

"Political pluralism doesn't annoy Labour people" actually it *does* annoy my local labour councillors, but I'm not trying to paint all labour members with the same brush here.

Clearly I don't need to defend all minor left parties from the charge of being sanctimonious because they have a pantheon of holy leaders to do that for them, but one of the things that I liked about the Greens long before I joined them was their consistent attempts to work out whether something could be done realistically before demanding it be done. That ethos of positive but critical engagement found among the best greens is something I find very attractive.

Anonymous said...

I think we agree on this, but obviously we've made different choices.

we do have one hundred years of history to judge Labour on, and the last thirteen years are extremely important.
I should point out that "the last 13 years" also included a lot of good things which wouldn't have happened if the Conservatives had stayed in power, and some other issues were at least prevented from getting any worse.

If I saw a genuine desire for a change of direction in Labour it would be something but, as far as I can see, what talk of renewal there is it amounts to window dressing.
Change of direction - almost no-one in my CLP was happy with the party under Gordon Brown's leadership, but there's no consensus around what new direction to take. It wont be an especially Green party direction, because although most of Labour wants to have effective environmentalist policy, it's certainly not a party of people who have an Ecological/no-growth reading of the state of the world.
"Socialism" is definitely back in in the Labour party - but atm it's very much open argument as to what it means in policy terms, certainly not Wilson-era planning or nationalisation (except perhaps in a few cases of natural monopolies w/ heavy public involvement, like Rail.)

For myself, the chance of being part of a tendency in labour that reforms policy and creates a labour govt that which delivers more equality in wealth and power is, on my valuation the best investment of my time, energy, money on a risk/return basis and it's where I'd expect to lose least.

It's perfectly acceptable to have a higher risk/return strategy - which is how I'd regard becoming a Green Left as a method of bringing about a socialist/ more socialised economy.


what do you actually mean by "Political pluralism" and what is it about whatever it is that you think annoys you Labour councillors?

Jim Jepps said...

Yoiu're right we do essentially agree on the facts but have made different judgment calls.

RE: political pluralism. I think there is a very tribal strain in Labour which likes to paint those in other parties as all the enemy. I think that's unhealthy and I'm certainly attracted by a broader understanding of politics where people from all kinds of different political traditions can play a positive role - Labour see all other parties as rivals.

In the last local elections a Labour cllr came up to me and rebuked the greens for standing at all because "labour has been very good on recycling". Now, as it happens, they have not been very good at recycling locally but that's by the by.

She seemed a little taken aback when I mentioned a number of policy differences. I wouldn't dream of telling someone they had no right to stand, yet many local labour people have a tangible sense of entitlement and clearly believe no other party should even exist.

I think a multi-party democracy is a good thing and that those parties should also have lee way within them so that political differences can be aired in a sensible non-factional way.

jungle said...

Agree entirely - sometimes I think the Labour leadership could be replaced by the executive board of Goldman Sachs (I suppose Tony Blair wouldn't be terribly out of place there) and many Labourites would still insist that supporting any other party was 'objectively pro-Tory' and therefore 'betraying the working class'.

Now *that* is what I call damaging sectarianism.

Having parties like the Greens independently pushing left wing ideas inside the political debate is really, really important. Labour rarely do that any more; they simply follow target voters in opinion polls, which leaves it to the right to shape the debate. The debate in turn influences the opinion polls - and hey presto, we have the Labour Party pushing for commercial corporations to run pretty much all public services (among many other things).