Five arguments for joining Labour. Five arguments for staying outside Labour
As thousands have joined the Labour Party since Corbyn’s stunning success in the leadership race, there are many thousands more who have yet to make up their mind. I’m one of them, and I thought I’d try and give the arguments for and against partly to clarify my own mind.
Five Reasons To Join The Labour Party
1 Solidarity to Help Corbyn Defeat The Labour Right
The left in Britain these days is full of statements of support for Corbyn. Typical is this piece from RS21 “I wish the best of luck to comrades I know or have yet to meet who are joining. We outside, I imagine, will be supporting and strengthening your hand, in our arguments and in our contributions to campaigns and struggles we’re involved with, and by standing strong with you against the right.” The SWP, Counterfire, Socialist Party, Left Unity, Socialist Resistance (and no doubt others who’ve been outside of Labour for decades) all say the same thing. (A rare moment!) But what none of them say is how they are going to “support”, “strengthen Corbyn’s hand” and “stand with” Corbyn against the right.
How can our comrades outside Labour support the comrades inside Labour? They will not be able to attend any of the meetings where Corbyn and his supporters will be trying to outvote the right wing on issues such as cuts and Trident or who gets on the leading committees, who’s a delegate to conference and whether Councillors who make cuts should be deselected. They will not be part of the email lists and facebook discussions involving tens of thousands of new people. Standing outside the meeting with a paper stuck to your chest but staying outside isn’t very helpful.I don’t doubt the sincerity of their support for Corbyn but they should at least be honest and admit that they are abstaining from these struggles.
2 We can Help Organise Hundreds of Thousands of Socialists
Most individuals and groups on the far left are used to talking to small numbers of people and occasionally trying to organise them into a campaign. New people tend to come in “ones and twos”, and much of the left seem comfortable with this. With over 250,000 voting for Corbyn and joining Labour after the result, that makes between 50 and 100 “Corbynistas” for every organised revolutionary activist. Perhaps for some, that’s outside their comfort zone? Perhaps they fear being “swamped”?
The existing left in Labour have been weak and isolated for many years, but it organised the principled campaign to get Corbyn elected. They need as much extra help and experience as possible to try to organise all the new Corbynistas into an effective opposition to the right wing Labour Party machine. As the Corbyn campaign showed, with the internet we can organise those who don’t go to meetings in a way that was virtually impossible the last time the Labour Left had a chance of winning anything. It is going to be a political struggle the outcome of which will have a massive impact on the ability of our class to resist the bosses. Surely huge numbers of people moving to the left and trying to get organised is your average Leninist’s ultimate dream.New people to lead!
Except it seems the only practical thing these “Leninists” (and others) have really got to say is “Leave Labour! Come and Join Us!”
3 We Can Draw The Corbynistas into the Unions
While of course many who supported Corbyn are already actively engaged in building trade unions, many, perhaps most, are new. We all want to persuade and encourage them all to be more active in their union branch if they have one. Most won’t be in a union of course, but we would still want to encourage them to start organising in their workplaces as this will be a key arena in the struggle for socialism. Also, since the trade unions will play a key role in the coming attempts to reign in Corbyn, being able to call on the support of many active, Corbyn supporting union activists could make all the difference.
Most of the Labour members are unknown to the existing networks of Left activists. The only way to find them all is to be part of the Labour Party
4 We Can Draw The Corbynistas into the Anti-Austerity Campaigns
As with the unions, many Corbyn supporters are already actively involved – in groups like the Peoples Assembly plus a range of individual campaigns around cuts, housing or refugees. From my experience, Labour Party members are usually discreet about their Labour membership, they don’t work in campaigns as a Party, and the possibility of using the networks they theoretically have access to as Labour members often remains just a theory.
These campaigns shouldn’t be formally linked to Labour, or the Greens, as most people will not want to join any party. However, Labour members acting together in these campaigns are in a position to give support in a way no one else can. Firstly, 250,000 Corbyn supporters could give a massive boost to the activist base of any campaign. Secondly, the networks of support and useful contacts and experience Labour could provide would be of immense use to any campaign. This would benefit the campaigns enormously, but it would also benefit the Labour Party.
As with encouraging union activity, the only way to engage with all the new potential activists is to be part of Labour and the organisational and social networks that go with it.
5 We Can Step Up the Pressure on Labour Councils Implementing Tory Cuts
Some of the deepest cuts about to hit us are being implemented by local councils. Up until now very few Labour Councillors (or Greens or SNP) have stood firm against the cuts when in office. However, 450 councillors voted for Corbyn. This may be a small minority. But linked to a network of Labour activists in campaigns and the unions, these people could play a really useful role in opposing cuts in council chambers across the country. As part of a bigger fight, this would be a boost to anti-cuts campaigns. In some places, councils would be defeated in attempts to cut, and as new candidates are selected, the idea of anti-austerity councillors could take off.
Again, for all the links the non-Labour left has with some good councillors, and for all the noises made by the likes of Tusc pleading for joint work, surely it is those socialists who are organised together in the Labour Party who are in any position to turn the idea of Councillors Against Cuts a reality.
Five Reasons Not To Join The Labour Party
1 Labour is a “Bourgeois Party”
OK, the calling a party “bourgeois” may be the old left stuck in the language of the Victorians. But it is impossible to deny that Labour is a pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist party. Ever since it took part in government for the first time in 1916, to aid the slaughter of the First World War, its leadership have in practice been on the wrong side. This isn’t because they’ve had the “wrong leadership”, or that their individual leaders are exceptionally weak individuals starstruck by the trappings of power, expenses, a big wage packet and so on. The party is the political expression of the union machine, who’s job is too merely improve the conditions of workers within capitalism. That gives it a contradictory character, but despite 75 years of Clause Four, Labour would always seek to save capitalism before, or in order to, improve it for the working class.
2 Labour is a Electoralist Party
Since Labour has always sought to win office as the key to improving capitalism for workers, it has always adapted its campaigning to whatever it thinks enough people would vote for. The logic of this is understandable. Even now, many long standing left wing Labour members are concerned that Corbyn is unelectable. Under pressure many Labour election candidates will avoid defending people demonised in mainstream culture – previously West Indians or lesbians and gays, currently migrants and claimants.
So long as Labour prioritses winning elections above all else, it will capitulate of key issues such as defence of migrants, and thus weaken the unity of our class. Anybody in the Labour Party canvassing on the streets faces these pressures. Socialists need to prioritise campaigning over issues rather than winning elections.
3 Power is in the workplaces, not Parliament
And definitely not the council chamber! Parliament is a sham giving merely the appearance of democracy. William Morris was right to want to turn Westminster into a storage centre for manure! We can try to fight capitalism in Parliament, but it’s key organising centres are the unelected boardrooms, judges clubs, military & police hierarchies, etc. Our strength rests on our work and the fact that capital needs us. Therefore, our limited energies should focus solely on rebuilding working class organisation in the workplace. As Marx, or someone, said, where the chains of capital are forged is where they can be broken.
4 You don’t need to join Labour to support Corbyn
Socialists outside the Labour Party already have links to those inside, often through union branches. We can still work with them building up campaigns and unions without a Labour membership card. We can still offer advice, “leadership”, about how to defeat the right wing. While the “Leninists” first advice to Labour members is “leave Labour, join us”, since this isn’t going to happen, we can continue to work together. Furthermore, strong unions and campaigns outside Labour will undoubtedly strengthen the hand of the Corbyn-Left in its battles inside Labour
5 The logic of reformism, Labour’s bureaucracy and the weakness of Corbynomics will eventually demoralise new Labour supporters
Hundreds of thousands of new Labour members are in danger of doing nothing with their new hope. Corbyn would be the first to say he couldn’t transform the Labour Party, never mind society, with just 20 MPs. But there is a serious danger that hope and enthusiasm of the Corbynistas could be diverted not into building the wider movement, but into tedious bureaucratic battles at committee meetings for years. Mandatory re-selection of Councillors and MPs would take years to win, leaving pro-austerity Councillors and MPs in the majority in any future Labour government or council. On top of that, the road to office would be paved with the kind of policy compromises that would confuse and demoralise supporters. Much better to be honest now and prepare people for extra-parliamentary methods of resisting austerity.
Even if Labour won with a landslide in 2020 and Parliament was populated with Corbynistas, the right would hold the upper hand,controlling all the wider structures of capitalist rule. As a 16 year old, I was very influenced by “A Very British Coup”. Mullins’ book is perhaps what kept me out of Labour for decades. There is no evidence that the Labour Left is prepared for this, and rather than the Corbynistas being merely demoralised and demobilised, they could be imprisoned.
Even if that didn’t happen, would Corbynomics really work? Could capitalism in Britain really end austerity, get the economy “working”, and return to redistributing wealth from rich to poor? Some improvements would certainly occur for society’s poorest. (In fact the same could be said under Bliar’s rule for many too). But surely the lesson of Greece is that unless you are prepared to take on Capital head on, Capital will block your policies. Furthermore, China, with its state controlled banks, foreign exchange and stock market, has not been able to avoid slumps or attacking workers to keep profits up.
The only way to achieve socialism is through the active, self-conscious action of the majority. This is why we need to be totally honest about what we’re doing and what’s really achievable. Sewing illusions in Labour is a recipe for disaster and joining it risks compromising revolutionary activists. Far better to build honestly and openly in the areas of resistance to capitalism where we already have a presence and where ultimately the power of capitalism can be broken
I still don’t know what is to be done
Writing this piece, and my “six questions” as Corbyn was being elected last week, I feel myself convincing myself of the need to join Labour as I write. However, despite being somewhat caught up in Corbymania this week – like charging round the Brighton centre to welcome a party leader rather than booing them – there is no need to make an instant decision on this. I don’t mind being a “Johnny Come Lately” if I join. Like many others, I will wait and see. It may take me a little time to be able to believe Labour was a habitable place for people like me. It may take time for me to see that within Labour, socialists are already organised so I wouldn’t be a lone, unorganised voice.
But so far, I have not seen one single word from the writings of Left Unity, RS21, Socialist Resistance, Richard Seymour, Counterfire, the Socialist Party and SWP that answer my “five reasons for joining” or explaining why you can’t do all the good activism, openness, and revolutionary organisation building described in my five reasons for not joining while being a member.
This debate will rumble on in my head and in others. I don/t know where it’ll end. But whatever happens to me, we are in a period of changing working class politics of more importance than I have ever known.