Labour Transformed: an opportunity for serious discussion

LABOUR TRANSFORMED is an initiative of a group of activists to form an anticapitalist tendency in the Labour Party. Their inaugural public meeting was held in London just two days after Labour’s electoral defeat, which, it turned out, was ideal timing to capture the attention of about 150 activists looking for answers.

Meeting

Most of the attendees were in their 20s or early 30s and some had travelled from as far as Plymouth and Sunderland. The format followed the vogue for top-down meetings with a mix of presentations and working groups that keeps collective debate and participation to a minimum. Considering the conjuncture, the mood was upbeat and defiant.

A member of the organising group outlined their political journey through the Occupy movement and the SWP, their eventual rejection of horizontalism and bureaucratic centralism, their subsequent activity in The World Transformed, Novara Media and Momentum, and the tragic waste of the past four years in not turning the party outward to the class struggle.

After a brief discussion, we broke into small groups and ideas were written on scrolls of flipchart paper. The afternoon followed a similar pattern. Momentum activist Archie Woodrow outlined their project in more detail and reeled off two or three names when asked who the ‘organising group’ was. This time no debate, but we split off again into small working groups armed with paper and marker pens.

And that was it. A useful warm-up, getting to know each other exercise, but we left no wiser as to who was developing Labour Transformed’s positions and there was no opportunity for the audience to raise questions or make their own proposals.

In minimising opportunities for participants to present and hear a debate on the way forward for the Labour left, the organisers will no doubt be content to have got through the day without seriously addressing any of the fundamental political questions that divide the left.

Politics

What politics Labour Transformed does have, have been set by the somewhat opaque and eclectic ‘organising group’ who have now put forward their Foundational Principles, Organisational Principles, and ‘Organisational Structure’ as documents to be voted on by a founding conference on 25 January.

There is much that is positive in these documents. In the Foundational Principles, they describe themselves as anticapitalists and internationalists; they agree on the centrality of the class struggle and “meaningful direct action” and recognise the importance of Marxism; they want to continue to develop left policies within Labour but warn against the danger of passively and uncritically waiting for a Labour government to deliver socialism from above.

Their eight-point platform to stand a slate of candidates in Momentum’s NCG elections proposes to fight to democratise the Labour Party with mandatory open selection of parliamentary candidates and reinstate an extended Clause IV; to campaign for the repeal of all anti-union laws, build a rank and file movement and strengthen ties with the independent unions; to transform Momentum through political education, making it critical of the leadership when necessary and reinstating an annual conference and local groups.

Very few genuine socialists would disagree with these aspirations. But on the most contentious issues, which have divided the Labour left since 2015, the comrades are either evasive, or silent.

They barely mention the issue that has torn Labour apart for the past year or more: Brexit. Although the Principles ‘recognise the importance of building alliances and solidarity across borders’, it is worth noting that the authors have decided to omit Labour’s conference policy on open borders and equal rights for migrants from the list of the party’s policies cited approvingly in the same document. Do they not think demolishing the British state’s racist border regime is ‘a starting point for a radically transformed society’?

Similarly, the antisemitism smear campaign was only discussed in passing. But do the comrades believe that this was aimed at silencing supporters of refugees’ right to return to Palestine/Israel and that Corbyn should have stood his ground and condemned the racist apartheid policies of his accusers? They did not think it necessary to say.

Not surprisingly for an organisation dedicated to transforming Labour, its documents devote a lot of time to the other organisation that once claimed to want to transform the party. But the authors’ assertion that Momentum suppressed its internal democracy ‘in order to outwit small… groups of Trotskyite [sic] activists’ is either naïve or disingenuous. In fact Momentum boss Jon Lansman prevented the coherence of a grassroots democracy above all in order to avoid embarrassing the Corbyn leadership and endangering their de facto truce with the right wing in the PLP.

These are not secondary questions. Whether to adapt to the nationalist Brexit project or promote an internationalist strategy, whether to capitulate to the Zionists’ campaign to silence criticism of Israel, and how to relate to the reformist labour and trade union bureaucracies’ intolerance of democracy are critical questions for turning Labour Transformed’s collection of aspirations from a class struggle orientation into a socialist strategy.

Clarity

During the conference, Woodrow expounded on the leadership’s conception of ‘democratic centralism’, locating this as a form of collective organising which is ultimately rooted in a thoroughgoing democratic debate that produces ‘clarity of ideas’. He argued for the strengths of democratic centralism in fostering “discipline, unity, and commitment”, and the urgent need for a mass socialist organisation embodying these traits.

Political clarity is indeed the precondition for reaching agreement on the way forward. We believe the ultimate embodiment of this agreement must be a programme which sets out a perspective for the class struggle, the objectives for the working class within that struggle, and the tactics necessary to advance the class towards its ultimate goal: the formation of organs of working class power that can defeat the bourgeois state and themselves provide the basis for a new, workers’ state.

To develop such a programme, free discussion of different perspectives and strategies is essential. However, the organisers have since declared that the “next meeting will not be open to members of pre-existing democratic-centralist revolutionary organisations”.

That means the only organised bloc at that meeting will be themselves; the only comrades drawing up documents for amendment and debate will be themselves; and the leadership will thus undoubtedly be themselves. The leadership group, and others, may see exclusion of other organisations as a purely practical step to ensure the smooth running of conference, but there is a potential political cost; the narrowing of political debate.

The decision reflects the tension built in to the organisers’ model. On the one hand they want to build a rigid democratic centralist organisation, which demands a high level of commitment and political loyalty; on the other hand, in order to jump-start a ‘mass’ organisation, they have drawn the Foundational Principles so broadly as to include almost anyone.

It always appears easier to avoid controversial questions but leaving them unanswered builds a fundamental weakness into the foundations of an organisation. Nothing illustrates more clearly how a deliberate absence of clarity is built-in to the leadership’s method than their ambivalence on the most fundamental question of all for any socialist – how to get rid of capitalism.

Labour’s revolution

Labour Transformed’s Foundational Principles state, “electing and supporting a radical left Labour government is a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for the socialist transformation of our society”. This does not go very far. If a “radical left Labour government” is insufficient, what more is needed?

If the leadership group mean that workers’ revolutionary organisations of struggle should come to the fore and the Labour government should base itself on these bodies, recognise their authority and use their mass action to smash the capitalist state, then this needs to be said.

However, “a radical left Labour government” is not “necessary” or, indeed, possible, under all conditions. In the struggle against Johnson, Raab and Patel, a major upsurge in the class struggle could create circumstances in which an election and a Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey government is neither a necessary nor a desirable first step on the road to workers’ power. What might be necessary, and possible, is workers seizing power with their own democratic organisations of struggle. History shows any number of potentially revolutionary struggles being derailed by parliamentary elections.

It is clear that, whether Long-Bailey or Starmer is the new leader, the years of relying on Jeremy to set the policy and the limits of party democracy are over. Either Labour will slide back, or its rank and file will begin to self-organise democratically and fight hard to really transform the party’s bureaucratic structures and get rid of the policies that concede to British capitalism and imperialism.

At the same time, we are clearly entering a period in which bitter class struggles will need to be waged against the neo-Thatcherite government and the new period of inter-imperialist clashes, and war threats revealed in the Middle East. We need to be prepared and to discuss the tactics we will need to meet them. These include a broad united front for action.

We in Red Flag sincerely wish to engage with the comrades of Labour Transformed in discussions to clarify many of these issues. We hope therefore that the organisers will open their doors on 25 January to all Labour Party members fighting for the principles outlined by the organisers. If they do that, then Labour Transformed could prove to be a very useful and much needed development.


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