The Tories’ assault on jobs and public services has changed the political situation. Anti-cuts groups are appearing everywhere, many of them involving or being led by Labour Party members, councillors and MPs.
Socialists outside the party forged unity with left MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and councillors, to resist the policies of the Labour government.
But the anger at the Tories’ attack has meant that even figures like Ed Balls, one of Gordon Brown’s closest advisers, is opposing cuts to school buildings.
This throws up new challenges for socialists.
We could have a kneejerk response when Labour members say they want to fight the cuts. This would be to demand to know what they did against the previous government’s attacks on workers and its wars. Of course, the Labour government did terrible things. But if a charge sheet is our starting point, we will weaken the fight against the Tories today. Despite its rightward shift, Labour remains a party of over 150,000 members, many of them working class. Millions of workers still vote Labour. While the party has less than half the members it had in 1997 more than 20,000 have joined since the May election.
Most who support Labour do not agree with its right wing policies. They are seething about what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did. But they hate the Tories more. That’s why there was a surge in Labour support on election day. It was a class vote. This connection to workers goes back to the party’s founding by the trade union leaders. Part of the “New Labour project” was to try to break with this history and turn Labour into a fully pro-capitalist party, like the Democrats in the US. Blair and Brown wanted big business and the rich to fund the party, instead of a mass membership of workers or affiliations from the unions. But their ambition failed as the rich abandoned the party and it became clear that it needed the support of workers and funding from the unions. Three huge unions, Unite, Unison and the GMB, now effectively bankroll Labour.
So we have a party with a mass membership of workers, and most of their votes, funded by their unions – yet led by right wingers who accept the capitalist system. What approach should socialists take to this organisation and its members? We could tell those who feel some connection to Labour that they are stupid for having “illusions” in a disgusting bunch of sell-outs. We could make ultimatums, stating that only Labour members who oppose all cuts in all circumstances can join our campaigns. This will win us few friends. Or we could take the more effective road of proving in practice that our revolutionary tactics offer the best way to win struggles. This means forming united fronts with Labour figures and campaigning and speaking alongside them. This will help us reach out to their supporters to build far bigger anti-cuts alliances than we could if they were limited to those to the left of Labour. This will match up with the working class instinct for unity against the Tories. When we’re part of a bigger movement we can make suggestions to take the struggle forward. In this way, instead of walling ourselves off, socialists can be part of a movement that could continue to exist independently of Labour leaders if they give up the fight.
There are Labour councils that will push through cuts packages and they must be resisted. But many Labour supporters will protest against “their” council when it attacks them. We must never “whitewash” Labour, or give an inch to those who argue that the party is the best way to change society. We can and must continue to build a socialist alternative while working with Labour Party members. This Tory coalition is coming for us all. We must fight back with the broadest possible coalition of resistance.