Tony Cliff

Labour’s crisis and the revolutionary alternative

Chris Nineham interviews Tony Cliff

(November 1996)

From Socialist Review 202, November 1996.
Copyright © 1996 Socialist Review.
Downloaded from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Even mainstream commentators accept that the Tories are in crisis. What has caused it and how serious is it?

We have been talking about their crisis for many years now. It is inseparable from the crisis of capitalism. People’s bitterness and resistance to their attacks, from the poll tax to the NHS cuts, have worn the Tories out, and at the same time they are genuinely divided about the future for British capitalism.

I can think of only one real split in the Tories historically, over the Corn Laws in the 1830s. There have been lots of other conflicts but only one split in a party that has dominated British politics for a century. Therefore I am not sure there will be a complete split. But I am sure they can be paralysed. The crisis is not caused by the question of Europe alone. If they were doing well they would close ranks despite disagreements. Because they are doing so badly they look to the anti-Europe card to work magic. In a way it is a strong card, when you look to what has happened in Austria recently where Haider, a real Nazi, used the anti-Maastricht position, and got an astonishingly high vote – 28 percent. The Social Democratic Party only got 29 percent ­ its worst vote since 1918.

Some of them will use this card. Others will say that if we do we will deepen the splits. Also big business by and large is for Europe. Some sections are orientated around America and the Far East, but most of them look towards Europe. The quarrels and arguments will go on. Once they have lost the election the most extreme right wingers, John Redwood and Michael Portillo, will end up dominating. With Labour in office the Tories will play into the anger of people.

Between 1945 and 1951 there were 43 parliamentary by-elections in Labour seats, and Labour lost only one. Between 1974 and 1979 there were 31 by-elections in Labour seats, and Labour lost 16 of them. Solid working class areas with huge Labour majorities of 20,000 went Tory. That’s what happens when Labour gets in and disappoints. It will be worse next time.

What is really new about Blair’s Labour Party?

Usually you have a crisis after Labour comes to office. On the eve of the 1974 election we discussed how long the honeymoon would be. Why did we think there would be a honeymoon? The leader of the party was a left winger, Harold Wilson, who resigned from the Attlee cabinet over prescription changes. Even Dennis Healey, the right wing chancellor, spoke in very left wing terms on the eve of the election about squeezing the rich until the pips squeak.

The honeymoon was around one and a half years. This time the conflict within Labourism starts even before election. I don’t think we should be talking about a honeymoon. I doubt whether there will even be a consummation.

Why is this happening?

Since the Second World War every Labour government has been more right wing than the one before. In 1945-51 unemployment never rose above 1 percent. There was a lot of welfare, a new NHS, 200,000 council houses built annually – 20 times more than now. There was nationalisation of key industries. During the next Labour government of 1964-70 unemployment reached about 3 percent, there was hardly any improvement in welfare, hardly any new nationalisation, and then in 1974-79 there was a massive attack on workers. For the first time since the war real wages went down. Unemployment rose to 1,700,000. That’s why the Tories could use the slogan “Labour isn’t working”.

Why is every Labour government worse than the last? So long as capitalism is expanding, the cake is increasing, the capitalist can have a big chunk in the form of profits, and workers get crumbs in the form of wages and social services. But when the system stops expanding at a decent rate, something has to give ­ and under capitalism that is always the workers’ share. Because you can have capitalism with high wages, you can have capitalism with low wages, but you cannot have capitalism without profits. Over the last 20 years total manufacturing output has grown altogether in Britain by 1.66 percent. In the 20 years before that output rose by 86 percent – at this time there was more possibility for concessions. This is the reason for the move to the right. The betrayal from Blair is coming before he gets into office.

What impact have Blair’s attacks had on workers?

Blair is trying to cut expectations, so the conflict with the rank and file has already started. Workers in Labour councils are up in arms – against the council.

In Tower Hamlets council workers protested outside the Labour Party headquarters chanting, “New Labour, new Tories!” The Labour Party had to accept a delegation and council workers demanded that one of our comrades go in. They were told he was not in the Labour Party, and they said, that’s why we want him!

Many workers have split consciousness. They hate the Tories and the only realistic option electorally is Labour – but at the same time they are very worried about Blair, so they can look in both directions.

As well as the split between the leadership and the rank and file, there are also splits at the top. At the TUC conference Blair’s supporters were livid with him. This is important, because every time there is a quarrel at the top it gives more confidence to the people below.

People make history, not abstractions like “reformism”. Tony Blair is a new phenomenon. He lives in a milieu that is completely non working class. His wife earns £1,000 a day and he believes £4.26 an hour is too much for other people.

He is completely out of touch, just as Thatcher was when she introduced the poll tax believing it would be the flagship for the Tories. Harold Wilson knew what he was doing when he betrayed workers, and he tried to cover it by speaking in left wing terms. Tony Blair is so out of touch that he keeps getting into trouble. The crisis of Labourism is not just between Labour and the working class but also within the Labour Party leadership as well as the trade union bureaucracy.

Stephen Byers, a sidekick of Tony Blair, went to the TUC conference and said Labour should break the link with the trade unions. This fits with the ideology of Blair but it is ridiculous. The Labour Party depends upon the trade unions for its funding. Most of the general election fund comes from the trade unions.

Also, if when Labour gets in there is a fight in the NHS, or over pay, it is crazy to think that Harriet Harman or Blair will be able to sort this out. Rather they will depend on the trade union leaders to do so.

Traditionally there has been this terrible division in Britain between politics and economics. Tony Blair fights on all fronts – he’s highly ideological, highly political and he intervenes in industrial affairs. He tends to cement all three things together, which makes the situation more favourable for us.

Why has the Labour left put up so little resistance to the Blairites?

In 1981 Tony Benn got 3.2 million votes to be deputy leader and must have had 250,000 active supporters. When it came to the recent vote on removal of Clause Four, the total vote to retain it was 8,500. Even a majority in the most left wing constituencies voted to get rid of Clause Four. What happened?

The problem was, people flocked to Benn in 1981 as a political solution when the industrial struggle was going down – but you cannot have a political upturn indefinitely at a time of industrial downturn. This expressed itself in interesting ways but the long term outcome was passivity. There was struggle in the 1980s. It was not like the 1970s but there were big struggles. The Labour left never organised centrally round them. It remained basically electoral, and that meant it was passive. If you are passive, you disintegrate. That’s why today there is demoralisation and passivity.

What do you think are the prospects for Scargill’s SLP?

The problems for the SLP are firstly that it puts the emphasis on electoralism. It claims it will stand candidates in every constituency at the election. I don’t believe it at all. It got a good vote in the Hemsworth by-election but there is no guarantee the vote can be repeated elsewhere. And as elections are the SLP benchmark, this will demoralise the membership.

Secondly, Scargill’s ideas reflect electoralism. He speaks in parliamentary terms – for example, he says we need a bill for a four day working week – but what about the real struggle in the here and now? At the SLP conference someone moved a motion against immigration controls and Scargill argued to reject it. Of course he used a left wing argument – what if a fascist wants to come in? – but everyone knows that immigration controls are used against black people. Ideologically, Scargill is very poor. When it comes to the big events in the world, if you read his paper it has nothing to say.

Then there is another problem – Scargill is head of the NUM and does not dare to attack other union leaders. This affected him badly in 1992 and during the miners’ strike.

Finally, how can you keep an organisation going without activity? There are many people who will come to a meeting with Scargill because they are sick of Blair, but the next day you don’t see the SLP involved in activity. Without activity, the organisation is in danger of not getting off the ground.

What opportunities does Labour’s crisis open up for revolutionaries?

It is a unique situation for us. In 1974 we had 3,000 members – now we have 10,000 – still small but three times bigger. More important, in 1974 there was a big left. The Communist Party had 30,000 members. Now it doesn’t exist. The Labour left is nothing compared to the early 1980s and the other groups have collapsed.

We have very great opportunities. Of course, when it comes to the elections we are not even in the picture – the big battalions are Labour, the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals. But, because there is schizophrenia in the working class, when it comes to the question of who does more, the answer is, we do.

When it comes to fighting the BNP we are more effective. We collected far more money for the signal workers than the Labour Party.

We have to intervene in this contradictory situation. We have to be involved with every single struggle, but at the same time raise the issue of Blair no matter what the discussion, because there is no separation between politics and economics.

Are you saying the SWP can make a big leap this side of the election and this side of an upturn in struggle?

We have to change radically. I believe the SWP can be the most conservative organisation in the country. It was important in the 1980s to keep our sights low. We talked quite rightly about growing by ones and twos. Now we must shift our sights. If the situation changes quickly, we must change quickly. Sometimes workers’ consciousness can change quicker than the revolutionary organisation, because we are so frightened of exaggeration. But we have to shift gear. Now we can grow very very quickly. At the NUJ conference a few weeks ago 90 out of the 100 delegates signed our open letter attacking Blair. Even six months ago only a handful would have signed it. The way to convince people is not just to argue but to prove in practice what can be done. We must build the party but we must also build the periphery among the 200,000 activists who have kept trade union organisation going over the years.

What are the practical conclusions for revolutionaries right now?

We need more decentralisation – people looking to themselves in every district and every SWP branch to see what can be done. Also the situation demands much more accountability, because when it comes to the big things everyone will be there, but it is much harder to motivate people to get up at 5 a.m. to go to the post office and sell one or two papers.

Yet all these small things are very important. This is where our credibility is being established. You need both centralisation and decentralisation. You need the branch to know exactly who is going to the post office tomorrow. You need accountability. The branch committees must centralise things and organise the branch and be accountable, and achieve a very high level of discipline. To compare notes is very important. A comrade went to speak to roadsweepers in Hackney. She spoke to 13 of them, collected £31.69 for the Socialist Worker Appeal, and she recruited two – this is brilliant. Another comrade collected nearly £160 at work, all from non-SWP members.

What expectations should we have about recruitment?

Every branch should think about which individuals they can recruit. Quite often the most difficult people to recruit are those you have known for a long time.

They become accustomed that you demand things from them all the time yet don’t really discuss politics with them. The majority of people are recruited quickly. Because of the contradictions in the situation consciousness changes extremely quickly. When Lenin said in 1917, “The party is to the right of the workers. If the central committee does not support me I will go and get the support of the sailors,” he meant it. In the Bolshevik Party the most right wing part of the leadership were the trade union leaders – because they had spent years relating to workers who were organised, but conservative, they became affected by it. In terms of recruitment we always have to think of things from the outside. In the same way with the trade unions we need intervention from the outside.

What do recent events in Europe tell us about the prospects under Labour?

Any kind of prediction is highly conditional, but my guess is that there will be individual strikes which become politicised as a Labour government intervenes.

There will also be a revival in the Labour left leading to more conflict around specific issues at conference and elsewhere. The trend will be toward more fights, more generalisation.

But a move to the left is not inevitable. In 1977 the National Front in France was weaker than in Britain. Today it has over 2,000 councillors, and controls three towns. In Britain today there are no fascist councillors – there was one in the Isle of Dogs, but we got rid of him. Why the difference? Unemployment in France over the years has not been worse than in Britain. There are no more ethnic minorities than in Britain. When the socialist Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 he got 57 percent of the vote. Le Pen got less than 1 percent.

In 1995 Jospin, Mitterrand’s successor, got 23 percent of the vote and Le Pen 15 percent – the gap has nearly closed. Mitterrand was popular in 1981 – people were dancing in the streets of Paris. They had real hope in him. To begin with he did deliver improvement, but the pressure of capitalism forced him massively to the right. And when he moved to the right he couldn’t compete with the authentic right. The situation there is extremely volatile, with very big strikes going on at the same time as support for the right. When Blair comes to office here we will see similar volatility. There will be a race between the far right and the far left to win workers to their politics.


Last updated on 25.7.2002