Saturday, January 20, 2007
The fightback has begun
It's an exciting time to be a young lefty in the labour movement. We have a socialist standing for the Labour leadership. We have overwhelming public support for the issues that many of us have been campaigning on for years - such as privatisation of public services, workers' rights, free education, foreign policy (not least Iraq), and Trident. Despite the fact that thousands of socialists have ripped up their Labour party cards in disgust at New Labour's reactionary policies over the last decade, Left candidates won the top 4 out of 6 places in last year's elections to Labour's NEC. Labour Party Conference has defeated the New Labour leadership on issues such as PFI, privatisation of health, pensions and nationalisation of the railways, demonstrating the growing chasm between the labour movement and the New Labour clique. In the trade unions, only those candidates who have at least postured to the left have won elections in the past few years.
This is the context behind last week's launch of the Socialist Youth Network. After two decades of reaction, the labour movement has begun to swing to the left. A new generation of young socialists committed to taking on New Labour has emerged. A dynamic young Labour left has appeared on the scene. Through SYN, we're ready to take on the Blairite clique who have hijacked the political wing of the labour movement. Over the coming months, Marsha and myself will be writing on this blog about the activities of SYN as well as giving our own thoughts on the latest goings-on as the Blair era comes to its long-awaited end.
Anyway, to kick things off, below is my report of SYN's launch conference last Saturday for Labour Left Briefing. Forward to socialism! (And all that)
One of the great successes of the New Labour project has been to drive young socialists away from the Labour party. It’s clear to see why it’s such an uphill struggle to convince youthful lefties that the political wing of the labour movement is the principal terrain of struggle. After all, ten years of Blairism has meant attacks on free education, the defence of the Tory anti-union laws, and the murderous war on Iraq. Little wonder that politicised young people have either joined one of the hundred or so dead-end sects; or, more commonly, thrown themselves into single-issue campaigns. With a few honourable exceptions, young Labour politics has become dominated by ruthlessly ambitious Blairite types who would probably sell their own mother for a parliamentary seat.
The young Labour left is back. Nearly a hundred young socialists attended the launch conference of the LRC’s new youth wing, the Socialist Youth Network, on 13th January. All the key elements of the young left were present, including trade unionists, students and peace activists. John McDonnell, Tony Benn and Katy Clark MP were among those who attended to offer their encouragement to the rebirth of the young left of our movement.
The fact that 19 motions were up for discussion might seem like a recipe for a sectarian bloodbath. A conscious decision was made by the conference organisers to avoid a stage-managed rally at all costs and, instead, to encourage a lively debate: a strategy not without risks. In reality, a comradely spirit dominated each discussion. All motions were debated and passed in the space of only a few hours. Given the sheer range of socialist traditions represented in the room, this was a real achievement. Crucially, the motions passed reveal a clear orientation towards the labour movement. The priorities of SYN include, for example, fighting for a real living minimum wage without exemptions, the repeal of the Tory anti-trade union laws, opposition to the privatisation of public services and the restoration of free education.
A motion pledging support for John McDonnell’s leadership campaign was the first to be passed – and did so unanimously. This is hardly surprising. Many of those attending were there precisely because they had been inspired by the John4Leader campaign. The emergence of SYN is yet further proof of the recent resurgence of the Labour left; indeed, if McDonnell had not announced his candidacy back in July, it is debatable as to whether SYN would ever have emerged.
SYN has a key role to play in the labour movement. It brings together a growing network of activists who will fight for socialism in the trade union and student movements, as well as the Labour party. It will build up an organised young left to take on the dominance of Blairites within the Labour party – not least by providing a support base for those whose only prior experience of Labour politics is contact with frothing-at-the-mouth rightwingers. Above all, it will train up a whole new generation of socialists who will go on to lead our movement.
SYN will undoubtedly play a central role in the revitalisation of the Labour left that has been underway since the launch of McDonnell’s leadership campaign. It goes without saying that years of defeat produced a vastly weakened, marginalised and depleted Labour left. Understandably, two decades of reaction undermined the confidence of even the most battle-hardened socialist; for many, it has led to cynicism and defeatism. The new generation rising from the ruins of New Labour share a new mood of militancy and a desire to go back on the offensive. Expect SYN to be at the forefront of a left advance within the labour movement.
Of course, it is true that socialist youth movements of varying descriptions have existed before and largely failed. There are grounds to believe that SYN will be different. SYN is not the front of any sect; it has solid trade union involvement, thereby avoiding the potentially fatal pitfalls of student politics; and its parent organisation has deep roots within the labour movement.
One of the great legacies of John McDonnell’s campaign will be the return of a young socialist left rooted within the labour movement. The fightback has begun.