On Saturday 30th the Alliance for Workers' Liberty held a day school in London on the topic of "Marxists and the Labour Party". This is indeed an apt topic for debate, coming at a time when Gordon Brown has shut down the last vestiges of democracy in the Labour Party - stripping the right of trade unions and CLPs to debate party policy at conference - with not a whimper of opposition from the trade union bureaucrats.
Much as Tony Woodley had promised that the Brown reforms would go down in flames at conference, as the GMB's Paul Kenny claimed that he would "never" vote to hand away his members' influence over Labour, when push came to shove they did nothing. They accepted all of Brown's attacks, in return for a flimsy "concession", that the changes would be reviewed in two years' time. As if the Blair-Brown coterie who fought for thirteen years to eliminate the labour movement voice within the Labour Party would welcome it back come 2009.
This is not just another example of the unions' cackhandedness, lethargy and capitulation in the face of the "partnership agenda". Marxists can (could) intervene in the Labour Party to show up the collaborationist union leaders, de facto allies of the bourgeois-modernising wing of the Labour Party, for what they were. They failed to make sure conference policy was put into practice, they sat idle as Brown announced the public pay freeze, and could be shown for the bureaucrats they are. Now even that is impossible - they have willingly given up their own right to be able to fight.
The CWU, engaged in a bitter struggle with the Royal Mail bosses and the Brown government, did, shamefully, participate in the capitulation; but with a militant rank-and-file who are largely unaware (like most members of affiliated unions) as to what has happened, this sell-out must be exposed and a campaign mounted to win back the union voice. There is some chance to fight the reforms, above all at the 2008 union conferences. Members will be asking: what is the political fund meant to be for?
Yes, of course, labour movement control over the party has been in steep decline for years, and Labour is now very openly business-friendly, outpacing the Tories on their own terrain. But these reforms nevertheless represent a profound change in the underlying character of the party. The hypothetical working-class centre of control in the "bourgeois workers' party" is now gone, and if what Brown - and the union leaders - have done is not soon reversed, it will be fair to say that the Labour Party is finished, a British imitation of the US Democrats. And consolidation of the reforms is by far the most likely possibility.
You might point to examples of "bourgeois workers' parties" where the unions do not have formal ties such as those between Labour and the British unions. True - the Parti Socialiste in France or the German Social Democrats do not have affiliated unions. So Marxists should remain working in the Labour Party, no matter what its structures, then? It will always be a bourgeois workers' party because of its traditions. That is the position of Labour Left Briefing and Socialist Appeal, the Labour lefts who did absolutely nothing to fight the Brown reforms on the grounds that there was no democracy in the party anyway, rather putting under question why exactly they have remained as deep entryists.
But "bourgeois workers' party" was not a title handed down to Labour from heaven. If the party's structures change, its character can too. Furthermore, it should be noted that "bourgeois workers' party" is a term used for any number of different set-ups; and useful not as a scientific schema to be fitted onto a given party, but for understanding the relation of a given organisation to the working class. Whether or not to relate to such formations is essentially a tactical question, depending on their situation and that of the far left. For example, as discussed at the AWL event, in 1970 when the far left was growing rapidly and the Labour left shrinking, electoral opposition to Labour could stick down a marker for independent working-class politics. In 1979, when Trotskyist forces were weak and great industrial militancy channelled (somewhat) through party structures, with major fights to be had in the CLPs, it would have appeared sectarian to stand aside and turn our backs to radicalised Labour members.
Unlike some of his latter-day epigones, Trotsky did not have rigid schemata for this question. The "French turn", when the French Trotskyists intervened in the SFIO, was only a short-term tactic, and upon changes in the political situation it became time to call it a day, having picked up some young activists. Similarly, he counselled that the (non-Trotskyist) POUM should intervene in the social democratic PSOE at a time when its left was in ferment in 1934, but later that the POUM should work with the anarchist CNT union. Sadly, it ignored him on both scores, handing over its union fraction (FOUS) to the Stalinists' UGT federation. But it is highly questionable that the emasculated "Labour Party" offers any opportunities which might render Marxist intervention worthwhile. The McDonnell campaign did not lead to a rebirth of the Labour left, and the Labour left youth - Socialist Youth Network - has a bureaucratic-parliamentary orientation to campaigning meaning that it has tiny forces and minimal grassroots activity. I cannot even see the possibility of a "raid" to win over disillusioned members.
The problem here is the lack of an alternative - the proposal that RMT-backed candidates stand in the London elections in May 2008 is one positive development however. With Respect in meltdown thanks to the Galloway-Rees ego clash, and the Labour left paralysed, the RMT London Regional Council's decision to stand a slate of independent working-class candidates on a broad platform of working-class issues represents the most meaningful opening to the left of Labour. It is by no means certain that the rail union will actually put this resolution into practice; but if a broad range of activists from other unions support the call for such a campaign, it will become all the more realisable. The risk, of course, is that if Marxists cannot stop the Bob Crows, Mark Serwotkas and Matt Wracks of this world from determining its programme, then we might just end up with a Labour Party Mk.II.