In July 1975 the Wilson government moved to introduce pay laws restricting the working class to a 10 percent rise despite the higher rate of inflation. Before the pay laws had even been legislated -- they had only been presented in the form of a White Paper—the WRP leadership called an emergency conference that same month to adopt a Political Committee statement which made a fundamental change in the previous line. The resolution declared:
“The Workers Revolutionary Party calls upon the whole working class to fight against the Labour government’s pay laws and the abolition of free collective bargaining.
“The living standards and basic democratic rights of the working class are in danger.
“By violating Labour Party policy and enforcing a bankers’ solution to the economic crisis, the Labour government has set itself on a collision course with the working class.” (Quoted in Five Years of the Workers Revolutionary Party, resolution submitted to the Re-called Fourth Congress. June 9-11, 1979, p. 3)
These statements were completely correct. But then came the following:
“No worker can live on a 10-percent pay increase when hyper-inflation is surging at more than 60 percent.
“It gives the working class no alternative but to fight the Wilson government and bring it down.
“The Labour government no longer has the confidence or support of the vast majority of the Labour and trade union movement.” (Ibid., p. 3)
Neither of these statements were true. There was art alternative to the call to bring down the government—a campaign inside the Labour Party and the trade union movement for the withdrawal of the pay legislation and the removal of the right wingers who had introduced it. The assertion that the Labour government no longer enjoyed any support was put forward with no evidence to back it up. Instead of a campaign in the labor movement to defeat the Labour government’s legislation, the resolution declared:
“The only way to unite the whole movement is to force their resignation (Wilson and the right wing) and make the Labour Party seek a fresh mandate to go to the country in a general election and defeat the Tories.” (Ibid., p. 4)
The resolution signified a fundamental programmatic break with the proletarian orientation for which the British Trotskyists had fought for decades. To call for the bringing down of a Labour government, under conditions in which the revolutionary party had not yet won the allegiance of any significant section of the working class and in which the only alternative to Labour was a Tory government which the working class had brought down little more than a year before, was the height of adventurism. At the very point when the Labour Party was being compelled to turn openly against the working class, creating conditions for a powerful intervention within its mass organizations, the WRP presented an impossible ultimatum. At a very early stage of this confrontation, the WRP proposed to pre-empt the struggle within the working class organizations with a campaign that would place the fate of the Labour party in the hands of the national electorate.
The WRP exploded this political bomb just as there were signs of political opposition to the right-wing parliamentary faction inside the local Labour Party constituencies. This began with the ultimately successful move to oust Reg Prentice as the parliamentary representative of Newham Northeast—the same constituency in which Vanessa Redgrave had stood in the October 1974 election. While forces within the Labour Party were fighting to get rid of the right-wing, the WRP was demanding that Labour Party supporters bring down the Labour government! This policy was so far removed from the actual development of the working class—not to mention the historic traditions of the BolshevikTrotskyist movement—that it cannot be simply explained as a political mistake.
It was a profoundly disturbing expression of the class shift that had taken place inside the leadership of the WRP which was inseparably connected with the split of the previous autumn. A predominantly petty-bourgeois leadership, upon whom Healy was now resting, had quickly become disillusioned with the Labour government and was impatient with the tempo of development in the political consciousness of the working class. It is far easier for Vanessa and Corin Redgrave to break with the Labour Party than it is for a coal miner or shipyard worker.
The reason given for this fundamental change in the political line of the patty—the Labour Party White Paper on pay limits (It was not even a pay cut!)—exposed the callousness of the WRP leadership to the working class. How could this event compare with an historic experience such as Ramsay MacDonald’s infamous betrayal of 1931—the formation of the National Government—and the cutting of the dole in the midst of the Depression? These events formed the political reference point for entire generations of workers. But a party which calls on the working class to bring down a Labour government on such a flimsy basis as a parliamentary white paper—ignoring the dangers of Toryism, which the working class had just summoned its strength to defeat—would not be taken seriously.
Trotsky warned an ILPer against such light-minded impatience:
“It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform. For example, by its decision at Brighton. For us—yes! But not for the masses, the eight millions who voted Labour.
It is a great danger for revolutionists to attach too much importance to conference decisions. We use such evidence in our propaganda—but it cannot be presented beyond the power of our own press. One cannot shout louder than the strength of his own throat.” (Trotsky’s Writings On Britain, Vol. 3, New Park, pp. 118-19)
Trotsky was in sharp disagreement with those who proposed that the ILP should adopt an abstentionist position toward the election:
“Let us suppose that the ILP had been successful in a boycott tactic, had won a million workers to follow it, and that it was the absence of this million votes which lost the election for the Labour Party. What would happen when the war came? The masses would in their disillusionment turn to the Labour Party not to us. If Soviets were formed during the war, the soldiers would elect Labour Party people to them, not us. Workers would still say that we handicapped Labour. But if we gave critical support and by that means helped the Labour Party to power, at the same time telling the workers that the Labour Party would function as a capitalist government, and would direct a capitalist war—then, when war came, workers would see that we predicted rightly, at the same time that we marched with them. We would be elected to the Soviets and the Soviets would not betray.
“As a general principle, a revolutionary party has the right to boycott parliament only when it has the capacity to overthrow it, that is, when it can replace parliamentary action by general strike and insurrection, by direct struggle for power.
In Britain the masses have yet no confidence in the ILP. The ILP is therefore too weak to break the parliamentary machine and must continue to use it. As for a partial boycott, such as the ILP sought to operate, it was unreal. At this stage of British politics, it would be interpreted by the working class as a certain contempt for them; this is particularly true in Britain where parliamentary traditions are still so strong.” (Ibid.)
If the boycott policy of the ILP could be termed unreal, then the policy adopted by the WRP in 1975 toward the Labour Party could be legitimately described as insane. The WRP leaders, ignoring what Trotsky had written and indifferent to what the workers felt, proposed a partial defeat—force the Labour government to resign and then, having suitably punished it, vote it back in! The reminds one of a mentally-incompetent parent who decides to force his child to conquer his fear of heights by forcing him to stand on the edge of a windowsill! The problem with the maneuver proposed by the WRP is that its success depended not so much on the working class as on the middle class, for the re-election of Labour would depend to a large extent on their agreement with the WRP policy—or at least its second half.
Just two years earlier, in its unfortunate founding program, the SLL had at least made one correct point: “The working class must completely reject the IMG and IS, who oppose the fight to elect a Labour government on socialist policies. They advance the ultra-left and adventurist argument that the Labour Party is already sufficiently discredited in the working class, thus substituting themselves for the class. At the same time, they refuse to fight to mobilize politically the working class against the Tory government, on the grounds that the consciousness of the workers is confined to the level of economic struggle.” (Fourth International, Winter 1973, p. 132)
What catastrophic event had happened in two years to convince the WRP that the IMG-IS line was now correct? Moreover, if Healy and Banda had concluded that the Labour Party was so discredited in the eyes of the working class that it must be brought down, why then did they propose that it be re-elected? There were no answers given to these questions. Indeed, the questions weren’t even asked inside the central leadership, that was fast degenerating into a middle-class clique grouped around Healy.
The new policy was elaborated in a manifesto issued in the autumn of 1975, entitled “Force Labour to Resign.” This document confirmed that the WRP, for all its radical rhetoric, had despaired of winning workers to its policies. There would have been no reason for demanding new national elections if the WRP seriously believed that it could mount a struggle against the right-wing line of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy within the working class and its organizations. In fact, the policy of the WRP was one of passively waiting on the Tories to bring down Labour—not one of actively intervening in the internal life of the workers’ movement to develop a force that could be mobilized against the right-wing.
Such a policy was perfectly suited to the middle-class celebrities inside the WRP who were uninterested in the arduous and unglamorous day-to-day work that is necessary to build a revolutionary party in and of the working class, and not merely for it. Healy and Banda were turning their organization into a party of political impressarios (lecturers, actresses, journalists) for whom the WRP provided a platform and audience which was assembled for various festive occasions and then sent home and forgotten about.
There were several glaring contradictions in the manifesto. It warned against “any turn away from the great struggle which is now inevitable and necessary in the Labour Party”—but this was precisely what the WRP was proposing to do. Then, it declared it was necessary “to oppose completely all premature splits, adventures and panic gestures of the centrists.” But the WRP was proposing the biggest premature split and panic gesture of all—the bringing down of the Labour government! What is most curious about this advice is that it would appear to be directed against those within the Labour Party who were fighting to oust the right wing. Finally, the manifesto stated: “The responsibilities for the betrayals and threats of splits must be placed where it belongs—on Wilson and the right wing.”
But if the responsibility for the betrayals rested with Wilson and the right wing, then why wasn’t the WRP putting forward the demand that these right-wingers be replaced and expelled?
By 1976 it began to become clear that the ultra-leftism of the WRP was a peculiar form of parliamentary cretinism turned inside out. All the problems of the working class could be solved...if only new elections took place. The Second Congress of the WRP in October 1976 issued a resolution entitled “The Crisis: A Revolutionary Socialist Solution.:
“The working class are far more powerful than the parasites who run this system. Their task is to take their place alongside the workers of Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola who have shown imperialism can be beaten.
“But the only way to demonstrate this strength is by bringing down this government of traitors. Then accounts can be settled with both the Tories and their agents in the Labour movement.
“A general election can be fought. The working class can be welded into an unbreakable force behind a socialist program and building of a revolutionary leadership to halt the crisis.
“We call on workers to reject any attempt at coalition and to bring down the Labour government and force a general election on socialist policies.” (Five Years, p. 4)
In place of a consistent fight within the workers’ movement against the Labour leadership—building factions inside the unions, developing caucuses inside the Labour Party, etc.—the WRP leadership substituted an eclectic combination of left-phrasemongering and parliamentary reformism. The full strength of the working class can never be manifested in elections. To say that “accounts can be settled with the Tories and their agents in the Labour movement’ through a general election on whatever issues it is fought is to espouse a “parliamentary road” perspective, whatever the declamations about “preparing for power” and the “momentum of the revolution.”
In a front-page comment on November 12, 1976 the News Line declared: “The whole labour and trade union movement must act immediately to stop the Tory and the bankers taking over.
“This can be done by the working class using its strength through its own organizations—the trade unions and Labour Party.
“The first essential step is to call an emergency Labour Party conference to adopt a full socialist program.
“Secondly, this discredited, crumbling, anti-working class Callaghan government must be forced out of office.
“And thirdly a General Election must be held on socialist policies to rout the Thatcher gang.”
The WRP leaders deserved the praise of all fair-minded British democrats for devising this impeccable procedure. First, they demanded that the Labour Party adopt socialist policies at an emergency conference. Then, assuming that this would be done, they did not propose that this revolutionary program be implemented. Instead, the WRP called for the resignation of the Government and the holding of a General Election on the socialist policies that the ruling party had already adopted. In other words, socialism could only be implemented once it had been ratified at the polls. Only an absurd policy could have produced such ludicrous aberrations in the policy statements of the WRP.
To grasp how far the political line of the WRP had shifted from the working class it is useful to contrast the policies developed after July 1975 with those fought for under the previous Wilson Labour government.
The WRP had based its call for the bringing down of the Labour government on the introduction of pay laws. But the former Wilson government had frozen wages under the Prices and Incomes Act in August 1966 and launched attacks on the living standards of the working class. But at that time—when the British Trotskyists were in the thick of the struggle to build the ICFI—the SLL took a completely different approach. Setting out the attacks of the Labour government in his pamphlet “The Alternative to Wilson’’ published in 1967, Healy raised the question:
“How do we fight the present right-wing leaders of the Labour and trade union movement without letting the Tories back? This is a question which occupies the attention of many sincere people.”
The SLL called for the replacement of the Wilson leadership under the demand of “Make the left’ MPs fight” on a program of socialist policies. Nine years later a struggle was developing in the constituency Labour Party branches against the open right wingers. But the WRP, while proclaiming the need for flexibility and patience, had in fact cut itself off from this development with the policy of forcing the government to resign, leaving a clear field for the centrists, such as the Militant tendency, to dominate the opposition to the right wing.