1990s >> 1996 >> no-1097-january-1996

Power & Principle

Socialists have always argued that the Labour Party is nothing more than a vehicle for careerist politicians to achieve power — Blair and company have merely proved our assertion

It was probably the late Harold Wilson who made Labour’s naked thirst for political power so clearly obvious. In the succeeding years, as Labour leader followed Labour leader, the frustrated urge to become the political king of the castle has forced Labour leaders to abandon utterly any pretence of principle beyond that of achieving power. In Tony Blair, known to Tories as Tory Blair, Labour has achieved its contemptuous zenith.

Neil Kinnock, before he and his wife found rich rewards in European politics, always seemed somewhat troubled by the undignified and unprincipled thrust for political power. Unlike Blair, whose granny would be in decided danger if she stood between him and the realisation of his personal ambitions, Kinnock, stirred, perhaps, by the memory of working class sacrifice that had made the Labour Party, felt obliged to explain. Principle was, he said, useless without power.

In so far as he went, Kinnock spoke the truth—a truth, we must acknowledge, exemplified by the history of the Labour Party and the Socialist Party. The latter was born in 1904 and the former two years later, in 1906. But, whereas the Socialist Party was structured in strong democratic socialist principles the Labour Party came into existence as a coalition of interests, often conflicting interests, whose broad spectrum of principles were scattered to the wind when it first achieved political office in 1924.

But that is not the end of the story, nor does it fully illustrate the valid point Kinnock was making. In the years between, the Labour Party became a “broad church” whose various “wings” espoused those single issues which the Tories—and, sometimes, Labour itself—opposed. It became a party of government holding the reins of power on eight occasions since 1924.

Dismal future

On the other hand, the Socialist Party has remained small and without influence other than the respect it retains, even among its opponents, for its strong adherence to its socialist principles. Consistency, someone said, is a virtue for fools but that is consistency for consistency’s sake. In a situation where the three main parties, Tory, Labour and Liberal, each of which upholds the political and economic status quo, have conspired to ensure that only the case for capitalism is given a voice on the public media, the principled consistency of the Socialist Party is clearly justified not only by the logic of its case but by the unfolding absurdity of the Labour Party’s attempts to humanise capitalism.

Probably many of Labour’s troubled supporters—loyal only because of the utter ruthlessness of the Tories—would argue that adherence to socialist principles is a waste of time if there is no obvious indication that they are going to lead to winning the political power to implement those principles.

If that is the case then the working class, not only here but throughout the world, is confronted with a dismal future. The political vehicle on which they have in the past pinned their hopes for change and a better future, parties of reform such as Labour and Social Democratic parties, have been given power time after time and the outstanding memorial to their wielding of power is their utter failure to solve even one single problem of the working class.

When reform parties achieve political power, when they become the party of government, its members who make up the government have each a personal vested interest in remaining in office and that interest is reflected in the activities of their parliamentary’ followers who, if they are to do their job in the terms in which they see that job, must aspire to political influence and promotion within the party. Effectively, the party and its members are in the business of politics, economically harnessed to maintaining their job in the same way as any other person who is dependent on a wage or salary.

Obviously the pressures this puts on the individual member of parliament and on political parties is not conducive to the nourishment of principles. This is not to suggest that every member of parliament is devoid of principle but it does mean that, when there is a conflict between continuing in power and standing by a principle, the greater “principle” of power retention comes into play.

Continued betrayal

Kinnock’s contention that, without power, principle is politically impotent is perfectly right but the achievement of power in conditions in which principles—if they exist, in the first place— have to be jettisoned in the face of the inevitable consequences of power is perhaps even more overwhelming for—as we have seen with Labour, continual betrayal emaciates and endangers even those principles to which the party and its members falsely lay claim.

Given the undemocratic set-up that prevails between the media—especially the powerful electronic media—and the main political parties which effectively imposes a ban on ideas that challenge capitalism, the false claims made by those parties thwarts democracy. Unfortunately, such is the flagrant dishonesty that exists in capitalist politics that most people will find difficulty in countenancing that claim. But the same people will readily accept the need for legislation such as the Sale of Goods Act to protect the public from false claims made by either manufacturers or retailers of even comparatively inexpensive or trivial items. Yet the political parties can inveigle people into parting with their votes—and the democratic determination of their future—on the basis of promises that can be thrown in the wastepaper basket immediately following an election.

Such are the direct consequences but the results are even more destructive of democratic practice. In the ease of Labour and its various Left supporters, the exploitation of supposed socialist principle to achieve political power has not only grossly deceived the working class but has proven vitally protective of capitalism in that it offers an image of “socialism” as something which is vitally flawed in practice. Not only has Labour—and, indeed, the Left generally—perverted the nature of Socialism, but they have been as assiduous as the Tories—and the Right generally—in ensuring that real socialists are not afforded the opportunity to challenge their misrepresentation on the electronic soapbox.

Kinnock’s assertion that principle without power is useless is equally valid when stated in reverse: power without principle is not only useless, as the history of Labour governments shows, it is worse since it is destructive of the principles it pretends to have.

Historical proof

Where, we might ask, does this leave the Socialist Party? Our principles are based on the logic of our socialist theory; on the knowledge that human society has developed to the point where the potential exists to provide for the material needs of every human being on the planet; on the assumption that, faced with the ultimate reality of capitalism’s failure to solve the ghastly problems that it creates, human beings will take into their common ownership the means of life; that common ownership, and the abolition of all the wasteful activities that capitalism makes necessary, will permit society to function on the basis of free labour in the production of goods and services and free access to the fruits of that production.

That is the socialist proposition, the root of our socialist principles and the Socialist Party does not seek power for itself to enthrone those principles. We seek to promote and spread a knowledge of Socialism and whether the majority that ultimately takes the required political action to bring about Socialism uses the Socialist Party or some other political vehicle to take power from the political agents of capitalism and establish Socialism is of no consequence to us. Our task will be completed with the achievement of Socialism; politics will disappear as government over people gives way to a straightforward democratic administration of social production and distribution.

The important thing is the historical proof that the record of reformist political parties gives to socialists: capitalism cannot be made to function in the interests of the great majority of people, the working class, who are the real wealth producers. However long it takes for that truth to percolate the consciousness of the working class, for that period we will suffer the social problems that have been the identification marks of capitalism since its inception.

Conversely, until that consciousness begins to take root, the Socialist Party will retain its principles and seek its purpose in the dissemination of those principles.

Richard Montague