There’s been a bit of a fuss in the press about the expulsion of four alleged members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) from the Labour Party.
Who is and isn’t allowed to join or register to support Labour was a contentious issue in the leadership election, and one where lots of people got confused and bandied round terms like Trotskyist and entryism without really being clear about what they mean.
So I thought I would offer some clarity.
You can join the Labour Party, however leftwing you are, as long as you not opposed to its aims and values. These are set out in Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitutional Rules but the key bit pertinent to the AWL case is the reference to “democratic socialism”. If you believe in a revolutionary path to socialism, the armed overthrow of parliamentary democracy and its replacement by a dictatorship of the proletariat, and you see yourself as part of the same revolutionary tradition as the Bolsheviks and Lenin and Trotsky, Labour isn’t your party because we are a party that believes in a parliamentary and democratic road to socialism. We might end up campaigning for some of the same progressive causes in single issue campaigns, but there is a fundamental division within the socialist family between revolutionary and democratic socialists and Labour’s left flank is defined by that division.
AWL is quite clear about which political tradition it is from. On its website it says “The AWL calls itself … Trotskyist”. This isn’t a case of Trot being used as an unfair insult against left-wingers – these are proud Trots! The website says “we advocate a fight for the creation of an independent workers’ party” – presumably not seeing Labour as that party. AWL explains its roots in the Bolshevik/Trotskyist tradition in more detail here.
You are not allowed to join the Labour Party if you are a member or active supporter of another political party. Chapter 2 of Labour’s rules says “A member of the Party who joins and/ or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party, or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate, or publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a Party member.”
AWL was registered with the Electoral Commission as a separate party as recently as this summer, with its own emblem, leader and the right to stand in elections, a right it exercised by, for instance running council candidates against Labour in Hackney under the banner “Socialist Unity”. It deregistered very recently (since the leadership election result), with the apparent motive being to reengage in entryism.
Even if they have deregistered and this was viewed as a genuine decision by them to stop being a separate party (rather than a cynical ploy), as an organisation (whether it is a party or not), AWL still exists and has a website, a newspaper and active local branches. It is one of only two groups that has been specifically proscribed by the Labour Party in the period since 1979. It was called Socialist Organiser at the time of the proscription but has subsequently changed its name. This ban was a decision by Annual Conference in 1990. The only other organisation to be banned in this way is Militant, now operating as the Socialist Party and part of TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition). Chapter 2 of Labour’s rules says “members of political parties or organisations ancillary or subsidiary thereto declared by Party conference or by the NEC in pursuance of Party conference decisions to be ineligible for affiliation to the Party” cannot join the party. It would require a decision of Annual Conference to lift the ban on AWL.
Entryism doesn’t mean being a very leftwing person who wants to join and change the policies of a more moderate party (or vice versa). It’s a political strategy, advocated primarily by one wing of the Trotskyist movement, where an existing external organisation or party encourages its members or supporters to join another, usually larger, organisation in an attempt to expand their influence because they are not particularly popular running under their own colours. It’s organised, cynical and essentially parasitic in nature – it’s about the smaller party subverting the resources and membership base of the larger one. It’s an inherently dishonest political strategy, as it involves people lying about whether they are members of another party.
It’s quite different from bona fide Labour members, whether left or right or centre, organising a faction, or a think tank, or a movement or campaign within their own party to get it to move in a particular direction. That’s just about freedom of association.
Chapter 1 of the Labour rules provides an organisational, as opposed to ideological, definition of what kind of internal organisations are not bona fide: “Political organisations not affiliated or associated under a national agreement with the Party, having their own programme, principles and policy, or distinctive and separate propaganda, or possessing branches in the constituencies, or engaged in the promotion of parliamentary or local government candidates, or having allegiance to any political organisation situated abroad, shall be ineligible for affiliation to the Party.”
AWL is clearly not “affiliated or associated under a national agreement with the Party” but then neither are a spectrum of legitimate organisations from LRC on the left to Progress on the right.
But AWL does have its own “distinctive and separate propaganda” (this doesn’t mean literature and social media aimed at influencing debate among party members, like CLPD’s Yellow Pages, or Labour Left Briefing, or Progress’ magazine, it means material aimed at the wider electorate in competition with Labour’s own materials). AWL’s website says “We produce our paper, our industrial bulletins, leaflets, pamphlets, magazines, books, and we go on the streets and into our workplaces and trade union or student organisations to sell and distribute them.”
It also falls foul of “possessing branches in the constituencies” (this doesn’t mean a bunch of Labour members who share opinions about the direction of the party meeting up and networking, or holding a conference, it means a series of formal structures that looks like branches of a party and feed into a national organisation). Its website says “AWL members are organised in branches — four in London, and one in most other major cities — which meet weekly to discuss and organise their activity. Usually they organise open or public meetings monthly.”
Incidentally, all the quotes in this article from the AWL website are by-lined as being written by Daniel Randall, one of the four people Labour has just expelled.
This isn’t a case that’s up for argument, it is very clear cut.
I don’t have a particular animus towards AWL. They are more intellectually consistent, and campaign within unions and single-issue campaigns in a more constructive way than rival far left groups like the SWP. Their politics are more appealing and less crude on a host of issues such as the Israel/Palestine conflict. Their small group includes many people who I admire and like, and people who have genuinely parted company from them are some of the best activists and political thinkers I have met, making a great contribution to Labour now they have left the AWL.
But they are a separate party from a separate political tradition. They don’t have a place within Labour. I want Labour to grow both to its left and right both in terms of members and voters. But I draw a line at Trotskyist revolutionaries playing a game where they try to infiltrate the Labour Party and take over our local structures or recruit our members for the benefit of their own party.
The people who have most to lose from this are the legitimate, democratic socialist bit of Labour’s Hard Left – the vast majority of the people in the tradition of Benn and Corbyn. It does them huge reputational damage to be associated with people from outside the democratic socialist tradition and with an agenda which is not about Labour’s interests but their own. The one thing guaranteed to kill Momentum and all the idealism of the new joiners inspired by Jeremy is if either Momentum or the wider Party become a factional playground for AWL, Militant’s successors in the Socialist Party, or worst of all the SWP to push their divisive and sectarian politics.
Just because the democratic socialist Hard Left called the issue of Militant and Socialist Organiser wrong in the 1980s, they are not fated to repeat history, they don’t have to open their own doors or those of the party to people who do not share our values or have Labour’s welfare at heart.