The Labor Party: What It Is, What It
Isn’t, What We Hope It To Become
by Bill Onasch
When and How To Run In Elections
That doesn’t mean the party ignores or calls for boycotts of elections. But when and how to enter electoral politics has been perhaps the single most controversial topic for the Labor Party from Day One. The founding Convention established a commission to bring recommendations for an electoral policy to the next convention.
I had the honor of serving on that commission and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my political life. We started from basic working class movement principles and advanced to what I believe was a sound approach to this thorny topic, appropriate for our current situation.
The commission reaffirmed the secondary status of elections, that these contests are important only to the extent they reflect and register what is happening in the real world of class struggle.
Proposals for running token "propaganda" election campaigns were rejected. We didn’t want to compete in the same league as the Constitution and Natural Law parties for microscopic vote totals, relegating ourselves to fringe group status.
Instead, we reiterated our aim to lead the working class in a struggle to take power. We acknowledged we are far from that goal today but presented what we thought had to be accomplished before we challenge the boss parties in elections. This included winning over support of at least a significant segment of the unions and building a mass membership base in the community.
Though not explicitly mentioned in its policy statement the commission was certainly mindful of the lurking problems of lack of office holder accountability, as in the British Labour Party. We established rules that made adherence to the party’s core program a condition for continuing support of any LP candidate elected to office.
The policy also prohibited party units from endorsing any candidates other than our own. This underlined the determination of the Labor Party to be truly independent. We would stay away from the practice common in a few states, particularly New York, where nominal parties run a few candidates of their own for minor offices while making deals with the Democrats to support their candidates for major offices.
Finally, the commission suggested practical steps party units should take to prepare for electoral ventures, along with a requirement that campaigns be approved by the national party leadership.
The commission’s report came before the party’s second convention, known as the First Constitutional Convention, in Pittsburgh in November, 1998. This gathering also attracted about 1400. There was some heated discussion about the electoral proposal on the floor. There were two major amendments put forward.
One would have removed the requirement of national leadership approval of all election campaigns. In reality this was not an abstract debate about the merits of local autonomy in general. Many–though not all--of those supporting the amendment were part of small left groups who had great hopes of running rousing campaigns after capturing local party bodies. Their bitter denunciations of national "bureaucracy" turned out to be persuasive in convincing the big majority of delegates that, for the present at least, the national leadership best keep on top of any campaigns run in the party’s name.
The other would have allowed "cross-endorsements" such as the way the Working Families Party in New York operates. Such a strategy can give you a "seat at the table" to haggle with winners about patronage but it doesn’t bring the working class any closer to real power. It too was rejected.
In the end, the proposed electoral policy was approved without amendment by an overwhelming margin. While admitting the possibility of personal bias I remain convinced that it is still a sound and necessary policy.
But the vote in 1998 did not–and should not–forever end debate within the Labor Party about how to relate to elections. We’ll come back to this before we close.
A Campaign Party
At the 1998 convention it was decided to adopt a campaign style of work, picking a few issues for the party to focus on. This was further refined at the party’s most recent convention, a somewhat smaller gathering in Washington in 2002, when the current priorities of Just Health Care, Worker Rights, and Free Higher Education were selected.
A campaign style of work is good. So are the issues chosen and some good things have been done by the Labor Party in each of these areas. But they are not truly campaigns.
Campaigns have some short-term obtainable goal. They have a time frame. For example, an election campaign has a goal of winning office and winds up on election day.
The Labor Party issue campaigns are primarily educational in nature and open-ended in duration. We explain the problems and offer solutions. But these solutions are not going to come any time soon. There’s a long bumpy road ahead before we can enact Just Health Care, realize our demands for worker rights, or guarantee free higher education to every qualified student who wants it.
Given the current political situation in the United States, and given the present modest resources of the Labor Party, I don’t see LP doing much beyond educational work in the immediate future. An opportunity to initiate some action may arise here and there–but not often. We mainly approach unions one by one, and individual workers one-on-one, in order to explain and convince–not summon to action.
Some Dangers Inherent To This Stage
While recognizing this stage we must go through to prepare for future action we have to be careful not to subconsciously make a virtue of this necessity. It would be easy to fall into the routine of a "service" organization, becoming labor educators and consultants.
Now, I respect labor educators and count some as personal friends. Nor do I necessarily have anything against consultants–it depends on the consultation they offer. But yet another service organization doesn’t get the working class the political leadership needed to take power, to implement the things we educate about. That’s a job for a labor party; that’s the job we signed up for.
We also have to be conscious of the pressure of elections on a party that not only does not run candidates of our own but expressly acknowledges that affiliated unions, and individual members, can support candidates of other parties. That pressure was, of course, enormous in the Anybody But Bush frenzy of the 2004 election.
Jerry Gordon correctly reminds us of this danger. He in fact goes farther and raises strong objection to statements by some party leaders that he believes expressed implied, back-handed endorsement of Kerry.
His argument is not without some merit. Since most workers saw the election as a two-man contest it is, of course, logical for them to conclude that to oppose Bush is to support Kerry.
While I agree with him that we should avoid the appearance of even back-handed support I recognize that was not easy to do without completely ignoring the election. We do, after all, oppose Bush and the reactionary policies of his administration.
Even if some of our leaders were guilty of venial sins of back-handedness, the mortal sin of openly backing the Democrat lesser evil was avoided–even under the most intense pressure. And we continued to regularly criticize Kerry and the Democrats.
I think we need to keep a sense of proportion about tendencies to backslide. While not perfect, our leaders managed to steer the still fragile Labor Party through this electoral storm keeping our core principles, program, and perspective intact. We’re in a good position to intervene in the broader post-election debate within the labor and social movements. Our leadership deserves some credit for that.
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