Should socialists stand against Labour? (September 1998)

Submitted by martin on 26 December, 2006 - 12:39 Author: John Nihill [Sean Matgamna]

How do things stand now between the trade unions and New Labour?

The trade unions still have 50% of the vote at Labour Party Conference; they have 20% of the places on Labour’s National Executive Committee; 200 MPs, a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, are members of the trade union group of MPs. (The trade unions used to have 70% of the votes at conference, and before that 90%.)

But against this seeming strength of the unions in New Labour stands the following: both conference and the NEC have lost their old role, which was often only a nominal role, in making Party policy. Policy is — nominally — now made by a new body, the National Policy Committee, on which the Cabinet has 50% of places, the NEC 50% and the leader the casting vote. In practice, this means that the Cabinet controls the Labour Party. It is a logical and for them necessary extension of the rigid control which the Government exercises over the MPs. Parliament is rigidly subordinate to government and, if the Party was not to make life impossible for the MPs, the Party too had to be subordinate to government. Democracy is indivisible.

The Blairites think they have thus solved the historic dilemma of Labour governments. Running the capitalist system according to its own needs, Labour governments have mostly disappointed the hopes and expectations of their supporters. Repeatedly they have come into conflict with their own party.

To avoid this, New Labour’s leaders have gone a considerable way towards abolishing the Labour Party! Blair towers above the Party. He was elected by “One Member, One Vote” — the first Labour leader to be so elected — and he can confront the party structures as an independent power. Local MPs, also selected by OMOV, can do the same and will be backed by the all-powerful Party centre at Millbank Towers.

The proportion of New Labour MPs from any sort of working class or trade union background is now infinitesimal. MPs tend to be lawyers, journalists or lecturers. There has been a big influx of women into Parliament, but not of working class women. Trade union financing continues. But there is much capitalist money too, for the Leader’s Office, from the likes of Bernie Ecclestone.

Old Labour trade union relationships exist within a network of new structures. The unions are effectively, though not definitively, imprisoned in these structures. When Augustus Caesar founded the Roman Imperial monarchy, he incorporated many of the forms and names of the subverted Republic — the Emperor was only the “first” of the senators, etc — but it was actually a new system. So it is with New Labour. It is too soon to see it as an irreversible victory for those whose aim it is to destroy the Labour Party and replace it with something like the US Democratic Party. But they are in control; the new structures and relationships embody their project.

After the left’s “half a revolution” in 1979 and early ’80s the right slowly won back control: what chance is there that the labour movement — the trade unions — can do the same sort of thing with New Labour? What might happen if the trade unions — that is the trade union leaders — were to try and exert themselves inside the new structures against the New Labour establishment? Is this conceivable?

In fact the unions could still have the possibility of destabilising the not-quite-set new structures. They could try to assert the primacy of working class interests in the Labour Party. However, unless the Blairites who now have the Party by the throat were to unexpectedly collapse, it is highly improbable that the trade unions and constituency Labour Parties could take back the Labour Party. The best they could hope to do would be to split it, hiving off the Blairites.

A movement of Labour resurgence, based on the unions, could still hope to rally a big proportion of the forces now grouped around the Labour Party. There is a precedent, of sorts. In 1931, the labour movement hived off its old leaders — McDonald, Snowden, JH Thomas — who, a minority, formed the National Labour Party and went into coalition with Tories and Liberals. The Labour Party was devastated at the 1931 election, but without that split the Labour Party would have been finished.

Plainly a “1931” development —though a majority of the MPs would probably hive off — would be preferable to a consolidation of Blairism and the end of mass working class politics in Britain for the calculable future. Unless they exert themselves, the trade unions will remain prisoners of the neo-liberals and Christian Democrats who control New Labour.

In this situation the central thing for socialists is to bring class back to centre stage in politics. If, at the end of the day, the labour movement in politics is not striving for the creation of a workers’ government — a government that will do for the working class what Tory governments have done and what Blair’s Government now does for the bourgeoisie — then the labour movement in politics has no independent role to play. It will only be the electoral drudge and pack horse of middle class careerists. The need for a workers’ government has to be explained and propagandised for in the labour movement today.

Rank-and-file trade unionists locally and nationally need to be organised to secure working class representation in Parliament. Where workers are an almost extinct species in the PLP, worker-only shortlists might make sense in certain areas.

In assessing what is new, it is important not to idealise the past of the Labour Party. Lenin at the 2nd World Congress of the Communist International in 1920 rightly defined the Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”. It has never been anything else. It was a bourgeois workers’ party when, under pressure from the working class, it brought in elements of “the political economy of the working class” (the expression is Karl Marx’s, describing the Ten Hour Bill to limit the working day), the welfare state.

The famous Clause Four of the party constitution, committing the party to an ill-defined socialism, had no effect on what the party in government did. Nevertheless, there were open valves between the trade unions and the Labour Parties, locally and nationally. Through these valves, membership and influence, as well as finance, flowed.

Under Blair, there has been an enormous tipping of the balance towards the bourgeois pole of the bourgeois workers’ party. The unions remain in the structures and they continue as financiers of the party. But New Labour has blocked up nearly all the old channels of working class political self-expression. Its Labour and trade union connections function only to allow it more plausibly to occupy the space working class politics should occupy. New Labour now functions entirely as a block on working class politics.

In the past socialists said: “Vote Labour and fight”. What did it mean? How did it differ from “Vote Tory and fight”? Many workers in the ’60s did “vote Tory and fight” — in industry. What was different about Labour was that the fight was also waged within the structures of the labour movement, including the Labour Party. Socialists in the Labour Party fought to take forward the broad working class movement, and in the first place trade union activists, beyond Labourism on the basis of their own experience.

Labour as a right wing and trade union-dominated party was a brake on the working class — but it worked flexibly and by way of a network of labour movement consent. It had structures that might have allowed the bedrock labour movement to shed its old reformist skin. Central to the Blair project is the driving of the working class movement out of politics. With almost all channels blocked to working class involvement and participation, New Labour is not a possible vehicle for working class politics, but a barrier raised against politics for the labour movement. The unions remain affiliated but New Labour is not too far from what the Liberal Party in Britain was until the end of World War One, and the Democratic Party in America is today.

The fundamental strategic concern of socialists in this situation is to argue within the trade unions for the reintroduction of class into British politics wherever it is possible to overcome the stifling.

The final triumph of Blairism would mark an historic defeat for the Labour Party. To accept the definitive victory of Blairism prematurely, while there is still the possibility of turning the trade unions — in the first place the rank and file — towards a struggle for class politics would be desertion. It would, for socialists, be to indulge in the most profound and debilitating sectism. Socialists who do not see their role as that of those who point the way forward for the broad labour movement are sectarians, not Marxists.

Against this background what if any role can the standing of independent Labour and socialist candidates against New Labour in elections have? Is it a matter of principle, as some would argue, not to stand against what is still, just about, definable as the trade union party?

It was never a matter of principle amongst Marxists not to stand against the Labour Party. There were, however, massive practical reasons against it, not least the comparatively open structures of the Labour Party and the genuinely open-valve relationship with the unions. It is the choking off of these open valves that puts the question of candidates in a new light. So long as most workers continue to see Labour as their party an anti-Labour candidacy makes sense only as an occasion to make propaganda for socialism. Such propaganda in the election puts an additional hurdle in its own path, requiring workers to break with the party they consider their own. For so long as the open structures existed, so long as living trade union based working class politics could exist in and through the Labour Party, then only in very special circumstances could it make sense to stand against Labour. Now that Labour increasingly stands as an absolute block on working class and socialist politics, things are becoming different.

To counterpose a little bit of socialist propaganda to the labour movement in politics — a labour movement and Labour Party within which one could make such propaganda most fruitfully — did not make sense. To continue to forgo socialist propaganda in elections in deference to the monopoly of the anti-socialist and anti-working class Blair party is increasingly to boycott our own politics and our own proper, working class concerns.

The experience of the socialist left in elections over the last decade has not been one to encourage casual electoralism. In Liverpool, we had sections of the old Militant-led Labour Party bureaucracy, people who had recently controlled the council and made jackasses of themselves, standing against the Labour Party. In the Walton by-election they pretended to be the Labour Party, made timid reformist propaganda in the hope of maximising the vote, and, trailing Militant’s and Derek Hatton’s record in the Liverpool council behind them, like tin cans tied to a cat’s tail, they did very badly. The Socialist Labour Party, walking out of the Labour Party on a whim of Arthur Scargill’s and grouping together a rag tag and bobtail of sectarians and reformists, and itinerant socialists looking for lodgings, stood against Blair’s party in the last election. With few exceptions they too did very badly.

Sections of the left are now beginning to make a fetish of small scale electoralism. Toytown Bolshevism is being supplemented by toytown electioneering. Nothing can be more foolish. Socialists need flexible tactics to relate to the crisis of working class representation.

We need to work where possible within the Blairite Labour Party and against it and outside it. Standing in elections will for the little groups on the left, including the Socialist Workers Party, be only a small part of what must be done in the foreseeable future. If it is counterposed in the period ahead to work to bring the question of class centre stage in politics by a fight for the representation of the trade unions in Parliament, then it will be only the soft electoralist face of the old debilitating left sectarians.

In the unions we should focus on making the unions fight for union policy against the Labour Government. That means fighting the union leaders. That should include both mass action — strikes, demonstrations, etc., and the use of the unions’ potential powers within the new LP structures. Particular pressure should be put on union-sponsored MPs to defend union policies and amend legislation along those lines. Key focusses would be the legal right to strike and engage in union activity without fear of the sack. Fundamentally, we need to build rank and file trade union groups which combine the fight for labour representation in politics with the fight to democratise the trade unions and save them from the largely unaccountable no-fight leaders who have surrendered the political labour movement to Blair.

Standing in elections will logically lead to calls for trade unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party. That sounds radical, but right now it is an acceptance of utter defeat: we should not do that, but campaign to get the unions within the structures of New Labour to fight for class politics. Not to do that is to throw in the towel in the fight against Blairism — with self-mocking radical slogans scrawled on it.

The key question for work in the constituency Labour Parties is the removal of Blairite MPs, i.e., a serious fight for their de-selection and working class candidates instead. Given the central control in the Party, the Blairites will make victory in such a fight practically impossible. But if pursued properly and with the aim of mobilising the local working class base of the Party it would provide a broader basis for an independent electoral challenge to sitting Blairites than could normally be produced simply by organising the already non-Labour left.

In a number of constituencies in the 1997 General Election, there was more than one socialist candidate. The left will have to find ways of uniting its efforts — that is of uniting itself — before it can mount effective socialist propaganda challenges to New Labour in local and Parliamentary elections. A combination of standing united left candidates in selected elections and continued work, as above, in the Labour Party is what we need.

Finally, it is useful to look back at how things were done 100 years ago, when the Liberals dominated the working class politically and small socialist organisations, like Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party and the Marxist Socialist Democratic Federation, conducted electoral guerrilla war against Liberals and Tories. Socialists would stand to make propaganda — principally in local government elections. Thus they built up support. Parliamentary candidacies were rarer. Socialist groups would sometimes vie for the right to stand in a particular seat, but there would in the election be a rallying behind the socialist candidate. These groups were not free of destructive rivalry, but they lived in a different world from today’s inter-warring left. Above all they had — all of them in varying degrees — a common basic idea; working class politics, which they pushed in local, and occasionally Parliamentary, elections. They were building a movement — and in the unions, which mostly backed the Liberals, they competed with the Liberal Party for the allegiance of the trade unionists. Any socialist electoralism now that does not do that — and what it involves is outlined above — will be a more or less noisy irrelevance to what needs to be done.

Workers' Liberty 49, September 1998