We need a workers' government (1980)

Submitted by martin on 26 October, 1980 - 12:59 Author: Sean Matgamna

In the wake of the 1980 Labour Party conference, which saw an unprecedented rank-and-file surge to democratise the party, Socialist Organiser (forerunner of AWL) called for a fight for a workers' government. From Socialist Organiser no.28, 25 October 1980


Tony Benn drew an enormous amount of fire from the press with his speech on behalf of the [Labour Party] National Executive Committee at the opening of the Blackpool Labour Party conference.

To read the hacks, and listen to the baying of the Press Lords, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Benn had delivered a paraphrase of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, or of its latter-day supplement, the 1938 Programme of Leon Trotsky. You'd be wrong. Dead wrong.

Benn proposed three emergency measures to be enacted immediately the next Labour government takes office.

- The abolition of the House of Lords.

- A wide-ranging Industry Bill, to be put on the statute books 'within a matter of days'. This would give the next Labour government power (by decree) to extend public ownership, control capital movements, and 'provide for' 'industrial democracy'.

- Within a matter of weeks, a Bill would be enacted to return to the House of Commons the powers which it has surrendered to the Common Market in the last seven years.

All this would be done constitutionally and according to the present rules.

There would be no ringing Roundhead declaration of the democratic right of the House of Commons, as an elected Parliament, simply to dismiss the Lords. 1000 new Lords would be created to get the 'consent' of the House of Lords.

The package amounts to no more than a limited strengthening of the House of Commons. It is limited indeed, because it would leave the monarchy in being, together with its quite substantial reserve powers. (For example, what if the monarch refused to create 1000 peers?).

In any major social conflicts, the formal powers of the monarchy would be a natural rallying point for the reactionaries.

The package also contains nothing about even curbing the power of the civil service or of the armed forces.

How radically does Benn conceive of the Industry Act being used? If a firm is unable to provide jobs when all around us the lives of millions of working class families and whole working class communities are being devastated, it would seem to be a pretty clear indication that private ownership in that industry should not continue. Yet at the Labour conference Tony Benn,,successfully opposed a proposal that any firms threatening redundancies should~be nationalised under workers' control . The recent NEC rolling manifesto omitted Labour's policy for n4tionalising 25 big monopolies.

Tony Benn's programme is ridiculously inadequate as a socialist or working class response to the situation we face.

British society is rotting and decaying all around us, and the Tory government is now deliberately acting as a demolition squad.

it is not only that the Tories lack feeling for the British people, though they are sustained in their work by a brutal upper-class callousness towards the workers. More fundamentally, the desperate decline of Britain, fundamentally the decline of British industry's competitiveness and profitability, makes desperate measures necessary - and for the Tories desperate measures are measures that make the workers pay.

The repeated failures of different government strategies, Labour and Tory, prepared the way for demolition-squad Toryism. Just as mortally-ill people sometimes resort to the most outlandish quackery, the main party of British capitalism opts for the murderous quackery of monetarism because they believe that all the other options have closed for them.

Only one thing can fundamentally change the situation for British capitalism in the period ahead - the driving down of the working class share in the wealth we produce to a dramatic degree and at least a serious weakening of the trade unions. For example, it is because they hope that it will help them in these aims, that the Tories are so ready to tolerate and increase unemployment and the massive destruction of the social fabric that accompanies it.

Labour in office prepared the way for Thatcher. Not just in the obvious sense that Healey and Callaghan introduced their own savage cuts in 1976 and '77, but by its thoroughgoing failure to regenerate industry and British society.

Put into office in the wave of industrial direct action that scuttled Heath, the government behaved a; a straight-line capitalist government. It abused the confidence of the workers. Basing itself on the trade union bureaucracy (until 1978) at one side and the state machine on the other, it ruled in defiance of Labour Party conference decisions. It got wage 'restraint' and actually cut real wages for two years running.

But what the ruling class learned from that experience was the insufficiency of even a relatively successful (in their terms) Labour government. They needed to make the sort of attacks Labour could not make without shattering its base. Thus Thatcherism.

Against Thatcherism, the Labour Left now has a sort of consensus in favour of trying another policy for running capitalism - it will have a different driver, a state wheel added here, and a few control screws tightened or added there. But it will remain capitalist.

Import controls, state intervention perhaps to the level reached in* wartime Britain, and the collaboration of the working class (read restraint; read incomes policy, perhaps cosmeticised by some regulations on profit distribution) are supposed to ensure the regeneration of British industry and society.

This is nothing but edition 3 of the sort of delusion that dominated the 1964-70 and 1974-9 Labour governments. In so far as they administered capitalism at all successfully, it was by attacking the working class; and they failed miserably to arrest the decline of British industry and society.

The time for patching is long past - and in any case it is in the working class interest not to patch but to transform and bring about fundamental change towards democratic working class socialism - that irreversible change in the balance of wealth and power that the 1974 manifesto tantalising talked about and Labour in power forgot all about.

We must replace the fundamental mechanism of capitalism - profit - with a new one: the needs of the working people, fulfilled in a society organised, owned collectively, and run democratically by the working class.

This demands that we plan our lives by planning and organising the economy on which we must build our lives, and this in turn demands the social ownership of the land and major industries.

We need a radical working class alternative to capitalism.

Whether the next Labour government - in 1984, or earlier if we do as we have the industrial strength to do and kick out Thatcher - will be a more or less radical new instalment of the sort of Labour governments we have had this century, or not, will be determined by two things:

- By whether a real attack is made on the wealth and entrenched power of the ruling class; and,

- by whether or not it rests at least in part on the organisations of the working class instead of on those of the state bureaucracy, the military, and Parliament - that is, whether in response to the direct demands of the working class it can do what we want, or endorse what we do (taking over factories, for example) without being a captive of the state machine.

The working class itself would not only serve and protect its own interests by organising itself outside the rhythms, norms, and constraints of Parliamentary politics, expanding its factory shop stewards' committees, combine committees, Trades Councils, etc., and creating new action committees, to be an industrial power that could as necessary dispense with the Parliamentarians.

The Brighton/Blackpool decisions to control MPs and to give the majority of votes on who shall be prime minister if Labour has a majority in Parliament to the CLPs and trade unions (if we are not cheated) could open the way to a new kind of 'Labour' government - a workers' government, -instead of a government of the trade union party which merely administ6rs capitalism according to capitalism's own laws.

Revolutionary Marxists believe that there must be a socialist revolution - a clean sweep of the capitalists and the establishment of the state power of the working class, leading to the setting-up of a workers' democracy. The big majority of the labour movement don't yet share our views. But we have a common need and determination to oppose and fight the Tory government and to oppose any moves, even by the Labour Party in government, to load the cost of capitalist decay and crisis onto the shoulders of the working class.

If we cannot agree on a root-and-branch transformation (or on precisely how to go about getting it), we can at least agree on a whole range of measures to protect ourselves and to cut down and control the capitalists.

To get the most out of the breakthrough for democracy at Brighton and Blackpool, we must fight to ensure that the next Labour government does act radically in our interests and does base itself on the movement, not on the bosses' state bureaucracy. And at the same time we must prepare and organise ourselves to be able to protect our own interests however it acts.

We must fight to commit the Party to radical socialist policies, and use reselection to make sure MPs are held to those policies.

But if the Labour Party really were to strike at the power and wealth of the bosses, they would strike back, using their army and state forces to repress the movement if necessary - or simply to cow the Labour government.

Whoever wants to break out of the limits defined by the interests of the capitalists must be prepared to disarm the ruling class and destroy its state. Only the working class can do that, organised in squads like those which the flying pickets organise, which can arm themselves when necessary.

Any Parliament-based government that attempted really radical change would put its head on the block, and while the present armed forces exist the axe is in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Alarmist? An intrusion of insurrectionary politics that are out of place in Britain?

Unfortunately, no. In the last decade the Army has become highly politicised through its work in Northern Ireland. Early this year the pacifist Pat Arrowsmith debated with Field Marshal Carver, chief of the British Army during the struggles that got Heath out in 1974.

"Fairly senior officers", said Carver, "were ill-advised enough to make suggestions that perhaps, if things got terribly bad, the army would have to do something about it..."

So it is either resign yourself to Thatcherism (or a new edition of Healey- Callaghan, or worse) - or fight on all fronts.

The power of the ruling class is not entirely, nor even essentially, in Parliament. That is the terrain to which they now go out from their redoubts in industry, the civil service and the armed forces, to meet and to parley with the labour movement, and to put on a show for the people.

But if the labour movement insists on new rules for the parleying game, they have a reserve language to resort to - force. So have we.

But the bosses' greatest real strength is that they have convinced the majority of the people that force is no part - not even a re~ serve part - of British politics. That was not the view of the officers in 1974.

The top brass told them then to shut up. But they won't always: some of the coup-talkers in 1974 are themselves now the top brass. In any case we should not rely on their restraint.

Thus we see that Labour's decisions on Party democracy and the new attitude to Parliament open the possibility of a new type of 'Labour' government. But only the possibility.

With the present political positions of the Party and the leaders of its Left, you would get a Labour government which would fundamentally be more of the same with radical trimmings. It would not serve the working class, and in t)resent conditions it would not be able to adequately serve the ruling class. It would not even placate them.

Neither the ruling class nor the working class can afford to muddle along indefinitely - or for much longer.

If Thatcherism fails to regenerate Britain - and it will fail, because of its own vicious absurdities and because the working class must make it fail - that will only increase the desperation of the ruling class. There is no room left for reformist tinkering.

In the last decade and a half, the working class has defeated successive attempts by Wilson and Heath to solve British capitalism's crisis and decay at our expense. We even drove Heath from office.

The tragedy is that, while strong enough industrially to stop their solutions, we have not been politically able to develop a thoroughgoing working-class socialist solution.

The result is the sort of stalemate that has often in history been the prelude to attempts at ruling-class 'solutions' through military coups or fascism.

One cannot foresee or predict how long the present stalemate will continue. It is certain only that - if all past experience has any bearing on what will happen in Britain. - it cannot continue indefinitely. A solution to the decay and crisis must be found, and it will either be theirs, or ours - that is, working-class reconstruction of society on a socialist basis.

The drive to clinch the decisions on Labour democracy is the centre of the struggle now. Unless the Labour Party is thoroughly democratised, talking about it now as a vehicle for struggle and change is as absurd as calling for the Labour Party to come "to power with socialist policies" was in the '60s and '70s. The Blackpool decisions must be consolidated, extended, and made to work. And no Labour democracy can be secure unless the trade unions are democratised. The rank and file militants in the unions must be organised.

But if we do not simultaneously organise a drive for the minimally necessary socialist policies, then the consequences of democratisation may well be very unlike what the left expects.

As Tony Benn said at Blackpool, a Labour Government will be tested by the banks, the IMF, etc., from the first hours. If it does not go on the offensive in the working class interest, against the capitalists and their system, then it will have to go on the offensive against the left in the labour movement.

Accountability can mean - as it does in European social-democratic parties - tight central control to keep the hands of the leaders free. If there had been accountability in 1975 when Jack Jones and the trade union bureaucracy collaborated with the government to set up the £6 pay limit, then there would have had to be a purge of the left (such as newspapers like the Sunday Express and Observer did try to launch).

With accountability, the leaders would not have the option of placidly ignoring the Party, as after 1975.

The Right and Centre, even backed by the big unions, would have difficulty carrying through such a purge. But the point to focus on now is that it is a serious possibility unless we step up the drive to arm the movement - or at least big sections of its rank and file - with socialist politics.

And not at the "next stage" If the labour movement is to be ready to offer a real socialist alternative at the "next stage", its foundations must be laid and built upon now, and urgently.

That is what the Socialist Organiser groups exist to do, and what we are trying to do.