The situation in the UK: the main resolution passed at AWL Conference

AWL

Author: 

AWL conference

The general line of this perspectives document was adopted by AWL conference on 16-17 October 2010

1) World Crisis

The banking crisis of 2007-08 and after changed politics everywhere in ways that are still unfolding. The possibility of a "double-dip" economic slump looms threateningly. Even without that it is now commonplace for economic commentators to talk of now as the worst economic crisis in 80 years. There is enormous unemployment in Europe, America and other areas.

The cost to states such as the British of shoring up the banks, and the bankers, has locked governments like Britain's into a vicious circle that may turn into a steeply downward spiral. Increased state debt makes them vulnerable to the moods and swings of international money market speculation. That leads to government drives to cut back on state expenditure so severely that the consequent weakening of effective demand - social service cuts, withdrawal of state contracts for goods and services, etc., unemployment - becomes a major force pushing economies towards the "double dip", a deeper and worse slump than that triggered by the banking crisis, whose tsunami ramifications are thus still working through economies and societies.

2) The New Labour government's response to the crisis

In Britain the New Labour government responded to the banking crisis with decisive action to stop the banks collapsing. It put a strong state scaffolding around the banks to shore them up, putting the state and its resources in their place. In fact, it responded rather as the right-wing US Bush government did. It put in vast amounts of "public money", taxpayers' money, and nationalised the most insolvent and most threatened financial institutions.

The New Labour government had worked through eleven years of prosperous times, since it took power in 1997, to serve the rich and to maximise private gains from public institutions they own and control, It now acted decisively to "nationalise" the losses the rich would otherwise have suffered. Though its actions probably did prevent the public catastrophe of the banks and the credit institutions, and the high street cash machines, seizing up, it acted as the ideologically tooled-up market-worshipping government of the rich that it had been and still in the new conditions was. When prosperity returned, the nationalised banks would be restored to their previous owners so that profits could again be privatised. As it turned out, the government would even let the crisis-breeding bankers still siphon off their accustomed enormous bonuses. Within the framework of capitalism and its laws of operation, they acted very effectively to manage the crisis.

Yet at the same time, their action made the fundamental case for socialism - that the social economy, privately owned, needs to be socially owned and controlled.

3) Britain in the new "age of austerity"

The dawning of a new age of austerity and government retrenchment has transformed British politics in the following main ways:

It made it imperative, from their point of view, for the bourgeoisie and their governments to inflict enormous cuts on welfare provisions and in government economic activity. The New Labour government said it would "do what was necessary" here, as did the Tories, the then-ostensibly alternative government. But New Labour talked of a different pace of cuts, and a different balance between tax rises and cuts (and so, about 60% the amount of cuts advocated by the Tories).

For the first time in two decades, serious political and social differences emerged between Labour and the Tories, between the two main parties of neo-Thatcherism. This was expressed in the Tories' objections to the Keynesian government role the New Labour government had operated in meeting the crisis. It was expressed as a different time-scale for cutting the deficit, and a different balance between tax rises and cuts. That was no small division.

It had enormous implications for the scale and severity of the assault on living standards which both New Labour and Tories said was necessary. There was a difference between the two parties in who should pay, and how much, in the era of cuts.

To say here "oh, New Labour too would cut severely", while true, would be to miss the whole political dynamic in the political space between Labour's probable cuts and the Tories'. It would be so "abstract", so far above it all, as to eliminate a vision of the terrain of British politics for years to come.

In short, in 2008-10, the relative-boom conditions that had shaped the quiescence of the labour movement in the long years of prosperity under a New Labour government and the almost universal acceptance of market economy as the only possible economy, were radically changed.

4) The Labour Movement and the Crisis

Labour movements in history respond differently to crises as they are solved by the ruling class. The recent or not-so-recent experience of a labour movement determines how it will respond. Labour movements differ in their recent history and therefore they will respond differently [see endnote].

What is the state of the working-class movement now as it begins to face the coalition government's assault?

a) The working class and the labour movement have experienced 15 years of comparative prosperity, low unemployment - 13 of those years with a New Labour government that, while blatantly serving the rich, also engaged in expansion of public services and low-level redistribution by instruments such as tax and pension credits.

b) There are 7 million organised trade unionists. But whole areas of the economy are non-union. Ideas and labour movement goals of socialism, even in the vague and incoherent sense, inadequately-defined but heart-felt by many, have been marginalised. Thinking in market terms - acceptance of capitalism - is predominant.

c) In the 1990s the trade unions helped create New Labour. Since then the trade unions, despite occasional flurries of verbal protest and with a couple of exceptions, have supported New Labour and the New Labour governments. They remained tied to that government until the end. The emergence of a new generation of union leaders after about 2000, the so-called "awkward squad", proved a false dawn. With few exceptions, those leaders have so far offered little more than verbal leftism to differentiate them from the previous right-wing generation of union leaders.

d) The Tory anti-union laws which Thatcher enacted 30 years ago as an essential part of defeating and subjugating the militant labour movement and the working class remain on the statute books after 13 years of government by a party still heavily on labour movement financing. The union leaders' acceptance of that and their failure to do anything about the anti-union laws, alongside their submission to New Labour politics of which keeping anti-union laws was part, is perhaps their single greatest crime since they left the miners to fight alone in the great strike.

e) Through the 20th century the Labour Party was the party of the labour movement, the bourgeois workers' party. Since 1994-7 it has had many of its old structures and its modes of relating to the trade unions and the working class destroyed or changed radically in terms of their previous function.

Annual conference as a living congress of the labour movement in politics no longer exists. Most constituency Labour Parties are depleted in membership, political life, and ability to intervene in the national Labour Party.

In the late 1970s the Labour Party counterposed itself to the Wilson-Callaghan government as critic and medium of protest and organised resistance, but the Labour Party in the New Labour epoch was gutted by the New Labour leaders. This was done deliberately with the intention of freeing a future Labour government from the pressure of the labour movement and of the militant Party rank-and-file - to destroy potential agency of working-class resistance to such a government.

The renegade-leftist Labour Party leader from 1983-92 Neil Kinnock said: "We'll get 'our betrayal' over and done with before we form a government". And Blair carried through that programme, winning the 1997 election with an explicit promise to keep the anti-union laws and to try to make New Labour "the party of business".

As our press has many times pointed out, this disenfranchised the working class to an enormous extent. It greatly devalued the power of the working-class vote to affect affairs of state - even if only as loud criticism and organised opposition to government - and therefore devalued its democratic value. Without its own party, even in the very limited sense in which old Labour was its own party, the working-class vote was nullified.

f) There is in the working class a widespread, self-dividing chauvinism, fomented by sections of the millionaire press. Unless it is successfully fought it will hinder working-class development.

Thus the working class enters the crisis in poor condition. It also, however, enters it without a recent history of crushing defeats: the miners' defeat of 1985 is old history to anyone under the age of 40. There are great difficulties in the way of an effective working-class fightback against the coalition government, but not such as to guarantee in advance that there will be no militant resistance.

As revolutionaries, we register the difficulties; we do not deceive ourselves by painting up small fightbacks as much bigger than they really are; we keep in mind that when resistance comes, it may well be in places, at times, and on issues that we did not exactly expect; but we advocate and orient to the best possibilities of resistance. We do not accept defeat in advance. If we did so, we would make ourselves a factor working against effective resistance, not for it.

5) The Election and After

Coming on top of the widespread and deep disillusionment with the Iraq war, and with Prime Minister Brown's limitations as a Blair-style PR-adept politician, the economic crisis put the lid on the coffin of the New Labour government.

In mid-2009 opinion polls pointed to a crushing general election defeat, perhaps even electoral meltdown, for New Labour, and a big Tory majority in the post-general election parliament.

In fact that did not happen. Labour lost, but the Tories did not win the election. The Labour vote held up better than looked likely.

The Tory cuts programme is being implemented, compliments of the Liberal-Democratic Party in the coalition government. The Lib-Dems campaigned in the general election against most of what it will help the Tories carry through. The coalition government lacks a democratic mandate for what it is now going to do.

Why did the general election produce results that a year earlier would have astonished us?

By the time of the election there was a far wider public understanding than the polls could accommodate that the difference between the projected Tory and Labour cuts was enormously important to working-class lives. That understanding triggered and connected with working-class memories of Thatcher Toryism in the economic slump of the 1980s, to make anti-Toryism a powerful force in the election. Brown and New Labour made the economic differences between themselves and the Tories the axis of their election campaign.

Labour came to seem to large chunks of the electorate to be preferable, more trustworthy than the Tories. The pre-election surge in popularity for Nick Clegg and Vince Cable probably expressed a widespread wish that there was a better choice. But in the end that did not translate into seriously-increased votes for the Lib-Dems.

The outgoing Brown government attained a level of credibility as critics of the Tories and as a more trustworthy government that would have seemed miraculous a year earlier. In their opposition to the Tory programme, the New Labour leaders chimed in with what the trade unions were saying. It may also be that voters who had benefited from such New Labour reforms as tax credits were influenced: there is a danger that our standpoint in judging New Labour and its deficiencies can make us miss things like that on our political radar screens.

There was a sizeable element in the Labour election vote of "Labour returnees" - of once-Labour voters rallying in the crisis in response to fear of the Tories, rooted in memory as well as in concern with current political issues. That fear was a major thing among organised workers.

The fact that Labour would also have made cuts, and the fact that Labour councils will make cuts in response to Lib/Tory government constraints (while saying that they are softening those cuts as much as they can), will not change that picture, any more than similar facts about Labour and Labour councils have changed it in previous periods of Labour-union opposition to aggressive Tory policies. We demand that Labour councils refuse to cut, and that Labour and the unions organise militant action, not merely verbal protest, against cuts; but to think that Labour failing to meet our demands wipes out the fact of Labour and the unions being the large, "credible" alternative to the Tories with some working-class links would be totally to misestimate our own clout.

6) Outside-Labour left electoralism

The other fact established by the general election was the failure of the attempts, since 2000, to use electioneering during the years of New Labour rule to build on working-class resentment at that rule and against New Labour's suppression of effective working-class political representation and to regroup a substantial body of left and working-class activists.

Maybe things could have been different if the small beginning - very small and shaky though we said it was, at the time - made by the Socialist Alliance in 2001 had been built on positively, rather than trashed by the SP and SWP. In fact anti-Labour left electoral efforts were already in decline by 2004, and passed through periods of farce (Respect, the SSP split, No2EU), before arriving at a desultory and politically very thin effort, mainly by the SP but with token participation by the SWP and a few others, at the 2010 general election.

In principle we are for socialist candidates challenging Labour. We are for continuing the fight for working class political representation in the main ways proposed since 1997 and the Blairite coup in the Labour Party, including anti-Labour electoral challenges. The practicalities depend on the circumstances and the quality of the socialist, or would-be socialist, candidates.

For the next period there is no prospect of an anti-Labour electoral project being an axis around which a big and healthy left-wing force can be regrouped. However in the course of positively advocating and arguing for "left unity" we could have a good impact on activists around the left and there may be limited opportunities. We do not have the resources to run an electoral effort big enough to make a generalised impact as the AWL alone but that should not rule out singular limited local electoral initiatives under our own banner where this makes sense. There is no value for us in becoming fifth-wheel helpers to desultory campaigns by the Socialist Party and its occasional allies.

Anti-Labour electoralism cannot be a priority for us in the coming period, but there may be limited opportunities. There may be cases where we will back solidly-based socialist or labour movement candidates, or stand our own candidates, in order to challenge slavishly cutting Labour councillors. The difficulties that would cause for our Labour Party fraction work should not be decisive against such activity we would assess such candidacies on a case by case basis.

7) The Labour Movement in Politics After the Election

a) The central fact that the AWL must register - the AWL, which has become progressively disgusted and alienated at New Labour in government and the leaders' stifling and strangling of the old Labour Party - is that the union link has survived the long period of New Labour government. The political history of the British labour movement, of the interaction of its trade union and political parts, and the interaction of both with the working class, now begins a new chapter.

The undemocratic structures imposed on the Labour Party in 1997 are still there, but to fetishise those structural changes as the sole defining factor would be as wrong as dismissing them as inconsequential.

The New Labour political machine is intact. Its first-sight reality is no longer as the "party of business" ostentatiously marginalising the trade unions, but a Labour Party substantially defined, in popular awareness, by its opposition, in common with the trade unions, to "extreme" Tory cuts. For the next period, the working class, the unions, and the Labour Party are pushed together, and in a situation where there is no other political force even loosely connected to the working class which stands as a credible political alternative to the Tories.

b) One union has disaffiliated from the Labour Party (FBU) and one has been expelled (RMT). These unions are of course very important, and especially important for us as areas of higher-than-average militancy. But, as the election showed, they are a politically marginalised element of the trade union movement, and with not even the most roughly adequate political basis to create a viable alternative to the Labour Party.

To focus our political agitation on the creation of "our own" small militant political labour movement, grouped around the RMT leadership, and defined essentially by the quality of not being affiliated to the Labour Party, would be sectarian project-mongering of the sort which Trotsky defined in the Transitional Programme of 1938 as functioning above all to take pockets of militants out of the broader labour movement.

It would mean the AWL giving up on the prospect of socialists influencing and transforming the bigger unions, that is the main trade unions, the major part of the labour movement.

It would mean the AWL renouncing an across-the-board fight in the labour movement for our class-struggle politics in favour of pleas directed at and conditional on the RMT leadership.

c) Thus, the Labour-union links, through seriously changed, have survived. The history of the interaction begins again and in radically changed conditions to those of the last 20 years.

When the prospects seemed to be of New Labour continuing to rule for a long time in conditions of prosperity and of chronic Tory disarray with the unions continuing for an indefinite period to play dumb horse to the New Labour rider, we floated the overarching conceptualisation of some sort of CIO-like regrouping of the militant unions, Trades Councils and perhaps other elements, as an organising centre. It was seen an open-ended formula, not exclusively limited to battle within the Labour Party, but it was never presented as "our alternative to the Labour Party", or linked with a call for more militant unions to disaffiliate. It was suggested as a storyline that would allow people to make sense of the situation.

We refused to accept the invitation of some comrades to play the role of trade union sheepdogs for the Blairites by opposing on principle any action that might lead to unions being expelled from the Labour Party. Until our 2008 conference, our own basic line was that affiliated unions should begin a fight to transform the Labour Party, and if that fight led to expulsion, well and good. We advised a fight, not a policy of pick up your marbles and withdraw.

Events have now re-invigorated that policy. With Labour in opposition and opposing the Tory cuts, the political alignment of Labour and the unions is restored. There is no visible or foreseeable trigger that will separate off the affiliated unions from New Labour. If disgruntled militants advocate disaffiliation, our job will be to explain to them that a union willing to fight can achieve much more by agitating within the main bloc of politically-active unions than by hiving off, and we point to the experience of the FBU to confirm that.

d) If the sharp polarisation that existed in the General Election with Labour and the unions aligned against the Tories continues, and it probably will, there are likely to be serious moves in the disaffiliated or expelled unions to reaffiliate to the Labour Party. It is probably too early in the post-election evolution of the Labour Party for us to take the initiative and advocate that, as we did in the RMT in 2007, but we should take no dogmatic positions against it.

Concretely, in current or near-future conditions, RMT or FBU reaffiliation to the Labour Party would add lively pressure there in favour of reconstructing Labour Party democracy, in favour of a firmer stand against cuts, and so on.

It could also make for more fruitful political life in RMT and FBU, promoted by the "feedback" from Labour Party battles into those unions.

We should not trip ourselves up by moving too fast on this. But if serious moves for reaffiliation develop within either union we should not oppose them, even if, for example, they come from people not on our political wavelength such as soft-left Labourites.

In all cases, we assert our own politics and our own views on how affiliation should be used, by amendments, by speeches, or by leaflets and articles.

Within the sizeable group of unaffiliated trade unions, we continue to argue the need for politics and a political voice for workers (including active use of political funds; continuing moves to support labour movement candidates supporting union policies and action against the cuts etc; participating in forums about advancing working class political representation; affiliation to the LRC).

8) The Limits on Labour Revival

In the last year there have been some moves by the unions to restore Labour Party conference, and since the general election some tens of thousands of people have joined the Labour Party. A further inflow of new life may come if the Labour party, allied to the unions, is the centre of opposition, even if only verbal opposition to the "Tory cuts".

These small stirrings, though small, indicate that we should seriously explore the life of local CLPs and Young Labour groups, and again make a practical reality of our never-formally-abandoned policy of doing limited but organised "fraction work" in the Labour Party and in the Labour-related structures of the affiliated unions.

However, the pressure for a radical restructuring and revival of the Labour Party as a living organisation that a massive defeat might have produced does not now exist.

That Labour in opposition would "oppose Tory cuts" and chime in with the unions was entirely predictable. But the General Election and its outcome will shape events in the labour movement very differently from what might have followed a crushing defeat for New Labour, and a convincing Tory victory.

In such a situation there would be no prospect of an early return of Labour to government in a routine election, not for a long time. Now however we face a situation where Labour can reasonably hope to win the next election.

Indeed, the Tories do not have a working majority. It is possible (though unlikely) that the Lib-Dem/Tory coalition will fall apart before its five years are up.

The government will incur great unpopularity from the butchery its cuts will inflict on the people. Thatcher was rescued from that sort of unpopularity by the Falklands War. Labour's dangerous disarray greatly contributed to the Tories' 1983 election victory. There is now no equivalent for Cameron and Clegg for what the Falklands War was for Thatcher.

A corollary of the common front of Labour and the unions against the Tory-Liberal cuts will be to focus trade unions and the Labour Party rank-and-file on winning the return of a Labour government in the next general election, soon. That will create great pressure not to "rock the boat". (A great upsurge of industrial militancy might change all that, of course, in ways we cannot foresee).

Within the Labour Party and in the trade unions, the leading layers of New Labour politicians, especially the younger ones, are not utterly discredited, as they might have been by a crushing Labour defeat and outright Tory victory.

The feebleness of the Labour Party organisation in the country and the lack of other than a token youth movement probably made the difference between Labour defeat and victory in the May 2010 election. Those who run the Labour Party must know it. Both the Milibands look to something like the "Obama model" - an ad-hoc organised network of loose supporters beyond the party - as their guide for restoring the Party's fortunes. That is not at all necessarily counterposed to restoring or renovating the Party structures, and some of it would certainly feed into the Party structures.

A modest revival of Labour Party life is likely, but it starts from a very low level, and the urgent pressure for shake-up and restoration which crushing defeat would have brought is not there.

There is no mandate for the elaborate and costly evasive action which full-scale AWL reinvolvement in local Labour Parties would require. What is indicated now is serious exploration and a restart of Labour Party fraction work. The exact scale and proportions should be decided and reviewed in line with events and evidence.

9) The workers' government

The considerations above about the limits of life in the Labour Party structures are important in deciding how much involvement in the Labour Party and its structures the AWL should have now. They cannot decide the general political attitude we should take to the Labour-union bloc.

Speculation here is not the prime business of the AWL. We need to work out a line of intervention in these fields which will allow us to build our own organisation and multiply its contacts with the organised working class.

Our general policy for opposing the government and its cuts is outlined in other documents and need not be repeated here in detail. We fight for social provision under democratic control, against privatisation and marketisation. We fight for an effective right to strike, to take solidarity action, and to organise, against anti-union laws.

The key conclusion from the experience around the election, what it delineates and tells us about the political state of the labour movement and the working class in politics, and the facts of the new government, is that for now and for the next foreseeable period the Labour-union bloc is still central in working-class politics, and cannot be "bypassed".

Agitation to "make Labour fight" - including "make Labour councils fight" - has to be a central political theme. It has to be a central theme irrespective of calculations we can make that official Labour's "fight" against the Tories will be feeble. It is one of the day-to-day expressions of the general agitation, which we should continue, for a workers' government.

By workers' government, we mean a government based on the labour movement - the actual labour movement, not some selected small "left" splinter of it - accountable to the movement, and serving the working class.

"Of all parties and organisations which base themselves on the workers... and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers' government. On this road we promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should in our opinion form the program of the 'workers' government'.

"Is the creation of such a government by the traditional workers' organisations possible? Past experience shows, as has already been stated, that this is, to say the least, highly improbable...

"However, there is no need to indulge in guesswork. The agitation around the slogan of a workers'... government preserves under all conditions a tremendous educational value... [to] aid the striving of the workers for independent politics, deepen the class character of these politics..."

In the unions (mainly) and through our Labour Party fraction work, we fight for the reconstruction of Labour Party democracy, including the full rights and function of Labour Party conference, and the mandatory reselection of MPs and other representatives. We agitate for the unions to use their positions in the Labour structures to reconstruct Labour Party democracy and to push the policies decided by their members for social provision, for union rights, against cuts, etc.

We defend the unions' right to participate collectively in politics, and thus fight against any moves by the Lib/Tory government to legislate against collective union funding of political parties.

10) Left unity

We call for unity of the activist left on these class-struggle axes, on every level from unity in local anti-cuts committees, in local class-struggle-based anti-fascist campaigns, and in rebuilding Trades Councils, upwards. We should not have any illusions about full-scale unity between the bigger left groups - SWP, SP, AWL - happening without huge political reorientations of a sort not likely short of big changes around us. There is a big gap, not only of day-to-day political differences, but of basic political approach and culture, between us and the kitsch left. Agitation for unity (that is, for those political reorientations) is still a necessary part of political education. It is a necessary tool in our battle to spread our ideas and build the AWL.

11) The AWL

We must raise the AWL to the level demanded of it by the scale of the capitalist crisis, the assault being made on the working class by the new government, and the challenge posed to the labour movement.

This calls for "Leninising" the AWL - shedding the sluggish discussion-circle habits which we have contracted in the long period of relative political quiet, increasing the tempo and the discipline of our activity, turning outwards.

It also calls for a renewed drive to educate ourselves and convert the educated into educators, so that each one of our activists can be a centre of political energy and enlightenment in their anti-cuts campaigns, in their union, or on their campus.

The details of what we must do on these counts are dealt with in other documents.


Endnote

For instance, once the American workers got over the shock that began with the Wall Street slump in late 1929 and the mass unemployment and destitution that followed, they went on the offensive and created the CIO and the modern US industrial unions. By contrast in Britain the slump dampened down the British trade-union movement and crushed much of it. The explanation for the difference was in the different history and recent history of the British and US labour movements.

The British labour movement came out of World War One greatly strengthened in organisation and militantly combative. It remained comparatively militant even in the period that followed the betrayal of the General Strike and the onset of the slump. The workers' previous disappointments, the inconclusive nature in terms of stable gains of the great struggles, the defeat and betrayal of the General Strike, and the demoralising experience of the Labour government of 1929-1931, prompted a collapse of industrial militancy in the 1930s.

The American workers had had no such disappointed militancy or betrayal and defeat. In the 1920s vast numbers of them had bought into the "American Dream" of an ever-upward cycle of capitalist prosperity - as indeed so many British workers have bought into such ideas in the last 15 to 20 years. Therefore they brought no baggage of experience comparable to that of the British into the slump.

After a while they got their bearings. The Ford cars of workers, which in the 1920s had been cited as the visible manifestation of American prosperity and proof that the US working class was "bourgeoisified", were used to facilitate the innovation of flying pickets as the workers confronted the employers.

In Britain in the decade and a half before Thatcher, the workers showed tremendous militancy, even bringing down the Tory government as a result of direct action (in February 1974). For much of the 1970s there was a rippling wave of factory occupations. The political result was only the Wilson-Callaghan government; the economic result, wages barely keeping pace with inflation; the result in terms of working-class consciousness, bafflement. The most tremendous industrial struggles since the 1920s - in which vast numbers of workers had wanted generally and all too vaguely a fundamental change in British society - had produced only a Wilson government.

Faced with the tremendous slump and mass unemployment from 1980 and the determined class-war-waging Tory government, militancy collapsed. When the miners struck in 1984-5, it was against the background of a very crestfallen labour movement, very damped-down, shackled by anti-union laws, and unwilling to give the miners the solidarity they needed to win.


For the amendments to this document which AWL conference rejected, and debate on those amendments, click here.


Publications: 

The AWL, Labour and the Left: