It is time for the trade union movement to face facts with New Labour. Time to draw up a balance sheet on the process of disenfranching the working class that began with the Thatcher government in 1979. In some key aspects what Brown and Blair have done to the Labour Party has completed Thatcher’s work.
Three recent events demand of socialists and trade unonists that we recognise where things are now in the labour movement.
The first was the departure of Tony Blair and the succession of Gordon Brown to his position as prime minister and leader of the Labour Party.
For years people at the top of the trade union movement had looked to Brown as the “old Labour” — or, even more fantastically, socialist — king-over-the-water who would in the fullness of time restore the old Labour Party. That was never other than a vapid fantasy, an excuse for doing nothing — an anthem of cowardice and irresponsibility — for kow-towing to the ruling Blairites.
In reality Brown and Blair were almost identical twins. Brown is Blair’s other self.
The second event gave the conclusive answer to those who had illusions in Brown. He has abolished entirely all that had survived of the old parliament of the labour movement, Labour’s Annual Conference.
At Bournemouth last autumn, he pushed through a ruling that unions and local Labour Parties can no longer put motions to the conference.
That wiped out what was left of trade-union and local Party power in the Labour Party. The unions and the local Labour Parties are rendered essentially voteless and powerless in the Labour Party structures.
The unions remain affiliated; they remain the main financiers of the Labour Party; but now their only right and power is that of humble lobbyists and petitioners of ministers. They have no more rights than the unions which support the Democratic Party in the USA. Arguably, they have less influence in the Labour Party now than the US unions have in the Democratic Party.
For a certainty, in the Labour Party today, the unions have less obvious influence than the unions had on the Liberal Party before the formation of the Labour Party in 1900-06. The unions then had a bloc of a dozen or so “Lib-Lab” MPs, elected under the flag of the Liberal Party but financed (MPs were then not paid) by the unions and directly answerable to them. Soon after forming a government in 1906, the Liberals legislated to undo the crippling effects on the unions of the Taff Vale Judgement of 1901 (making unions liable for losses caused to an employer by a strike), and in 1913 it legislated to undo the 1911 Osborne Judgement (which crippled the unions in politics by banning political expenditure by them).
New Labour has not repealed the Tory anti-union legislation of the 1980s, which outlawed much of effective trade unionism, including all “solidarity” action with other workers and unions.
The third event is the reaction of the Labour-affiliated trade unions — not only of the top trade union leaders — to the first two events. They are accepting the formal abolition of Labour Party conference without a fight! Without even loud protest!
The responses will not all be “in” until after the end of this year’s round of union conferences and of the current campaign within TGWU-Amicus-Unite to force a special conference of that union. But so far, having waited passively for years on the coming of Brown, the unions remain passive when Brown continues Blair’s hatcheting work on the old political labour movement.
Indeed, some trade unionists rationalise what they are doing now in terms of what they and their predecessor had already done: there was so little left of the old Labour Party conference, as a living annual parliament of the labour movement, that... what the hell! It’s not worth fighting over, “dividing the movement”, risking let the Tories win the next election...
The wretched leaders of the British labour movement have let themselves be turned into powerless political beggars and supplicants, humbly trying to catch the ear of “Labour” ministers.
With odd sops, such as the minimum wage, thrown to the working class, New Labour governs as the unashamed party of the rich, promoting and protecting their interests. Just as the “Thatcher project” “Americanised” British society, so New Labour has gone a long way towards “Americanising” the British party system.
Look back over the process of change, and the fact hits you full in the face: the Labour Party founded over 100 years ago by some unions and socialist organisations is dead.
The disenfranchisement here is not only of the unions and the local Labour Parties, within the Labour Party, but also, and to an enormous extent, of the working class as such.
Without our own political party, workers’ right to vote in elections is vastly diminished. The rich exercise power through their wealth, through their control of the media, through the institutions of the state (staffed at the top by people tied by a thousand strings of education, family, and life to the ruling class), and through governments and government ministers directly representative of the moneyed class.
The working class has no such instruments, channels, influences except its organisations, the unions, and — a great deal less so, but so nonetheless for many decades — the political party linked to its organisations. In the old Labour Party the working class had a say through the democratic structures, by way of debates and resolutions.
In fact the labour movement had no direct power over Labour governmments — no-one should pretend otherwise, or idealise the old Labour Party — but it had serious influence. The attempt of the Labour government in 1969 to bring in union-disabling legislation provoked mass strikes, days of action, and demonstrations, but it was finally defeated within the structures of the labour movement. The Labour Party “in the country” and the unions were able to counterpose themselves to the measures of a Labour government, and thwart them.
For that sort of thing to happen, there has to be a functioning, living Labour Party. No such party exists any more.
This is an enormous event. It is the culmination of a process of strangling the Labour Party which has been going on over two decades. Short of some startling about-turn in the coming months, the Bournemouth conference has to be taken as the formal announcement of the death of the Labour Party. To use the language Rosa Luxemburg used about the German Social Democratic Party in 1914: The Labour Party is a stinking corpse!
The Blair-Brownites have built on Thatcherism, and on the tremendous defeats inflicted on the working class by Thatcherism, to kill of the old Labour Party. To a considerable extent, Blair and Brown have reaped the political harvest for the ruling class of what Thatcher sowed and left to ripen.
The leader of the party, elected by the plebiscitary pseudo-democracy of one person one (postal) vote, has been raised above the party and its affiliated trade unions into a Bonaparte figure with enormous political power. Labour is now a species of elective monarchy.
The leader’s “office” — lieutenants, advisers, spin-liars, etc. — financed by big capitalist donations and state funds, is the real centre of the party. All key policy and other decisions are taken there, outside all possible control by the party or the unions. When the leader is also Prime Minister, his power vis-à-vis the party is vastly increased. For practical purposes, on a day-to-day basis, it is absolute.
There is central control over Labour candidacies at parliamentary and local government level. The possibility of rank-and-file initiative and control through selection and deselection of candidates has been virtually wiped out
The enormous devaluation of its vote in elections which the destruction of its own party inflicts on the working class is part of a long-term devaluation of the franchise in British society.The atrophying and accelerated bureaucratisation of Parliament parallels the changes in the Labour Party and reinforces them.
Where in theory Parliament controls the executive, the reality is that the Government rigidly controls Parliament, by way of controlling its majority. Mass revolts by MPs still happen. The norm, however, has been for the parliamentary Labour Party to be as powerless as the Labour Party “in the country”. The remarkable absence of any wider consequences or reverberations in the labour movement from the revolts in Parliament is one of the proofs that the old Labour Party is dead.
The decisive changes are not, it must be stressed, primarily a matter of the policies of New Labour, important though those are to defining what New Labour is, and inextricably linked though they are with what the Blair-Brownites have done to the Labour Party structures.
Decisive here are the changes in structures and in relationships between the Party and the unions, the blocking-off of the channels of working-class representation and of possible effective labour-movement opposition to Labour government policy.
Other social-democratic formations — for example the Australian Labor Party — have adapted to and even pioneered neo-liberal policies without yet undergoing the same transformation of their relationship to the working class as Blair’s New Labour. Decisive about New Labour is the structural changes, the fact that all the old forums and channels through which the labour movement could discuss and pronounce on such policies are gone or radically changed.
Solidarity has long argued that nothing short of a large scale general revolt could break the hold of the New Labour machine. Only a very large, determined and simultaneous revolt could swamp the breakwaters. The longer this failed to happen, the more improbable such a revolt became.
On that level of activity, either the trade union leaders had to lead, or they would exercise a decisive veto. The veto remains in place, even though nothing of the Old Labour Party does.
The trade-union political funds that help sustain New Labour do not now operate to secure working-class representation in Parliament. Those funds now go to sustain an anti-working-class government party.
The fact that the break has not been made cleanly or completely has served to makes what has been done less obvious than it should be and thus works to head off moves to restore working-class political representation in opposition to New Labour.
Without the support or tolerance of the trade union establishment, the Blair-Brown New Labour coup in the mid-1990s could not have been made, or not without a major split in the Labour Party.
The reaction now of even the best of the “left” trade union leaders to the abolition of Labour Party conference has to be taken as a conclusive proof that, in any calculable circumstances, there is going to be no trade union attempt to replace New Labour with some version of Old Labour.
Efforts to get the affiliated unions to use possibilities of revolt should not cease, but must be assessed within this framework of fundamental fact.
If there is some political life now in a local Constituency Labour Party, it cannot go beyond local opposition. Nor can it feed into the old national forums like National Executive and Conference, and thus stimulate and coalesce with other local groups. The pockets of local life bear the same relationship to the old national Labour Party life that rock pools bear to the receded sea.
What should socialists now want to happen in response to this situation? Since Blair and Brown took the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994, we have argued that the trade unions should oppose them within the Labour structures, push things to a break with New Labour as in 1931 they broke with James Ramsey MacDonald, and refound a trade-union-based Labour Party.
The absence of a coordinated , coherent union response is a result of the weakness of revolutionary Marxism as a force in the labour movement; but we are where we are.
Old Labour no longer exists. New Labour is an open, unashamed, conscienceless party of the rich, governing the country on behalf of the rich, promoting the growth of fantastic wealth and inequality more stark now than for most of the last century.
The AWL sees its primary role in work to recreate a revolutionary left — one that can interact healthily with the existing broad labour movement.
Six unions are now affiliated to the unofficial Labour Representation Comittee. Two of the most active, RMT and FBU, are no longer affiliated to the Labour Party, and by all accounts it is likely that a third, the CWU, will disaffiliate soon.
RMT, FBU, CWU, and a fourth union (unaffiliated to the Labour Party) in which the call to affiliate to the LRC has some grip, PCS, are now — as these things go — the most politically lively unions in Britain.
For the unions together with socialist activists, to convert the LRC into an active Workers’ Representation Committee, advancing workers’ candidates in elections, would be the best way forward now. That is what AWL advocated at the last LRC conference, and continues to advocate.
We advocate local labour movement political action committees, and where possible work to develop Trades Councils so they can become such committees. We support any solidly-based moves by trade unions to counterpose themselves electorally to New Labour, of the type of the London RMT plan (eventually not proceeded with) to initiate a working-class slate for the London mayor and Assembly elections.
We advocate winning support from unions, or (the more realistic option now) from local or regional union bodies, for authentic independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. Obviously how and when this is done is a tactical question, but in general it is now essential.
The central conclusion from the history of the fragmented responses to the Blair-Brownite coup in the Labour Party is that only a coherent Marxist organisation can in itself act to co-ordinate in any thoroughgoing way the different responses evoked in the labour movement. We, as a living organisation, have to respond to the “fragments”. AWL has to co-ordinate our different fields of work — trade union, youth, students, in No Sweat and Feminist Fightback — integrating them both politically and organisationally as we build a new broad movement for working-class political representation.