The world economic crisis, which already is devastating economies, causing mass unemployment, widespread bankruptcy and business failures, and crises of government finance, is in its early stages yet. How deep, how prolonged, how destructive it will be, nobody now knows.
See below for AWL National Committee text that this article relates to.
Barring an improbably political miracle, New Labour is heading for a crushing defeat in next year’s General Election. It will get a first instalment of that defeat in the upcoming Euro and local government elections.
There will be a Tory government. That government will attempt to slash public spending, including welfare spending. It will attack the working class in a way patterned on the Thatcher government at the start of the 1980s, and perhaps more so.
For many years New Labour and the Tories have, in terms of policy, been Tweedledum and Tweedledee — identical twins, with minor differences. Not so now. The Tories are the party of “economy” and “budget-balancing”. They have radically separated themselves from New Labour government economic policy, gambling that government measures to limit the effects of the second Great Slump will be a failure.
They will face the electorate with more right-wing policies and intentions than the Tories have had for many years. Already they are promising to rip up all the agreements about public sector workers’ pensions.
The main fascist organisation, the BNP, is growing, and looks set to register further advances in next month’s European and local government elections. On all past experience, the economic and social conditions now coming into existence will help the BNP to grow. Britain has anyway long lagged behind other European countries, for instance France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, in the “development” of a sizeable fascist movement. Now we seem to be on the eve of “catching up”.
It would be too mechanical to expect an exact repetition of the early 1930s, when mass fascist movements attacked and destroyed bourgeois democracy in many European countries. Nonetheless, the elements that shaped the politics of the 1930s are identifiable, and they are growing.
The current scandal about MPs’ expenses further increases the likelihood of a crushing New Labour defeat in the general election. Polls show that the Tories, no less than New Labour, have been discredited in the expenses scandal. But New Labour is the government, held responsible for everything including the world slump and its impact in Britain.
It is not inconceivable, even, that New Labour will suffer “meltdown” — reduction to 100 or so seats in Parliament.
What does all this mean for the prospects of creating a new mass workers’ party based on the unions? And for the prospects of a revolution within the moribund and occluded channels of New Labour?
In the last few years AWL has argued that the longer the ultra-bureaucratic New Labour structures survived unchallenged by the unions, the less likely would be any Labour renewal by way of internal revolt to break those blockages to rank-and-file involvement in the Labour Party on which New Labour rests — its abolition of the democratic channels of the old Labour Party, its dispensing with Annual Conference in all but name, its transforming of the National Executive Committee, its choking-off and isolation of local Labour Parties.
It seems to me that the developments outlined at the beginning of this article demand that we revise our assessment, or at least open our minds to a serious possibility that things may move in a different direction from the more-or-less straight tracks they have followed for 15 years.
Labour will fall from power to a right-wing Tory government in the worst slump for 80 years. According to former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown (2 May), some leading Blairite MPs may hive off to the Lib Dems (in the same way as the old Gaitskellites formed the SDP in the early 1980s, and later amalgamated with the Liberal Party).
If there is any life at all in the Labour structures, there cannot but be indignant questioning of the record of the Blair-Brown government. The move towards state interventionism by the Government in recent months is and cannot but be seen to be an indictment of all the “wasted years” when Blair, Brown, and their gang were unashamed bag-carriers for bankers, capitalists, and every sort of profiteer and rip-off merchant. The system of unregulated bandit capitalism has already been widely discredited. So has the government.
Within the labour movement — in the first place the unions, but also in what is left of the constituency Labour Parties — criticism of all that the Blair-Brown regime fostered and served is surely going to go much further in the balance-sheet-drawing period after a general election defeat.
Working-class people facing an onslaught from the new Tory government will look for organised means to protest and resist, and — the activist left outside the Labour Party still being weak — may turn in some numbers to the unions and Labour for that.
With that situation, the prospects for a revival within the Labour Party cannot but be better than they have been for the last 15 years. How much better? With what outcome? I can’t judge.
The tragedy of the situation in the last 15 years has been that any political action by the unions has depended on the union leaders. The layer of union leaders before the current one supported the Blair-Brown coup within the Labour Party which created New Labour; without their support the coup could not have happened. Their successors, the current generation of union leaders, have made “oppositional” noises sometimes. But they have done nothing. The “working-class” aspect of the Labour Party has withered almost to nothing
It is not ruled out that the union leaders will do nothing to restore the functioning mass trade-union party that Blair and Brown stifled. In that case, remnants of the old Labour Party imprisoned in New Labour will slink their miserable way towards the political grave.
No-one should paint up the New Labour of today by “reading back” from the possibility of a revival after 2010. AWL will be running Jill Mountford as an independent working-class candidate against Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman in the 2010 general election, and we will call for the maximum coordination and mobilisation of socialists to run as a broad a spread of such candidates as possible.
Even so, as responsible socialists, we must orient to the new situation that may be shaping up with the larger forces beyond our control.
Over the last dozen years AWL has argued that the best thing would be for the unions to raise the banner of revolt against New Labour, rally those who could be rallied to recreate the old, relatively open, Labour structures that Blair and Brown cemented over — and hive off the New Labour element.
We conceded that it was unlikely that more than a smallish part of the Parliamentary Labour Party would adhere to such a revived union-based Labour Party. But against those who were intimidated by the prospect of a “new 1931” — a repetition of the Labour split when Ramsay McDonald broke away in 1931, which was followed by huge election losses for Labour in 1935 — we argued that without the 1931 split there would never have been the Labour victory of 1945 which created the modern welfare state.
As year followed year of New Labour governing for the bankers and the rich, AWL began to argue that politically dissenting unions should regroup, creating in the political field something like (in the industrial field) the Congress of Industrial Organisations which organised the mass unionisation in the USA in the 1930s — recreating a party of working-class parliamentary representatives.
We edged towards supporting moves in the unions to disaffiliate from New Labour, saying that if and when it became clear that no moves would be made to reverse the New Labour Bournemouth conference decision of 2007 to ban political motions from unions and local Labour Parties, disaffiliation could not be opposed.
The seriously increased prospects for an explosion within the New Labour structures demand we reorient.
We have polemicised — and we need to take back not a word of it! — against those who argued for an indefinite policy of waiting passively for the union leaders to “do something”, of opposition to any political initiative by the more dissident unions, on the grounds that eventually, in a year or a decade or two, “something” might turn up, and the unions could then act in lock-step to recreate a real Labour Party. That policy of “waiting” for an indefinite time would have ruled out anything other than a slow “bio-degrading” of revolutionary socialists into mere trade-unionists and labour movement routinists.
What is new now is that it is not a matter of indefinite waiting. There is a definable, and short, time with which, as a result of the slump and New Labour’s likely crushing defeat, things will move in something like the way we want them to. Or they won’t.
One practical conclusion: it makes no sense to continue along the straight lines we have mapped for the last 15 years or so, which would suggest, for example, supporting the disaffiliation motions which are coming up at the CWU conference in June (counterposed to a motion for a campaign to restore the trade-union right to push political motions at Labour Party conference).
We should oppose disaffiliation. To those who support disaffiliation, for reasons with which we have very great sympathy, we should say that now the only sensible policy is wait and see. Not to wait indefinitely; to wait until we see how things shape up with the big unions and the Labour “base” after the general election. If there is then no revolt within the Labour structures, or only a feeble one quickly suppressed, then the question of disaffiliation will be back on the agenda.
Were we wrong in the past? I don’t think so; but prospects have, maybe, changed, as a result of the slump, the radical discrediting of New Labour, and the opening up again of a clear political gap between the Tories and Labour. The question is: if they have changed, maybe, are we flexible and “tactical” enough to register that and respond?
So far, only maybe. But if the possibility exists of reclaiming the Labour structures, or sections of them, from the New Labour hijackers, then that is by far the better, most economical, quicker development, compared to the path of building working-class political representation anew from zero. We should, for now, orient to that "maybe".
AWL National Committee text
This is the AWL National Committee text in relation to which the article above is opening a discussion:
We should support Labour-disaffiliation motions in the unions, while (a) explaining that the consequences of disaffiliation are not necessarily positive; (b) seeking to link disaffiliation proposals to positive measures by the union to advance workers' representation.
So long as anything like the union leaderships' relation to the Labour Party continues, Labour affiliation is as "de-politicising" for the union as any alternative: it means that the union's political activity is defined by being yoked to the New Labour machine without the union even seeking to have an open, public political voice in the matter. In that situation, it would be sectarian to oppose disaffiliation motions, and wrong not to initiate them ourselves. We cannot contend that workers have no right to unyoke their unions from the New Labour machine unless and until those workers have a clear Marxist perspective.
The negative slogans "disaffiliate from the Labour Party" or "leave the Labour Party" do not thereby acquire positive content. Rather, it is a question of the positive fight for working-class political representation. We seek to add positive direction to disaffiliation motions by linking them to our positive proposals - fight for a workers' representation movement, affiliation to LRC, etc.