6. The 2010 General Election and the Lessons of Labour Movement History

Submitted by AWL on 9 July, 2009 - 5:37 Author: Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas

Apart from a small few people AWL is agreed that in a general election we will say: "Vote Labour as fallback where there is no acceptable socialist candidate". Why? The Democrats in the USA are the choice of most unions. Despite that, we do not advocate a Democratic vote, and we do advocate a Labour vote.

Why? Because in a limited sense New Labour, even as it is, and not forgetting or discounting any of the shifts of the last 15 years, remains the trade unions' party.

The present situation in the Labour Party - with all the old channels blocked up - is without precedent. None of us should forget that. Yet, changing what needs to be changed, the experience after 1970 sheds valuable light on what we are discussing.

In 1970 the Labour Party was vastly discredited. In the late 1960s there was a mass exodus of active Labour Party members.

In the working-class movement then, Labour was the party that in 1969 had made an attempt (against which there had been big trade-union-organised demonstrations) to legislate to limit trade union rights, not the party that in the 1940s had created the modern welfare state. The Tory governments between 1951 and 1964 had accepted the welfare state, and indeed had augmented it. Their achievements had included a vast programme of council house-building. The 1970-4 Tory government did not cut, or propose to cut, welfare provision as Thatcher later would.

The term "Butskellism" (from Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and Tory politician R A Butler) had been current since 1954 to sum up Labour-Tory bipartisanship on such issues, and indeed on almost all issues - just as the dominant politics in Britain for 20 years now might be called "Blatcherism".

The old Labour left had largely collapsed - some, like Michael Foot, into supporters or semi-supporters of the Wilson government. An attempt in 1968 by left Labour MPs and trade union leaders to create a rank and file Labour left - the "Socialist Charter" movement - was a miserable failure.

But in 1970 political space opened up between the victorious Tories and the now-in-opposition Labour Party. The Tories had shifted to a small variant of what would later be Thatcher's industrial policy. They aimed to stop government expenditure on shoring up industries in trouble ("lame ducks"). And they picked up on the Labour government's attempt to shackle the unions, and made it law. Direct action defiance would eventually neuter and defeat the law.

Effortlessly, the Labour Party in opposition, under the unchanged leadership of ex-prime-minister Harold Wilson, moved "left". Ex-minister Tony Benn had never been especially left-wing, even in the loosest sense of the category "left-wing". He had supported the Labour government's attempt to legally shackle the trade unions. Now he, too, moved left - but as a "left face" of the Shadow Front Bench, not as an opponent of it.

The CLPs began to fill up again with members. The Labour Party moved left, limitedly and without convulsions or confrontations. The misdeeds of the 1964-70 government were not forgotten, just set aside as less important than the immediate battle against the Tories.

Many things are different now, notably the structural changes in the Labour Party. To expect exact duplication of any past pattern after the New Labour government is gone would be too mechanical. No less mechanical would be to say that because exact duplication cannot occur with the Labour Party in its present state, therefore nothing at all like what happened after 1970 is conceivable after 2010.

In 1970 there was a tremendous left-wing ferment outside the Labour Party, a range of groups and campaigns which had fought the Labour government, which now offered a more militant opposition to the Tories, and which continued to grow in 1970-4. And yet Labour revived. Nothing like that extra-Labour left exists now.

The short-term possibility of a sizeable anti-New-Labour current in the labour movement going on to organise something politically substantial that is better than New (not to speak of old) Labour is, we think, nil. Such things as the failure of Arthur Scargill's attempt to refurbish an Old Labour party in the form of the Socialist Labour Party weigh on the minds of militants; so will the recent antics of the SWP's "Respect", and the RMT's involvement in the "No2EU" fiasco.

All of these factors cannot but work to make a re-treading of old political ground more rather than less likely - namely, a rallying to union-Labour (or union and Labour-rump) opposition to the post-2010 Tory government.

The experience of 1974-9 also speaks towards that course of events being likely - not certain, but likely.

The Labour Party, which was back in power because trade-union militancy had defeated and derailed the Tory government of 1970-4, had demobilised working-class militancy with the help of the trade union leaders (the leftists Scanlon and Jones in the lead). The left, led by Benn, had dug itself into a political hole by focusing its big efforts on getting Britain out of the EEC (now the European Union).

Instead of collapsing, as in the late 1960s, the rank and file Labour left generated a strong opposition within the Labour Party to the Labour government. (The memory of that was the main reason why the Kinnockite soft-left and the Blair-Brown gang later moved, as soon as they could, to stifle the Labour Party. The ex-left Labour Party leader Kinnock is reputed to have said: "We'll get our 'betrayals' done before we get into government").

With the Tories back in power, a tremendous ferment broke out in the Labour Party, from 1979 to about 1982, around discussing what had "gone wrong" with the 1974-9 government and efforts to democratise the Labour Party so that the party would control a future Labour government. The slogan "never again!" - never again a Labour government like the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9 - summed up its attitude to Labour's record in government.

It would be foolish to expect now and after the next General Election that any of this will be repeated exactly. It would also be foolish and politically debilitating not to understand that the past points plainly to some sort of Labour revival in opposition and to shifts in union-Labour relations.


It would be criminally foolish for AWL to act now as if such possibilities are things of the past. We are fond of saying, after Trotsky, that the revolutionary party is the memory of the class. It has to be the true memory of the class.

It has to have the courage to look at uncongenial things which its memory indicates that we should expect to recur. We should begin to distinguish between natural feelings about the Blair-Brown coup and political judgements which tell us that repulsive things like the revival of a refurbished union-Labour party are nonetheless a better option than a bit-by-bit peeling-away of the unions.

To assume there will be no union-Labour revival, we have to assume that there will be no life, no vitality, in the labour movement faced with slump and a Tory government offensive. That is, we have to be entirely defeatist.

We have to assume in advance that the overwhelmingly dominant pattern following a Labour general election defeat will be demoralisation, with existing Labour Party members giving up in despair and allowing their memberships to lapse.

Of course, it is possible that the revival will be so minimal and feeble as to change nothing essential. It is not ruled out that the union leaders will do nothing of consequence to restore anything like 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.

It is not the business of revolutionary socialists to accept in advance that things will be so. Still less is it our business to orient in advance to that (real) possibility of defeat, and to play the wretched role that the SWP played in the 1980s struggles of the labour movement with the premature defeatism enounced in their "downturn" thesis, SWP policy since 1979. Their main activity was to insist that nothing could be done but to build a left-wing "pole". It was that even in the first half of the year-long miners' strike: Tony Cliff insisted that: "The miners' strike is an extreme example of what we in the Socialist Workers Party have called the 'downturn' in the movement" (SW, 14 April 1984). Yes; and ice is fire, and ultra-left sectarianism is serious working-class politics!

The left-wing "pole" for them meant "build the SWP". Even so, it was, at least, rather more real than the propaganda for others to build the "pole" that comrades talk of!

It would be foolish to lose sight of the difficulties imposed by the structural changes in the Labour Party; but only a little less foolish to lose sight of the fact that all sorts of improvisations are possible.

We cannot fetishise our own previous analyses and thereafter refuse to see that reality may be changing. Otherwise we fall into the posture of a small and silly, dog-worshipping-his-"product", version of political ancestor worship.

We were right to assess the structural changes in the Labour-union link as of very great importance. That assessment does not need to be changed. But the question posed now is whether they absolutely rule out any Labour Party revival in membership and activity until the structural changes are first reversed.

Here a sense of direction, of the flow of things, is central. So is some sense and some knowledge of the real history of the labour movement.

The old Labour-union arrangements are not the only way possible to arrange such things. We should learn from the past but not be slaves to it. If, as the saying goes, he who does not learn from the past is likely to repeat it, it is also true that he who thinks the future will be an exact repetition of the past will be slow in grasping what is new in the present and the near future.

Since 2007 Unite has had a policy of encouraging branches to take up all possible union positions in local Labour Parties. There are reports that GMB and other unions have recently taken up a similar policy. In conditions of big clashes between a new Tory government and the labour movement, it is not at all ruled out that such policies will have effect, and lead to some serious growth in local Labour Parties.

The system Blair and Brown destroyed had itself been the successor to earlier forms of labour movement organisation in which the Trades Councils were far more central than they have been for many decades. Until 1918 there was no individual membership of the Labour Party. Local organisation was through the Trades Councils or through the affiliated socialist societies, most importantly the ILP, which was started seven years before the Labour Party got going in 1900, and 25 years before it had individual members.

In a reply in 2004 to comrades who, essentially, wanted us to have an orientation of waiting indefinitely for the Labour Party to "return to normal", JB and SM wrote that "because on the broad plain of history defeats can be reversed, it does not at all follow that what used to be is restored in both form and content... [It is wrong] to go from the truth that the working class will again win victories to the implication that the forms of the old Labour Party will thereby certainly be restored — or to imply that if one does not believe they will then one does not believe that the working class, which 'has had hundreds of years experience in reversing defeats', can revive".

They cited the example of "the first great political workers mass movement, Chartism. It fell apart in the years after 1848... For decades after 1848 you will find Marx and, especially, Engels, looking to the Chartists, a movement organised to win working-class electoral-political equality, as the model on which the political workers’ movement would revive.

"And? The Tories, under Disraeli (who in the 1840s had been sympathetic to the Chartists and spoken in defence of them in Parliament), carried through the first big instalment of working-class representation, in 1867. The Labour Party was created more than half a century after the collapse of mass Chartism.

"One can see many threads of detailed continuity, as well as the fundamental continuity that both Chartism and the Labour Party were forms of working-class political mobilisation. But the 'reversal' of the defeat of Chartism did not take the form of a restoration of the forms of Chartism, or of the chaotically loose relationships of the various political currents within Chartism.

"One of the layers of the working class that had made Chartism what it was, the handloom weavers, had disappeared completely as a result of technological change by the time the 'reversal' began..."

This argument against people who let themselves believe that the old forms would automatically reappear cuts both ways. There are other possibilities. The labour movement and the working class are very ingenious in elaborating organisational forms, and that means that the loss of the old structures is not necessarily decisive in certain conditions.

No-one says more than that. At this stage it would be wrong to say more than that.

We say no more than: don't be blinded by our previous assessments of the Labour Party in decline into thinking that if the workers and the labour movement fight the attacks they are likely to face, then transforming or adapting old structures, or partial revival of previous forms, or elaborating new ones, is impossible.

The working class has done remarkable things in this field - for example, turning the police-organised "Zubatov" pseudo-unions set up in Russia in 1901-3 into tools that in part the workers, and even the Marxists, could use. More than once the class content of a Stalinist police-state "union" has been changed so that to some extent (limited by bureaucratism, etc.), it becomes something like a real working-class organisation.

The fundamental thing is the great shaping and re-shaping factors - slump, Tory/Labour differentiation and the end of "Blatcherism", Labour pushed into opposition to Tory cuts together with the unions, etc. They create a situation out of which all sorts of innovations and improvisations may come.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

If anyone wants to quibble that a union-Labour political entity without the "old Labour" forms being fully restored will not be the Labour Party, but something new, then we won't quarrel with them over that. Define it as you like. Unless the mass working-class movement is to accept defeat without a fight in face of the coming Tory cuts, some such union-Labour entity will have to be revived or improvised.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.