Revolution In the Labour Party? What's New In Ed Miliband's Party?

Submitted by martin on 29 September, 2010 - 8:33 Author: Sean Matgamna

That New Labour would be shaken up by electoral defeat, and that defeat would allow "old Labour" and trade-union discontent with what Blair and Brown had done to the Labour Party to emerge, has been obvious for a long time.

That the shake-up would within four months of the general election and New Labour's defeat produce the transformations expressed in the election of Ed Miliband - the trade unions' candidate - as leader of the party, and in his speech to conference on Tuesday 28 September, is nevertheless startling. The speed, scope, and (in a limited sense) completeness of the change is startling.

Although the press has not reported this, the conference voted, on trade-union initiative, to restore to unions and local Labour Parties the right to send (a limited number of) motions to annual conference.

This reverses the decision of 2007 conference to end completely the old practice of having conference act as a forum and parliament of the labour movement, and to turn it into a rally instead.

That 2007 decision had been a sealing-off and completion of the rule changes introduced in 1997 that destroyed the structures that had allowed the rank and file and the affiliated unions to function - however inadequately - in politics.

The reversal of the 2007 decision can be made the beginning of a reconstruction of the Labour Party, and its reclamation by the trade unions and the Labour Party members.

In his speech, Ed Miliband said he was "proud" of some New Labour government achievements. What is significant for the way things are moving is that he explicitly repudiated much of "New Labour".

On the level of generalities he tried to wipe the New Labour slate clean. The big question is: what will he - and the labour movement! - write on it? In deeds, and not only in words?

There are two ways of assessing the Labour Party conference and Ed Miliband's speech, and for the sake of discussion they are separable.

One, from the point of view of revolutionary socialism, and of those like Solidarity and Workers' Liberty who want the working-class movement to adopt the goal and the policies of severely limiting market operations and subordinating them to social control; abolishing capitalism; and substituting for wage labour (wage slavery) a society based on cooperative, non-exploitative, socially self-employing labour.

Anything said by ex-minister Ed Miliband was bound to be unsatisfactory from that point of view, and so it was.

Secondly, we can assess the conference for what it tells us of the development and evolution of the mass labour movement.

It is from that viewpoint that the conference tells us things that we did not know before.

While Marxist socialists always engage in our fundamental educational work for socialism, we do not counterpose the socialist programme to the evolution of the broad, non-Marxist, labour movement. We work to help the labour movement develop in a political direction. We "intervene" in the political processes of the broad working-class movement to help it develop in our direction.

From that angle, shifts like those at the conference, remote though they are from bringing the labour movement to full socialist awareness, are extremely important.

On one level, purely electoral reasons impelled Ed Miliband to escape from the New Labour shroud. As the Lib-Dem trimmings allow the coalition government to present itself as "progressive", that creates a mechanical pressure on the Labour Party to move left.

Even so, and irrespective of motive and calculation, what Ed Miliband said will resonate in the labour movement and in a working class faced with the coalition onslaught.

Ed Miliband:

  • Repudiated Blair-Brown's subservience to the rich and powerful. He attacked the stark and indefensible inequality of a care worker earning in a year what a banker gets in a day. He put the idea of equality back in place, and counterposed it to Blair-Brown's advice to the rich to go on enriching themselves.

    He pointed to a connection between enrichment for a few, and cramped incomes for so many.

  • He apologised for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
  • He condemned New Labour's record and attitudes on civil liberties, and such episodes as the attempt to legislate for ninety days' - three months' - imprisonment without trial.
  • He said New Labour had been right to endorse markets, but "naive" in its attitude. He repudiated the idea that markets should be worshipped, or can be relied on to produce desirable social results. In the context this was a - too mild! - attack on New Labour's market-fetishism.
  • He rejected the idea that efficient economic functioning within the world market should be the central social goal. He said he believed in "community, belonging, and solidarity".
  • He accused the coalition of being driven in its cuts policy by ideology, using the economic crisis as an excuse. He pledged Labour to oppose coalition cuts - though "not all" cuts.

    He counterposed to the coalition's projected cuts a policy of slower and longer-term cuts that would not undermine economic recovery.

    That is only a perfectly respectable bourgeois alternative policy to that of the coalition (the alternative the US government is applying, and that is advocated for Britain by the economic columnists of the Financial Times).

    But, from a Labour leader, and in the context of British politics and the coalition's plans, this stance means "legitimising" working-class resistance to cuts.

    To the ideology-driven coalition response to the crisis, he invoked, as an alternative, the creative approach to society of the 1945 Labour government, which created the modern welfare state despite an accumulated debt burden much bigger than today's.

  • He said he would not support "waves" of "irresponsible" strikes - implying that he would, or anyway should, support, or anyway not condemn, strikes that are not "irresponsible". (What about strikes against the coalition cuts policy which he condemned?)

    Miliband was simultaneously defending himself against the charge of being "in the pocket of the unions", and counterposing to the Tory press's caricature of the unions and the working class the idea that there can be "responsible" strikes.

    No one should rely on Miliband supporting any strikes! Even so, this aspect of his speech was a long way from the hard face of New Labour against any working-class action, and that is important in assessing how things are moving.

  • He talked about the need for legislation to protect migrant workers and prevent them being used to undercut other workers.
  • He denied that the proper role of a political party was to establish, through "focus groups", what the electorate wanted, and then reflect it. He counterposed to that the idea that a political party should be an educator - that is, campaign to shape and reshape "public opinion" and create "demand" for policies it decides are right. "We do not have to accept the world as we find it. We can leave it better".
  • He condemned the foolishness of Gordon Brown's claim that he had abolished booms and slumps (that is, the fundamental cycle of capitalist functioning).
  • He rejected the "pessimism" of the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition which, he said, would, at the expense of the poor, abandone all concern for social improvement or advance.

In effect, Ed Miliband defined himself, in terms of attitudes, pretty much as "old Labour".

What he said, and the attitudes he announced or implied, remain generalities. What they will mean in practice is in many areas still open.

Just as the new leader has the power to wipe the slate clean, so also he has considerable freedom to write on it now. He may well, under pressure, rewrite elements of New Labour attitudes and policies onto it.

Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev, in February 1956, repudiated Stalin's methods - and ten months later used the most brutal Stalinist methods to repress the Hungarian revolution...

Ed Miliband was democratically elected as Labour leader. But the system that gives the leader of the party such power over policy and attitudes is radically undemocratic. The restoration to Labour Party conference of the pre-2007 right to discuss a limited few motions from unions and CLPs modifies that system only at the edges.

One of the most indicative things in Manchester was that New Labour ex-ministers sat stony-faced and unapplauding, but defeated and helpless, as Ed Miliband, the new elected dictator, condemned much of what they had been doing for the last 13 years.

The great tragedy of labour movement politics, through the whole New Labour period, was that change, or lack of it, depended on the top leaders of the trade unions and on the elected king of the Labour Party. Without movement at the top, nothing short of a society-shaking mass revolt "from below" could reshape Labour's organisation or politics.

Almost like in a totalitarian society, nothing could move until the tops moved. What was imposed this way from the Blair-Brown top can be, so to speak, unimposed by an Ed Miliband. It can also be reimposed.

No less significant, in the longer term and from a socialist, consistently working-class point of view, than what Ed Miliband said, is what he didn't say.

  • He did not mention the Thatcher-Blair anti-union laws, which outlaw solidarity action, still less pledge Labour to get rid of them. He did not even commit himself to back John McDonnell MP's Bill to stop the courts using trivial errors to disqualify strike ballots.
  • He did not say how he would fight the cuts he opposes. He did not demand of Labour councils that they refuse to implement Tory/Lib-Dem cuts in their areas.

    He did not announce that the labour movement would refuse collaboration with the government in its cuts, or even in those cuts which Labour will oppose as "unfair" or economically destructive.

  • He did not commit himself to measures to reconstruct democracy in the Labour Party.
  • He did not even mention privatisation. He did not commit himself to oppose the new wave of privatisation now planned by the coalition government, or even specifically the sell-off of Royal Mail.
  • He attacked the easy and now common target of bankers' bonuses and incomes. He did not indict the whole system of which the bankers are only the most noticeable pustule now.
  • He obfuscated with his claim, modelled on John F Kennedy in 1961, that a new generation is in charge - expressing the shift in ideas in soundbite terms as a question of generations.

All that said, and even if one dismisses Miliband's speech as merely "New Labour in opposition", "New Labour for the age of austerity", in terms of its resonance with the working class and other working people it is a great step away from the last 15 years of official labour movement politics.

The pledge to make the coalition a "one-term" government can, as in the 1980s and 90s, become a fetish that reshapes everything. In the 1980s and 90s the crying need to get the Tories out pushed the Labour Party, inch by inch, onto Thatcherite territory, so that by the time they finally got the Tories out, in 1997, the alternative to the neo-Thatcherite Tories had become another neo-Thatcherite party - New Labour.

We must fight to kick out the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition - but no less important than that is what the labour movement is ready to put in place of the coalition.

At the conference, much was focused on winning local government elections next May. But it matters what Labour councils are elected to do.

Many New Labour ex-ministers will go along with the "left" turn and yet remain what they were. In the conference hall, David Miliband sat angry-faced as Ed Miliband repudiated the invasion of Iraq.

When Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman applauded, David Miliband spat at her: "Why are you applauding? You voted for it". She muttered: "He's the leader, and I'm supporting him".

She will support him whatever he may, at a given moment, stand for, as she supported Blair and Brown.

There are a lot of such people still at the top of the Labour Party. Neil Kinnock, Labour leader from 1983 to 1992, and political father or grandfather of New Labour, backed Ed Miliband. He sat in the hall beaming at his protege's performance. Kinnock, too, started on the soft left.

The precedent was probably lost on Ed Miliband: it should not be lost on socialists.

Where does all this leave the mass working-class movement in politics?

The unions have used their clout in the Labour Party to put in their chosen candidate as leader. Some of the rights of the unions and of the members in conference are (so reports say) being restored.

That is important, not least in giving trade-unionists and party members a voice and a forum.

There was much chicanery from the platform in the conference, over rule changes and other issues. But a "review" of the whole party structure has been started. A number of rule changes which would make the party conference a live decision-making body already have sizeable union backing, and a campaign is underway to promote them.

Ed Miliband's alternative to Tory/Lib-Dem economic policies is a species of Keynesianism. It is benign compared to the coalition government's plans. It is not radical in social terms - as the variant of it used by both the Obama administration in the USA, and the previous right-wing Bush administration, demonstrates.

The Labour Party in the country is still depleted and dried up. The majority of individual Labour Party members voted for David, not Ed, Miliband.

There is a now a significant growth in membership (about 35,000 since the general election).

Opposition to the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition, even if it is mealy-mouthed and far from socialist politics, can not but encourage the growth.

Of central importance to the work of helping the labour movement develop in politics is what the revolutionary Marxists do. The crisis of capitalism gives us opportunities for explaining to the labour movement what capitalism is, and why the working class and other working people should work to replace it by socialism.

The stance of the Labour Party against Tory/Lib-Dem cuts (even if "not all" of them) cannot but encourage working-class resistance. Some local Labour Parties and Labour Party members will participate in anti-cuts committees, and socialists should encourage that.

Socialists should demand of the union leaders that they work to commit the Labour Party to repeal of the anti-union laws.

Strikes and occupations should be central to the resistance to the cuts programme of the coalition government. But they cannot be the whole of it.

The labour movement needs a political alternative. Ed Miliband's alternative is not what the labour movement needs. But a Labour Party reclaimed by the trade unions would be a vehicle for a political alternative.

The work of fighting in the labour movement for consistent class-struggle socialist alternative will rally, educate, and regroup the working-class forces for the fight.


Submitted by martin on Thu, 30/09/2010 - 22:57

Some (very limited) commitments are included in answers Ed Miliband gave to questions from the unions before the leadership election.

"Union reps [should have] the right to enter non-unionised workplaces to offer membership and organisation. I would support such a move".

"When in government again we need to throw its entire weight behind the [living wage] campaign, by supporting councils who adopt it, broadening the range of public sector workers who get it and by moving towards a procurement process that supports living wage employers bidding for external contracts".

"It is vital that Labour commits itself to fight on the side of the public sector against the savage and unfair cuts being pushed through by the Tories and Liberals.".

"I would have a clear position against the Coalition's plans for privatisation [of Royal Mail]. I believe that we need to show as a party, including in the case of Royal Mail, that we can modernise and improve public services without resorting to privatisation".

"Some of our mistakes in Government might have been avoided if we had listened more to party and union members, and the Agency Workers Directive is a good example of this".

"The British Airways dispute showed that the rules governing strike ballots are in urgent need of reform. Supporting strong, vibrant unions means we must re-visit the rules relating to access to workplaces..." [Notice, nothing about other aspects of the anti-union laws, including the outlawing of solidarity action].

"We need to deepen our links with the Trade Unions and recognise that some of the mistakes of the last decade could have been avoided if we had been prepared to listen more to our party".

Martin Thomas

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 01/10/2010 - 14:44


Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has urged BBC staff not go ahead with a planned strike next week during the Conservative Party conference.

The 48-hour strike will include the day of David Cameron's keynote speech.

But Mr Miliband said in the "interests of impartiality and fairness" the prime minister's speech should be broadcast on TV and radio.

Union members are due to strike on 5-6 October in protest against proposed cuts to the BBC's pension scheme.

"Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, they should not be blacking out the prime minister's speech," Mr Miliband said.

"My speech was seen and heard on the BBC and in the interests of impartiality and fairness, so the prime minister's should be."

His call comes a day after several BBC news presenters and journalists wrote a letter to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), saying they had "serious concerns" about the industrial action.

Newsnight presenters Jeremy Paxman and Emily Maitlis were among the 36 signatories who claimed that the strike risked "looking unduly partisan".

A second 48-hour strike is planned for 19 October, which would hit BBC coverage of chancellor George Osborne's spending review announcement.

Submitted by martin on Fri, 01/10/2010 - 17:07

An ICM survey published on 1 October showed that Labour is doing a little better in the polls.

Among people who say they'll vote Labour and think Labour is moving more left with Ed Miliband as leader, a very big majority (79%) welcome the perceived move.

28% of respondents thought Labour is moving left with Ed Miliband, and 41% saw little change.

The percentage of those seeing a left shift is higher among 18-24 year olds (34%) than in older age-groups.

Only 17% of those now saying they will vote Labour would describe New Labour as "left of centre" (16% "right of centre", 46% "centre", the rest "don't know").

The percentage among young people (of all vote-preferences, not just Labour) who saw New Labour as "left of centre" is a lot higher than the percentage of older people seeing New Labour that way.

29% of 18-24 year olds saw New Labour as "left of centre". Maybe that is because of the character of what they have learned to regard as "centre" in politics over the few years they have been paying attention, whereas older people can make broader comparisons.

Martin Thomas

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