The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: Appendices

Submitted by AWL on 12 November, 2006 - 1:30

1: A workers voice in politics?
2: The case for revolutionary realism
3: Solidarity editorial, August 2002
4: “Organise the awkward squad”, Solidarity 11/10/02
5: The Labour Party in perspective
6: A workers’ government
7: Class, union and party: a summary

1: A workers’ voice in politics

John Bloxam and John O’Mahony, Solidarity 3/29

1. The Labour Party is still what Lenin called it in 1920, a bourgeois workers’ party. In the last decade, there has been an enormous shift within this contradictory phenomenon towards its bourgeois pole. The “New Labour Party” is the result. It retains its trade-union affiliations; it is still reliant on trade-union financing; but the relationships and structures that now constitute New Labour are radically different from those of “Old” Labour.

2. New Labour differs from Old Labour in these respects.

The trade union share of the vote at Party conference and of direct and indirect representation on the National Executive has been substantially cut.

The role of both Annual Conference and the National Executive in the affairs of the Labour Party has been changed qualitatively. Essentially, they no longer control Labour Party policy, or what happens in the party, even in theory.

Through a series of procedural checks and controls, it has become the norm for New Labour that regional and even national conferences no longer discuss political issues. With these new structures, the Labour Party “in the country” cannot counterpose itself politically to the Government.

Thus, the forums in which and through which the political life of the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) expressed itself have been cemented up.

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. 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.

Central control over and vetting of Labour candidacies at parliamentary and local government level has been greatly increased. The possibility of rank-and-file control through selection and deselection of candidates has been greatly reduced.

3. The atrophying and accelerated bureaucratisation of Parliament parallels the changes in the Labour Party described above 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, as we saw during the recent build-up to war, are still possible. The norm, however, has been for the parliamentary Labour Party to be as rigidly controlled and powerless as the Labour Party “in the country” has been.

The New Labour Party in government has openly repudiated any working-class allegiance in explicit and brutal words and in such deeds as keeping the Tory anti-union laws on the statute books.

Outside of an unpredictable meltdown of its electoral support on a scale to match that of the Italian Christian Democratic Party or the Canadian Tories in the 1990s, New Labour is in power for the next decade at least. Blair has personally been strengthened by the events surrounding the second Gulf war.

4. For these reasons we have advocated independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. We never saw such things as ruled out on principle. We rejected them previously only because of the practicalities, chief of which was the open nature of the Party and what socialists could do in it.

5. 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 in the actual history in Britain with what the Blairites have done to the Labour Party structures.

It is 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, that are decisive here.

Other social-democratic formations — for example the Australian Labor Party — have adapted to and even pioneered neo-liberal policies without 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. The Blairites have built on Thatcherism, and on the tremendous defeats inflicted on the working class by Thatcherism, to transform the Labour Party radically.

6. But the trade unions continue to back New Labour? Before they founded their own party, the trade unions backed the Liberal Party, and regularly got a group of MPs elected under Liberal Party auspices, the so-called “Lib-Labs”. In the last two decades of the 19th century, the pioneer socialists stood in elections, in the main but not only in local elections, against a Liberal Party which had trade union backing.

The unions continue to have organic ties to New Labour, not least financial ties, that the late 19th century trade unions did not have with the Liberal Party. Acknowledge that difference; understand that the trade unions could do much more than they now do inside the Labour Party to fight Blairism; advocate that the rank and file of the trade unions should demand of the trade union leaders that they do fight Blair and Blairism within the Labour Party — and nonetheless there is an important degree of parallel between the position of socialists now standing against the trade-union-backed Labour Party, and our predecessors a hundred years ago standing against a Liberal Party which had trade-union backing.

7. A simultaneous mass revolt by the CLPs and the trade unions — crucially, by the mass of the unions — could, of course, quickly re-open, cleanse and democratise the New Labour structures. We can expect that some MPs who rebelled in Parliament against the war will more easily rebel in the future. It may be that a new offensive for privatisations and so on by a post-Gulf-war Blair, feeling strong, will generate concomitant opposition by MPs and others.

The most important fact for now, and calculably, is that nothing short of a large-scale general revolt can break the hold of the New Labour machine. New Labour can see off partial revolts, even large and important ones. Only a large, determined and simultaneous revolt could swamp the breakwaters.

Constitutional formulas, legalities, and rule changes are never all-decisive, in the Labour Party or in the class struggle at large. Some struggles can break through undemocratic rules; or entrenched leaderships can find ways to suppress the rank and file even if the formal rules are democratic. But rules matter.

To say that the rule changes in the Labour Party do not signify much would be as wrong as saying that the anti-union laws do not matter much for the industrial struggle, or that the different Labour Party rule changes of the early 1980s, in favour of democracy, were a diversion.

8. The transforming changes affect precisely those areas where the political life of the old Labour Party, that is of the old labour movement, expressed itself, and into which socialists could intervene as we did.

If there is some political life in a local CLP it cannot now — short of a very large-scale simultaneous revolt in other parties and the unions — 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.

9. The working-class movement has effectively been deprived of its old political dimension. 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 done cleanly, completely, or even, perhaps, definitively, serves the Blairite machine in two ways. It secures continued trade-union provision of money for it. More importantly in political terms, it 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.

10. What we want to happen in response to this situation has been set out in resolutions and in articles in Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty. The trade unions should oppose Blair 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.

11. It can be calculated that only a not-very-big minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party — which has no working-class roots worth recording — would split from Blair in those circumstances.

12. In the last decade, if there had existed even a small non-sectarian Marxist party of a few thousand — the size of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s — then something like the “National Left Wing Movement”, the network of CLPs disaffiliated from the party in the 1920s for refusing to expel communists, would have come into existence, linking up such forces as the Leeds CLP members who split over the Liz Davies affair. It did not exist. In the drift and then stampede to the right that began in 1982-3, the once left-wing CLPs had in the main been transformed into organisations whose dominant drive was to get the Tories out at any price, and finally even at the price of accepting the neo-Thatcherite politics that Blair’s and Brown’s ascendancy had made Labour Party policy. That limited the size of Leeds-style revolts.

In fact, the political life of the CLPs is at a low ebb. The uniform submissiveness of local Labour councils and the dearth of strong local rank and file Labour revolts against them is one clear measure of that.

13. In this situation, the sort of rationally-controlled moves that we want to see in response to New Labour have not happened. Disappointment with Blairite control of the Labour Party and the trade unions has taken the form of the election of a wide range of new trade union leaderships committed at one level or another to defending their members’ immediate interests — that is, of a drive to recreate real trade unionism.

Without the support or tolerance of the trade union establishment, the Blair-Brown-Mandelson New Labour coup in the political wing of the British labour movement could not have been made, or not without a major 1931-style split in the Labour Party.

Many of the leaderships that supported Blair in his coup are now gone or going. To the new trade union leaders we say: counterpose the unions to New Labour immediately, and take the fight if necessary (as we think it will be necessary) to an open break and a refounding of labour representation.

We are, however, nowhere near the possibility of controlling what happens. The new leaderships are not doing what we think the situation indicates.

Some of them have an “outsider” attitude akin to that of some trade unions in the USA to the Democratic Party: New Labour is something to get the best you can from, rather than the trade unions’ own party. The idea of fighting to reclaim the party or of “refounding the Labour Representation Committee” as yet has little weight even with the new layer of trade union leaders. They have not even organised a strong campaign to have the anti-union laws removed from the statute books (though there is now more activity on that front than for two decades). In the run-up to and at the start of the recent Iraq war, not one single union got its representative on the Labour National Executive to stand up for union policy against the war. Every union representative toed the Government line.

14. There is not a united, “strategically coherent” response by the political elements in the trade unions. There is a fragmentary, incoherent response.

Instead of a coherent “strategic” movement towards transferring the political funds of the unions, as a body, from New Labour and into recreating a real Labour Party, we have all sorts of proposals about those union political funds. Thus, for example, we get the bizarre advocacy by Bob Crow, the ex-SLP leader of the RMT, of support for Plaid Cymru.

15. The absence of a coherent, co-ordinated union response is a result of our weakness as a force in the labour movement; but we are where we are.

Centrally, we advocate that the unions fight within the Labour Party against New Labour, and fight — if necessary, as we think it will be — all the way to a break and the refounding of a real Labour Party. But that is not all we do. In the actual situation of flux, we break down that central idea into immediate tactics. And we relate to inchoate responses as militants, not as “inspectors-general” of history or of the labour movement.

16. What are the logical possibilities for what we say and do about how unions use their political funds?

One possibility is to argue for continued exclusive support of the New Labour Party. We could now adopt such a position only on one of two grounds. Either, that we expect the new bourgeois execrescences to be shrugged off the body of the Labour Party, and old Labour to re-emerge.

Or, that we want to keep the trade union funds that go to New Labour as a unified mass of politically-directed money that can then tidily be transferred to the replacement mass trade-union-based party which we advocate.

We have argued that Blairism will not easily be shrugged off, and that even a concerted trade union break with New Labour would take only a small part of the Parliamentary Labour Party (and, possibly, unless there had been, in the interim, a sizeable influx and a revival of political life) not even most of the CLPs. It would in effect be the foundation of a new party.

To argue for the status quo until either the Blairites are cut away and New Labour is turned back into Old Labour, or until the unions break from New Labour and found a new workers party, would be to appoint ourselves as guardians and advocates of doing nothing about the funds for an incalculable period of time, and anyway for the foreseeable future.

17. The second possibility is to argue for the tactical use of existing funds.

Our central political “demand” on the unions — that they fight Blairism within the Labour structures, right through to a break, and found a new working-class trade-union-based party — does not oblige us to oppose everything short of that. It does not oblige us to oppose any “tactical” fragmentation of the union political funds.

18. Advocacy of our “epochal” concern — the mass trade union break with Blair and move to a new workers’ party — should not shade into a conservative defence of and support for the Blair-serving status quo against immediate limited initiatives, left-wing or labour-movement electoral challenges to the New Labour party; things which, on their merits, we should support here and now.

19. The situation is further complicated by the activities of sectarians like the SWP and the Socialist Party. The SWP has no strategic overview and uses elections in a catchpenny, opportunist “build the SWP” spirit. The SP have a wrong assessment of the situation, believing that the entire process of destruction of the old Labour Party has been completed.

The phrase, “democratise the political funds” was initially used to express the correct broad idea of the FBU May 2001 decision — that the union, nationally and regionally, should critically examine election candidates seeking its support, and consider backing independent working-class candidates against New Labour. That broad idea always involved accepting the risk that a drive to reassert independent working-class representation will, in the given circumstances, involve, or open the door to, some fragmentation and false starts. But the SWP, in particular, has cumulatively reinterpreted “democratisation of the political funds” as positive advocacy of fragmentation and “diversification” of the political funds. They have proposed having money allotted branch-by-branch or in proportion to different parties’ support in the membership. We are against fragmenting the funds in such a manner, which will end up (i) providing a safety-valve for the bureaucrats, freeing them to back Blair with the bulk of the political funds as long as they allow a few branches to give money elsewhere; (ii) drifting towards business-unionism, i.e. giving money to whatever mainstream party candidate seems friendliest or most susceptible to lobbying.

20. However, a policy of no changes in the distribution of trade union political funds until either the Labour Party has been won back from the Blairites, or a new workers’ party is launched by the trade unions, would for socialists be a policy of long-term inertia. It would be a de facto acceptance of Blairism as working-class politics for the foreseeable future, and, by way of that, a long-term policy of de facto abstention from electoral politics. Under the guise of strategic thinking we would adopt a policy of passive waiting for “something big” to happen. Such an approach is not a conceivable option for us. It would destroy the AWL as an interventionist political force.

21. We made the following harsh but true and just assessment of the performance of the Socialist Alliance in the 2001 General Election. “We have something to congratulate ourselves for in having organised such a widespread public challenge to Blairism. The Socialist Alliance has little else to congratulate itself for. With very few exceptions our impact on the electorate was not noticeably greater than that which any halfway presentable socialist candidate would have made in any suitable constituency at any time in the last hundred years.

“So far, the main significance of the Socialist Alliance lies in its impact on the left, where it has brought a number of tendencies together in a loose collaboration, rather than in its impact on the working-class electorate or the broad labour movement. So far, the latter is slight... The Socialist Alliance waged a campaign that was shaped and limited by the politics and by the organisational practices of the SWP...” (Workers’ Liberty 2/1).

For any collective that has our concern with mass working-class politics, a recoil is a natural response to this reality of the Socialist Alliance.

But recoil from inadequate and often toytown electoralism into some variety of the policy of passive waiting outlined above would simply be a form of political suicide, motivated on our disappointment with the “revolutionary” left.

The point is that the AWL has to recreate a revolutionary left — one that can interact healthily with the existing broad labour movement. One of the central arguments for electoral activity — as against doing nothing in that arena — is that it will help us in our work of recruiting, regrouping and educating the revolutionary socialist forces to make a difference in the mass labour movement.

22. We cannot adopt one sweeping, generalised “line” for all the permutations we face in the flux around us. We cannot respond as “inspectors-general of history”, saying that nothing should move unless it accords to our strategic conception of the speedy replacement of Blairism by a trade-union-based working-class party.

We may calculate that there is a drift towards depoliticising the unions. We may observe that in practice it is sometimes hard to disentangle proposals on the political funds which allow support for Socialist Alliance and independent working-class candidates from trends that might mean furthering the drift towards an attitude of backing various friendly politicians from the “outside” instead of asserting an independent role for the trade union movement itself inside the existing Labour Party structures, as an alternative to continued and in fact passive affiliation to the Blairite New Labour party. All we can do about that is to fight for our alternative, and to argue politically against the trends to depoliticisation.

We cannot be the “inspectors-general” of the broad labour movement, either. We cannot allow our own fight for our own politics to be stifled by cautious reluctance to trigger debates which may be risky for the movement as a whole. We are militants fighting within the movement to shape and reshape it, and fighting to group enough revolutionary socialists to do that. It would be a foolish error for us to fear to play the role of militants, fighting to group and recruit militants, because of a detached long-term estimate of the risks to the broad movement from destabilising the status quo. We will only be able to remake and reshape the movement if we succeed in organising the militants now around healthy Marxist politics.

The signs are that there will be much fragmentation of what exists now before the movement can gather itself together coherently. We cannot respond by mechanically saying no to any initiative by the sectarians, because that would inevitably mean leaving to them elements of a response to the situation we are in that make sense or partial sense. We should always try to recast anything sensible in what they propose — independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour, and trade-union involvement in such challenges — in our own political framework, by putting down our own resolutions and amendments.

23. We should advocate local labour movement political action committees, and where possible treat Trades Councils as potentially such committees. We support any solidly-based moves by trade unions to counterpose themselves electorally to New Labour, for example FBU candidates in local elections.

We are in favour of winning support from Labour-affiliated 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 we favour it.

24. To campaign now in unaffiliated unions for them to affiliate to New Labour, on the basis of joining a general trade-union fight against the Blair machine within the Labour structures, would be inept — a piece of project-mongering that could not be shown to make sense to thinking militants. Such a fight does not exist in any halfway coherent, concerted or large-scale fashion.

A campaign for affiliation would inescapably imply commitment to a narrow preconceived scenario for the future, that the unions will fight in a co-ordinated fashion to reclaim the Labour Party, or, in an equally tidy and co-ordinated fashion, disaffiliate to form a new party. There is no warrant in what has happened, or what is foreseeably likely to happen, for tying our tactics to that scenario.

25. We are against disaffiliation, which in practical terms could only mean the Labour-affiliated unions ducking out of the fight-to-a-break against the New Labour machine which we advocate.

26. But what if a decision by a trade union — say the RMT — to let branches back non-Labour-Party candidates leads to the Labour Party disaffiliating the RMT? Isn’t support for local trade union branches having the right to back non-Labour candidates only the advocacy of trade union disaffiliation “by the back door”? Won’t it come to the same thing? And we are not for disaffiliation, are we?

The reasoning here is only a variant of the idea that we want everything done in an orderly, co-ordinated fashion, that we want the unions as a body to fight Blair and then, when it proves necessary, to move as a body to found a replacement trade-union-based working-class party.

Therefore? Therefore we don’t dare move for anything partial lest we thereby spoil the prospects for the more orderly changes we would like? Since we cannot control what the whole trade union movement does, therefore in spheres where we have some say we adopt a policy of passive waiting, not daring to fight in individual unions for the right of local organisations to back other than New Labour candidates?

An analogy will help clarify things here. We do not want to split the trade unions. So therefore the rank and file should never push a conflict with an entrenched trade union bureaucracy as far as a split, or the risk of a split? Such a policy would amount to setting artificial a priori limits to the rank and file struggle for control of the union. It would amount to saying that if the bureaucracy is pushing things to a split, then the rank and file will capitulate — in advance! — to the entrenched bureaucracy, rather than letting the logic of the struggle decide.

Trotsky dealt with this in a famous document. “If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organisations for the sake of fostering sectarian fictions, it is no less so to passively tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (‘progressive’) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution”.

We must fight for working-class politics in the labour movement. We do not fight in the most advantageous, still less ideal, conditions. We cannot let fear of damage that will be done during that struggle stifle the will of the rank and file to fight. We cannot fetishise the existing links and relations between the New Labour Party and the trade unions. We must advocate a fight on every level, and now.

It is not at all certain that New Labour would rush to cut off its trade union sources of income because local trade unions backed non-Labour candidates. Or if it was inclined to rush, that it would not back down faced with a widespread trade-union revolt against its moves to disaffiliate a dissident union.

In any case, we cannot let ourselves be blackmailed into passive acceptance of the political dominance of the Blairites. We must fight our way out of the political impasse of the labour movement.

RMT Assistant General Secretary Patrick Sikorski explains that the rule changes he wants to see at RMT conference this year will open it up so that the union can “support those who support our policies. They will emerge from the SSP in Scotland, the Socialist Alliance in England, members of Plaid Cymru in Wales, and others who will be to the left of Labour. Also it will involve socialists still inside Labour”.

Against the idea of backing Plaid Cymru, we counterpose the principle of independent working-class political representation — not the idea that the union must stick to exclusive support for New Labour candidates.

27. We should propose in each union a national policy which would establish a framework for the union’s political activities and use of its political fund set by union policies and the principle of independent working-class representation in politics.

In pursuit of this national approach, we should argue against automatic support for New Labour and its candidates, and for the possibility of supporting independent working-class candidates. We explain openly that we want the unions to consider support only for working-class and socialist independent candidates, not for any independent candidates sympathetic to the policies of the union, and that our aim is not “diversification” but the recreation of a trade-union-based workers’ party. We argue for decisions about such alternatives to be taken, where appropriate, at regional and local level in the unions, subject to the fullest democratic control (e.g. workplace and membership ballots).

We are also for:

Reducing union contributions to the Labour Party to the flat affiliation fee, ending extra donations, as the CWU has done. (We are not for reducing the level of affiliation).

Making union representatives in New Labour structures fight for union policy.

Withdrawing union sponsorship to MPs who flout or oppose union policies (as the RMT has done).

Challenging, expressing no confidence in, and where possible de-selecting councillors, MPs and leaders who refuse accountability to the labour movement and oppose working-class interests. No confidence in Blair as Labour leader!

Using union funds for independent working-class political campaigning — e.g. for referenda on privatisation, for a European workers’ charter rather than supporting bourgeois yes or no campaigns on the euro.

Where we come across motions in the unions expressing some of these ideas, but in an inadequate framework, we should seek to amend them so as to set them clearly within the framework of the fight for independent working-class representation.

Where our amendments fall, or circumstances prevent us from proposing them, the way we vote on such motions must be judged tactically in each case, in the light of both their wording and the meaning given to those words by the conditions and balance of forces in each union. Such tactical judgements should be made by our union fractions in consultation with the Industrial Committee and the EC.

28. In fact, the fight on the different fronts — to get the trade union leaders to fight Blairism within the Labour structures, and to get the trade unions to back working-class and socialist candidates against New Labour — is inseparable from the work of building a cross-union rank and file movement. The trade union leaders who will not fight for working-class and trade-union interests now, within the structures of the Labour Party, are not likely to support the formation of an anti-Blairite working-class party to replace New Labour. Here too, on the question of backing anti-Blairite working-class election candidates, the old watchword offers guidance: if the leaders won’t lead, then the rank and file must.

29. We should pay more attention to the Labour Party. We should improve our efforts in pushing affiliated unions to fight the Blairites — that is, get our trade-union work better organised and fight systematically to get our own resolutions on political funds to the union conferences. Socialists should reorganise and reactivate our Labour Party fraction, but not, unless there is a major change in the condition and levels of life of the CLPs, significantly increase the number of comrades assigned to such work.

30. The central conclusion from the reality of the fragmented responses to the Blairite coup 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, No Sweat, Socialist Alliance, SSP, Labour Party — integrating them both politically and organisationally.

2: The case for revolutionary realism

Solidarity 3/30

Susan Jackson and Jack Hamilton continue our debate on the unions’ political funds, with a reply to John Bloxam and John O’Mahony’s contribution in the last issue of Solidarity. We invite further contributions.

“A party’s inability to establish correct relations with the working class reveals itself most glaringly in the area of the trade union movement… The fatal excesses of the ‘third period’ were due to the desire of the small Communist minority to act as though it had a majority behind it… No better favour could be done for the trade union bureaucracy. Had it been within its power to award the Order of the Garter, it should have so decorated all the leaders of the Comintern and Profintern.

“The revolutionary proletarian Party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks. This presupposes a scientifically based programme. At the same time, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism.”

Leon Trotsky, “The ILP and the New International”, 1933

“The decisive changes are not, it must be stressed primarily a matter of the policies of New Labour… It is the changes in structures and in the relationships between the party and the unions, the blocking off of the channels of working class representation and possible effective labour movement opposition to Labour government policy, that are decisive here.”

John Bloxam and John O’Mahony, “A workers’ voice in politics”, 2003

“For every revolutionary organisation in England its attitude to the masses and to the class is almost coincident with its attitude toward the Labour Party, which bases itself upon the trade unions. At this time the question whether to function inside the Labour Party or outside it is not a principled question, but a question of actual possibilities. In any case, without a strong faction in the trade unions, and, consequently, in the Labour Party itself, the ILP is doomed to impotence even today… Yet, for a long period, the ILP attached much greater importance to the ‘united front’ with the insignificant Communist Party than to work in mass organisations…”

“But isn’t it a fact that a Marxist faction would not succeed in changing the structure and policy of the Labour Party? With this we are entirely in accord: the bureaucracy will not surrender. But the revolutionists, functioning outside and inside, can and must succeed in winning over tens and hundreds of thousands of workers…”

Leon Trotsky, “Once Again the ILP”, 1936

Marxism is the theory and practice of working class self-liberation. It involves the extension of the realm of reason over the irrational. Marxist trade union tactics have to start from the reality of the class as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. We ground ourselves in the collective discipline of working class organisation and struggle, and we seek to hammer out a line of march, a set of tasks around which we group militants and fight.

A rational perspective requires a “concrete analysis of a concrete situation”. So, let us start with the basic facts. The Labour affiliated trade unions encompass the overwhelming majority of the organised working class in industry, and the bulk of low paid workers in the public sector. At the same time a decisive majority of class-conscious workers continue to vote for and support the Labour Party. Meanwhile the revolutionaries are a tiny minority with extremely tenuous connections to most of the class. The Labour Party has won two landslide election victories and looks certain to win the next. In England and Wales socialist candidates get an average of less than 2% of the vote. No more votes than any left wing challenge over the last 30 years. In Scotland that figure is 7%.

These facts indicate that a general policy of attempting to win official union backing for socialist electoral challenges to Labour has no grip. Such a policy could only be implemented if one of two conditions held true: either that we had no intention of allowing the union members a real say in the decision, or, we were deluded enough to think that if we acted as if the majority of the class supported us, they would.

Trade unions are the bedrock, primal form of elementary working class organisation. We should not treat them as if they are select debating societies, or socialist political organisations. The strength of the unions comes from the fact that they are all-inclusive class organs that unite workers on the basis of occupation or industry. The most important unions organising the key sectors of the working class are now—and will remain for the foreseeable immediate future—Labour Party affiliated organisations. Therefore, we strive to find ways to express our ideas in a form that makes sense given this reality. When addressing the unions we should raise the question of working class political independence in terms of what the union is, or is not doing, to fight for trade union control of the Labour Party and of Labour government policy.

A party controlled by workers

The AWL should not take the initiative in proposing fragmenting the trade union political funds. Not because we are conservatives who desire to control developments, but because we are working class militants who believe in workers’ democracy.

When proposing a policy for the unions, as unions, we should do nothing that undermines the fundamental collective purpose and class solidarity of the trade unions and renders them incoherent and ineffectual. If there is to be a meaningful political aspect to the unions, it has to be collective and unitary; anything else is out of kilter with the essential nature of trade unions as the embodiment of the principle of class solidarity.

The problem with proposals to parcel up the trade union political fund with different branches backing different parties or multi-party affiliation in which there would be no precise link between any union organ and any candidate, is that they would politically splinter the union and render accountability and control impossible. For the union to be unable to speak with a unified political voice is to put the union in a subordinate relation to the parliamentarian—or would be parliamentarian. Only if the union has a unitary bond with the parliamentary representatives and their party, is any form of accountability possible. Without the possibility of accountability, of replacing those who act against you, of subordinating them to the basic class organs, then what is proposed is not the Marxist idea of the trade unions creating and controlling a new workers’ party, but trade union financial support for various incoherent, social democratic-cum-populist initiatives. This would mean reproducing all the worst characteristics of the Labour Party in miniature while losing sight of the revolutionary democratic working class principle of a party controlled by the workers.

As a result of a serious fight by the trade unions to regain some control over the Labour Party, it is highly likely that the issue of supporting working class candidates against imposed Blairites will arise. This would be the actual counterposition of a significant part of the workers’ movement—at a local level—to the Blair machine. Once such a fight develops it is impossible to predict how it will evolve, except to say that it will be uneven and will of necessity defy the ability of any budding master strategists to make it run along neat and tidy lines. That is the beauty of the class struggle; it is explosive, unpredictable, in a word revolutionary.

The revolutionary, however, also needs to be able to distinguish the first weeks of pregnancy from the last, and to be able to spot the difference between a genuine movement of the workers and a populist bandwagon.

What is proposed here is not conservatism. It is a fighting policy to unite and organise a broad trade union resistance on the political front, and to organise this opposition around the principle of workers’ democracy. What is conservatism—the dim-witted conservatism of fearing to be out of step with the left—is to pretend to be an independent force, while we tag along on the road of protest candidates behind a motley crew of bombastic trade union leaders, the manipulative sectarians of the SWP, self confessedly “apolitical” trade unionists, opportunists from Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, not to mention George Galloway MP and the MAB.

There are only two serious orientations to mass trade union politics today. Either, we fight for the trade unions to regain some kind of control over the Labour Party and in the process rally and organise the forces of a new proto party within the womb of the old. Or, we can declare that Labour is irreformable and immediately press for the unions to organise a new workers’ party.

It is clear that the present writers support the first option. The problem dogging this debate is that the other side in this discussion want to back both options, as well as situating themselves at all points north, south, east and west of the argument.

Marxism or scholasticism

“The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”

Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 1845

For Marxists it is impossible to gauge what the actual and lasting impact of Blair’s constitutional reforms have been on the nature of the Labour Party until they are put to the test by a militant trade union struggle against them. Just as in the process of production, where there is no other way for the worker to test the strength of any material except by applying pressure to it to determine the breaking point, also in the class struggle—there is no other way to assess the ruling classes’ defences, but to probe, apply pressure, get a struggle going and see what happens. The same goes for the bureaucratic structures of the labour movement. To look at the question any other way is pure scholasticism.

We should apply the activist, interventionist, practical, and working class approach, to the urgent need for a fight by the trade unions to reclaim the Labour Party. We can leave the “We can’t do that, the Blairites will stop us” scholasticism to the sectarians.

This is not a question of denying that Blairism is a defeat. All that is being said is that defeats are reversible and that they are normally reversed by the methods of class struggle. The class has hundreds of years’ experience of reversing defeats, it is not a new idea.

Defeats there have been, but there has been no decisive irreversible shift in the class character of the Labour Party. It remains a bourgeois workers’ party. If any qualifications need to be made to this formula they would be that it has become a neo-liberal, business unionist, bourgeois workers’ party.

Labour has never been a workers’ party in any meaningful political sense, it has always been a bourgeois political machine sitting on top of the trade union movement. The union/labour link has always functioned in the last analysis as a mechanism tying the bedrock organisations of the class to the capitalist state. The fact, that through this mechanism of ruling class domination the trade unions have also secured piecemeal reforms and concessions, is no more remarkable than the idea that the union leaderships can sometimes achieve concessions through agreements regulating the terms of the labour contract.

The fact that there is so little political life in the Labour Party flows fundamentally from the politics and passivity of the trade union leaders. In point of fact it is doubtful if Blair could possibly have hoped for more support from the trade union leaders than he has received. What is decisive and all-shaping in the Labour Party today is the refusal of the union leaders to fight Blair and their bureaucratic grip on the unions preventing the rank and file doing so. The changes to the Labour Party rulebook introduced with Partnership in Power are the alibi, not the crime. To argue that the rule changes are decisive is to lapse into constitutional fetishism and a morbid variant of “Resolutionary Socialism” which deludes itself about the realities of party democracy in Classic Labourism. After all, the normal practice of Labour governments over the last 80 years is to ignore Party Conference. Nor is Blair the first leader to say that he will govern in the interests of the “nation” not the working class. That fashion started with MacDonald. Remember what Trotsky said: the bureaucracy will not surrender.

There are now limited, but very encouraging signs that with the election of new leaders the support that Blair could take for granted—despite token protests—from the retiring generation of union leaders is no longer guaranteed. Workers are slowly becoming more assertive and want to know what the union is getting from the Labour Party.

We propose as an immediate central priority of the work of all AWL fractions in the affiliated unions, and of the Marxist socialists active in the Labour Party, that we seek to help organise a united front campaign involving union organisations, existing campaigns and CLPs around the theme of “Reclaim the Labour Party”. This campaign should be trade union based and would focus on specific demands to reverse the Blairite constitutional changes, restore the formal powers of Labour conference and promote the idea of de-selections and the selection of trade union candidates.

Facts or spin?

John Bloxam and John O’Mahony make some very odd statements in their piece in the last edition of Solidarity. The statements are part of painting a picture which justifies turning away “for now” from starting any fight in the mainstream of the labour movement. For instance, consider the claim that: “Regional and National conferences no longer discuss political issues. With these new structures, the Labour Party ‘in the country’ cannot counterpose itself to the government”. Not true. The 2002 conference voted to oppose government policy on PFI. Blair did what every other Labour Prime Minister has done and announced he would ignore conference. So, the party in the country can counterpose itself to the government.

Another strikingly odd proposition—intelligible only as an excuse for inactivity—is that: “The idea of fighting to reclaim the party or of ‘refounding the labour representation committee’ as yet has little weight, even with the new layers of trade union leaders.” This is a perverse claim, a serious piece of “top spin” driven we fear by a desire to force the facts to fit the perspective. What are the facts? Mick Rix of ASLEF has called for the removal of Blair and for the unions to reclaim the Labour Party. Andy Gilchrist of the FBU has been witch hunted for calling for the “Real Labour Party” to assert itself against Blair. Billy Hayes of the CWU has spoken on platforms with a “Reclaim the Party” theme. Derek Simpson of AMICUS was elected in part because he promised to stand up for the union in the Labour Party, rather than simply rubber stamp Blair. The TGWU’s Tony Woodley has said one of his first priorities, if elected, would be to convene a meeting of trade union leaders to plan a campaign to reclaim the party. Even establishment candidates like Curran in the GMB have had to campaign on a platform of asserting union interests against Blair. The right wing Labour machine in the UNISON affiliated fund have shown which way the wind is blowing with the declaration that the Partnership in Power structures aren’t working. What more evidence do the comrades want?

The desire of Bloxam and O’Mahony to play spin-doctor rather than analyse reality doesn’t end with the new union leaders. Here is another oddity: “The political funds that go to New Labour (are) a unified mass of politically directed money”. No they are not. The political funds do not belong to the Labour Party they belong to the trade union. It is simply not the case that all the money is directed towards the coffers of the New Labour machine. A portion (roughly 40% on average) must be paid to the Labour Party for affiliation the remaining 60% can be spent as the unions decide. (As the comrades Bloxam and O’Mahony support the idea of maintaining Labour Party affiliation, then they are as guilty as anybody else of wanting “a unified mass of politically directed money” to go to New Labour).

The issue is how that 60% remaining in the fund is spent. We think it should go to organising activities by workers organising to control the mass political wing of the labour movement and not to keep the presses of the SWP rolling producing glossy election material. In the CWU, which is affiliated to the Labour Party, the 60% is spent on supporting some constituencies, campaigns and pressure groups and in the case of some London branches even backing candidates against Labour. In other unions it is mainly used to bankroll Blairites. The way the fund is spent reflects the state of union democracy and crucially the level and form of political activity in the union. It could not be otherwise.

Tactical use of the funds

Bloxam and O’Mahony tells us that “logically” there are only two possible uses of the fund: “One possibility is to argue for continued exclusive support of the New Labour Party… the second possibility is to argue for the tactical use of existing funds” by which they mean “tactical fragmentation of the funds” to support left wing, or labour movement electoral challenges. This is a prime example of an attempt to fit reality into a pre-conceived schema to suite your argument.

They use this a priori construction in order to portray those who want a serious and active trade union led fight in the Labour Party as “conservative upholders of the status quo”. It won’t work. We are proposing an aggressive tactical use of the funds to complement and fund activity to fight for working class control of union representatives. All they propose is the working class organisation handing over money to somebody else. What is most worrying is that you can only think that tactical use of the funds equals support for non-Labour candidates, if you have already given up on a struggle within and through the Labour/union link.

We would like to see the political funds above the affiliation fee used to organise a wide range of assertive campaigning and organising initiatives both inside and outside the Labour Party. Unions could insist on only funding MPs who would be prepared to be accountable to them. The union could seek to group together and organise pro-trade union MPs, preferably alongside other unions. Support could be given to a campaign to reclaim the Labour Party. Local campaigns could be organised to deselect Blairite MPs and promote democratically accountable trade union candidates. If solidly based trade union candidates were blocked by the Blair machine that would include using the fund to support that candidate and campaign against the official Labour candidate. The precise way this is done is also a tactical matter.

Take for instance the case of the imposed ex-Tory minister Shaun Woodward in St Helens. FBU militant Neil Thompson, who had been carved out of the Labour selection, stood against him on the Socialist Alliance ticket. Nothing could stop a trade union putting out a leaflet saying that the union did not recognise the ex-Tory minister as a bona fide Labour candidate. Nor could anything stop a union spending money and resources on a campaign in the area on public services and trade union rights and seeking out the views of different candidates. Branches confident of support from their members could also have openly backed Thompson. It is simply wrong to suggest that branches, regions and whole unions couldn’t campaign for solidly based labour movement challenges to an imposed Blairite. What is more, this can be done without rule changes that would transform the unions’ political arrangements into a de-collectivised anarchist mess.

When militants are considering organising union support against New Labour in elections what is decisive is the strength of the union organisation and the views of the workers, not the formal rules. Comrades will no doubt reply, but wouldn’t a rule change make it easier to support non-Labour candidates? The problem is that it would perhaps make it too easy. The formal bar on backing non-Labour candidates means that left activists have to be sure of solid support in the workplace before supporting challenges to Labour. That is why there are so few solidly rooted electoral challenges—the support isn’t there in the working class. Without that control provided by the rules it is absolutely certain that the sectarians would siphon off branch money without any proper democratic mandate. If you try to get the union rules to move ahead of the class—as most of the left now wants to do—you simply reproduce the same danger of elitism and bureaucratic substitutionism as in any other attempt to short cut the necessary work of convincing and mobilising the workers. In line with the principle of workers’ democracy we should sharply oppose any attempt to change the political fund rules to indicate support for political parties other than Labour, without first putting the proposed rule changes to a ballot of the membership.

There is another issue. Which concerns the advocacy of trade union candidates against Labour, without the preliminaries of a fight for the Labour ticket. This is an area of great confusion. For instance, we still await a clear answer from John Bloxam and John O’Mahony on whether they wanted the AWL to intervene into the current fire fighters dispute by calling on the FBU to stand official union candidates against Labour in the recent local government elections (which we think would have been a disastrous counter-productive diversion), or whether they just thought it would have been nice if it had happened, just as it would have been nice if the TUC had called a general strike! They really should explain what they mean by the sentence: “We support any solidly based moves by trade unions to counterpose themselves electorally to New Labour, for example FBU candidates in local elections”.

Workers’ control or sectarian charity?

The Socialist Alliance are proposing motions to union conferences calling for the political funds to support non Labour candidates as long as they make a vague commitment to “support the policies and principles” of the union. We believe these proposals should be voted down. It is not just that they are a manipulative back door way of proposing trade union funding for the SA and George Galloway MP, and in reality inseparable from that. Or that they are pitched in such a way as to appeal to people who want to open the door for support for Plaid Cymru, the SNP, Greens and Lib Democrats. Nor is our objection based only on the fact that the proposal deliberately ignores the need for a fight to control what the unions’ representatives do in the Labour Party and is usually motivated by people who would rather such a fight didn’t happen. Nor are we opposed just because we think that if the people proposing the motions were serious, they would take put forward an actual rule change, which workers could support or not on its merits, rather than a vague gesture.

The most powerful objection to what the Socialist Alliance proposes is that it misses the central concern of Marxists—not just in relation to the fight for a workers’ party, and workers’ candidates but in relation to all our work in the class movement—the idea of workers’ control and democratic accountability. We want candidates, councillors and MPs who are answerable to the trade unions and accountable to them. One cautious pro-Labour proposal that seeks to impose a measure of control and accountability on union representatives in the Labour Party structures or Parliament, or which seeks to get more workers into parliament to promote union policy, embodies more of our programme than the Socialist Alliance’s ill-disguised gambit to get its hands on union money. We should vote accordingly.

Some comrades will no doubt argue that despite everything, we should back the SA motions because they establish the principle that the union will support working class candidates against New Labour. True, but the motions also establish the principle that George Galloway and any other skilful opportunist from say the SNP, PC, the Greens or the Liberal Democrats who says they support the “principles and policy of the union” can have union support too. So the motion “in principle” supports both genuine working class and faking anti-working class candidates. It allows for the independence of the working class and the subordination of the working class to alien class forces. Some principle.

Marxists normally support limited and partial proposals because they embody an aspect of our programme. The SA motions do no such thing. They contain a de-politicised organisational formula in lieu of a political proposal. They fail to embody anything of our central concern here, which is, working class representation through trade union control and accountability of candidates, representatives and parties. In conference debates we should sharply distance ourselves from the sectarians. We should speak against along the following lines: “Blair would not worry for one moment if the union voted to one day, maybe, support the odd protest candidate. What he fears is a fight by the unions to take back control of the Labour Party. To start that fight, the union should take a vote of no confidence in Blair. That is something that really would send ripples through the labour movement.”

The RMT and disaffiliation

The RMT rail union leadership proposes a set of rule changes that would open the way to the union supporting SA and SSP candidates, left Labour MPs and elements of Plaid Cymru. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Bob Crow and friends are attempting to engineer a situation in which the Labour Party will disaffiliate the RMT. This will give them plenty of opportunities to play the brave socialist martyrs, a role normally carried out in real life by their members who have to live with the shoddy deals they stitch up.

Should the RMT be disaffiliated it would go without saying that socialists will campaign for the union to be re-admitted to the Labour Party. We should advocate that the unions do everything in their power to force the re-admission of the RMT. The fear though, is that the RMT leadership may not help the fight for re-affiliation and therefore winning the argument will be difficult especially with Labour voting trade unionists who will want to see the union stop supporting anti-Labour candidates.

In reality the rule changes are a huge diversion. The union should be fighting to secure the selection of rail workers as Labour candidates on a programme of re-nationalisation and union rights and be prepared to stand them independently if they are bureaucratically blocked. Labour NEC reps who oppose union policy shouldn’t just be removed from the NEC, they should be removed from union office. The RMT seems set to go from having no democratic control over its representatives in the Labour Party to no representation at all. Taking the debate on the rule changes into the workplaces and having a ballot on them would surely be too good an opportunity for a left wing union leadership to miss.

It would, of course, be contemptible for Marxists to run scared from threats of Labour Party disaffiliation issued to a union that dared to back trade union candidates against New Labour. The problem is that comrades entirely miss the point about how the issue of disaffiliation is used in the unions. It is not that workers fear it as a threat. They want the union to stay in the Labour Party and distrust as manipulative schemers those who deny it is an issue. Many militants would be prepared to face down the threat over a big issue—Livingstone for instance—but they will not do so for the Socialist Alliance.

There is a perfectly simple way of dealing with the question of non-Labour working class candidates. We apply the criterion of workers’ democracy. If the workers support the candidate the union should. There is nothing to be gained from trying to get artificial trade union support for limited and selected socialist candidacies.

The example of the FBU 2002 conference discussion is also misunderstood. Andy Gilchrist and the EC majority overturned the 2001 conference decision on non-Labour candidates by touring the branches and securing mandates which pointed out that the rule changes requested were not practical, because a union couldn’t be affiliated to the Labour Party and also affiliated to another party that stood candidates against it. The union would have to choose between pursuing policies through the Labour Party or standing candidates against it. It wasn’t that the firefighters sunk back in fear at the prospect of being disaffiliated—they positively wanted to stay in the Labour Party and fight. They accepted the honest argument that you can’t do both. In fact, in the trade unions you will find only a limited number of master dialecticians who think that you can do both. The experience of the dispute means that it is now much more likely that the union will respond with some kind of demonstrative gesture—like totally withholding funds. This is totally understandable, but risks failing to face up to the task of the FBU leading a movement in the Labour Party to try to hold Blair and Prescott accountable for their actions in the dispute.

Bloxam and O’Mahony fail to focus clearly on the tasks before the class. The entire logic of their argument is that because we cannot control what happens—a mind numbing banality—we should not even aspire to play a role in initiating, organising and preparing the ground for what they describe as the “epochal” battle for trade union control of the Labour Party. No, that is for the future and to be organised “from above” by the official leaderships. We must know our place. We build the new party “from below”. In the here and now all we can do is get involved in small scale local electoralism, or travel as reluctant passengers while Bob Crow and his friends derail the RMT as a political force in the workers’ movement.

The root of this loss of focus comes from the fact that the comrades start their analysis from the sects, not from the class. They have accepted much of the basic framework with which the sectarians relate to the labour movement. Remember, it was the sectarians who started the whole debate going about the political funds. From the very start their intentions have been clear: not to organise a workers’ party, but to use workers’ money to fund their own. The sectarians seek to focus all the working class discontent and frustration at Blair, not as it should be focused, on a fight for union control of the Labour Party, but on stunts and gestures of mock defiance. The union leaders then came along and started playing their part in the game. People who had absolutely no intention of fighting Blair started to make vague threats of backing candidates against Labour, or started warning that their union was about to split off. These “threats” to Blair were merely empty postures to strengthen the bureaucrats’ hands in negotiations with the government. To read these threats as a sign that the labour movement really is entering an epoch of fragmentation and reconstitution is worthy of the IMG, but not serious Marxists.

We should focus on the fight to reclaim the Labour Party because the struggle to revolutionise the working class, so that it is capable of revolutionising society, starts from the real working class and labour movement, as it actually exists, not as it will be in the future. The starting point of the militant revolutionary outlook is the defence of every gain that the working class has made and an unwillingness to surrender any ground without a fight. Unlike generals and armies who can leave the field of battle after a defeat, or middle class radicals who can run after the next project or stunt, the working class stays put and lives with the consequences of defeat every day. This is as true of the political arena as it is of the workplace. If it were not true, then the workers would have abandoned support for the Labour Party years ago. To say that we are not yet ready to push for a new trade union party and disaffiliations, implies that we are not yet ready to surrender the Labour Party to the Blairites and pronounce that all the unions can do is give up and start again from scratch. To walk away from a political fight is the not the way of Marxists. We stay with the class.

3: From Solidarity, August 2002

It is a slight but permissible exaggeration to describe what is happening in Britain now as a rebirth of trade unionism. There is an echoing wave of grassroots trade union militancy and more strikes than for a very long time.

New trade union leaders have been elected by Amicus (engineers, electricians, manufacturing union), by the PCS (civil servants), by Unison (public sector workers), by the RMT and ASLEF (rail workers). One of these, Mark Serwotka of the PCS, is a Marxist. Some, Bob Crow and Mick Rix (RMT and ASLEF) have a — sort of — left wing past. One, Derek Simpson (Amicus) was a member of the old CPGB, drifted out before the Berlin Wall fell and in 1992 joined the Labour Party.

But, immediately of greater importance than their place in the political left-right spectrum is the fact that these are people committed to real trade unionism and to a renewal of the labour movement.

Real trade unionism demands trade unions that assertively defend and try to improve the wages and conditions of their members and trade union leaders who are loyal to traditional labour movement values. That trade unionism has been eclipsed in Britain for many years.

John Edmonds of the GMB has spoken up against the government on behalf of the labour movement, but he has been notably the exception. Industrial militancy has been at an all-time low. The trade union leaders have been so much under the heel of the New Labour Government that Blair and his cronies could spurn and abuse the labour movement knowing that the miserable worms leading the trade unions would not turn.

There are many ways of measuring the class alignment of the Blair Government elected five years ago, but the clearest and simplest indication of what they are is their attitude to the anti-trade union laws which Blair inherited from 18 years of Tory rule: they have left these laws on the statute book.

Before the 1997 election Blair, the leader of a party founded and still mainly financed by the trade unions, solemnly promised the rich and their press, whose good opinion he was courting — he was talking to the implacably Tory Daily Mail — that under the Labour Government he hoped to see elected, “Britain will remain with the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world”.

No unction, no hypocrisy, nothing two-faced — blunt, brutal and clear-headed: “the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world.” He meant it; the unions stood for it; most of what remains of the old Parliamentary Labour Party left has been silent about it. One-time leftists in the Parliamentary Labour Party, such as Dennis Skinner, have turned themselves into toy poodles decorated with duck-egg blue ribbon, who fawn on Tony Blair.

Five years after the election of the Labour Government, British trade unionism still exists within a legal framework which outlaws everything, in the first place solidarity strikes, that makes for effective trade unions.

It is a measure of the state of the labour movement that it is only now that some of the new trade union leaders — notably Mark Serwotka — are beginning to campaign for the removal from working class life of the shackles riveted on the labour movement two decades ago by the Thatcherite Tories.

What happened to the labour movement? How did it get into the conditions from which it is only now beginning to recover? On an understanding of that will depend the future of the left — and of the labour movement.

The trade unions were powerful enough in 1974 to take on and drive from office the Tory Government of Edward Heath. Tremendous industrial militancy in which large numbers of workers acted as if they wanted to “tear the head off capitalism” was itself politically headless — a large, amorphous movement that could not realise its potential because of its own political limitations. Having forced the Tories into a General election which they lost (February 1974) the working class movement could only replace it with a treacherous Labour Government, led by Harold Wilson.

Compared to Blair’s, Wilson’s was a left wing government, over which the left wing trade union leaders of that time — Jack Jones of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon of the AEUW (now part of Amicus) — exercised considerable influence. That government and those trade union leaders demobilised industrial militancy; the Labour government timidly began — in 1976 — to introduce IMF-dictated cuts in social expenditure; they disillusioned those who put them in power; and finally, they went down before the Thatcher Tories in the General Election of 1979.

An industrial slump soon afterwards led to mass unemployment — up to four million workers — which undermined the preconditions of industrial militancy. The Tory Government deliberately smashed up whole industries and the working class communities around them — steel for example. They brought in the first of a long series of measures to restrict what trade unions could legally do. It was clear — a predecessor of Solidarity, Socialist Organiser, spelled it out week after week — that if the labour movement did not rouse itself for concerted counter-attack, it would experience a historic defeat.

The trade union leaders did not rise to the challenge: they slunk away. That surprised nobody who knew these people for what they were. The trade union militancy that had marked the British working class for the previous 25 years had largely been an affair of unofficial strikes, “wild cat” action, against the will of the trade union leaders. It fell to the revolutionary left to organise a rank and file movement in the unions to oppose the leaders, elect better leaders when the chance offered itself, and in periods of class struggle contest with the trade union bureaucracy, for the leadership of the embattled workers. No such movement existed in 1980.

The Communist Party of Great Britain (Morning Star) had a “rank and file” movement that was in the pockets of incumbent trade union leaders. The IS/SWP had made a promising start with a rank and file movement in 1974, but quickly suppressed it as a distraction from “building the revolutionary party”.

They had picked up a self-paralysing defeatism from the right wing of the CPGB — from people such as the academic Eric Hobsbawm — which they expressed in “the theory of the downturn”. Prematurely accepting defeat without a fight, they concluded that nothing was possible except the odd local struggle and propaganda for “the revolutionary party” — a “revolutionary party” preaching retreat, surrender and passivity at the crux of the greatest crisis the British working class had faced since the 1920s!

The decisive struggle for the future of the British working class came to express itself in the Labour Party. That Party was then, unlike now, a functioning democratic organisation in which the unions had decisive weight. The Labour Party had been bitterly at odds with the Labour Government that fell in 1979. Now there was an upsurge of the left, led by Tony Benn. The soft left Michael Foot was elected as leader.

Most important here was the fact that though the Thatcherites had control of the state, Labour was moving towards control of the key centres of local government — in London, Manchester, Sheffield etc. Thatcher was very unpopular — she only achieved security and political dominance after the Falklands War in mid-1982 — and could have been brought down as Edward Heath had been, by a combination of industrial action and mobilisation to resist government cuts by left wing led local councils.

Left wing leaders talked a big anti—Tory fight, they promised to make Labour local government fortresses against Thatcherism once they were in office. But everywhere leaders like Ken Livingstone (at the Greater London Council), Margaret Hodge (in Islington) and David Blunkett (in Sheffield) buckled.

And the self-proclaimed “revolutionary left”? The bulk of the revolutionary left stood on the sidelines during the fight in the Labour Party. The SWP denounced the Bennite left for refusing to understand that nothing could be done.

Thus the Thatcherites were allowed to entrench themselves in power without an adequate fight by a labour movement that at the beginning, with a different leadership, could have fought and might have defeated Thatcher. We suffered defeat without a fight — the worst and most demoralising of all possible sorts of defeats.

The Great Miners Strike of 1984-5 came very late in the day. There was much demoralisation in the movement, mass unemployment still blighted working class lives and hopes, and a network of anti-union laws was in place, outlawing solidarity strike action. The much-compromised ex-lefts still in control of some local governments stood idly by and left the miners to fight alone.

The “revolutionary left”? For the first six months of the Great Strike, the SWP denounced the Miners Support Committees as “left wing Oxfam”. They could not quite believe what was happening. SWP leader Tony Cliff thought it a lost cause. In April 1984 he wrote in Socialist Worker that the strike was “an extreme example of what we in the SWP have called the ‘downturn’ of the movement.” Black is only an “extreme example” of white!

Even where “Marxists” controlled a council — the Socialist Party (then Militant) in Merseyside — and were in conflict with the Tory government, they made a separate deal with the government and left the miners in the lurch.

After the defeat of the miners the Tories were riding high. They systematically set about undoing as much as they could of such achievement of the labour movement as the welfare state which Labour had set up in 1945. The state of the NHS today is one consequence of this.

Whole areas of working-class militancy were destroyed when the Tories destroyed industries such as coal. Trade union membership fell by millions. The trade union leaders became even more docile and housebroken.

The soft left — Neil Kinnock — allied with the right to take over the Labour Party. The goal of defeating the Tory Party in “the next election” came to dominate and shape labour movement political life.

At first, Labour counterposed to the Tories old-style reformism. Then, as the Tories worked through their social and political agenda, the Labour Party leaders, backed by the trade union leaders, came more and more to mimic Thatcherism, to let themselves be hegemonised by it, to accept its premises and most of its conclusions.

After 1945, for three decades, Labour had hegemonised the Tories, who accepted the welfare state and other measures which Labour had forced through. Something like that now happened in reverse when Labour accepted Thatcherism. By the early 90s Labour would not even commit itself to the restoration of the welfare state and the NHS.

Blairism was the culmination of this process: outright Toryism in policies and a radical reshaping of the Labour Party. The power of Labour Party Conference and of the National Executive Committee were radically cut down; the power of the unions in the party greatly reduced. Labour took a long step away from being any sort of working class party. “New Labour” was born.

There was reason to think that the return of a Labour government in 1997 would lead the labour movement to take a cold look at where the blows and the social and political hegemony of Thatcherism had landed us.

It has taken a lot longer than we hoped.

Nonetheless, it is beginning to happen. The incumbent trade union leaders who have for five years betrayed the labour movement by belly-crawling to Blair, who seemed to have forgotten what trade unionism is for, and what the unions had in mind when they founded the Labour Party a hundred years ago, have now been replaced by people who may have learned something from the bitter five years of Tory Blair government.

In any case, those who have elected new trade union leaders — the unions rank and file — have learned. The defeat of Sir Ken Jackson by Derek Simpson in Amicus was an intended slap in the face not only for Tony Blair’s “favourite trade unionist” but for Blair and his government. Those who elected Derek Simpson have not forgotten what trade unions are for! Despite the structural changes that have more or less gutted the old Labour Party, the trade unions still have a great deal of power in the Labour Party. They should begin to use it.

Many things that were up to now unthinkable are again possible. The trade unions can recompose a working class presence in politics by concertedly demanding that the Government begins to do things like repeal the Tory anti-union laws which New Labour has made its own. They can organise to fight this government when it refuses.

The unions are opposed to privatisations and to the public-private partnerships the Government promotes. The rank and file of the unions are militant on wages and conditions. The trade unions need a political voice on such issues. New Labour is not and cannot possible be such a voice. Blair’s is the voice of second-string Toryism and, indeed, of sublimated Thatcherism.

It is scarcely conceivable even in the most favourable course of events that the unions could simply run the film of the last decade in the Labour Party backwards and root out Blairism. Probably the best that could be hoped for would be a concerted trade union break with Blair and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, backed by a minority of the PLP.

That, it should be stressed, is a long way off. But now it is an objective possibility. It raises for the left fundamental questions of strategy and perspective — for example, it puts the question of the trade unions’ political funds in a new light.

We will be discussing these questions in future issues of Solidarity. We invite contributions.

4: “Organise the awkward squad”

From Solidarity 3/14, 11 October 2002

Before the Labour Party conference last week in Blackpool, the Labour leadership was assiduously briefing the media to tell them that “Labour Party conference no longer decides party policy”.

Those media briefings showed two things. First, that the New Labour hierarchy knew they would be defeated at conference on central issues, and wanted to discount those defeats in advance. Second, that they were confident that they could get away with blatant dismissal of democracy.

In fact there has been no formal, constitutional abolition of Labour conference’s power to make party policy. On the other hand, in Blair’s “New Labour”, party conference is no longer what it was in the 1970s or ‘80s, let alone back in 1944, when it was a conference vote that pushed a reluctant party leadership into including extensive nationalisations in Labour’s 1945 manifesto.

It is not new for Labour Party leaders to ignore, evade or flout conference decisions. However, they used to have to wriggle through a more or less loud outcry.

The union leaders who defeated Blair on the Private Finance Initiative (bringing private contractors in to build, operate, and profit from public services), and half-defeated him on the war, made no great outcry against the Government’s arrogant dismissal of the conference. In that respect, the patterns of the late 1990s still hold: Labour conference as primarily a media show, speaking time heavily controlled from the platform, agenda and constituency delegates manipulated to suppress dissent, the whole operation swamped by a crowd of commercial sponsors, lobbyists and media people who outnumber the actual delegates ten-to-one. The constituency delegates, as distinct from the trade-union representatives, still mostly voted with the platform.

Amidst much unsurprising continuity, the Blackpool conference also showed important change. For the first time since Blair started his “New Labour” hijacking of the labour movement, a large cluster of trade unionists flatly defied him and started to map out a different political direction.

What now? It would be stupid to push for the more assertive and militant trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Those unions would spiral off into “non-political” or “pick-and-mix” trade-unionism — the direction sketched in a recent pamphlet by CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, one of the so-called “awkward squad” of left trade union leaders, which advocates unions “engaging with” the Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists, and Plaid Cymru. Blair would be left with a docile rump. The revival of trade-union politics would be aborted.

On the other hand, there is no prospect of the Labour Party being returned to its patterns of the 1970s, or 1940s, in the fashion of an easy swing of the pendulum. Blair has changed Labour’s structures fundamentally. On top of the “Labour” structure, he has constructed his own “party-within-a-party”, an army of thousands of spin-doctors, advisers, media-people, assistants, and so on, recruited and financed almost entirely from outside the labour movement.

That “party-within-a-party” has made it very clear that, rather than submit to any serious accountability to the organised working class, they will cut loose entirely and go for state and big-business funding. They can almost certainly take most of the Labour MPs with them on such a course.

In 1997, in the earlier years of the Blair project, socialists advocated the idea of “a new Labour Representation Committee” to regroup the working-class core in the Labour Party against the “New Labour” leadership. London UNISON activist Geoff Martin wrote in Workers’ Liberty:

“There is now a solid case for reforming the Labour Representation Committee as a pressure group within the party. This was originally formed by trade unionists and socialists who realised that the old Liberal Party could not be relied upon to represent the interests of labour. More than 100 years later, a similar set of conditions has been created by the hijackers behind New Labour.

“A reformed Labour Representation Committee makes great sense in the current political climate. To be successful, it would need to involve trade unions at a national level, along with a solid core of Labour MPs...”

In the earlier years of the Blair government, almost all the union leaders were servile and compliant, and the notion of a broad new political action committee based on at least a significant minority of trade unions came to look remote and unrealistic. Socialists still pursued the general argument for trade-union self-assertion and for independent working-class political representation, but the specific “Labour Representation Committee” formula lacked grip.

Labour Party conference 2002 changes that. Whether the phrase “Labour Representation Committee” will catch on or not, socialists should be arguing for the trade-union “awkward squad” to get together, to organise links down to local and grass-roots level, and make itself an organised, consistently-campaigning force in the labour movement, together with those Labour MPs and constituency activists willing to challenge Blair.

Such a body should, for example:

* Build both industrial and political support for the firefighters;

* Go ahead and implement the Labour Party conference decision which Blair has dismissed, for an independent inquiry into PFI, while at the same time campaigning to stop PFI and other privatisations, for example PPP on the Tube;

* Campaign against the war on Iraq, not just by adding unions’ names to lists of sponsors for big demonstrations, but by organising leafleting, petitioning and meetings at workplaces;

* Work to get class-struggle trade-unionists selected as Labour candidates through mass sign-up campaigns in workplaces, directed not at supporting the Labour Party in general but at getting candidates selected to represent working-class constituencies who are committed to trade-union rights and to public services.

* Set and proclaim the aim of winning a workers’ government, answerable to the labour movement, pushing through policies to serve working-class interests.

We still need the Socialist Alliance: we cannot afford to wait until the trade unions move, or slow down the tempo of socialist political and electoral activity to the pace of the mixed bag of “awkward squad” trade-union leaders. But socialists need to transform the labour movement, not just build an “alternative” alongside it. Socialist Alliance activists in the unions should assist, ally with, and promote the organisation of the “awkward squad” right down to grass-roots level.

5: The Labour Party in perspective

Workers’ Liberty 28, February 1996

By John O’Mahony

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement... The Communists are, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto

“To say that ideologists (conscious leaders) cannot divert from its path the movement created by the interaction of the environment and the (material) elements is to ignore the elementary truth that consciousness participates in this interaction and creation. Catholic labour unions are also the inevitable result of the interaction of the environment and the material elements. The difference, however, is that it was the consciousness of priests... and not that of socialists that participated in this interaction.”

Lenin

“It is not enough to be a revolutionary and an advocate of socialism in general. It is necessary to know at every moment how to find the particular link in the chain which must be grasped with all one’s strength in order to keep the whole chain in place and prepare to move on resolutely to the next link.”

Lenin

The Labour Party is now led by open enemies of socialism. That is nothing new. But the present Labour leaders are open enemies of trade-union involvement in running the party too, that is, of the very character of the Labour Party as it has been for nearly a century. This is new. The unions, bureaucratically controlled, have always been the bulwark of the right wing in the Labour Party.

If Tony Blair has his way, Labour-union links will eventually be severed. The Labour Party will become something like the Liberal Party was before the First World War, and Labour will have been pushed back into the womb of Liberalism, from whence it emerged in the first two decades of this century. Labour’s separation from Liberalism was at first no more than organisational. Where before 1900, for three decades, the unions got a handful of “Lib-Lab” MPs into Parliament under the Liberal banner, after 1900 the trade unions backed their own open candidates. Even then, the Lib-Lab MPs from the tightly-knit mining communities did not join the Labour Party until 1910.

Winning 30 seats in the 1906 election, the trade-union MPs formed the Labour Party. It was at first a party without individual members, a conglomeration of trade unions and affiliated societies like the Independent Labour Party, the Fabians, and, from 1916, the British Socialist Party, formerly the Social-Democratic Federation, the main precursor of the Communist Party of Great Britain (1920).

Despite the socialist societies involved, this party was still politically Liberal, and it was not fully independent even electorally. In every election before 1918, Labour operated an election pact with the Liberals. Labour became a modern party only in 1918, when it created constituency parties with individual members, adopted a general socialist (though not Marxist) objective, the famous Clause Four (“to secure for the workers by hand and brain the full fruits of their labour”), and abandoned its electoral pact with the Liberals.

The “New Labour” Party of 1918 was both a maturation of the labour movement towards revolutionary socialist politics, and a powerful block to its further development on that road. “Each progress in organic evolution is at the same time a regress, by fixing a one-sided development and barring the possibility of development in a number of other directions” (Engels). What happened both before and after 1918 depended not only on the “natural” and “organic” evolution of the British labour movement, but also, as we will see, on the battle of ideas within it, Fabianism against Marxism, revolutionary socialism against reformism, militancy against moderation, democracy against elitism, and on what the revolutionary socialists did or failed to do.

Here I make not a detailed summary of Labour Party history, but an attempt to analyse how and why the British labour movement evolved the way it did, and how, for good and bad, Marxists have interacted with the processes that shaped the political labour movement the Blairites are now trying to destroy. I am concerned with drawing conclusions for Marxist work now. What were the forces that went into the making of the new Labour Party of 1918? What had changed?

The trade unions had evolved politically. In the 1880s the unions had been Liberal in politics. Reflecting the dominant ideas of late Victorian bourgeois society, they were unable to conceive of ameliorative state action, and looked to “self-help” and their own benefit systems where later generations would look to the welfare state. The new unions of the dockers and other “unskilled” workers, after 1888-9, did not have high dues and good “welfare” benefits like the old craft unions, and naturally they began to look at “socialism” and the reforming state for welfare. By 1918 state action was widely accepted in bourgeois society and (in part as a consequence of that) demanded by the trade unions.

From the 1890s, “constructive” Liberalism and Tory self-serving paternalism had progressively embraced the idea that the state had to take direct responsibility for social engineering and social welfare in the ultimate interests of the ruling class. In Germany, the pressure of the powerful Marxian socialist movement had induced Bismarck to bring in social insurance as a means of undermining the socialists and guaranteeing healthy, educated workers and soldiers.

The discovery of the extent of malnourishment among British soldiers in the Boer War (1899-1902), where at first they did very badly, alarmed the ruling class. The example of their German imperialist rivals helped convince both Tories and Liberals of the need for state action. After 1906 the Liberals laid down the first foundations of a welfare state. Old age pensions — which gave large numbers of old workers an alternative to the workhouse prisons for the indigent — had been discussed for decades. In 1908 Lloyd George brought in old age pensions, then in 1911 National Insurance.

On a certain level, this bourgeois approach, which in part reflected working-class (including international working-class) pressure, was in principle indistinguishable from reform socialism, the difference at most being one of degree and extent. Constructive Liberalism, the calculated paternalism of imperialist Toryism, and Fabian reform socialism were all of a family by the First World War. This helped transform the labour movement — and also to confuse it about what socialism was and was not.

The other great shaping force was organised socialist propaganda, sustained over decades. Socialism revived, after decades of eclipse, in the early 1880s, when both the (Marxist) Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society were founded. These bodies, and after 1893 Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party, plugged away with criticisms of capitalism and socialist propaganda for a different society. Against the others, the Marxists explained the class difference between socialism and bourgeois welfare-ism.

By 1918, a powerful if undefined socialist collectivism held sway over much of the labour movement. The National Council of Labour Colleges, an independent working-class educational body, had been set up as the “Plebs League” in 1909 by students at Ruskin College, the trade-union education centre in Oxford. Demanding Marxist education, they seceded and organised a big network of socialist lectures in basic non-denominational Marxism. This was a great force for working-class enlightenment.

And then came the Russian Revolution. The first revolution in February 1917 had a tremendous impact in Britain. In July 1917 the Leeds Convention, at which large numbers of workers were represented, issued an appeal for soviets in Britain. Future Labour prime minister and future renegade Ramsay MacDonald backed the call! When in October 1917 the Bolsheviks demonstrated what soviets could mean, Russia remained tremendously popular.

In 1920 the trade union leader Ernest Bevin and others organised a powerful network of “Councils of Action” across Britain to mobilise the working class to stop the British government helping the Poles in the Russian-Polish war. In London dockers struck work to prevent the loading of a munitions ship, the “Jolly George”, for Poland.

Labour had had ministers in the wartime government, Henderson and Barnes. During the war the trade unions had greatly increased in numbers. By the beginning of 1918 the Labour Party leaders, encouraged by the mid-war split in the Liberal Party, spurred by working-class militancy, and frightened of being outflanked from the left, reorganised the party.

This was, explicitly, a reformist, non-Marxist party. The Marxists, whose organisation was the oldest socialist group, had been defeated by Fabians, Christian Socialists, pacifists, and “constructive Liberal” refugees from the breakdown of their party. Why?

We must go back again, briefly, to the beginning. The historic reputation of the early British Marxists has been given to them by their Fabian and ILP enemies and by their Marxist successors, who had revolted against their inadequacies. They have, I think, received more abuse than they deserve. For the one-third of a century before World War 1 they educated workers in basic Marxism, such as the mechanics of the exploitation of wage-labour (the labour theory of value) and the need for a working-class socialism. They fought for a hard, distinct, durable class outlook. They helped organise the burgeoning labour movement, and trained generations of leaders of the labour movement — of trade unions and of the Labour Party, too.

Those today who find it discouraging to have to explain to young people not only what socialism is, but also basic trade unionism, should note that Eleanor Marx had to teach the gasworkers’ organiser and future MP Will Thorne how to read and write.

Even Clement Attlee, and the future Labour right-winger Herbert Morrison, passed through the SDF/BSP.

Yet as Frederick Engels, who was in general too hostile to them, rightly said: they tended to see Marxism as a salvationist dogma, a shibboleth, to be brandished aloft before the labour movement, which was asked to accept it as cure-all, whole and at once. They did not use it as a guide to Marxist action that would help the workers’ movement develop. They disregarded the guidelines of the Communist Manifesto: “The Communists have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole”.

It disparaged trade-union action, seeing the making of propaganda about its real inadequacy as the specifically Marxist task. In the great upsurge of semi-syndicalist militancy in the years before the World War, the SDF, as an organisation, tended to stand aside, supporting the workers but disparaging the action, instead of throwing itself into what was a tremendous revolt of raw working-class militancy. In other words, where the job of Marxists is to fight the class struggle on the three fronts of industry, politics, and ideas, and of the Marxist organisation to link and integrate those fronts into one coherent strategy, the SDF overemphasised the “propagandist” side of things. As a consequence, the beneficial effects of SDF propaganda and of the influence they gained for basic Marxist notions was diffuse and not organised in a revolutionary movement. The Marxists were unable to shape the growing labour movement into a coherent socialist force. Tasks neglected by the SDF/BSP for “purist” sectarian reasons became the province of the reformists. The Fabians and the Christian Socialists gained a dominant influence.

The decisive weakness of the SDF was probably its attitude to trade unionism and trade-union militancy — disdainful support combined with the fostering of trade union officials who gave their own increasingly bureaucratic caste meaning to the SDF/BSP’s “Marxist”-sectarian incomprehension of raw militancy.

The SDF’s approach to the Labour Party was also a prize example of sectarianism. When in 1900, the trade unions, still essentially Liberal in politics, responded to a court ruling which removed their immunity from employers’ claims to make good losses inflicted during a strike by setting up the Labour Representation Committee, the SDF promoted it. At the second LRC conference in 1901, the SDF moved a motion committing the Liberal or Tory trade unionists to recognition of the class struggle; when the motion was voted down, they just walked out, leaving the political movement of the trade unions and of the organised working class to the ILP, the Fabians, and the Christian Socialists!

Instead of working to develop the Labour Representation Committee towards their ideas, they denounced from outside what was in fact the movement of the organised working class into politics. It was the beginning of a tradition.

After 1906 sections of the SDF, including H M Hyndman, wanted to affiliate to the Labour Party, but it would be a decade before the majority agreed to do so. That was 1916, in the middle of the World War, as the BSP split — both sides would be in the Labour Party. Even after the shake-up of ideas following the war and the Russian Revolution, and the transformation of the BSP into the CP (1920), the sectarian approach continued, though often repudiated in words.

After considerable discussion and at Lenin’s urging, the Second Congress of the Communist International (1920) came out for CP affiliation to the Labour Party.

“The Second Congress of the Third International should express itself in favour of Communist groups, or groups and organisations sympathising with Communism in England, affiliating to the Labour Party... For as long as this party permits the organisations affiliated to it to enjoy their present freedom of criticism and freedom of propaganda, agitational and organisational activity for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Soviet form of government, as long as that party preserves its character as a federation of all the trade union organisations of the working class, the Communists should without fail take all measures and agree to certain compromises in order to have the opportunity of influencing the broadest masses of the workers, of exposing the opportunist leaders from a platform that is higher and more visible to the masses and of accelerating the transition of political power from the direct representatives of the bourgeoisie to the ‘labour lieutenants of the capitalist class’ [the Labour Party] in order that the masses may be more quickly weaned from their last illusions on this score...”

Of course, the CP view of the Labour Party was true. In 1922 the CP anatomised the Labour Party thus:

“A Labour Party which was ruled and organised primarily by officials of independent and often warring unions inevitably became entirely divorced from the socialist or revolutionary idea. Its leaders, in their overwhelming majority, were financially and otherwise no longer members of the working class, but of the middle class. They were often Liberals, and might be conservatives, in all else but defence of their own unions, finances and privileges. (This was particularly noticeable, again, in the Parliamentary group).

“Thus, even before the war, the Labour Party had become quite distinctly a class organisation of the proletariat which was dominated by that section of the middle class whose profession it was to organise trade unions”.

Nevertheless, this was the actually existing labour movement in politics — the highest level the mass of workers had so far achieved, and along the right road.

In fact Labour was as yet no closed-off, tightly-controlled party. The ultra-left communist Sylvia Pankhurst was a delegate to its 1918 conference. The major component of the new CP, the BSP, was affiliated to it. The CP could simply have informed the Labour Party that the BSP had changed its name. Concerned to raise a clear, visible banner of communism and to take their proper place within the ranks of the new Communist International, the CP leaders emphasised their separateness and sought affiliation as if going through a ritual. Leaders of the party like J T Murphy — who came from the small De Leonite Socialist Labour Party, a breakaway from the SDF in 1903 which, though it had merits of its own, exaggerated and systematised the sectarian faults of the parent body — made speeches that were not designed with diplomacy in mind. “We take them by the hand today the better to take them by the throat tomorrow”, said Murphy. They were refused affiliation.

Yet there was, in 1922-24, even a London Communist Labour MP, Saklatvala. He was no ordinary MP. The best description, telling us much about the Labour Party then, is that of the communist and Trotskyist veteran Harry Wicks:

“In the twenties, to the consternation of the Liberal-minded Labour leadership of Henderson and MacDonald, Battersea North elected as their member of parliament the Indian Saklatvala. Not only was he an Indian but a Communist, and he was sponsored by the united Battersea labour movement.

“The link that Saklatvala established with his worker constituents was not that of the proverbial surgery: ‘Can I help you?’, ‘Have you any problems?’ At that time the entire working class had a problem, that of survival against the employers’ lock-outs, widespread unemployment and the downward slide of the sliding scale of wages agreements.

“Saklatvala spoke at factory gate meetings and introduced the monthly report-back from Westminster. There were great meetings. Long before the doors of the town hall opened, queues formed just like they used to at Stamford Bridge.

“The platform was always crowded. Sak, as he was affectionately known, was flanked by the entire executive of the Trades and Labour Council and numerous representatives of Indian and colonial organisations. He was short in stature, broad-shouldered, with flashing eyes, and was a magnificent orator.

“Those monthly report-back meetings on the doings in Parliament stirred hundreds into activity. The Battersea labour movement pulsated with life and was united. Marxist classes held by the old Plebs League flourished. Trade union branches were crowded”.

Despite refusals, the question of Communist Party affiliation remained open for years. Until the Liverpool conference of 1925, Communists could be trade union delegates to Labour constituency committees and to Labour Party conference. After 1925, three dozen Constituency Labour Parties let themselves be disaffiliated rather than expel Communists, and formed an organisation of the disaffiliated Labour Parties, the National Left Wing Movement, which also embraced left-wing groups in other constituencies.

In the unions, the CP, working from the low point of trade-union defeat and depression in 1922, built the rank-and-file “Minority Movement” into a force claiming as its affiliates trade union bodies enclosing a quarter of the organised trade unionists, then numbering about four million. In retrospect the experience in Britain fits into this summary of the historical experience: wherever mass reformist organisations of the working class existed at the time of the formation of the Communist International, if the CI failed to win over the majority or a big minority of the old organisations then the CI failed to become the main force in the working-class movement.

That is a true general summary, but it obscures the processes that shaped the events in Britain. Up to the middle 1920s it was still possible for communists to have superseded the reformists as the dominant force in the British labour movement. The small CP, pursuing an orientation to the mass labour movement, trade unions and Labour Party alike, was, despite, sometimes, a sectarian style and manner, essentially not sectarian. It put forward perspectives for the labour movement and the objective needs of the working class, and fought for them throughout the labour movement, engaging in united-front work with the reformists.

It had great and growing influence in the trade unions, organising the rank and file, building on rank and file militancy where the SDF had not known what to do with it. It had influence and supporters in the Labour Party. Above all, the class struggle was moving to the biggest confrontation in British history: the battle between reformist and revolutionary perspectives was far from settled.

Even after the nine months of minority Labour government in 1924, the Labour Party had not yet hardened definitively into the reformist mould. It was the subsequent policies of the Marxists, as much as the desires of the reformist leaders, that gave to the political labour movement the shape it was to have for the rest of the twentieth century, just as the SDF’s deficiencies had let reformist leaders call the tune in the development before 1918.

It was the rise of Stalinism that destroyed the CP’s prospects. From far away Stalin shaped the history of the British labour movement.

In Russia a new bureaucratic ruling class moved towards displacing the working class from power by first producing its own world outlook. The Bolsheviks had made a revolution in backward Russia believing that socialism was impossible there: the October revolution was but a first step of the world revolution. Civil war and wars of intervention followed. The revolution survived, maimed and isolated. As the bureaucrats infesting the state that the workers had erected in self-defence moved to take to themselves material privileges and to seize power for themselves, their leader Stalin proclaimed that backward Russia could build “socialism in one country”, despite the domination of the world by capitalism. The CPs outside Russia might as well act as political border guards for the Soviet Union.

This was not said clearly, but the logic unfolded very quickly. In Britain it meant that since the CP was small, Stalin looked for more powerful local support for Russia. While being anything but revolutionary at home, many trade-union leaders were friendly to the Russian Revolution. The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee linked Russian trade unionists with British trade union bureaucrats, some of whom had been in the BSP. It gave them prestige with the left and made control of the rank and file easier. That is how it was when in May 1926 the TUC called a general strike to defend the miners. Britain was now in a revolutionary situation. For nine days the strike developed and grew in strength and confidence. On the ninth day workers were still coming out. And then the TUC called it off, leaving the miners to fight on alone for six months to ultimate defeat.

It was a classic betrayal of the workers’ interests by trade union bureaucrats. Here was a tremendous opportunity for the CP at least to settle accounts with the reformists and compromisers, if not yet with the bourgeoisie. In fact the CP was hamstrung as a revolutionary organisation, fighting the Á incumbent leaders, by the involvement of some of those leaders in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee.

The CP raised the slogan “All Power to the TUC General Council” — the TUC General Council that was selling out the strikers! Despite its sincere intentions, it helped the traitors. Even though the CP grew in the aftermath of defeat, the attrition of working-class morale and combativity was tremendous. This was the working class that would be hit soon by the great slump and pushed down further.

Worse was to come. In 1928, reflecting Stalin’s final cataclysmic seizure of power in the USSR and the beginning of forced industrialisation and collectivisation, the Communist International proclaimed that the world had entered the “Third Period”. The first period after the World War had seen working-class upsurge and defeat; the second, capitalist consolidation. The Third Period was the period of revolution everywhere.

Everything that happened could be and was construed according to that scenario. A religious pogrom in Palestine could be transmuted into an anti-imperialist struggle; fascists in Germany seen as misguided fighters against the Versailles Treaty; nationalist leaders togged out as incipient communists — everything in fact which a later generation would come to know as post-Trotsky “Trotskyism” was pioneered here.

The dogma explained delays in the world revolution in terms of the Social Democrats, and concluded that they were the main enemy, the “Social Fascists”, to be smashed at all costs. It made sense to ally with Hitler’s Nazis in Germany against the Social Democrats, “the murderers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg”, and suicidally, the German Communist Party did that. In Britain the Third Period made the CP regard the left-wing movement of disaffiliated Labour Parties as a roadblock to CP growth rather than a bridge to the Labour Party, and the trade-union Minority Movement as a buttress of the bureaucrats rather than the agency for their eventual removal. The National Left-Wing Movement in the Labour Party was liquidated, the Minority Movement turned into an attempt to create new trade unions. It was a great self-liquidation by the Communist Party. A couple of tiny “red” trade unions, among miners in East Fife and clothing workers in East London and Leeds, were the only result.

This marked the end of any large-scale challenge to the dominance of Labourism. When the CP pulled out of its bureaucratic ultra-left craze in the mid-1930s, it was only a tool of Russian foreign policy, a source of totalitarian pollution in the labour movement and politically a force pulling Labour to the right — into a “popular front” with Liberals and “progressive” Tories. The Trotskyist groups which tried to maintain the politics and perspectives of original communism were tiny and of no account in mass working-class politics.

Thus a history which might have gone differently actually saw the consolidation of a reformist labour movement. The trade union bureaucracy was strengthened by the defeat of the General Strike and then by the dampening of spirits in the great depression. Trade union leaders became more and more enmeshed in collaboration with the state.

In the late 1920s and ‘30s collectivist ideas were dominant in the unions. But it was a reformist socialism, at best, without any conception of struggling for working-class power.” In practice, for the Labour Party leaders, “socialism” was a political artefact, camouflage, not a guide to action. Then as now, their operational ideas were strictly in line with the bourgeois consensus.

In October 1929 Labour formed its second minority government under Ramsay MacDonald, and it proved feeble and helpless in face of the catastrophic world slump. Even a left-winger with some serious credentials, George Lansbury, concerned himself with potty pre-World-War-1 vintage schemes of organised emigration to Australia as a solution to unemployment. When Labour minister Oswald Mosley advocated Keynesian solutions — that the state should organise the capitalist economy, boosting consumption and thus production and employment — he was isolated in the government... and went off to found the British Union of Fascists.

Faced with the crisis, the Labour prime minister, MacDonald, the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, and the former railworkers’ leader Jimmy Thomas, opted in July 1931 to cut the miserably inadequate dole of the unemployed workers in the interests of a balanced budget. They split from Labour and coalesced with Tories and Liberals to form the National Government, with MacDonald continuing as Prime Minister.

The number of Labour MPs fell from 288 in 1929 to 52 after the 1931 election, fewer than the 63 elected in 1918. But now there was no competition from the left, except from the vacillating Independent Labour Party, which split from Labour in 1932 with about 15,000 members. Labour swung left, electing Lansbury, the Michael Foot of the 1930s, as leader for a while. But in fact no real balance-sheet of what had led to the collapse of the Labour government was drawn. Those who had shared responsibility for the government up to the final split blamed everything on MacDonald’s villainy, not on the politics and approach they shared with him. Soon the trade-union bureaucracy, in the person of Ernest Bevin, boss of the TGWU, reasserted a brutal control. Clement Attlee replaced Lansbury as leader in 1935.

Labour recovered some of its electoral fortunes in the 1935 election, which the Tory-controlled National Government again won. It formed a coalition government, with Attlee as deputy prime minister under Churchill, in 1940, and remained in it until Hitler was defeated. Old-style Toryism had been heavily discredited even among the intelligentsia in the 1930s, and ended in the catastrophe of war. 1945 was the reckoning. Labour won by a landslide.

What was the Labour Party of 1945? It was, as before, an extension of trade-union bargaining into Parliament. It was wretchedly non-militant, judged by the needs of the working class. But it was a party of genuine reformists. They wanted change in the interests of the working class, an end to things like the means test for unemployment relief.

It was a movement led and staffed on the trade-union level and even, though less so, on the parliamentary level, by men and a few women of genuine conviction, tempered in the struggles that had shaped the labour movement. The honest communists of that period — the Trotskyists and, to some extent, the ILP — rightly denounced them for their inadequacies and there is no reason to gainsay any of that. But their inadequacies were those of a reformist labour movement.

If they could be justly denounced in the last analysis as Liberals, they were on the whole sincere liberals who believed in human equality and wanted to extend it.

They saw the labour movement of which they were organically part or to which they had attached themselves as the essential force for progress. In their own way they were loyal to that movement.

The scope of the Labour victory and what followed should not be misconstrued. It was immense. Vast masses of workers wanted a socialist revolution in 1945 and voted Labour to get it. They had seen what the state could do in the organisation of society during the war: they wanted the same scope of action in peacetime, for peacetime objectives — for life rather than death. They were determined not to return to the 1930s. They had no use for the Tories, even though Tory leader Churchill was popular as the war leader who spat hate and defiance at Hitler.

Lenin once summed up the three cardinal conditions for a revolution thus: the rulers cannot rule in the old way; the ruled are not willing to go on being ruled in the old way; and there is an available, mobilised alternative to the old order. In 1945 the ruling class could not go on in the old way because the working class (and others) were not prepared to tolerate it. Even the Army was massively anti-Establishment and pro-Labour. And there was an alternative — Labour. A Labour Party armed with a programme of nationalisation which had been imposed on the leaders at the 1944 conference (one of them, Herbert Morrison, told a left-wing delegate: you have just lost us the election!).

Certainly, Labour after 1945 merely continued the tradition of capitalist state amelioration that stretched back to World War 1 and earlier. Certainly, blueprints for a welfare state were drawn up at the behest of the wartime coalition by Lord Beveridge, a Liberal. Even so, political victory for the labour movement in 1945 was decisive for realisation of the welfare state. It happened the way it did only because Labour was available to carry through a revolution.

It was, of course, a limited revolution. All Labour’s revolution did was establish a welfare state and a certain level of economic activity by the capitalist state. The commanding heights of the economy were left in the hands of the capitalist class, as was state power, which the Labour leaders considered a neutral force.

Thus was the apogee of the reformist labour movement. It imposed the welfare state and a “left” consensus on the Tories for 40 years. In the boom years the Tories maintained the Labour-established status quo, working with the unions. They vied with Labour in this regard. For example, in 1951 they promised if elected to build 300,000 houses within a year — and did. Even after the Tories took back control of government in 1951, the impact of the 1945 revolution continued, amidst the long post-war capitalist boom. Trade unions had great weight, with Tories no less than Labour.

Reformism had shot its bolt with the creation of the welfare state. The socialist goal of the suppression of capitalism and true social democracy free from wage slavery was never their goal. All the reformist-led movement could do was mark time, work at narrow trade union concerns, and see its structures rot inwardly. After 1945 the reformist leaders had succeeded far more than they had dreamed they might, and had nowhere to go but down. In retrospect you can see the ravages of decay within the imposing outward forms of the labour movement from the 1950s to the 1970s. Political impotence and prosperity had killed off Chartism in the 1850s. A century later, “power” without control amidst prosperity sapped the strength of the labour movement. Over time the union bureaucracy became more and more middle-class and university-educated, at the top the MPs less working-class. Now they lacked not only ideological independence from the middle class, but even the basic sociological identification with the working class which had given life to the old reformism.

The official structures of the labour movement decayed — while the rank-and-file working-class movement was, uncomfortably for the Labour and trade union leaders as well as for the ruling class, and Labour governments in the 1960s and ‘70s, very much alive.

For 25 years, up to the mid and late 1970s, a great simmering — essentially unofficial — strike movement, rising and falling, was a stable feature of life in Britain. The working class reacted to prosperity and full employment with steady assertiveness, pushing up wages, expanding areas of working-class control within the wage-slave economy. Because Labour, the political wing of the labour movement, was at a loss to say what it stood for — except the administration of capitalism, in fact more ineptly than its natural party of government, the Tories — the working class was thrown back on assertive trade unionism.

They reacted to the tepid and conservative official labour movement by sloughing it off like dead, drying skin, burrowing down to grassroots militancy: the political dimension of the labour movement began to atrophy and this would have great consequences for the working class, because the reliance on rank and file militancy was only possible in a full-employment economy. Militancy alone, small-scale wage “reformism”, was no answer to the basic problems of the working class at the level of the general administration of society.

Yet it was a tremendous thing in itself, this stroppy bloody-mindedness and determination not to give an inch. It was the basic substance of all working-class socialist perspectives. But without politics it could not develop.

Thus the working class marked time through the years of boom, building unstable islands of prosperity, control and dignity within capitalism. Through those decades, the militant working-class rank and file, in defiance of Labour and trade-union leaders, time and again prevented the ruling class from running its own system as they thought they needed to run it. It was impasse. Even Labour governments, faced with the rank and file, could not impose the ruling class’s preferences.

The Wilson government [1964-70] was defeated when it tried to bring in anti-union legislation in 1969. All that government could do was grapple with the problem of Britain’s expiring dog-end of empire and an ailing economy. It brought in a “National Plan” which was an abject failure. Its major reforms were all (valuable) liberal adjustments: abortion rights, gay rights. The working class was disappointed but, relying on industrial muscle, faced the Tory government returned in 1970 with confidence. The Tories came back to power determined to sort out the labour movement, to put the working class in its place, to restore the untrammelled right to rule as it liked to the ruling class after 25 years; to boost profit.

Labour’s attempt to legally shackle the trade unions had failed because Labour was entwined with the unions, whose leaders then did not think they could police the rank and file as Labour’s abortive 1969 legislation would have required them to. The Tories put laws on the statute books — but they could not make them stick. In July 1972 a quarter of a million workers struck and forced the Tories to release five dockers jailed for picketing. The anti-union laws were immobilised.

In the 1970s, as in the ‘40s, the ruling class could not go on ruling in the old way; masses of workers did not want to go on being ruled in the old way. But there was revolutionary force ready to take over. Nor was there any equivalent of what the Labour Party had been in 1945.

Reformism had been bankrupted by its own seemingly durable successes of the ‘40s. It had no place to go. The increasing purposelessness of the reformists, together with the decay of the reformist officialdom, at Labour Party and trade union level, and the ineptitude of the Marxist left, left rank-and-file militancy headless — divorced from any politics that expressed its own drive even on a minimal political level. That is what shaped the 1974-9 Labour government.

In 1974 industrial militancy derailed the Tory government, which called an election to get a mandate against the unions and lost it. Largely ignoring the Labour Party, the masses of industrial militants had taken on the Tories and beaten them. But when it came to government, they could turn only to Wilson.

The contradictions of the reformist labour movement as it had evolved since 1945 were exposed self-destructively in the aftermath of Labour’s February 1974 election victory.

The Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9, for part of its life a minority government, inherited a major social crisis of working-class bedrock revolt. At first it bowed to the tremendous militancy. Tony Benn, an important Labour minister, received large numbers of requests from shop stewards’ committees to nationalise their industries. They wanted socialism, and thought “nationalisation” was the way to it.

The trade union leaders were an essential prop of the shaky Labour government, and of the state. At no other time in the century was Trotsky’s diagnosis of the role of the trade union bureaucracy as a pillar of the British state more visibly true than then:

“From the example of England one sees very clearly how absurd it is to counterpose, as if it were a question of two different principles, the trade union organisation and the state organisation. In England more than anywhere else the state rests upon the back of the working class which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population of the country. The mechanism is such that the bureaucracy is based directly on the workers, and the state indirectly, through the intermediary of the trade union bureaucracy...

“The Labour Party... in England, the classic country of trade unions, is only a political transposition of the same trade union bureaucracy. The same leaders guide the trade unions, betray the general strike, lead the electoral campaign and later on sit in the ministries.

“The Labour Party and the trade unions — these are not two principles, they are only a technical division of labour. Together they are the fundamental support of the domination of the English bourgeoisie. The latter cannot be overthrown without overthrowing the Labourite bureaucracy. And that cannot be attained by counterposing the trade union as such to the state as such, but only by the active opposition of the Communist Party to the Labourite bureaucracy in all fields of social life: in the trade unions, in strikes, in the electoral campaign, in parliament, and in power.”

In 1974-5, an opinion poll reported a majority believing that TGWU leader Jack Jones was more powerful than prime minister Harold Wilson. Sections of the army talked seriously of organising a military coup, as the then chief of staff would later publicly admit.

The government and the trade union leaders turned their energies to dampening down militancy, trying to run the capitalist system as best they could. And, because the rank and file militancy was politically headless, they succeeded in their negative task. They could do nothing positive. It started to unwind the film of reformist progress even on the level of welfare, initiating cutbacks in 1976. It prepared the way for the Thatcherite counter-revolution.

Symbolically, the so-called winter of discontent of 1978-9 heralded the end of Labour government and sent it out of office with the noises of disgruntled trade union militancy ringing in its ears.

The failure of the Tory “get tough” policy initiated by Edward Heath in 1970, ending in Tory defeat in 1974, revolutionised the Tory party. The Thatcherites who came to power in June 1979 embodied the embitterment of the ruling class and its thirst for revenge and counter-revolution against the achievements of 1945.

Aided by slump and mass unemployment, which they deliberately encouraged, they wreaked havoc on the disoriented labour movement, inflicting the worst anti-union laws in western Europe on what had been one of the most militant working classes in Europe. Trade union leaders were driven out of the corridors of power and scapegoated for the past.

The final turn on the road that led to Blairism was made here. Thatcher had not defeated the working class; no-one had. If the working class had mobilised in all-out resistance to anti-union laws, to the cuts and to the naked class rule unleashed by Thatcher, then the Thatcherites could have been beaten. Even if they had beaten us in a fight, we would be in a better shape to prepare a new round. That was not done, not attempted, before, belatedly, the miners made a stand in 1984-5.

Out of office, Labour went through a tremendous crisis in which the contradictions of decades exploded in confusion and bitterness. A mass revolt of the rank and file for democracy — that is, for the next Labour government to be accountable to the movement — was incongruously aided by leaders of far-from-democratic unions. The focus was on the structures of the movement, rather than the politics. The big events, like Tony Benn’s candidacy for deputy Labour leader, were symbolic contests rather than contests for real power. Here was the point at which a real new turn might have been made: if the local government left had fought; if most Marxists had not held aloof from the struggle in the Labour Party. Tony Benn talked about the need to “refound the Labour Representation Committee”. It was not to be. There was no sufficiently big effort to organise a fight for rank-and-file control and militant policies in the trade unions parallel to the battle in the Labour Party. Where the trade union militancy of the 1970s had finally run aground for lack of a political dimension, the political revolt of 1979-81 failed for lack of a trade union dimension and of political clarity.

The Labour and trade union leaders did not fight back against the Tories; the “left” leader, the George Lansbury of his age, Michael Foot, launched a crusade against “extremists” and “anti-democrats” — in the labour movement! By the late 1980s the Tories rode around like victorious horsemen on a battlefield, targeting anything wearing labour movement colours that still twitched.

That is where Blairism came from, the victory of Thatcherism. If Labour after 1945 imposed a “left” welfare-state consensus on the Tories, which they did not break for three decades, the Tories have now imposed a “marketist” consensus on the Labour Party. Hungry for political office on any terms, backed by a rank and file wanting the Tories out on any terms, the Labour leaders have moved inexorably to reflect Tory politics.

They accept the Tory media’s approval or disapproval as the highest court of judgement on what they say or do. In a country where most of the things that make trade unionism effective — solidarity strikes, for example — are illegal, the “party of the trade unions” does not now propose to scrap the anti-union laws.

They accept the Tory argument that “society” cannot afford to give the poor state-of-the-art health care free at the point of consumption. They will not, unless they are forced to, restore the Health Service.

Now, the Labour leaders have always more or less accepted the going wisdom of the bourgeoisie. They did not become Keynesians until the bourgeoisie did in world war two; and they did not sit long at Keynes’s feet after the bourgeoisie moved on. What is new is the extreme distance the Blairites have travelled from the key notions of reform and old-style liberal democracy. In their ideas these people have little in common with even such an old-style labour movement right-winger as Roy Hattersley.

These middle-class “Labour” politicians are eager to emancipate themselves from the trade unions. They want Labour to be a modern “mass” party of late-bourgeois passive pseudo-democracy, in which the politicians relate to a passive membership through the bourgeois-owned mass media, probably with state funding of political parties. Blair and Brown have already set up a large personal staff, largely funded by donations from big business, separate and independent from the official Labour Party machine. The trade union leaders, increasingly university-educated middle-class men and women, with no real background in working-class struggle, or any sort of struggle of the sort that shaped even the old reformists, have bowed under pressure of Tory blows to the de-politicisation processes. The working-class movement is being pushed out of the direct access to politics it won when it established the Labour Party. Large dimensions even of the bourgeois democracy of the past are thus being cut away.

Of course, it does not follow that the union leaders will go on letting them push the unions out of politics. When the Tories have been kicked out and Prime Minister Blair is in no.10 Downing Street, the demands and expectations of the labour movement, at all levels, will escalate.

Among the sectarian left, it has become an “established fact” that the 150,000 new members who have joined the Labour Party over the last two years are all middle-class and right-wing: yet the facts are that a big proportion joined on the cheap rate as members of affiliated trade unions, and a recent opinion survey showed that most wanted unions to be more active in the Labour Party and wanted a figure set for a legal minimum wage before the General Election.

Even so, the trade unions may well let the Blairites push ahead to a complete rupturing of Labour-union links or be unable to stop them. This would create a situation at the end of the 20th century not unlike that which the labour movement faced at its beginning. In that way, Blair is the legatee of Margaret Thatcher, who set out to destroy socialism in the labour movement.

If this happens, it will be a historic defeat for the British working class. Now Marxists of all people did not expect steady progress, ever upwards, under capitalism. There is no stable victory for the proletariat, no long-term historic resting place, until it has crushed the bourgeoisie. Nor did we expect the steady improvement of the Labour Party, its evolution towards a better and better approximation to working-class socialist adequacy. The first political statement by the first forerunner of Workers’ Liberty summed up the perspective like this:

“The idea of an automatic adjustment by the existing movement in response to changing events stands in the way of our serious striving to influence events in a Leninist spirit. The views of the leading comrades [of Militant] on such things as Clause IV show that they see the movement as slowly maturing and Clause IV as an organically evolved first fruit of this process. The dialectical view is abandoned, the need to see the future sharp breaks, leaps, etc. (and the need to prepare for these, rather than wait passively).

“There will be no automatic upwards spiral here: because of the abortive nature of the present movement, events far from elevating it automatically to a higher stage could plunge the class downwards and backwards in a sharp crisis. More — it must be said that in view of all the past this is inevitable.”

And what of the Marxists during the decline and possibly the fall of old reformism? The communist “old believers”, the followers of Trotsky, were a marginal force, for decades, sometimes working in, sometimes outside the Labour Party.

In the late 1960s and ‘70s, “Trotskyists” became quite numerous. But they proved utterly inadequate. Instead of relating to the real working class and the only labour movement we have, many Marxists lost themselves in fantasies about third world Stalinist socialism, or anarchist sloganising about “revolution now.” Where one Marxist organisation, the Revolutionary Socialist League (Militant) gained real influence, it subordinated the interests of the class struggle to its supposed private interests as an organisation; doing a cop-out while the miners were fighting the decisive battle of the Thatcher years.

If it had used the needs and logic of the class struggle as a compass, Militant would have deliberately looked for a link up with the miners and if necessary let the logic of the struggle lead to a break between the Liverpool Labour Party and the Labour leadership. Instead, they ducked out of the struggle and, picked off by the Tories once the miners were defeated, soon scuttled off in a private adventure out of the political labour movement.

The SWP first followed the drift of rank and file militant work away from active political reformism into reliance on industrial militancy, evolving an ideologically impure but functional syndicalist “politics” and perspective around it. When the strike and election of 1974 proved the continuing importance of the Labour Party, when workers needed a governmental alternative, they went on a brief mad period of ultra-militant “steering left” which wrecked their trade union base, then flipped back to take refuge in caricature sectarianism. The solution to the problems of the working class was to “build a revolutionary party”, completely separate from it — a party with the implicit perspective of rebuilding the labour movement from the ground up. They became utterly defeatist for the foreseeable future, until “the party” has been sufficiently “built.” They continue the British “Marxist” tradition.

Yet the case for real Marxist politics could scarcely be better made than in the history I have analysed and outlined above.

Things have gone as they have because the early Marxists did not build an organisation able simultaneously to make socialist propaganda, educate Marxist cadres, link up with bedrock working class militancy, and use a combination of reformist, transitional and revolutionary demands to gain the leadership of the British labour movement. They did not know in practice how to link up and knit together the three main fronts of the class struggle — trade unionism, politics and ideas — into a coherent strategy.

We can not go back and relive that history to produce a better result. We can learn from it and bring those lessons to bear on the class struggle and the struggle inside the labour movement. We can build an organisation that knows both how to relate to the existing mass movement and how to act as an independent Marxist force in all the facets of the class struggle. Through all this history, the failures and weaknesses of the Marxists have played, again and again, a deadly anti-Marxist role.

The Blairites have not yet destroyed the Labour Party. To accept it as given that they will is premature, unnecessary. They must still be fought every inch of the way in the Labour Party and in the trade unions as the “Keep the Link” campaign fought John Smith in 1993 and the Clause Four campaign fought Blair in 1994-5.

We will best fight them by rousing the bedrock of the labour movement in defence of things long taken for granted by working class people like the welfare state.

Speculation about what may happen in the Labour Party is useful only if it leads us to a clear idea of our own socialist identity and the tasks socialists face now. Whatever happens with the Labour Party these tasks essentially remain the same, though circumstances and therefore details vary. If the Blairites destroy the political mass labour movement, then we will agitate in the trade unions for a political party of the unions, this time with better politics. The immediate task is to build our own socialist movement now. That way we will be better able to handle whatever comes.

Antonio Gramsci put it well, long ago, writing in an Italian fascist prison: “The most important observation to be made about every concrete analysis of forces is this: that such analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves (unless one is writing a chapter of past history) and they only acquire significance if they serve to justify practical activity, an initiative of will. They show what are the points of least resistance, where the force of will can be applied most fruitfully; they suggest immediate tactical operations; they indicate how a campaign of political action can best be presented, what language will be best understood by the multitudes, etc. The decisive element in every situation is the force, permanently organised and pre-ordered over a long period, which can be advanced when one judges that the situation is favourable (and it is favourable only to the extent to which such a force exists and is full of fighting ardour); therefore the essential task is that of paying systematic and patient attention to forming and developing this force, rendering it even more homogeneous, compact, conscious of itself.” From The Modern Prince.

Confronting a worse catastrophe than any we face, the possible victory of fascism in France, Trotsky put the same idea more directly in 1934. “Under the least favourable hypothesis, the building of a revolutionary party would mean to speed the hour of revenge. The wiseacres who duck away from this urgent task by claiming that ‘conditions are not ripe’ only show that they themselves are not ripe for these conditions’.”

6: A workers' government

By Jill Mountford, published in Solidarity around the time of the 2001 General Election and abridged here.

Under the Blair government the gap between the rich and poor has widened; our health service continues to crumble; council homes have been given away to private developers. The Government gives billions to big corporations to build and run schools and hospitals — and to make fat profits.

This is a government for the bosses, for the powerful and the rich. This is a government for people like the crooks who run the private rail companies, who take public money to line their own pockets, while lives are put at risk.

In the past, Labour governments, for all their faults, used to have to take some account of what working class people wanted. This “Labour” Government is different.

Tony Blair prefers to listen to the Government's special advisers (there are 78 of them and collectively they earn over £10 million a year).

New Labour prefers to listen to the big-business directors who sit on the Government Task Forces — unelected committees which decide on much Government policy. Only two percent of the Task Forces’ 2,500 members come from trade unions. The rest are people like Low Pay Commission member Stephanie Munk, who as a director of the Granada Group earns £230,000 a year. Her company faced industrial action when they tried to cut workers’ wages from £140 to £100 a week.

People like Munk see profit as a god. For these men and women workers’ lives are mere items in a balance sheet. They have been responsible for throwing on the scrapheap many tens of thousands of workers whose jobs they axed. They have unhesitatingly shattered the lives of workers and their families when profitability demanded it. Now they shape and steer the policy of the Government.

The Government prefers to listen to the millionaires who fund the Labour Party — people like Robert Bourne, who bid to buy the Dome at a knock down price of £165 million. Robert Bourne has donated thousands of pounds to the Labour Party.

And Labour has its own millionaire Ministers — people like David Sainsbury who, as Minister for Science, can promote his biotechnology business.

New Labour is so completely dominated by these people because it has closed down the channels of Labour Party democracy which used to make the Labour leaders vulnerable to pressure and influence from the trade unions and the constituencies.

A capitalist government like the New Labour government is the “executive committee” of the capitalist class. Behind the committee stands, not only the network of string-pulling capitalists we have described, but also the state, the army, the police, the judiciary, the prisons and the civil service. Look at the role of the police, the courts, the prisons and the army during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The state upheld the system that was crushing the mining communities and destroying workers’ lives. The state is run by unelected and unaccountable groups tied to the capitalist class.

Individual capitalists, such as Rupert Murdoch and other press barons, also exert their influence through the pages of the newspapers, magazines, and television stations they own. As well as accumulating profit, the media capitalists make propaganda for the system. They are its ideological high priests and policemen. They want us to believe that the capitalist system is natural, fair and irreplaceable.

Workers and bosses will never be united

The “People’s Prime Minister” keeps telling us that he rules in the interests of all the people. But that is not possible. We live in a class-divided society where a small class of people own factories, offices and big businesses, and enjoy unbelievable luxury. A much larger class of people, the working class, owns nothing but our ability to work and some personal possessions. The two classes have distinct sets of interests.

For the bosses, wages are just one of the costs of production. He or she must keep wages, like all other costs, to a minimum in order to undercut other capitalists and maximise profits. To the workers, on the other hand, wages are the only means of livelihood for themselves and their dependents.

Workers have no choice but to organise and take on the might of the bosses and their government when they are threatened with wage cuts, job losses, longer working hours. Class conflict is inevitable. It is the very pulse-beat of our class-divided capitalist society.

Workers need the right to combine and work together with others in the same situation to push for improvements. Workers need to organise themselves as a class in trade unions. If they can not organise freely — as they cannot now under New Labour’s restrictive trade union laws — that is a massive advantage for their class enemies, the capitalists.

The “general public” or “the people” are made up of distinct groups with conflicting interests — workers and capitalists. Because it is impossible to serve all of the people all of the time the notion of a “general public” is an ideological myth which serves those who dominate in our society.

Even a generous Labour Government, with ministers who want to do their best for the working class, is more geared to defending the system that allows a tiny minority of bosses to accumulate wealth than it is to defending and guaranteeing full rights for workers.

All past Labour leaders have set out believing that they can manage capitalism less brutally than the Tories, the bosses’ first-string party of government. But it is not possible to put a properly human face on the monstrous system that inflicts needless insecurity and poverty on large sections of the working class.

Blair is a different kind of Labour leader. He is committed to most of the policies introduced by the Thatcherite Tories in the 1980s. He is on the side of the bosses.

What do workers need?

Working class people in Britain today need something more than even the best of past British Labour governments. We certainly need something much much better than the New Labour brand of “Labour” government. To accept that New Labour is the best that working people can hope for would be like saying politics is not the business of the workers, let the bosses get on with exploiting us.

Working class people need representatives in Parliament who will fight for the working class — the kind of people who are fighting in this election under the banner of the Socialist Alliance. Working class people also need a government that acts for the workers!

Ultimately our goal is a socialist society — a world free of the poverty and insecurity workers suffer. A socialist society is a democratic society. The needs of the majority are put first and are not crushed beneath the drive to create profits for the few.

A socialist workers’ government would begin to organise society to meet human need. It would organise industry so that everyone who could work has a job and the chance to contribute to the common swell-being. The technological advances made under capitalism would, if rationally developed and organised for people and not for profit, allow the working week to be cut, probably halved, without loss of pay and, indeed, with a large-scale levelling-up of wages so that many millions would benefit from a minimum wage very much higher than the miserable £3.70 per hour introduced by this government.

A workers’ government would close the vast gap between the richest in our society and poorest at the bottom of the heap. A workers’ government which came to power alongside a mass movement of workers fighting for their demands would lay the foundations for the complete transformation of our present capitalist society into a socialist society, a society where all class differences would be abolished once and for all, a society organised at every level for the benefit of the whole population.

Imagine if a government based on the labour movement were elected in 2001. What would it do first? It would push through an “emergency plan”, measures such as:

* A workers’ charter of trade-union rights to strike, to picket, to take solidarity action;

* The restoration of the National Health Service and the welfare state;

* A decent minimum wage for all;

* Equal education opportunities and free education for all;

* The return to public ownership of the privatised industries, this time under workers’ and community control.

* Taxation of the rich, and expropriation of the big banks and financial institutions which dominate economic life through the “casino economy” of high finance.

How do we get a workers’ government?

If this Government does not represent the workers, then we need people, MPs, trade union leaders, campaigners that do stand up for the workers. That is something we can start to build now.

We need a revival of mass, trade union-based, working class politics. Such a movement will bring to the fore people who can speak for the working-class and could create a new mass workers’ party. A new mass workers’ party, based on the trade unions, could form a workers’ government. Such a movement would be able to stand up to the sabotage that the capitalists will inevitable organise against a workers’ government.

Without such a party to galvanise, generalise and solidify mass struggles, victories — such as that against the poll tax in the early 1990s — will always stop short of making a step forward to abolish this system that crushes the minds, bodies and spirits of the working class. At worst the movement will be smashed by the combined power of the capitalist state.

Making possible a new workers’ party depends on the work socialists and working class militants do now to build, rebuild and renovate the labour movement into a force that is capable of defeating the capitalists.

We need to get down to the long-term serious fight to build a mass democratic workers’ party. That work must focus on the unions.

The Blairites have stopped trade unionists and Labour activists from having any say over what the Government does. The links between the Labour Party and the trade unions — which meant that Labour governments had to, at least in part, listen to workers — have not been severed, but that is only because trade union leaders have let the unions be reduced to dumb extras in Blair’s pageant. The unions still have a lot of reserve power, should they choose to use it. Seven million people are organised in trade unions. The unions still have some channels in the Labour Party structures which they can use to assert themselves politically — if they have the will to do it.

The way to get the unions to protest against the Government it is not to campaign for unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. If a large enough group of unions were prepared to do that and to set up a radical workers’ party immediately, then they would also be able to use their positions in the Labour Party to mount a major challenge to Blair there and rally other unions and constituency Labour activists around them. Doing that first would be much better than simply walking away, even if the struggle inside New Labour would end with a split, which it almost certainly would.

As things are with the unions today, the only likely success for a disaffiliation campaign would be to get one or two unions to cut their Labour links and abandon political activity, as much on a sentiment of general disillusion with politics as on any positive programme.

Politically-minded trade unionists can have much more impact by campaigning for their unions to use their positions in the New Labour structure to fight for union policy, on issues like privatisation, rail renationalisation, trade-union and employee rights, and the health service. This should not mean, however, that we “sit out” election campaigns while we wait for rank and file assertiveness in the unions to rise to the level where it forces the union leaders to come out sharply against Blair.

Trade-union funding is still vital for New Labour. Trade union activists should campaign for their union to withhold money unless New Labour commits itself to demands such as:

* No bosses as Labour ministers;

* Full positive trade union rights;

* End privatisation schemes like PFI and PPP.

Advocating that the union goes on “financial strike” against the New Labourites is not the same as advocating disaffiliation. It can stir up a struggle. And we should advocate that union branches and unions gain, or are granted, the right to give money to labour movement candidates more authentically in line with union policy as well as to official Labour candidates.

And we should say that, if the New Labour leaders refuse to budge, the unions should put up trade union candidates against New Labour. We believe independent socialist candidatures must be coupled with a consistent and patient fight inside the trade unions for the unions to assert themselves politically; and we would argue for socialists to rally behind any genuine and broad-based independent trade-union candidates against New Labour, even if those candidates’ political platforms are much more limited than we would wish.

The battle to get the union leaders to fight the Blairites goes hand in hand with the struggle to democratise the labour movement, to put an end to the power and privileges enjoyed by bureaucratic officials. We should insist union officials face re-election every year or two years. No official should earn more than the average shop-floor rate. All officials should be held to account for their actions and be immediately recallable if the majority vote for it. There would be an end to electing officials who try to manage capitalism on behalf of the bosses. We fight to develop within the labour movement a much higher level of democracy than the sham democracy of the bourgeoisie — a workers’ democracy.

The ideology of “partnership”, that the interests of business are the interests of workers too, is false and dangerous. It is a tool of the bosses in their battle to control workers. If there is no class struggle any more, why do working class people bother with unions at all?

We know that conflict is inevitable between the labour movement and the government, even if it has not yet burst out: we saw signs of it when tube workers struck against privatisation of London Underground. The labour movement will fight back, learning to demonstrate its strength and building up its confidence by way of action — initially by limited strikes, by petitions, and by demonstrations. We have done it before and we will do it again!

Socialists and the workers’ government

The transformation of the labour movement will not happen spontaneously as a reflection of economic class struggles. We believe we will also need a militant socialist organisation because socialists can play a decisive role, fighting for the kind of ideas that we set out here.

The state of the health service, education, jobs and workers’ rights are pressing issues for the working class. Out of struggles on these questions will come the organisation, experience, confidence and education that will prepare large numbers of workers to pose the need for socialist revolution. That is why we need to build campaigns and initiatives that relate to the working class now. This is the best way to convince many working-class people, whether they are active now or not, of the need for a workers’ government and for remaking the labour movement.

There can be no predicting how or when the revival of class struggle will start. For Solidarity the task is to raise the demands and develop the politics in any way we can, including standing in elections, and organise where we can for the self-renewal and transformation of the workers movement.

The struggle for a workers’ government starts from today’s battles. In the course of these battles, we want to build up a movement of the rank and file in the unions — and across the unions — to oust those who presently mislead the movement. We will seek to organise with what remains of the left in the Labour Party. We will seek to link the battles within the existing labour movement structures to the dynamism and energy of the young people who are involved in the movement against the exploitation and environmental deprivation caused by global capitalism.

The broad movement of resistance to Blair and Blairism can only be built if we have a clear working-class political perspective, an idea of a different kind of government. Without that idea, we may be able to defeat particular attacks, but we will never really defeat the politics and interests that Blair represents.

We live in an apolitical climate where there is very little criticism about the most obvious failures of capitalism —unemployment, social deprivation and deep-rooted evils such as physical and mental ill health among the poorest in society. The weak — asylum seekers — are often scapegoated. Socialists have to be the most trenchant critics of the exploitative and unjust world in which we live. We try to put up a real “third way”, an alternative to Blair and Brown’s “third way”. We call it independent working-class politics. For us politics flow from no other concerns except those of the workers. We say the only way forward is to fight for a workers’ government. Fighting on class issues can win!

If, by the time you have finished reading this, you think what we say makes sense, then we urge you to join us!

6: Class, Union, And Party

Resolution adopted by the AWL National Committee, 27 March 2004

1. The Labour Party is still what Lenin called it in 1920, a bourgeois workers’ party. In the last decade, there has been an enormous shift within this contradictory phenomenon towards its bourgeois pole.

2. New Labour differs from Old Labour in these respects.

The trade union share of the vote at Party conference and of direct and indirect representation on the National Executive has been substantially cut.

The role of both Annual Conference and the National Executive in the affairs of the Labour Party has been changed qualitatively. Essentially, they no longer control Labour Party policy, or what happens in the party, even in theory.

Through a series of procedural checks and controls, it has become the norm for New Labour that regional and even national conferences no longer discuss political issues. With these new structures, the Labour Party “in the country” cannot counterpose itself politically to the Government.

Thus, the forums in which and through which the political life of the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) expressed itself have been cemented up.

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. 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.

Central control over and vetting of Labour candidacies at parliamentary and local government level has been greatly increased. The possibility of rank-and-file control through selection and deselection of candidates has been greatly reduced.

3. The New Labour Party in government has openly repudiated any working-class allegiance in explicit and brutal words and in such deeds as keeping the Tory anti-union laws on the statute books.

3a. There has been a considerable erosion in traditional working class support for Labour, particularly amongst young people. Symptoms include the increase in electoral abstention, particularly in inner-city areas, and the growth of the BNP.

4. For these reasons we have advocated independent working-class electoral challenges to New Labour. We never saw such things as ruled out on principle. We rejected them previously only because of the practicalities, chief of which was the open nature of the Party and what socialists could do in it.

5. A mass revolt by the CLPs and the trade unions — crucially, by the mass of the unions — could, of course, quickly re-open, cleanse and democratise the New Labour structures.

The most important fact for now, and calculably, is that nothing short of a large-scale general revolt can break the hold of the New Labour machine. New Labour can see off partial revolts, even large and important ones. Only a large, determined and simultaneous revolt could swamp the breakwaters.

Constitutional formulas, legalities, and rule changes are never all-decisive, in the Labour Party or in the class struggle at large. Some struggles can break through undemocratic rules; or entrenched leaderships can find ways to suppress the rank and file even if the formal rules are democratic. But rules matter.

To say that the rule changes in the Labour Party do not signify much would be as wrong as saying that the anti-union laws do not matter much for the industrial struggle, or that the different Labour Party rule changes of the early 1980s, in favour of democracy, were a diversion.

6. The transforming changes affect precisely those areas where the political life of the old Labour Party, that is of the old labour movement, expressed itself, and into which socialists could intervene as we did.

If there is some political life in a local CLP it cannot now — short of a very large-scale simultaneous revolt in other parties and the unions — 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.

7. The political life of the CLPs is at a low ebb.

8. The trade unions should oppose Blair 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.

9. It can be calculated that only a not-very-big minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party — which has no working-class roots worth recording — would split from Blair in those circumstances.

10. Disappointment with Blairite control of the Labour Party and the trade unions has taken the form of the election of a wide range of new trade union leaderships committed at one level or another to defending their members’ immediate interests — that is, of a drive to recreate real trade unionism.

Without the support or tolerance of the trade union establishment, the Blair-Brown-Mandelson New Labour coup in the political wing of the British labour movement could not have been made, or not without a major 1931-style split in the Labour Party.

Many of the leaderships that supported Blair in his coup are now gone or going. To the new trade union leaders we say: counterpose the unions to New Labour immediately, and take the fight if necessary (as we think it will be necessary) to an open break and a refounding of labour representation.

11. We are, however, nowhere near the possibility of controlling what happens. The new leaderships are not doing what we think the situation indicates.

The absence of a coherent, co-ordinated union response is a result of our weakness as a force in the labour movement; but we are where we are.

Centrally, we advocate that the unions fight within the Labour Party against New Labour, and fight — if necessary, as we think it will be — all the way to a break and the refounding of a real Labour Party. But that is not all we do. In the actual situation of flux, we break down that central idea into immediate tactics. And we relate to inchoate responses as militants, not as “inspectors-general” of history or of the labour movement.

12. Our central political “demand” on the unions — that they fight Blairism within the Labour structures, right through to a break, and found a new working-class trade-union-based party — does not oblige us to oppose everything short of that. It does not oblige us to oppose any “tactical” fragmentation of the union political funds.

Advocacy of our “epochal” concern — the mass trade union break with Blair and move to a new workers’ party — should not shade into a conservative defence of and support for the Blair-serving status quo against immediate limited initiatives for genuine left-wing or labour-movement electoral challenges to the New Labour party; things which, on their merits, we should support here and now.

13. The situation is further complicated by the activities of sectarians like the SWP and the Socialist Party. The SWP has no strategic overview and uses elections in a catchpenny, opportunist “build the SWP” spirit. The SP have a wrong assessment of the situation, believing that the entire process of destruction of the old Labour Party has been completed.

14. The phrase, “democratise the political funds” was initially used to express the correct broad idea of the FBU May 2001 decision — that the union, nationally and regionally, should critically examine election candidates seeking its support, and consider backing independent working-class candidates against New Labour. That broad idea always involved accepting the risk that a drive to reassert independent working-class representation will, in the given circumstances, involve, or open the door to, some fragmentation and false starts. But the SWP, in particular, has cumulatively reinterpreted “democratisation of the political funds” as positive advocacy of fragmentation and “diversification” of the political funds. They have proposed having money allotted branch-by-branch or in proportion to different parties’ support in the membership. We are against fragmenting the funds in such a manner, which will end up (i) providing a safety-valve for the bureaucrats, freeing them to back Blair with the bulk of the political funds as long as they allow a few branches to give money elsewhere; (ii) drifting towards business-unionism, i.e. giving money to whatever mainstream party candidate seems friendliest or most susceptible to lobbying.

15. However, a policy of no changes in the distribution of trade union political funds until either the Labour Party has been won back from the Blairites, or a new workers’ party is launched by the trade unions, would for socialists be a policy of long-term inertia. It would be a de facto acceptance of Blairism as working-class politics for the foreseeable future, and, by way of that, a long-term policy of de facto abstention from electoral politics. Under the guise of strategic thinking we would adopt a policy of passive waiting for “something big” to happen. Such an approach is not a conceivable option for us. It would destroy the AWL as an interventionist political force.

16. Against ideas such as the RMT backing Plaid Cymru, we counterpose the principle of independent working-class representation, not the idea that the union must stick to exclusive support for New Labour candidates.

17. We should advocate local labour movement political action committees, and where possible treat Trades Councils as potentially such committees. We support any solidly-based moves by trade unions to counterpose themselves electorally to New Labour.

We are in favour of winning support from Labour-affiliated 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 we favour it.

18. We are against disaffiliation, which in practical terms could only mean the Labour-affiliated unions ducking out of the fight-to-a-break against the New Labour machine which we advocate.

19. But we must fight for working-class politics in the labour movement. We do not fight in the most advantageous, still less ideal, conditions. We cannot let fear of damage that will be done during that struggle stifle the will of the rank and file to fight. We cannot fetishise the existing links and relations between the New Labour Party and the trade unions. We must advocate a fight on every level, and now.

We cannot let ourselves be blackmailed into passive acceptance of the political dominance of the Blairites. We must fight our way out of the political impasse of the labour movement.

20. We should propose in each union a national policy which would establish a framework for the union’s political activities and use of its political fund set by union policies and the principle of independent working-class representation in politics.

In pursuit of this national approach, we should argue against automatic support for New Labour and its candidates, and for the possibility of supporting independent working-class candidates. We explain openly that we want the unions to consider support only for working-class and socialist independent candidates, not for any independent candidates sympathetic to the policies of the union, and that our aim is not “diversification” but the recreation of a trade-union-based workers’ party. We argue for decisions about such alternatives to be taken, where appropriate, at regional and local level in the unions, subject to the fullest democratic control (e.g. workplace and membership ballots).

We are also for:

Reducing union contributions to the Labour Party to the flat affiliation fee, ending extra donations, as the CWU has done. (We are not for reducing the level of affiliation).

Making union representatives in New Labour structures fight for union policy.

Withdrawing union sponsorship to MPs who flout or oppose union policies (as the RMT did with Prescott).

Challenging, expressing no confidence in, and where possible de-selecting councillors, MPs and leaders who refuse accountability to the labour movement and oppose working-class interests. No confidence in Blair as Labour leader!

Using union funds for independent working-class political campaigning — e.g. for referenda on privatisation, for a European workers’ charter rather than supporting bourgeois yes or no campaigns on the euro.

Where we come across motions in the unions expressing some of these ideas, but in an inadequate framework, we should seek to amend them so as to set them clearly within the framework of the fight for independent working-class representation.

Where our amendments fall, or circumstances prevent us from proposing them, the way we vote on such motions must be judged tactically in each case, in the light of both their wording and the meaning given to those words by the conditions and balance of forces in each union. Such tactical judgements should be made by our union fractions in consultation with the Industrial Committee and the EC.

21. The fight on the different fronts — to get the trade union leaders to fight Blairism within the Labour structures, and to get the trade unions to back working-class and socialist candidates against New Labour — is inseparable from the work of building a cross-union rank and file movement. The trade union leaders who will not fight for working-class and trade-union interests now, within the structures of the Labour Party, are not likely to support the formation of an anti-Blairite working-class party to replace New Labour. Here too, on the question of backing anti-Blairite working-class election candidates, the old watchword offers guidance: if the leaders won’t lead, then the rank and file must.

22. We should pay more attention to the Labour Party. We should improve our efforts in pushing affiliated unions to fight the Blairites — that is, get our trade-union work better organised and fight systematically to get our own resolutions on political funds to the union conferences. Socialists should reorganise and reactivate our Labour Party fraction, but not, unless there is a major change in the condition and levels of life of the CLPs, significantly increase the number of comrades assigned to such work.

23. The central conclusion from the reality of the fragmented responses to the Blairite coup 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, No Sweat, SSP, Labour Party — integrating them both politically and organisationally.

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