AWL discussion on "After Bournemouth", 2007: "Still a workers' party if Bournemouth is consolidated?"

Submitted by martin on 1 November, 2007 - 1:59 Author: MT

Elsewhere we've presented the arguments on why we should not foreclose immediately and declare Bournemouth an already consolidated transformation; and why even if and when Bournemouth is consolidated, Labour will probably still have certain peculiarities as a bourgeois party. But here I want to deal with the claim that Labour will still be a workers' party (in any sense meaningful for us) if Bournemouth is consolidated.

Only two arguments have been - or can be - produced for this thesis.

One is that the trade unions are still attached to Labour in some way. But it matters which way! If they are attached in a way which allows no real political input from the union memberships - in the same sort of way, essentially, that unions have been attached to populist parties in Latin America; the British unions were attached to the Liberal Party before the rise of Labour; the US unions are attached to the Democratic Party; or the biggest Italian union federation is attached to the Democratic Party (fusion on 14 October 2007 of the main body of the old Italian Communist Party with the ex-Christian-Democrat Margherita party) - if they are attached in that way, it just makes the unions clients of bourgeois politics, not the party any sort of workers' party.

The second is that most workers vote Labour.

The factual basis of this claim is a bit thin: see below. But it is true that Labour is electorally the most successful party among workers.

That says nothing about Labour being a "workers' party". If workers have a choice (in terms of parties likely to be able to form governments) between different bourgeois parties, they will tend to choose the one that seems slightly more "social" and "leftish" (even if the "leftishness" is just a matter of name, old tradition, or the vaguest demagogy). Usually it takes social tumult to break electoral inertia and enable minority parties to break through. That does not mean that one of the well-established bourgeois parties has to be dubbed a "workers' party".

For example, the US Democratic Party is not a workers' party. Doubtless the new Democratic Party in Italy will inherit a lot of the working-class electoral base of the old Italian CP, and a fair bit of the not-negligible working-class electoral base of the old Christian Democrats. That does not make it a workers' party.

In India (The Hindu, 20/05/04), "The BJP and most of its allies represent a confluence of social and economic privileges. The higher the economic status, the higher the vote for the BJP... The Congress alliance on the other hand does worst among the well-to-do and improves its vote share as we go down the economic hierarchy... In States that witness a direct Congress-BJP contest, the class profile of the two parties is extreme and opposite". But who doubts that Congress is not a "workers' party"?

The real question is whether the vote Labour receives from workers can be categorised as a "class vote" - a vote of class allegiance, a vote for a party perceived as "ours", for "our" people - or it is just a lesser-evil vote. As I've written elsewhere, in my reply to M, the evidence is that the Labour vote is less and less a "class vote", more and more just a lesser-evil vote.

When the fact that Labour is electorally the most successful party among workers is taken to prove that Labour is a "workers' party", and that in turn is taken to prove that it is wrong to run socialist election candidates, the argument becomes reductio ad absurdum.

On those criteria, Marxists in 1900 would have had to dub the Liberals "the workers' party", and not support the newly-formed Labour Party, which only had minority electoral support from workers (and only minority support from unions, too). Indeed, the Labour Party would never have been founded, because the Marxists would have been repeating year after year: "No. Got to stay with the Liberals! They get most workers' votes".

In any case, there is nothing at all wrong in principle with running revolutionary candidates against reformist workers' parties which really are workers' parties. On the contrary, that is the obvious, normal thing to do. The cases where revolutionaries do not take part in elections with our own candidates and under our own colours are the cases due to special circumstances - generally the small numbers of the revolutionaries and a relativeness openness, looseness, and democracy in the reformist party which makes not running our own candidates a reasonable price to pay for the sake of getting a better intervention in that reformist party.

The German Communist Party in its revolutionary years, the biggest revolutionary workers' party ever built in an advanced capitalist country, always got fewer votes than the Social Democratic Party. Should it not have stood?

A minority socialist movement can use elections to promote itself while still a minority. Indeed, in general, it must and should. If we can't use the electoral arena until we already command a majority in the working class, then we never will command a majority. The electoral avenue is not a miracle route to winning the majority - the French Trotskyists had over 20 years of fairly marginal scores before they started getting even a sizeable minority vote, in 1995 - but we use every avenue we can.

As for the facts: in 2005 just 24% of DE (unskilled manual worker) voters backed Labour. 76% did not.

Even among those DE who voted, Labour polled fewer (45%) than the Tories and Lib Dems combined (47%). If the Tories and Lib Dems were to merge, would these figures make the merged party "the workers' party"?

The available figures are not classified in Marxist terms, but they give some picture. The Labour vote among ABs (managerial and professional) was 23%, just one per cent smaller than among the DEs. It was 25% among the C2s and 22% among the C1s. Labour-voting is as common among the well-off (if maybe not yet among the top bourgeoisie: there are no figures that distinguish that finely) as among the working class.

In all the broadly-speaking working-class categories (C1, C2, DE), Labour got fewer votes than the total of Tories and Lib Dems.

These figures sum up various trends. Between 1997 and 2005, the Labour vote among ABs increased, while the Labour vote among less well-off categories decreased, and especially sharply among DEs. Turnout decreased sharply among the less well-off, while it remained fairly high among the well-off ABs. Labour's vote among the DEs was a sharply-decreased proportion of a sharply-decreased turnout.

It is unlikely that Labour's vote among the worst-off will continue to fall smoothly and uninterruptedly. There will be ups and downs. Elections may come in which Labour once again gets more DE voters than the Tories and Lib Dems combined. But on the figures it is not possible to argue that Labour commands a strong class allegiance - rather than a reluctant and fickle "what-else-is-there?" electoral support - among working-class voters.

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