The Labour Party: what went wrong?

Submitted by Janine on 7 July, 2004 - 10:14

- How the party that nationalised the railways in 1948 ended up announcing Tube privatisation in 1998 -

The RMT's forerunner, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), was one of the pioneers in setting up the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. In that year, ASRS General Secretary Richard Bell was elected to Parliament. He was the first railway worker MP, sitting in Westminster alongside 53 railway bosses!
The founding of the Labour Representation Committee, which became the Labour Party in 1906, meant that rather than cutting the best deal they could with the Liberals - as unions had done until then - workers could now put their own candidates forward in elections.

In the wake of the ASRS strike on the Taff Vale railway, the new Labour Party pushed the Liberals to legislate for the right to strike in 1906. By 1945, thirty MPs in the Labour government were rail workers, sitting opposite only two railway bosses on the Tory benches. That Labour government introduced the Welfare State, and nationalised the railways in 1948.

But exactly fifty years later, Labour announced that it would privatise London Underground.


In the first place, the Labour Party never went exactly 'right'. Back in 1922, activists described it like this:
"Its leaders, in their overwhelming majority, were financially and otherwise no longer members of the working class, but of the middle class. They were Liberals, and might be conservatives, in all else but defence of their own unions, finances and privileges".

Especially after 1918, when Labour began to outstrip the Liberals electorally, a number of ordinary middle-class or even upper-class Liberal politicians would join Labour rather than the Liberals. They might not object to phrases about socialism, or might even sympathise with them as describing distant ideals; but in reality they aspired to no more than liberal reform.

Up to the late 1970s, the stability and low temperature of British politics allowed the Labour Party to be slack and spacious enough to give considerable free play both to the middle or upper class Liberals at the top, and to the socialists at the base. It had a ramshackle, sluggish, but real and open democracy. The class struggle never hotted up enough to threaten the protections given to the Parliamentary leadership by the slow pace of the party, its bureaucratic procedures, the filtering of trade-union sentiment through the bureaucratic leaderships, and Labour's ability to dish out a few reforms to placate milder activists.


Between 1979 and 1982 that always-contradictory balance broke down. After the shambolic Labour government of 1974-9, Labour's rank and file rose in revolt to try to anchor Parliamentary Labour firmly to left-wing policies and to labour movement accountability.

That movement's figurehead was Tony Benn, and it caused a mainstream ruling-class newspaper, The Times, to editorialise that Labour could no longer be trusted as an alternative party of government. (Meaning - though The Times did not spell it out - that the Queen, the House of Lords, or the army should step in if Labour should win an election majority. Chris Mullin, now a Blairite minister, wrote a novel on the theme.)

The union leaders' confidence had been near its peak in 1979. Trade union membership was at its highest level ever, 12 million as against seven million today or two million when the Labour Party was founded. They felt confident enough to ally with socialists in local Labour Parties to call the MPs to account. But soon they took fright and started backtracking.

The Labour leaders, who "were Liberals, and might be conservatives", had taken even greater fright. By that point, many of them were outright middle-class politicians, with no working-class roots. When previous Labour leaders differed from the Liberals at least in their adherence to "defence of their own unions", the new breed felt no loyalty at all to the unions.

They turned against Labour's rank and file, determined to defeat it, and to ensure that economic convulsions for British capitalism could not again produce political convulsions in the Labour Party. They wanted to make it double-locked safe for capitalism.

First the hapless Labour leader Michael Foot, once a leftist, was levered into launching an attack on Labour left-wingers, the Militant tendency and Peter Tatchell. After 1983 renegade ex-leftist Neil Kinnock continued the attack.
Defeats for the labour movement in direct class struggle with the Tories - centrally, the miners' defeat in 1984-5 - produced demoralisation, and willingness to settle for any policies which offered the specious promise of "winning the centre ground" and ousting the Tories. An increasingly demoralised and craven leadership produced further defeats.


When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, after the death of John Smith, he was able to put Labour's counter-revolution into high gear. He said openly that his aim was to cut Labour's special ties to the organised working class and to make it a party like the pre-1900 Liberals or the US Democrats - gaining working-class votes and enjoying some union support, but accepting no accountability to the working class.

He wanted "a situation more like the Democrats and Republicans in the US. People don't even question for a single moment that the Democrats are a pro-business party. They should not be asking that question about New Labour" (Financial Times, 16/1/97).

The authentic spirit of Blairism was summed up by an episode when New Labour was still in opposition. The press announced that the Names of Lloyds - super-rich individuals who invested money in the insurance business - had made large losses. Labour's front-bench rushed to announce that they would not oppose the Government paying compensation to the Names. It was left to the Tories to remark coolly that the Names had made a capitalist business investment like any other - and, in previous years, profited handsomely from it - so could not expect to be bailed out when they made losses.

Blair pushed Labour policy to the right, for example scrapping Clause Four of the Party's constitution, which committed Labour to public ownership. Even more important, he changed the structures.

The centre of the party was shifted into a veritable army of advisers, spin-liars, and researchers, almost all without any labour-movement roots, clustered around the offices of Blair and his close associates, and paid for by business donations or government money. The formal party administration became less important.


Labour conference was transformed into a sort of trade fair, with delegates outnumbered ten-to-one by exhibitors, sponsors, and hangers-on. The possibility for unions and Constituency Labour Parties to get motions onto the conference floor was reduced sharply - in fact, almost abolished for everyone but the biggest unions. A great deal of conference business was pre-filtered through well-controlled 'Policy Forums'. And, just to make sure, Blair's media people repeated, emphatically and unequivocally, that Labour conference could no longer make Labour policy.

Blocking-off Labour's democratic channels naturally produced a decline of political life both in the Constituency Labour Parties - fewer and fewer unions sent delegates, and sometimes CLP General Committees simply ceased to meet - and within the trade unions.

The union leaders of the late 1990s, a demoralised, right-wing bunch, let Blair get away with it. In Lew Adams (ASLEF) and Richard Rosser (TSSA), Blair had two of his most loyal union servants. And under the leaderships of Jimmy Knapp and Vernon Hince, the RMT let Blair get away with it as much as any other union. They were desperate to get rid of the Tories at any price, and unable to envisage winning more than crumbs from a new Labour government anyway.

Now the Labour government has part-privatised the Tube. It is pushing part-privatisation elsewhere, in the form of the Private Finance Initiative, and maximum privatisation of council housing. It has kept the Tory anti-union laws.

It does not excuse any of these policies as temporary crisis measures, as Labour governments have excused anti-worker policies in the past. It presents them as fine examples of 'modernisation'. Worse, the Labour leadership has pursued such policies steadily, for seven years, without having to face any crisis or backlash within Labour's structures. MPs have rebelled - on a few issues: not, except for a leftwing few, on anti-union laws or renationalisation - but Labour conferences have been docile.


The Labour Party has always embodied a contradiction - aspiring to represent workers, but operating within a capitalist framework. It has been pulled between two classes whose interests can not be reconciled - the working class and the ruling class. In the past, it delivered some real, though limited, benefits for the working class. Now, although it still has some feeble link with the working class, it has been pulled far, far over to the ruling class's corner.

In 1997, many Tube workers voted Labour because the Tories planned to privatise the Tube and Labour promised not to. The swing from Tory to Labour was significantly higher in London than in the country as a whole, and most commentators put this down to the unpopularity of the Tories' policy of privatising the Underground. In the General Election campaign, Labour's Glenda Jackson took a giant pair of scissors to a Tube map, and in her best theatrical voice, declared that "Labour will never do this to the Tube". But after less than a year in office, New Labour announced its plan to do exactly that.

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