A discussion article by Chris Ford (AWL and LRC National Committee) on the current crisis of workers’ representation.
Brown’s government is in decline. To many in the labour movement it seems a fait accompli that there will be a Tory government - it’s only a matter of time. Yet for all the natural hatred of the Tories, many who have been on the receiving end of New Labour’s policies can be forgiven for asking, what will change? The Tories and New Labour are different, opposing parties, but they are not absolute opposites. They are both adherents of the neo-liberal consensus, all their differences are expressed within this political framework; they will both ensure the continuation of a policy agenda that serves bthe interest of the capitalism.
This Tweedledum-Tweedledee party system is a travesty of democracy. Voter participation in elections has plummeted, and revulsion with established politics is widespread with political retrogression such as the growth of the BNP. New Labour’s alienation of its traditional base has placed it in a perilous position.
As the next election looms no doubt the TUC and trade union bureaucracy will raise the Tory threat to call for unity behind Brown as the lesser evil. Such cynical appeals for political amnesia serve another purpose, to close down discussion about how we got to this situation, what happened to the Labour Party and its ramifications for the labour movement.
the capitalist labour party
Since the defeat of the Great Miners Strike of 1984-85, there has been a process of transformation underway in the Labour Party, the left was witch-hunted and marginalised, its politics moved steadily rightwards. Under Blair this accelerated. Democratic channels were replaced by a centralised system excluding those outside the New Labour elite from input into policy making, greater control established over the selection of candidates. These structural changes were crowned by a constitution pledging allegiance to the free market.
The hierarchy of the majority of trade unions passively bankrolled New Labour despite it systematically diminishing their influence. They responded to neo-liberalism with social partnership, parallel to that in the Labour Party, bureaucratisation increased within unions, the Labour link stifled to curtail rank and file opposition. This process reached a new low level at the 2007 Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, which de-facto disenfranchised the affiliated trade unions and Constituency Labour Parties by removing their right to submit contemporary motions.
To grasp these changes we must recognise, the Labour Party does not have a golden age, a “traditional socialist stance” which Socialist Appeal for example call for a return to.
The Labour Party grew out of the original Labour Representation Committee established in 1900 by trade union and socialist organisations to secure independent workers representation in Parliament. Unfortunately most of the Marxists withdrew, surrendering the positions of influence just when the working class was moving towards the formation of its own party.
When the Labour Party was founded in 1906, it was largely the political reflex of trade union leaders who accepted the social theories of capitalism. The ideas of moderate trade unionism, the spirit of cooperation and compromise, translated into middle-class Parliamentary activity. Instead of strengthening the fighting force of organised labour in its struggles with capital the 'political wing' of the labour movement confined the trade unions to 'economic trade disputes'. What was supposed to be the 'political voice of labour', engaged in ‘gradual change' ended up imposing capital's interests.
Very few Labour leaders have ever actually believed in reforming the system into socialism, which from its foundation was synonymous with state ownership. This state-socialist conception sat comfortably with the myriad forms of state-capitalism which emerged globally after the Great Depression to stabilise and regenerate the system. In the post-war period the working class took advantage of this situation, through pressure on the Labour Party and Trade Unions, managing to extend the welfare state to meet more of their needs.
Such progressive reforms were generally tied to expansionary phases of capitalism. However this changed, as Istvan Meszaros’s notes:
“Once, however, the historical phase of capital's expansionary concessions is left behind, the total capitulation of reformist labour we witnessed in the last few decades accompa-nies it”
From 1975 onwards a capitalist counter offensive began, inclusive of a restructuring of the global economy. The structural crisis of capitalism reduced the options available to the capital; narrowing the margin of reform, past concessions were clawed back. The Labour and Trade Union leaders were imbued with ideas and an outlook derived from the phase of capitalist expansion. The capitalist offensive helped undermine these ideas and organisational forms of Labourite socialism associated with the previous period. It is in this context of working class defeat and the hegemony of the new-right/neo-liberalism that the transformation of the Labour Party should be located.
crisis of workers’ representation
This process of transformation in the Labour Party has still seen New Labour assisted by the union bureaucracy attempt to keep the working class tied to this neo-liberal consensus – to accept Thatcher’s dictum –‘There Is No Alternative’. Despite the efforts of these ‘Labour lieutenants of capital’ the reality of the squeezing out of a workers voice in politics has created a profound crisis– a crisis of working class political representation.
Throughout the Blair-Brown government there have been broadly two contending perspectives to resolve this crisis:
1. Socialist sectarianism
Time after time, initiatives by socialists have taken place that, in the main, have failed to establish a viable working class voice in politics. The weakness of most of these initiatives is that they have not emerged from the struggle within the labour movement, as it exists. They have gathered few forces beyond the ranks of their founding organisations, and have not convinced a significant section of the movement of the viability of their projects. Instead, they have been set up and counterposed to the existing movement in a sectarian manner expecting the working class to follow. Despite the merit of some of their declared goals these campaigns and groups, as currently constituted, to solve the crisis of working class representation.
2. Labourite socialism in denial
Labourite socialism has proved unable to rally sufficient forces to halt the transformation, similarly where policy successes were achieved, to ensure their implementation. This position has grown steadily worse with the haemorrhaging of membership in the tens of thousands. As regards socialist politics Tribune and the Socialist Campaign Group are in a state of rigor mortis if not decomposition – acquiescing in Brown’s coronation as leader.
The main socialist current, Labour Briefing is split over perspectives. Some (supported by the Stalinist CPB and Socialist Action) advocate an orientation to the so-called centre-left COMPASS a counterfeit left established to neutralise socialist opposition.
Those Labourite socialists, who recognise the need to unite with broader forces and even for a new beginning, are restricted in developing such an analysis by the failure of the external projects to found a viable alternative. Labourite socialism is in a crisis of confidence. The most dangerous course for Labourite socialism would be business as usual routinism, a dead end similar to the impotent socialist groups in the American Democratic Party.
The contending perspectives to resolve this crisis of workers representation are in a political log-jam. The internal Labourite socialists lack any confidence in the prospects of breaking out of New Labour, compounded by the failure of external projects to found an alternative to the capitalist Labour Party. The prospects for sectarian projects are as limited as those of the Labour left, which following a Tory victory may revive, but will come up against the blockage of the structural changes. As such the logjam will remain unbroken. There is no way out of this vicious circle except by breaking out of the hold of the capitalist Labour Party and to crystallize socialists and trade unionists in a new alignment.
The argument that this will be achieved spontaneously, arising from ongoing struggles whilst possible, is not necessarily an adequate solution. Ideas don’t drop from the skies - they flow from human activity. As such we cannot rely on possibilities, or future generations, but need to take action ourselves.
labour representation committee
Amongst all the organisations that exist at present the Labour Representation Committee is in a prime position to become an axis for bringing about re-composition in the socialist and labour movement. Originally founded to address the crisis of workers representation and fight for socialist policies in the Labour Party, it has grown steadily since 2004, with over 1500 members, 120 affiliated organisations - crucially the affiliation of six trade unions, (ASLEF, BFAWU, CWU, FBU, NUM, and RMT). The LRC now recognises that: “As currently constituted the Labour Party is no longer a vehicle for promoting progressive or socialist ideas. We need to re-found Labour as a party of radical change.” It calls for a united front of socialists, trade unionists’ and new social movements. This is an important step in the ongoing discussion in the LRC which comprises socialists inside and outside the Labour Party.
Key amongst the forces which can break this log-jam are the independentist and more radical trade unions affiliated to the LRC.
Activists in these unions need to ensure they take a more active part in the LRC, re-orienting to ensure the LRC acts directly as the voice of organised labour in politics.
The support of organised labour would make a decisive contribution to the renewal of the project of workers representation. It would instil a new confidence amongst the fragmented socialist and trade union activists and would subdue the potentially damaging sectarianism. Such a body based on the organic forces of the labour movement would be of a fundamentally different character to previous initiatives.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and other socialists believe the LRC must take a further step in its evolution, to start to work as a broader Workers' Representation Committee — an open, democratic socialist organisation. The immediate aim would be to achieve the widest possible representation of labour in opposition to the representatives of capital. Such a re-launch could electrify the current politics of the labour movement and has real potential to achieve wide scale unity of he fragmented socialists and trade unionists.
Forging an alternative to New Labour is not simply a debate about standing in elections, it goes much deeper. However there needs to be a reappraisal of tactics. The AWL proposes that local LRC committees drawing together socialists, trade unionists and working class communities should be allowed to adopt a flexible approach. Utilising whatever means available to secure working-class political representation. The argument this would provoke an immediate expulsion of the LRC from New Labour whilst a serious issue, fails to recognise that elements of the LRC have already mounted numerous electoral challenges.
There is an urgent need for socialists to break out of the old habitual sectism and trade union indifferentism to politics which plagues our movement. Socialists who desire a workers voice in politics should join in building the Labour Representation Committee. Socialists should affiliate to the LRC as organisations, join as individuals, seek to affiliate their trade unions and union broad lefts/rank and file organisations. Engage and contribute to the discussions and debates being developed in the LRC to forge a socialist alternative.
Faced with the prospect of Tory government it is not enough to lay the blame but to draw the lessons, to organise independent working class opposition to both of the bosses’ parties.