Can the labour movement be transformed?

Submitted by Anon on 5 March, 2006 - 12:07

Socialism can only be the act of the working class, conscious of its own interests. Working class struggle is collective struggle. Its power of numbers gives the working class huge economic and political strength.

But without organisation, collective action is impossible. Without organisation workers will remain wage-slaves, raw material for exploitation. The history of working class struggle is, mostly, a history of the fight to organise - in committees, unions, councils and political parties.

Workers have built strong, stable, permanent organisation to wage our struggles - in the first place, trade unions. Previous exploited classes in history have not had such ongoing organisation. They have not had the facility to discuss programmes, train their own organisers and leaders, and acquire habits of self-rule, before their revolutionary uprisings. It has been easy for the victories of their revolutionary struggles to be confiscated by new exploiting classes.

Trade unions have immense potential. But today most trade unions are stodgy, passive and bureaucratic. Can we change that? How?

Why does the labour movement count for so little in Britain today? Since the defeat of the big miners' strike in 1984-5, and the imposition of anti-union laws and privatisation by the Tory governments between 1979 and 1997, the British labour movement has been on its knees.

However compared to most of the world now (and most labour movements in history) the British labour movement is still strong - and potentially very strong. Seven million workers are organised in trade unions.

We have what Tony Blair proudly describes as "the most restrictive labour laws in Western Europe". Almost everything that makes trade unionism effective - particularly solidarity action - is outlawed in Britain. That's why there are so few strikes in Britain today, and why whole sectors are unorganised.

The strength of the labour movement may be shackled. But it nevertheless exists to be mobilised, to be made conscious of itself, to be freed from anti-union laws.

An obstacle in the way is our trade union leaders: well-paid officials living middle-class lives. Many of today's full time union organisers have had little experience of working-class struggle. Many of these people did not earn respect as effective rank and file delegates but came straight from college as career officials. They have neither memory nor perspective of working-class struggle. They seem to have forgotten (or maybe just don't know) the social and political goals that the trade unions and the political labour movement, the Labour Party, were created to achieve.

Most trade-union leaders refuse to fight Blair's and Brown's government, even though they know that Blair/ Brown and their co-thinkers are hostile to working-class interests and working-class representation. There are fewer workers in parliament now than there were in the years shortly before the Labour Party was formed in 1900, when MPs sponsored by trade unions stood as Liberals!

In 1979-82 there was a powerful rank-and-file revolt in the Labour Party. The Times was so alarmed that it wrote in an editorial that this Labour Party could not be allowed to take government office even if it should win an election. But the left was not able to clinch victory. Under Neil Kinnock, the Labour and trade-union leaders rolled back the leftism - and began to change the Labour structures so as to build barriers against any future rank-and-file revolts.

Tony Blair speeded up the "counter-revolution" after he became Labour Party leader in 1994. The trade union leaders were demoralised and ultra-conservative after 15 years of Tory battering. They helped Blair get his way. He destroyed most of the Labour Party's old democratic structures. He assembled a new "party machine", centred in the personal offices of Labour Party leaders and staffed mostly by people with no links to the working class or the labour movement, and installed it on top of the old Labour Party and trade union structures.

The old Labour Party structure was relatively open and loose. It had mechanisms that gave trade unions a veto over party policy. Blair and Brown have replaced it by a regime in which a tight-knit bourgeois party machine rules over an atomised membership and recognises the trade unions only as a subordinate pressure group.

As of 2005, the process is still not complete. The trade unions still have a political arena, of sorts, in the Labour Party. But Blair and Brown show open contempt for the unions. They want to make New Labour like the US Democrats and the 19th century British Liberals. They want Labour's "pro-business" orientation to be as immune to working-class pressure as that of the Democrats.

Towards a new mass workers' party

For Blair-Brownism to be overturned, the initiative has to come from the trade unions. We propose to every trade unionist and every local Labour Party branch member the perspective of fighting to reinstate working-class political representation. We're involved in the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) to further that fight.

As union activists, we push for union leaders to fight for their own policy against the Labour government, both by mass action (strikes, demonstrations, etc.) and by using the unions' latent powers within Labour Party structures. We argue for unions to do as the rail union RMT did before the Labour Party expelled it, and demand that union-sponsored MPs defend union policies or have their sponsorships withdrawn.

We work to build rank-and-file groups in the trade unions that combine the fight for labour representation in politics with a fight to democratise the trade unions and save them from tame-cat leaders who handcuffed the labour movement to Blair and Brown.

Where local Labour party branches have some life, they should replace Blairite-Brownite MPs with working-class candidates. Working-class-backed candidates blocked by the party machine will then experience a moment of truth: surrender, or stand against New Labour. If properly pursued, such efforts could lead to more independent working-class challenges to Blairite-Brownite MPs than by just organising the non-Labour left.

For now, the unions are only beginning to stir, and most local Labour branches are depleted and lifeless. That can be changed only if we can build strong enough rank-and-file movements in the unions.

When the unions revive, it is very unlikely that will bring a smooth "swing of the pendulum" in the Labour Party back towards more left-wing policies and more responsiveness to the working class. Given the politics and structure of Blair-Brownite "New Labour", it is much more likely that they and their army of spin-doctors, "advisers", think-tankies, and careerists will choose to split.

Maybe the "New Labour" people will take some of the more conservative unions with them. When the Labour Party was first set up, in 1900, it had trade-union affiliations totalling only 350,000 out of the unions' total membership at that time of over two million.

The Miners' Federation, Britain's biggest and strongest union at the time, remained tied to the Liberal Party rather than Labour until 1908. The Liberals retained the majority of the working-class vote until World War One.

The first task in the major (Labour-affiliated) unions is to strengthen grass-roots organisation and democratic control over their political voice, and push them into using their positions in Labour Party conference and Labour's National Executive boldly for working-class interests.

More left-wing unions should give a lead, and strive to pull the other unions along with them. For them just to opt out individually by disaffiliating from the Labour Party, as the Fire Brigades Union did in June 2004, may be understandable, but only depoliticises them.

The struggle within the Labour Party can only be pursued seriously if socialists and trade unionists face the fact that a vigorous fight will almost certainly, and maybe quite rapidly, cause a split. We must not flinch from that split. The creation of a new workers' party based on the trade unions, or a section of the trade unions, will be a major step forward, even if at first a big part of the working-class electorate stays with "New Labour" or with a new party formed by a merger of Blair-Brown with the Liberal Democrats.

Working-class election candidates against New Labour

Meantime, it is not enough for Marxists to burrow away in the unions. There is more to politics than trade union branches, committees, and conferences.

Maybe the unions will reclaim the Labour Party or (less unlikely) part of it. But maybe they won't do that before Blair-Brown have completed the bourgeois transformation in the Labour Party. Or at least, they won't do it any time in the visible future.

Working-class politics cannot wait for the emergence of a new mass workers' party. Socialists have a duty to advance working-class principles in politics with whatever forces and whatever means we have available now - not to wait for an easier future.

Marxists have always been prepared to stand in elections against the Labour Party. Until recently, however, there were usually good practical reasons for not doing so.

The Labour Party had comparatively open structures. It had an open-valve relationship with the unions, allowing for the flooding-in of union activists and for union influence to be felt at all levels of the Party. Living trade-union-based working-class politics could exist in and through the Labour Party. Only in very special circumstances could it make sense to stand against Labour.

When these valves were choked off it put the issues in a new light. We must not boycott our own socialist politics and our own working-class concerns. Independent working-class candidates can spread socialist ideas to workers and youth who would not otherwise hear them, recruit new activists and change the balance in the unions by challenging the idea that workers have no choice but to accept whatever crumbs they get from the Blair machine.

Between 1999 and 2004 the AWL took part in the Socialist Alliance where we supported working class candidates. We opposed the dissolution of the Socialist Alliance into Respect by the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) and its supporters (see box on page 15).

In the 2005 election we were part of the Socialist Green Unity Coalition.

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