Can the Labour Party be reclaimed?

Submitted by cathy n on 13 September, 2006 - 1:51

The Manchester Labour Party conference reveals an entity that goes through the motions of being a political party, that retains the structures of a party, annual conferences for example, but whose structures no longer perform the essential functions which gave rise to them.

Up to half the existing Constituency Labour Parties did not bother to send delegates. Those that did, sent them to be the audience in a TV show. They were there to applaud the antics of the great ones, but without any power over them, the conference, or the “Labour” government.

Labour in government has been a government that legislated for a ridiculously low but welcome minimum wage as a sop to the unions. The Blair government has been characterised above all by its determination to give the well-off every possible chance to make money, to serve their interests above all others: in Public-Private Finance, for instance.

It has kept the trade unions shackled. They are as tightly bound today as Thatcher bound them 25 years ago.

Most of the critics of Blair-Brown and the government have voted with their feet, leaving only a Blairite rump. But it is doubtful even if this Blairite rump would vote for most of what the government has done. No matter. Blair and Brown can do without them.

The Labour Party as a forum for debate and discussion, for the threshing out of policy that will be used in agitation and propaganda, to educate “public opinion”, simply does not exist anymore.
In the existing system, the party leader is raised, by the one-person-one-vote system and by Prime Ministerial power, far above the party. He and his ministers “communicate” with the voters by way of the mass media. They don’t need the party as mediator.

Focus groups and opinion polls — and the popular press — tell them what will “sell”, what will win votes. The government ministers and the MPs, frank and unabashed careerists, self-serving exploiters of the democratic system, decide, with the help of the press what they “believe”. On that basis they appeal for votes. They trim their sails to catch the winds of public opinion. They court the press, Blair’s pilgrimage to the court of Rupert Murdoch, as a satrap might respectfully visit an Emperor, is the most scandalous example. Home Secretary John Reid panders to the press blatantly now. They do their best to placate them. They do the bidding of the press owners.

The role of the Labour Party here? It does, the union component of it especially, essential things for the party, like providing money. But it has no voice in deciding what it is spent on. The hard fact is that the Labour Party, as a political party now has little function.

This has combined with dissatisfaction with government policy to wither and shrivel and reduce the local Labour parties to feeble shadows of the parties that existed in the 80s and early 90s.
The Blair-Brown “hijacking” had two sides to it. Turning the party at the level of Parliament and government, into a party of big business; and, as a necessary part of making Labour a party of big business, strangling the Labour Party as a functioning political party. The old structures remained — conference, NEC, etc. — but with their roles changed radically and power drained from them.

The unions retain great potential power in the Labour Party. But even under their new ‘leftist’ leaders the unions remain cowed, politically disarmed in face of Blair and Brown.

One should not idealise the “old days”. Then too Labour governments, when it suited them, ignored party opinion and conference resolutions. But the Blair-Brown coup brought into being a qualitatively new situation.

The continued primacy of the unions as financiers of the party is a relic of the past, a painful anomaly, an unresolved contradiction. It may soon be resolved by the bringing in of state financing for political parties.

The fact that Cameron’s Tories can try to gazump Blair-Brown’s New Labour by stealing its policies, says everything about those policies. And about this government. Essentially the Tories compete now with New Labour to be once again the number one party of the very rich.

There has been an effective dissolution of the Labour Party as a functioning political party. Even the Parliamentary Labour Party — even the Cabinet! — have little actual power (though the PLP has been the main centre of rebellion against specific Blair policies). Even the handpicked delegates in Manchester, dazzled by the show, stopped cheering Blair when he talked about Iraq. They do not seem to hold it against him and his government that they have retained the most illiberal labour laws, the worst trade union shackling labour laws, in Western Europe.

The function of a political party used to be to work out what was right and, from the viewpoint of its members and supporters, desirable, and then campaign for it, educating public opinion in favour of it, carving out, at first in some people’s minds, the future it desired. One of the clearest and most dramatic examples of what this meant in practise is William Ewart Gladstone’s campaign for Irish Home Rule.

In 1885, Gladstone became convinced of the necessity of giving limited self-government to Ireland. That meant reversing British policy of nearly a century. It was very unpopular with large swathes of public opinion. It split Gladstone’s Liberal Party, from which, on one side, split off the bourgeois radicals, led by Joseph Chamberlain, and on the other, most of the old Whig landlords and aristocrats.

Undaunted, Gladstone set out to convince people, in the first place his own party, that Home Rule was right and necessary.

His government fell as a result of the splits. He faced tremendous opposition in the country. Yet he convinced his own party and its periphery. And then he set out to convince the country.

Gladstone had lost power in 1886 over Home Rule; but he won a majority in 1892, for a Liberal Party standing on a platform of Home Rule (the Lords vetoed it in 1893).

Or take the Labour Party in the 1930s. The Labour Party was resoundingly defeated in 1931, when its “Blairite” Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in effect went over to the Tories. The issue was a proposal to cut the dole to the unemployed. Though its leaders, MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas advocated it, the Labour Party rejected MacDonald’s policy. Out of the ashes of 1931 arose the Labour Party, which carried out the reforms of 1945.

Throughout the 30s the Labour Party and others did tremendous work to educate public opinion in favour of the idea of a greatly augmented Welfare State. Without the split of 1931 Labour would never have had its victory in 1945.

Work out policy, select and re-select party membership on the basis of ideas and programme, campaign to win votes for the policy and the party. That is what a real political party does. That is what any political party of the working-class and working people in general must do.

The alternative to that is simple. It will reflect the dominant opinion of the bourgeoisie and the “public opinion” created by the bourgeoisie and its agencies.

In 1931 the Labour government leaders were as much mental slaves to the old Liberal economic doctrines as the Blairites are now to the predominant market worship. They were willing to “balance the books” by starving the unemployed.

After 1931, Labour as a campaigning party helped educate the public opinion that in 1945 demanded a break with that terrible capitalist past.

A party like Blair’s Labour Party, so constructed, so regimented, so free of any responsibility for policy, even for discussing policy other than what the leaders lay before them, cannot possibly be a party like the Labour Party of the 30s which we have described. It cannot be a party acting to shape and re-shape opinion.

It can only be a party acting on the working-class and labour movement on behalf of bourgeois public opinion.

The labour movement cannot have any way of operating in politics other than by way of its own political party. Democracy cannot in our conditions operate except by way of political parties.

The radical change in the nature and function of the Labour Party has necessarily been complemented by a radical decline in effective democracy.

Politics becomes almost a branch of show-business; which it has long been in the USA. We have political beauty contests, eloquence competitions, not living politics structured around deciding policies and issues.

Where in the electoral process very little is actually decided, and nothing in any detail, nevertheless society must be administered. Decisions must be taken. Under this system they are banished outside of pseudo-democratic procedures. Behind the façade the state bureaucracy, the upper bourgeoisie and their agents take the decisions.

Blair’s way of operating epitomises this situation. He does not deign to consult even his cabinet on important matters. The system has been shifted into something resembling a presidency, on the American model.

Tight-knit parties of careerists, bound by party discipline to back the government on whose policy they have typically little or no influence, turn the legislature into a rubber-stamp system for the executive.We shift from even a very imperfect but active and pro-active democracy to a political world in which the electorate are passive consumers of a show.

This is epitomised in the TV and radio interviews of “people in the street” who are not asked about policy but what they think of the performance of some politician, as they might be asked to evaluate the performance of a footballer, of an actor, or the voice and technique of an opera singer. Differences become differences of emphasis, of style, of personalities
Things like the primacy of the market are no longer questioned by any force in mainstream politics.The trade unions, the main paymasters of the Labour Party, remain effectively mesmerised by the electoral “success” of Blairism and by fear of Cameron’s Tories.

Will Blair’s departure change any of this? No, not unless the unions decide that they have had enough.

The paradox of politics in the era of mass communications is that the British labour movement is effectively disenfranchised. We still have the vote, of course, but without a political party it is massively devalued.

Blair has been a sort of Caesar or Bonaparte figure. Elections are plebiscites about personalities (a big plebiscite for the leader, a littler one for the MPs).

The whole trend of events is inimical to democracy, even to the bourgeois democracy, as it has existed in Britain and elsewhere for a very long time.

The combination of private ownership of a media driven by commercial lowest-common-denominator concerns and the decline of the educational role of political parties like the Labour Party, exert a tremendous pressure for levelling-down and depoliticisation. Bourgeois freedom begins to turn into its opposite.

Thatcher’s Tories re-educated Britain after 1979. They used the state in an almost Jacobin way to create facts and to shift obstacles. Attlee’s Labour Party had done something like that in 1945 and after.

The sad truth is that Thatcher “educated” the Labour Party into its present wretched self.
The drift to the right was a drift in pursuit of government power, separated from policies that would make it worthwhile for a Labour Party to have government power.

The Blair-Brown coup went a long way towards abolishing the Labour Party, and its traditions of discussion and debate. It has done that as effectively as a military coup would choke off democracy in society.

Can the Labour Party be reclaimed, remade? It is certain that it cannot unless the unions give a lead. For that they have to emerge from their paralysis of will, nerve and social vision.
The poet Shelley once addressed this question to ‘The Men of England’, urging them to revolt:
“Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?”

Trade unionists need to ask Tony Woodley and the other union leaders the self-same question. Why won’t you fight Brown and the Blairites, fight to recreate a mass trade-union based working class party?

Initially that would mean using their weight in the Labour Party against the Blairites and Brownites.

In our opinion, the road to a new labour movement party lies through a split with the Blairites and Brownites.

That can be left as an open question. The unions should attempt to use the great weight they still have in the party, and then see what happens.

Right now it means backing John McDonnell for leader against Brown, Reid or whoever else decides to stand.

The working class cannot afford to be without its own party. Neither can the trade unions!

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