Delving into complexity

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2004 - 9:25

Analysing the evolution of the Labour Party over the last ten years is a complex business.

In September 1996, leading Blairite Stephen Byers told the press that Labour, once elected, would "break the links with the unions altogether" by forcing a dispute with the public sector unions and legislating for state funding of political parties.

Although other New Labour leaders disavowed the plan, it looked plausible. Tony Blair himself said he wanted "a situation more like the Democrats and the 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 January 1997).

In fact there has been no clean break. New Labour has not felt confident to introduce state funding. Labour's structures have been changed so as to reduce union influence, but at last year's Labour conference the big unions were able to vote through a couple of defeats for Government policy.

Union members have voted in a new generation of leaders, more assertive than their predecessors who backed Blair, and there are moves, tentative so far, to set up a Labour Representation Committee.

The rail union RMT has been expelled from the Labour Party, and the firefighters' union FBU is likely to change its rules to license support for other parties (or maybe even disaffiliate), but the bigger unions remain firmly tied to Labour. Indeed, at CWU and Unison conferences last year the leaderships were able to defeat even mildly-worded motions about reasserting the union voice in the Labour Party.

Labour's constituency membership, which grew rapidly on paper after Blair became leader in 1994, has shrunk again, to one of its lowest levels ever on paper, and even worse in active reality. Yet, since the Iraq war, backbench Labour MPs have been unprecedentedly rebellious.

The 2001 general election brought record abstentions, including by previously solid Labour voters, but so far the activist left has had significant success in using electoral contests to give positive expression to the widespread disillusion with Blair only in Scotland, with the SSP.

It is a complex and contradictory picture. Members of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty have been debating it over the last year. This new pamphlet is a major contribution to the debate; delves into the background questions of fundamental Marxist ideas on class, unions, and party; and also reprints the major texts from both sides of the debate up to now.

To buy the pamphlet, send £3 plus £1 postage to AWL, P O Box 823, London SE15 4NA. Or order online.

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