Further debate on the Labour Party

Submitted by martin on 11 February, 2007 - 1:08

By Martin Thomas

This is a reply to comments on the Labour Party question by Chris Ford and Tom Rigby posted on the awl-chat list in January. I've reproduced Chris's and Tom's comments below for easy reference. For previous rounds in this debate, click here and here.

First, Chris says he is "having difficulty thinking of anyone else" (other than Tom, I suppose) who holds that nothing has changed in the Labour Party. No, says Chris, the question is whether the process of change has "reached such a stage" as completely to rule out Marxist intervention in the Labour Party.

But that isn't the question among us! Why would we be pushing AWL branches and union fractions to get active in the McDonnell campaign if we thought Marxist intervention in the Labour Party was completely ruled out?

Back in August 2006, our AWL organising notes had these practical guidelines:

All branches to:
- get comrades to write in to the McDonnell campaign volunteering to be local contacts for the campaign;
- seek out reasonable local LP leftists they know and talk with them...
- look to see if they can get McDonnell in as a speaker at local NHS protests...
- investigate getting local McDonnell meetings set up...
- canvass their AWL members about being signed up as individual members of the Labour Party (unless expelled)...
- put motions in union branches to support McDonnell or (if the branch is lively enough) to hold a debate on the LP leadership with representatives from the various candidates;
- seek to get CLPs to set up such debates...

Plainly not the thoughts of people who think that a Marxist intervention in the Labour Party is completely ruled out!

We have never said that all life within the Labour Party has ceased. On the contrary. When within a few months of Blair's 1997 election victory, sixty-one MPs rebelled on incapacity benefit, we trumpeted it as the beginning of a possible rallying of working-class opposition within the Labour Party.

We mobilised ourselves to intervene as best we could when the London Labour Party was thrown into ferment over Ken Livingstone's challenge for the Labour candidacy for Mayor of London, in 1999-2000. We responded eagerly and actively when a "Labour Against The War" movement developed over Iraq in early 2003.

We have supported the Labour Representation Committee from the start: in fact, it was us, AWL, who first promoted the idea of such a Labour Representation Committee as a response to Blair-Brownism, starting in 1998.

And so on. None of those stirrings has produced a real revival within the Labour Party, but that is not for lack of us being open to even the most elusive possibilities.

The AWL policy, confirmed by repeated AWL conference resolutions, is that all AWL members who have not been individually expelled or excluded from the Labour Party should hold Labour Party membership cards.

No-one has ever, at any of our AWL conferences, opposed this policy. No-one in the AWL has ever argued in any of our committee meetings or conferences that a Marxist intervention in the Labour Party is completely ruled out.

It's a fact, and an unsurprising one, that some AWLers are reluctant and sluggish on this issue, and maybe privately believe that the whole McDonnell campaign is a dead dog. We should certainly try to spur them on. But we cannot do that by telling them things that contradict their most obvious observations! We cannot do it by telling that "really" everything in the Labour Party is fine - or, at least, as good as it has ever been. It isn't.

As to Chris's other question: who, apart from Tom, says that nothing has changed in the Labour Party? I don't know. I have no wish to attribute this view to people who don't hold it. I welcome Chris's assurance that he doesn't hold it.

When we debated this issue at the 2004 AWL conference, only two other AWL members (Maria and Tom C) voted with Tom R for the propositions that Blair is just "a typical Labour leader", "working class support for the Labour Party remains strong", "there has been no qualitative change in the real role of conference and the NEC", "the politics of the Labour leadership and the TU leadership are the same, and what is more, the bulk of the working class agrees with them on most things", etc.

Tom C has since left the AWL. I don't know whether Maria still holds to the "no change" view. The only person who has strongly supported Tom R on this in the recent internet debate has been Arthur B, who is now not an AWL member and explicitly opposes the idea of a Leninist party.

Still, as readers can confirm from his piece below, Tom R is still arguing the "no change" view, and since he is doing so, the argument has to be dealt with.

To be clear: Tom R is not arguing that nothing has changed in society since, say, 1980. He argues that working-class combativity and confidence, and the strength of the unions, have declined dramatically. Only, as regards the Labour Party, he argues that the changes there are exclusively, or almost exclusively, passive reflections of those changes in the wider society.

The Labour Party has not changed. Blair is a "typical Labour leader", and the channels for working-class pressure on him within the Labour Party have not changed significantly. Only, that working-class pressure is weaker. Thus, for example (see below) New Labour's stance on anti-union laws is just a reflection of "the balance of workplace power".

That's all. Political structures and rules have no autonomous weight. At most they are of "tenth-rate" or even "hundredth-rate" significance.

Now, of course, it's possible to argue for different tactics in relation to the Labour Party - up to and including eschewing all independent electoral efforts, or even all independent revolutionary organisational profile, and having the same broad approach as Workers' Action or Socialist Appeal - without committing yourself to the extravagant "no change" theory.

Bizarrely, the only other would-be Marxists who argue Tom's view are... the SWP. For them the "no change" thesis serves a different tactical conclusion from Tom's. It instructs SWP members today to court the Labour left (so far as they can from within Respect) and, for example, to back the McDonnell campaign; but it also tells them that the SWP was probably right to stay aloof from the Labour Party in the ferment of 1979-82, since things in the Labour Party were not very different then from what they are now.

The SWP's reasoning is more consistent than Tom's. If all the changes within the Labour Party since, say, 1981 - as distinct from the changes which just reflect shifts in the external pressures on it - are only of "tenth-rate" or "hundredth-rate" significance, then for sure the Labour Party has never changed (except in hundredth-rate ways) throughout its entire history. It is unlikely that it will ever change much.

For example, if we should win back all the democratic rights lost in the Labour Party since 1981, that will scarcely matter. It will only be "hundredth-rate".

More logical, then, to conclude that attention to the Labour left is only of tactical significance (acquiring useful "cover" for broad campaigning efforts, poaching recruits, etc.), as the SWP does, than to see it as of strategic significance in a perspective of revolutionising the whole labour movement as the precondition for revolutionising society.

The would-be Marxist groups immersed in the Labour Party, Workers' Action and Socialist Appeal, have much the same assessment of the changes within the Labour Party as us. They differ from us not essentially in assessment of the changes within the Labour Party, but in (a) (Workers' Action especially) downplaying or dismissing everything that stirs outside the Labour Party; and (b) (Socialist Appeal especially) having a dogmatic conviction that in future inevitable social trends will reverse those changes in the Labour Party (so the right tactic is to sit and wait).

The Workers' Action line does not make them more vigorous within the Labour Party. If anyone in the AWL wants more vigour in our McDonnell campaigning, and thinks maybe the best way to get that vigour is to "bend the stick" and argue that nothing (or little) has changed in the Labour Party (even you know that can't really be true), they should think again!

For example, at the start of the McDonnell-for-leader campaign, prominent WA members (or WA as a group, I'm not sure which) were inclined to oppose it as a step too far. During the ferment over the Iraq war, WA opposed us on arguing within the unions and the Labour Party for "no confidence in Blair".

Still, it may be that there are virtues in the Workers' Action or Socialist Appeal approach that we have not noticed. It may be that a different assessment of the Labour Party, more accurate than ours or WA's or Socialist Appeal's, is possible, and would indicate different policies and tactics.

For now we have only two assessments on the table: on the one hand ours, as developed over the last 20 years and especially since 1994-7; on the other hand, Tom's (and the SWP's). That is what we have to debate, until someone comes along with a different proposition to put on the table.

Tom's contribution says that we can't take Blair's hard stand on anti-union laws as an index of Labour having changed, because in the past many Labour and trade union leaders have been happy to "live with" anti-union laws. The fact that the anti-union laws now remain, rather than being repealed as in 1906 or 1945 or 1974, is due to "the balance of workplace power" rather than anything in politics.

New Labour's hard stand on anti-union laws has never been the one and only index of the changes in Labour. It goes together with, and corroborates, many others. Still, it is an index.

Yes, reformist labour leaders will almost always seek to "live with" bourgeois attacks rather than fighting to reverse them, if it seems that the fight for reversal will be a difficult one and involve risky mass mobilisation.

After Hitler took power in Germany in January 1933, the Social Democratic union leaders grovellingly sought a compromise with him. Hitler declared 1 May a National Labour Day. The trade union leaders offered their full cooperation.

The official paper of the Social Democratic unions declared, in its May Day edition: "We certainly need not strike our colours in order to recognise that the victory of National Socialism, though won in struggle against (the Social Democrats)...is our victory as well".

The next day Nazi squads occupied the trade union headquarters, dissolved the unions, confiscated their funds and arrested their leaders.

So, yes, many of Britain's union leaders are pretty much content to "live with" the anti-union laws. I doubt they positively welcome those laws, which do after all hem in the top union leaders as well as the rank and file. They have repeatedly voted for motions against those laws, most recently the one put by the TGWU at the 2005 Labour Party conference. But they are not keen to fight.

That, as Tom himself shows by historical examples, is not new. Tom's account is that what's new is the adverse "balance of workplace power".

It is not only that. Politics is a reality, too! In the last analysis, and in the long term, working-class politics depends on the working-class vitality which stems from "workplace power", but only in the last analysis and in the long term. In the short term, political structures and campaigns have an autonomous life, and may "react back" on and shape the basic workplace combativity.

Tom shows that the 1929 Labour manifesto was equivocal on the Tories' 1927 Trades Disputes Act, but by 1935 Labour had become firmly committed to repealing that law.

The change in between times was not that worker or union power in the workplaces had increased dramatically. On the contrary, the number of striker-days was declining, from 8 million in 1929 to 959,000 in 1934, and union density was even lower than it is today.

The shift was political. The Labour structures were open enough, permeable enough to working-class pressure, that when McDonald and Snowden, in 1931, went for cutting welfare, the union leaders were confident enough, and able, to detach the unions and the CLPs en masse from the parliamentary leaders, and leave them as isolated individual hostages of the Tories.

Tom shows that after the Taff Vale judgement (which made unions liable to compensate employers for losses caused by strikes), many union leaders were at first equivocal, demanding only limited protection. Yet in 1906 a Liberal government was pushed to legislate across-the-board protection from such claims for compensation.

What happened? Not that worker or union power in the workplaces increased dramatically. The big strike wave preceding World War did not start until 1908. Between 1901 and 1905, striker-days declined from 4 million to 2.3 million. Union density was even lower than it is today.

Again, the difference was that the political structures of the labour movement were permeable enough to allow the activists - even when they were not confident enough to launch strikes, or greatly to increase union membership - to have a political impact. As Tom puts it, "only determined political campaigning by the LRC affiliates going beyond the politics of many of the parliamentarians and most of the union bureaucracy... activities of the broader labour movement ‘below’ the top brass" won the victory.

Since the 1990s, the political structures of the Labour Party have become much less permeable. Yes, the unions still have nearly 50% of the vote at Labour Party conference, but it is very difficult - much more difficult than in the past - to "activate" that reserve power without having to "go through" the "top brass", who determine which four union motions go forward to each conference, and decide what the unions say behind closed doors at the Labour Party Policy Forums.

Without those structural changes, there is no guarantee that full union rights would have been restored. There is pretty much a guarantee that union rights would be a hot issue at every Labour Party conference. The "top brass" would be put on the spot. It would not just be a matter of one motion over nine years of Labour government - the TGWU's, in 2005 - going through conference and then quietly vanishing into a black hole without comment.

The structural changes are not "hundredth-rate". They affect what the Labour government does; how it relates to the unions; how the unions relate to it; how the broader working class relates to Labour; and what channels there are for rank-and-file working-class activists like us to intervene in politics.

Probably the structural changes could not have been pushed through without the wave of working-class defeatism in the unions and the workplaces that followed the defeat of the miners in 1985. But, once pushed through, they become a factor in their own right.

Tom also raises the question of the RMT and the SSP. When the Scottish regional council (and a number of RMT branches in Scotland) said they wanted to affiliate to the SSP, we said that there should be a referendum of the Scottish RMT membership on the issue. Our proposition got to the RMT Executive (it was supported by Alex Gordon) but was defeated.

Then the question on the table at RMT conference was whether or not to ratify the Scottish regional council's, and the branches', wish to affiliate. We were highly critical - at that time, not only in hindsight - of Bob Crow's "disaffiliation by stealth" policy towards the Labour Party, but we voted to ratify.

When I say "we", what it meant in practice was the vote of the one sympathiser of ours who was a delegate at the conference, someone who was and is nominally a member of Socialist Appeal, but distributed our leaflets at the conference. It wasn't a matter of us being dragged along by the enthusiasm of some naive young ultra-left uninterested in the Labour Party question!

The fact was, a number of RMT bodies in Scotland had voted to affiliate to the SSP. As far as I know, none had voted against, or even taken up our proposal for a referendum (despite Tom's assurances to us that working-class support for the Labour Party remains as strong and enthusiastic as ever). The SSP was developing a small but real working-class base (10% of the vote in Glasgow on a number of occasions).

We didn't know that the SSP would be set back dramatically by something like the recent Sheridan split. To assume at the time that something like that was bound to happen, and oppose SSP affiliation on those grounds - "believe me, young fellow, I've seen it all before. Everything always comes to nothing!" - would have been wrong.

There was nothing inherently inconceivable about a campaign to oppose New Labour's expulsion of the RMT. No surprise that it didn't happen, because Bob Crow and many around him were happy to get expelled, and none of the other union leaders were interested in troubling themselves to argue for democratic rights for Crow which Crow himself didn't even want.

In that sense, our advocacy of a campaign against the expulsion of the RMT was "unrealistic". But then, given the relation of forces, more or less anything we advocated other than what Crow wanted at that time was "unrealistic". If we advocate only what is likely to get taken up in the short term by the top leaders of the labour movement, we will not advocate very much at all.

Now the Scottish RMT has disaffiliated from the SSP. Why don't we campaign for reaffiliation? Because AWL has no RMT members in Scotland, and none of the people in the RMT who voted against the disaffiliation has any stomach for a fight on the issue. It is plainly not an opportune time for reaffiliation, and there is no principle that obliges us to push it at this time rather than another.

On the other hand, it is an opportune time to argue for the RMT to apply for re-affiliation to the Labour Party. The McDonnell campaign makes it an opportune time. There is, as near as doesn't matter, no chance that we can win a majority in the union for that proposition at this time, but there is a chance that we can put the issue on the agenda as it has not been in previous years.

Chris's contribution

I am having difficulty thinking of anyone else who has said nothing at all has changed in the Labour Party... It seems to me its a question of the assessment of the changes and has the process reached such a stage that it has excluded completely both the ability and necessity of Marxists intervening in the Labour Party .
It seems to me it's a question of the assessment of the changes and has the process reached such a stage that it has excluded completely both the ability and necessity of Marxists intervening in the Labour Party .

Tom's contribution

Practical proposals:
I think all cdes should join the Labour Party to i) investigate the situation – that way could have a discussion based on facts not projections , or worse, what the CLPD bulletin says is the state of the LP, ii)work around McDonnell and iii)to resist the likely new attacks on the union link. I think that is a bit more than you’ve proposed. Maybe I’ve missed something. I would like to see such work as just the start of the application of a wholesale entry tactic, but such a turn would be entirely justifiable even within the limits of your ‘perspective’.
The wider issues.
I think you are missing the wood for the trees with your Australian comparison. Could it be that the difference is that in most of the unions are led by people who might actually want to repeal the anti-union law and this is reflected in ALP policy? And maybe this could in turn reflect the fact that the workplace organisation is in a bit better state than it is over here?
Why do you assume that people like Simpson or Prentis, never mind Brendan Barber, want to get rid of the anti-union laws and get back to a regime of trade union immunities? What evidence from their behaviour would give you any reason to believe this to be the case? With Woodley and Hayes we can point to actual evidence, but, Prentis and Simpson?
The simple truth is that most of the union leaders are quite happy with the bulk of the Tory anti-union laws staying on the statute book. They can tinker with this or that bit, bargain for a bit of change here, and a change there, but they are not going to lift a finger to get them scrapped. The TU leadership agreed to the essential points of Blair's programme back in late 80's.
It is not strictly true to say that we have an anti-union Labour government as quite a bit of our agitation does. The government is hostile to militant, effective trade unionism, but it actively helps to promote trade unionism of a different collaborationist type.
One of the things that has warped the analysis of the present state of the movement/nature of the Labour party is holding up the 1906 settlement (trade union immunities) as a measure of whether or not the labour party is still 'the labour movement in politics'.
The idea that the labour party has always had the 1906 settlement (i.e. trade union immunities) as a bedrock 'non-negotiable' position until the cuckoo Blair turned up is a myth. Support for full trade union immunities has not always been the position of the Labour Party.
What has actually happened under Kinnock, Smith and Blair is that the LP has reverted to the position it had before the 1906 election campaign, and after the 1927 trades disputes act, until the MacDonald split. i.e. it supports limited immunities. This position reflects, whether you like it or not, the balance of workplace power. Things could change, and change quickly, but what explains why Blair can do what he has done in the sphere of union law, is not some hundredth rate trifle of a rule change in the Labour Party, but the fact that we don't have thousands of unofficial strikes and a powerful trade union movement based on a network of shop stewards with some real workplace power and experience of using it. Nor do we have a radicalised working class who've just been through a world war as we had in 1945.
It is not the historic function of the trade union bureaucracy to defend the legal right to take solidarity action. Expecting them to do so is one of the basic flaws of your analysis of the Labour Party.
If you look at the initial tactics of the trade union leaders when the LRC was founded, you can see why it is a mistake to equate 'labour representation' and support for 1906 style union immunities. After Taff Vale the union leaders' political objectives were primarily defensive. They were concerned to secure protection for their funds and to simultaneously strengthen their own position in relation to unofficial movements of the union rank and file. They didn’t want financial penalties, but they also didn’t want walk outs, solidarity strikes and secondary picketing. Richard Bell secretary of the ASRS, which ended up paying over £40,000,(about £3 million today using the retail price index) still managed to see a positive side to the judgement in that it would facilitate union discipline and recognition. Liverpool Dockers leader James Sexton (whom Jim Larkin was campaign manager for when he stood as the Labour candidate for West Toxteth in the General election of 1906) was more explicit: ‘there are those in the labour movement' said Sexton,' sanguine enough to hope that the decision in the Taff vale case will be a blessing in disguise, and will tend to strengthen executive control and minimise irresponsible action in the localities’.
This attitude was reflected in the Draft Bill on the subject presented to parliament in 1902 by David Shackleton Labour MP for Clitheroe and representative of the LRC’s biggest affiliate the United Textile Workers Union. This Bill proposed a highly qualified restoration of trade union immunities to reverse the Taff Vale decision. This would have lifted liability except ‘in cases where the damages were the result of action that had not been authorised by the union executive’. It is important to register the significance of this. The Labour Party started its parliamentary life by proposing that the state allow the capitalist class the tool of financial sanctions against the trade unions as a lever to be used by the trade union leaders for controlling the rank and file. This was a job that a large section of the trade union leadership were more than willing to do. The same basic idea was contained in the Conservative Trade Union Legislation of the 1980s, but with the added proviso of postal ballots.
The Shackleton Bill fell on a technicality, but its main provisions were resurrected by a Tory appointed Royal Commission set up to look into the issue. Then came the general election of 1906.
It was only determined political campaigning by the LRC affiliates going beyond the politics of many of the parliamentarians and the most of the union bureaucracy that forced through the complete restoration of immunities. The tactic of using the 2.5 million strong ‘trade union vote’ as a bargaining chip in constituencies where no Labour candidate was standing was so successful in the General Election of 1906 that it even elicited support from a number of Conservatives who pledged themselves to full restoration of immunities. The result was that after a brief attempt to resurrect the ‘Shackleton compromise’ the Liberal government finally legislated for full immunities with the Trades Disputes Act of 1906. This was first and foremost the result of the activities of the broader labour movement ‘below’ the top brass.
The Shackleton Bill was not an aberration.
It is worth taking note of the response of a significant section of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the great pre war strike wave which saw a phenomenal expansion of union membership and the growth of the mass general unions that were later to form the backbone of the movement on which the Labour Party rested. In 1911 four labour parliamentarians including Arthur Henderson, proposed a Bill which would make strikes illegal unless the employer had been given thirty days advance notice. This provoked a considerable backlash from some unions, with the Bill condemned by both the TUC and Party conferences.
After the defeat of the general strike the labour Party went into the 1929 election not promising to repeal of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927. The exact wording of the manifesto was:
"Among the other measures which a Labour Government would enact are the Factories Bill, the Ratification of the Eight Hours' Convention, and the amendment of the Workmen's Compensation Acts and the Trade Union Law. It will also, as promised, appoint Committees of Inquiry into the causes of depression in the Cotton and Iron and Steel Industries with a view to their reorganisation."
After the '31 split things were different.
By 1935 the commitment was clear, it was to: 'restore the freedom of Trade Unions lost through the Trade Disputes and the Trade Unions Act.'
By 1945 the tone was bold and assertive: ' The Labour Party stands for freedom - for freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of the Press. The Labour Party will see to it that we keep and enlarge these freedoms, and that we enjoy again the personal civil liberties we have, of our own free will, sacrificed to win the war. The freedom of the Trade Unions, denied by the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, must also be restored. But there are certain so-called freedoms that Labour will not tolerate: freedom to exploit other people; freedom to pay poor wages and to push up prices for selfish profit; freedom to deprive the people of the means of living full, happy, healthy lives.'
Could it just be that this change of attitude, from MacDonald making no clear commitment after the defeat of the general strike, to the clear call of 1945, reflects something in the class?
The RMT and Labour
One more thing: the RMT. Yes we should have opposed affiliation to the SSP. This is a separate issue to voting and campaigning for them.
SSP supporters in the RMT should have boxed clever and tried to avoid an open break with LP. Instead, they should have built up a strong unofficial movement for the SSP among the rail workers, get rail workers out campaigning for SSP. This wasn't what happened.
What happened was a classic example of bureaucratic gesture politics. A committee takes a decision and donates money with no reference to the rank and file. And then does absolutely nothing else. This is the same syndrome as the way the Stalinists siphon off TU money to fund the Morning Star.
Crow wanted to be chucked out of the Labour Party because that way:
1) He appears a leftie martyr
2) He is free to negotiate on other railway matters with the govt without having any 'messy' Labour Party politics in the way
As it was, the views of a tiny clique in the leadership of the Scottish RMT regional council determined a) affiliation to the SSP and then b) disaffiliation from the SSP.
Martin, I don't understand the change of line on this one. If affiliation was right in the first place why aren't we campaigning for RMT re-affiliation to the SSP? But we're not are we? We're campaigning to get RMT back in the LP!
What has changed between 2003/4 and now?
Nothing significant as far as I can see, unless you base your orientation to the SSP on it containing the dynamic Mr Sheridan. Seriously, why don't you support RMT re-affiliation to the SSP?
The embarrassing episode of how the AWL got lost up Tommy Sheridan's back passage comes down to people not being prepared to make hard choices. Trying to have your cake and eat it. What is depressing is that the group forgot what it said about the Walton by election.
The argument was the same. If you stand candidates against Labour you risk expulsion. It is an electoral party. To think that the RMT could do both was self delusion. Deciding to back the SSP meant deciding to be disaffiliated from the LP. All talk of 'but we will build a campaign to stop the RMT being chucked out ' was hot air. There was never going to be a campaign. There are actual choices to be made. Basically the perspective in the unions is either stay in the LP and fight, or campaign to break the unions away. Your 'middle of the road' option is just muddle and indecision .
As things turned out the RMT/SSP stunt clearly wasn't worth it.
Look at east line PFI issue for instance. RMT should be taking this issue into the LP through trade union delegations to the GCs, but it can't do that, just as it can't push McDonnell and a very long list of other issues.
The whole episode was a victory for Blair. Playing the tough man in terms of saying 'we do not back down in the face of threats from the Blair Labour Party' was just a way of doing exactly what Blair wanted the RMT to do. Sometimes you have to say this particular fight, on this issue, at this time, isn't worth it.
Obviously, after saying that you think a course of action is wrong, if the militants insist on doing it regardless, then you defend them. But that isn't what you did. You surrendered your political judgement to them. You gave a political veto over RMT's political role in the labour movement to Tommy Sheridan and a couple of his pals in the Scottish region of the union.
All the best

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.