The new point made in the article which started this discussion was that the blockages within New Labour to working-class political input come not only from structural changes in the Labour Party, but also from some structural changes in the unions.
The discussion it has provoked has been not about that, but about whether the qualitative change in the Labour Party which AWL has been describing and analysing for over ten years now ever happened at all.
No, we're told, nothing much has changed. In the Labour Party, everything is as it always was. The only shift is "a few tenth-rate rule changes and minor procedural impediments". There have been "significant" changes in the wider society, but only "outside the formal structures of the party". Any change in the Labour Party is only a passive effect of the wider social changes.
For all Blair's talk of transforming the Labour Party, he hasn't transformed anything at all. The Labour Party organism is just the same (bar "tenth-rate" changes, and only "a few" even of those): it's just that the external pressures on it are different.
Let's be clear what the argument is about. It is not about whether or not we should throw ourselves into John McDonnell's campaign for Labour leader. It is not about whether or not we should support and promote the Labour Representation Committee. We all agree on those things. It is not about whether we should "abandon" the Labour Party. Obviously none of thinks we should, or otherwise we would not be backing McDonnell.
It is not about whether we should advocate unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party: contrary to suggestions in some of the postings in this discussion, we have consistently opposed disaffiliation.
It is not even about whether the Labour Party remains within the general Marxist category of "bourgeois workers' party". It does.
But the general Marxist category of "bourgeois workers' party" includes a vast variety of formations. The "old" Labour Party was exceptional within that spectrum for the relative openness of the channels it allowed for working-class political self-expression. The "new" Blair-Brown Labour Party is exceptional within that spectrum, on the contrary, for the narrowness of such channels. That is a major shift.
The debate is about whether:
1. We recognise that shift; or:
2. We deny it, and claim that the Labour Party is, give or take "a few tenth-rate" considerations, as open as ever.
Presumably there are also differences on tactics following from the difference in assessment, but for now it is unclear exactly what they are.
New Scientist of 9 December profiled John Baumgardner, a long-time geophysicist, a researcher into plate tectonics, who believes in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis. Encountering these arguments about the unchanged Labour Party, I feel a bit as I imagine Baumgardner's lab colleagues must have felt when they found out about his Christian beliefs.
Where do you start? Presumably Baumgardner thinks geological science started going wrong with Lyell back in 1830, and all modern evolutionary theory and cosmology is wrong too. What of modern science does he accept? From what common ground can you start a debate?
At least Baumgardner specifies. He accepts most of "the present laws of physics" but believes that "there are a couple of issues where I believe there must have been some form of divine intervention... [to] explain why radioisotope methods seem to give dates for some rocks of hundreds of millions of years... [and to allow] a mechanism for cooling".
Our collective assessment of the Labour Party has, of course, evolved over a shorter period than since 1830. But we have been mapping an internal "counter-revolution" in Labour since at least 1986, when Neil Kinnock went on the offensive in the aftermath of the miners' defeat.
Over the 20 years since 1986, we have not only assessed developments, but taken part in them, fighting many battles against bad political and structural changes in the Labour Party. We said at the time that many of those battles had high stakes, and to lose them would change the Labour Party much for the worse; but lose we did.
And now we're told that all those defeats add up to no more than "a few tenth-rate rule changes". So where can we start from in a debate with the people who say this? Are we to assume that everything we have observed since 1986 is denied? Or will the "nothing-has-changed" school concede that some things really did happen - in the same way that Baumgardner concedes that some of modern science is valid - and tell us what really didn't? Where has there been divine, or diabolic, intervention to implant in our minds and in the newspaper files a record of struggles that never really happened?
Or do they concede that all those battles did happen, but we were completely wrong to get agitated about them? That we should have been saying: Kinnock, or Smith, or Blair, should be opposed on those issues, but it scarcely matters - if we lose, it will only be of tenth-rate significance?
And - it follows logically - if we were to reverse all those defeats, and re-democratise the Labour Party structures, that would only be a "tenth-rate" thing too, not worth putting much effort into?
If the Labour Party now goes with Alan Johnson's proposal to cut the union say at Labour Party conference from 50% to 15%, will that, too, be a "tenth-rate" matter? Scarcely requiring us to get out of bed to oppose it? Or does that signify things getting serious? Maybe even so serious as to be positively ninth-rate?
What the "nothing-has-changed" school might reckon to rank as highly as eighth-rate or seventh-rate, I can't imagine. And first-rate? Could anything short of the extermination of humankind by nuclear war count with them as a first-rate change?
The biggest changes came in the mid-90s, with Blair, though he built on Kinnock and Smith. Let's sum up the results, as we have been describing them for almost ten years now.
1. Input to Labour Party conference from the labour movement has become qualitatively more difficult, limited to four motions from the four biggest unions, a maximum of four motions from the CLPs, and not much else. The conference has become much more a stage-managed publicity event, and much less a parliament of the labour movement. The union say at conference, though still substantial (nearly 50%), has been sharply reduced (from 90%).
2. Not by formal rule-change, but by dint of repeated stands by Blair and Brown and repeated failure to protest by the union leaders, Labour Party conference decisions have ceased to have practical weight. It is not just that the Labour government does not carry them out: no-one feels any obligation to be guided by them, or even to make them publicly available.
3. The union say in the National Executive has been reduced both numerically (to 12 out of 32) and in substance (the Executive has become essentially only a consultative committee for the parliamentary leadership). Union input has been further diluted by the setting-up of the National Policy Forum, where the unions have only 30 out of 183 representatives, and, moreover, those 30 operate "behind closed doors" as far as the rank and file of the unions are concerned.
4. Meanwhile, a veritable army of "New Labourites", many with no labour-movement background or allegiance at all, sits above the formal structures of the Labour Party. Even before the 1997 general election, this Blair-Brown "party within a party" was weightier than the formal "Labour Party machine"; over the last nine years in government it has acquired further weight. See Workers' Liberty 64-5 for the 3000 people appointed to "task forces" and the like in 1997-8 alone.
5. The Constituency Labour Parties have a lower membership on paper than they had even in World War 2, when all electoral contests with the Tories were suspended and most activists had been drafted into the armed forces. On all accounts, the active membership has declined even more than the paper membership. Union delegates to CLPs have become rare. About half of all CLPs no longer bother to send a delegate to Labour Party conference. Those CLP delegates who do arrive vote, in their majority, way to the right of the unions.
6. While Labour councils carry out relentlessly anti-working-class policies, rebellions by left-wing Labour councillors are much rarer than for decades, even though councillors are necessarily much more vulnerable to pressure from even quarter-alive local Labour Parties than MPs are.
7. The Labour Party has not had a functioning youth organisation, unofficial or official, for nearly 20 years. Nominally, a Young Labour organisation exists, but it does not even have a website, or a reference on the Labour Party website. We tried to intervene in this Young Labour organisation when it was set up in the early 1990s. We had some people in AWL at the time who thought it would offer great openings. Most of us were more sceptical, but we readily agreed to try and see. We soon had to conclude - without dissent - that nothing much could be done there. There are very few active student Labour Clubs.
8. Labour government policy is relentlessly and directly anti-working-class, and counter to mass working-class opinion, on all the key issues - trade-union rights, privatisation, health service, education, pensions, Iraq... Of course all previous Labour governments betrayed their working-class supporters, and directly clashed with workers in struggle. None gloried in affronting working-class opinion as this one has done.
In reply to these eight points, we are told that it is sometimes possible for unions outside the "big four" to wriggle their way onto Labour Party conference floor to second composites, and that the unions still account for a larger part of Labour Party funding than I allowed for in the article.
That's a long way short of proof that nothing has changed bar "a few tenth-rate" details!
I'm not at all convinced by the figures on funding. In 2005, we're told, union affiliations contributed £8 million - and it is "no matter how you choose to count the extra £11,950,000 loans involved in the 'cash for peerages' scandal". Why "no matter"? However we "choose to count" that £12 million, it can scarcely be as proof of the Labour Party's closeness and responsiveness to a working-class base!
The latest Labour Party accounts available on the Electoral Commission website show income from affiliates (i.e. mainly trade unions) as £7.6 million out of £29.3 million in 2004, and £6.8m out of £26.9m in 2003.
The general picture of a reduced (though still large) trade-union weight in Labour Party funding comes not just from snapshot figures but also from more substantial studies such as Dave Osler's Labour Party plc.
I don't have a copy of Osler's book to hand; but I notice that when it was published, neither our reviewer in Solidarity, ME, nor reviews from leftists dedicated to remaining fully immersed in the Labour Party and daily expecting a new shift to the left there, such as Socialist Appeal, saw any inaccuracy in Osler's picture of a Labour Party leadership much more closely tied to big business, including financially, and much more distanced from the unions.
But even if Osler was wrong, and the Labour Party still relies mostly on union funding, that doesn't prove at all that nothing has changed as regards its openness to working-class political input.
The suggestion that our views on the qualitative change were just "a reflection within the AWL of the bombastic posturing of people like [Bob] Crow [of the RMT]" makes no sense at all.
We had developed all the essentials of our assessment of Blair/Brown's "New Labour" long before Crow became RMT general secretary in 2002. When he started his "bombastic posturing" on the Labour Party question, we were highly critical of it (and we had plainly opposed disaffiliation of unions from the Labour Party right from the point when it started to be a subject of serious discussion, with the FBU's conference in May 2001: see for example our leaflet to the SWP's Marxism 2001.)
In 1990, the paper we used to publish, Socialist Organiser, was banned by the Labour Party. Seven or eight years earlier, we had had a fight in our own ranks about what we should do if the Labour Party banned our publication. Most of us argued that in such an eventuality we should duck and dive, as the British Trotskyists had done after the banning of their paper Socialist Outlook in 1954.
Come 1990, did we say that nothing had changed, or only "tenth-rate" details had changed? No. Even then we recognised a change. We rejected the recommendations for ducking and diving put to us by many on the Labour Left. We didn't abandon the Labour Party, but we continued to publish Socialist Organiser "illegally", accepting that there would be a cost in expulsions. At Easter 1991 we launched the Alliance for Workers' Liberty as a public, open revolutionary organisation with no pretensions to Labour Party legality.
Over the next few years, some AWLers started arguing that we should step back a bit and make ourselves more "Labour Party"-ish. We did not agree with their general case, but we tried to see what practical things could be done to respond to whatever was reasonable in their concerns. We attempted (without success, as noted above) to intervene in the new official "Young Labour" movement. In 1995 we attempted to get ourselves a new "Labour-Party-legal" profile by a combination with Labour Briefing.
The reason that didn't work was more to do with the special politics of the little group around Briefing than with generalities of the Labour Party - what the enterprise broke down over was their refusal, after having agreed to have open debate, to print a very mildly-worded article of ours critical of Provisional Sinn Fein. But in the ensuing polemic against the Briefingites' insistence that we should attune ourselves to the Labour "broad left" we had to observe that even then "a broad left [was] organised almost nowhere" in the Labour Party.
In the course of the row, we had a little split. Most of those who had been arguing for a more "Labour-Party-ish" orientation now concluded that there was no point in building an autonomous revolutionary organisation, and they should instead aim to "spread the influence of Marxism within the labour movement" (i.e. within the Labour Party) in a more general way. We insisted that we must not "go quiet when the official structures go quiet". (See the section of Workers' Liberty 52 on "building the party", which is adapted from a polemic from those who split from us in 1995 to sink into the Labour Party).
By then, the changes in the Labour Party were approaching the point of "the transformation from quantity into quality". A dramatic signal was given by the call by Stephen Byers, then a top Blairite, in September 1996, for the Labour Party to break all links with the unions, and Tony Blair's statement in January 1997 that the Labour Party must be transformed into an unambiguously "pro-business" party like the Democrats in the USA.
As the 1997 election approached, we had a discussion which concluded that our old general political slogans, along the lines of "vote Labour, and fight to demand working-class policies from Labour", no longer had grip. After a lot of debate, we decided to raise the general political slogan of a workers' government - not just a "demand on Labour", but a call for a general restructuring of the labour movement - while voting Labour.
In Workers' Liberty 39, of April 1997, we summarised our new assessment and our new conclusions.
"Blair has said it openly. They want to make the Labour Party into an out-and-out bourgeois party... The lesser, half-way-house, versions of the Blair project would, while keeping some formal ties, make the unions junior lobbyists rather than the decisive core of the party". We raised the call for a new Labour Representation Committee - a call which was eventually to bear fruit several years later.
Everything was much more fluid and open then. In essence, what has happened over the last decade is that the emerging new shape of 1997 has become the hardened structure of 2006.
In 1997 it seemed a real possibility that Blair and Brown would use the strong position accruing to them immediately after their election victory, when they had a lot of popular credibility, to go for a quick and complete break with the unions. They did not. The union leaders were so servile that they felt no need to go for something so risky.
We soon recognised that Blair-Brown had, for the time being anyway, gone for the "lesser, half-way-house version". So Labour was "still a bourgeois workers' party, but now with the dialectical balance massively tilted towards the bourgeois pole in an entity that was always highly contradictory".
As the tilt consolidated, we drew conclusions that independent working-class candidates against Labour were becoming opportune (Workers' Liberty 49), and codified and re-codified our assessment (see, for example Workers' Liberty 52, Workers' Liberty 59, or our conference documents from 1999 onwards, collected for easy reference in our discussion bulletin no.237, in April 2003.)
We never said that all life within the Labour Party would now cease. 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. It didn't turn out that way, but not for lack of us being open to even the most elusive possibilities.
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. And, of course, we have responded eagerly and actively to the Labour Representation Committee launched in 2004, and to John McDonnell's campaign for Labour leader.
A sober assessment of the much-more-than-tenth-rate changes in the Labour Party does not in the least exclude intervening when and where that's possible.
Maybe our assessments were wrong. But then the nothing-has-changed school should tell us where we went wrong. Was it all the way from 1990? Or from even before then? Or do they concede that at some points the Labour Party did change a bit? When?
Or is that something new that should change our assessment has happened in recent years?
That's possible, of course. A dramatic event might show us that we had missed important aspects of what had happened before; or it might simply reverse what had happened before; or set things on a different course.
It's possible. But what event of recent years could conceivably be cited as showing that developments in the Labour Party have not really been as bad as we thought in the late 90s, or as dramatically reversing the evils of the late 1990s?
The biggest about-turn in the labour movement in the last ten years has been a marked shift to the left, since about 2001, in trade-union elections, and the ensuing rise of a new generation of union leaders much more willing to act as real trade-unionists and as left-wingers of some sort than the "Ken Jackson" generation which allowed Blair to do what he did in the mid-90s.
AWL has made a highly critical assessment of this "awkward squad", emphasising that they have failed almost completely in the cardinal task of rebuilding workplace organisation and leading effective struggles on wages and conditions (on pensions, for example).
Nevertheless, they are not the same as the "Ken Jackson" generation. For some years now, they have put leftish resolutions through TUC and Labour Party conferences, directly contradicting Blair-Brown government policy on central issues.
When they started doing that, we did not respond by saying: "Oh, we have our assessment of the Labour Party, so we know it will all come to nothing". We responded by advocating, energetically and enthusiastically, that trade-union activists build on those resolutions to open a real fight in the Labour Party. (See the documents collected in discussion bulletin 237, or in the appendices to The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics). We speculated hopefully that the union leaders' verbal combativity might stimulate some revival of left activism in CLPs.
What has happened since then gives us new evidence on what has happened to the Labour structure.
The Blair-Brown structures, far from being different from old Labour structures only in "tenth-rate" detail, are hardened enough that the four years of verbal combativity from the union leaders have "bounced" off them with scarcely any effect.
So high have the barriers been raised, so solidly have they been fixed in place, that it will take a much more deep-going mobilisation of the unions to start to break through them. That is the lesson from the major "new" fact of recent years.
The fallback argument of the "nothing-has-changed" school is to admit that things are bad now, but to claim that they were always that bad. CLPs were always moribund, rank-and-file activists always had very little chance of getting issues onto Labour conference floor, and left-wing Labour conference decisions always disappeared into the void with little stir or comment.
Of course the Labour Party organisation, even in its "best" days, has always been sluggish. Of course there have always been defunct ward parties and rump General Committees. Of course Labour leaders have always sought to evade left-wing Labour conference decisions.
But it is simply not true that the entire history of the Labour Party has been uniformly dim and lifeless, differing only in "tenth-rate" detail from today.
The period in the 1920s when Trotsky could plausibly speculate on the revolutionaries gaining the hegemonic position within the broad Labour Party that the pacifist ILP then had, and when the small Communist Party was able to build a mass National Left Wing Movement of expelled Labour Parties and local Labour left caucuses; the period in the 1950s when Bevanism was "Labour's high tide" in terms of constituency activism; the ferment between 1979 and the miners' strike of 1984-5 - all of those differed in more than "tenth-rate" detail from today.
And even outside those periods, life in the Labour Party ran much higher than today at all points in its history, except in the peculiar circumstances of World War 2. Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the CLPs were very depleted, it was more open and lively than today.
The idea that the "old" Labour Party was never much different from today's is not only factually false. Although put forward in this debate by people eager for Marxist involvement in the Labour Party, the idea actually makes that Marxist involvement nonsensical.
Rationally, the case for Marxist involvement in the Labour Party depends on the idea that the Labour Party is a contradictory and historically unstable formation, open to dramatic change. If the Labour Party is so stable an organism, with such powers of inertia, that nothing over a century of class struggles has ever been able to change it in more than "tenth-rate" detail - if, more or less whatever happens, it is and always has been the case that CLPs are moribund, rank-and-file activists have very little chance of pushing issues, and left-wing Labour conference decisions disappear into the void with little stir or comment - then what can possibly be the case for revolutionary intervention into it?
If a victory in the Labour Party today that won back all that has been lost over the last 20 years would only be a "tenth-rate" trifle, then what battle in the Labour Party can we imagine that would be really worth bothering with?
Am I being unfair? After all, the "nothing-has-changed" school only claim that nothing has changed in the Labour Party as an organism. They concede that some things have changed in society at large. The "mirror" which is the Labour Party hasn't changed (except in tenth-rate detail) - has not been darkened, or twisted - but what we see in it has changed, because it is reflecting different circumstances.
Which different circumstances? Cited are "the reduced scope and purpose of modern trade unionism", "the confidence and combativity of the unions", and "the erosion of local government".
I don't understand what "the erosion of local government" has to do with it. Local councils' autonomy has been much reduced. That does not make it impossible for left-wing Labour councillors, or left-wing Labour councils if there were any, to protest and lead struggles against the anti-working-class policies imposed on those councils by central government policy. What makes that impossible is the lack of life in the local Labour Parties to push the councillors, or councils, to do that.
The weakness of the unions certainly has a great deal to do with it. Blair and Brown would never have been able to do what they did in the mid-90s had the unions had a less craven leadership and a less demoralised membership.
In general terms, the unions are still weak today. If they were stronger, then things would be different. But different how?
As the unions grew stronger and more confident, would the Labour Party automatically, smoothly move to the left, reflecting them? Like an unchanged mirror lightening up as the scene it reflects becomes less dark? Were Blair's and Brown's actions in the mid-90s merely a temporary reflection of the unions' acute weakness then, certain to pass away as soon as the weakness did?
All the evidence suggests not. Even if the deeds of Blair and Brown in the mid-90s - and of Kinnock and Smith from 1986 to 1994 - were in their day mere "effects" of bad trends in the unions (and in fact they weren't just that), the deeds, once done, become causes in their own right. A dramatic remobilisation of the unions would shake up today's Labour Party - most probably not by smoothly swinging it round to "reflect" the new union reality, but rather by forcing a split in which Blair, Brown, and the New Labour "party on top of a party" would finally proceed to the full separation from the labour movement which they have been talking about for ten years now.
The unions have changed - not as we would wish them to change, but changed nonetheless - over the last five or six years. Far from reflecting that change, Blair-Brown's New Labour has only become more fiercely and contemptuously anti-working-class. The New Labour machine has not been pushed into accommodating the unions. On the contrary. It has been pushed into proposing that the unions should lose even the residual and formal position of strength they have in the Labour Party structure - see Alan Johnson's proposal to reduce the union say at Labour Party conference from 50% to 15%, and the proposals now being mooted on the back of the Hayden Phillips report.
To put it crudely: a further union re-mobilisation is more likely to make New Labour "worse" than to make it "better".
Although we use "the union link" as short-hand for the working-class base of the Labour Party, it has never been as simple as that. The Labour Party has never just been a reflection of the unions.
For example, between 1933 and 1956 (with blips in 1937, 1944, and 1955) strike action ran at a very low rate in Britain - not quite as low as in most recent years, but rarely much higher than in 1996 or 2002. Union density in the 1930s was lower than today - 24% in 1935. The bulk of the unions were solidly right-wing, in Labour Party terms, throughout those years. Yet the Labour Party was much livelier than today. The unions were able to break almost the whole Labour Party away from Ramsay MacDonald when he went for cuts in the dole in 1931, and then to rebuild the Labour Party after huge electoral setbacks so that it could win its landslide in 1945. There were significant left movements inside the Labour Party and Labour's youth in the 1930s - not what we would have wished for, but more than today - and in the 1950s the Constituency Labour Party left was, by some plausible estimates, larger than ever before or after.
The condition of the Labour Party today is not just a straight reflection of the condition of the unions. Politics is not just a reflection of trade unionism. Political forms and structures are important. To dismiss them as a "tenth-rate" concern is not Marxism but syndicalism.
It is, moreover, a peculiarly dispiriting form of syndicalism.
The little groups of Marxists who still insist on full immersion in the Labour Party, such as Workers' Action and Socialist Appeal, do not follow our "nothing-has-changed" comrades in their assessment. Being in weekly contact with the reality, they are pretty clear that a lot has changed, and that Marxist activity in the Labour Party is much more difficult than it was. They justify their orientation not so much by claiming that a lot can be done in the Labour Party, as by claiming that not much can be done in general. Nothing much can come from "ticking over" in the Labour Party; but even less from attempting anything else...
The "nothing-has-changed" school, as far I can see, can only push us towards the same sort of practical conclusion, by way of a more implausible and roundabout argument.
We know that things are not good politically in the working class and the labour movement. But to go along with that the idea the Labour Party is as all-encompassing over working-class politics as it ever was - that all the horrors of Blair-Brownism are no more than a reflection of the lack of confidence and combativity of trade unionists in general - that there is nothing beyond "tenth-rate" detail to make New Labour a less accurate reflection of working-class politics than Labour ever was - that, in short, New Labour is simply the Labour Party that the working class in its present state "deserves" - then we paint things as much worse than they are.