The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: Introduction

Submitted by AWL on 24 November, 2006 - 11:21

The biggest event in working-class politics for many decades is the Blairite hijacking of the Labour Party, in the mid 1990s. The Blairites have transformed the Labour Party, which the trade unions founded over a hundred years ago, from the treacherous “bourgeois workers’ party” it had been into something qualitatively different..

In the public pronouncements of its leaders, New Labour is an explicitly anti-working-class party. It treats the labour movement and the working class with open contempt and undisguised bourgeois hostility.

If New Labour did and does still belong to the general category in which Lenin placed it, a “bourgeois workers’ party, it has been shifted drastically towards the bourgeois pole of that contradictory combination.

If Marxists in the 1920s could accurately call the Labour Party “a sort of general federation of the working class” as well as a “bourgeois workers’ party”, it has lost that character. The special features which persuaded Lenin to argue in 1920 that British communists should seek to affiliate to the Labour Party — the open, federal structure; the channels which allowed trade-union rank-and-file sentiment to flow into the party relatively easily, at a series of levels — have all been abolished.

The keynote was struck on the eve of the 1997 election, when Blair promised the Tory Daily Mail that “Britain will remain with the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in the western world” (26 March 1997). He has kept his word.

Even the Liberal government of 1906, which changed the law to give back to the trade unions the right to strike, was more responsive to the working class than this “Labour” government.

Raised as a Bonaparte figure with enormous political power above the other institutions of the party — National Executive, conference, Parliamentary Labour Party — by the pseudo-democracy of one member, one postal vote, the Leader bestrides the Labour Party like a colossus. To find anything like the personality cult created around Blair for the last decade, you would need to go to the Stalinist states.

The Leader’s “office” — lieutenants, “advisers”, spin-liars, and other assorted bourgeois riff-raff, financed by big capitalist donations and state funds — is not only the real centre of the party, its mind and heart. For practical political purposes it is the party. No-one else makes policy. When the Leader is also prime minister, he has immense power.

The structures and relationships within the Labour Party have been radically transformed. The old names and categories — Conference, National Executive, etc. — have remained in use, but they denote things that are radically different from those that bore the same names through decades of Labour Party history.

Essentially, the annual conference and the National Executive no longer even notionally control Party policy. The conference still has rights on paper, but the leadership has been able to assert publicly and repeatedly that it has none, without any kickbacks. It has become the norm for New Labour that regional conferences no longer discuss big political issues; and the national conference and the Executive scarcely do.

With these new structures, the Labour Party in the country cannot counterpose itself to the Government by way of resolutions on policy from the Constituency Labour Parties going for debate at conference.

In fact the branches and the CLPs are shrunken and withered husks, but even were they teeming with political life, the structures of today’s Labour Party would block off the party members from affecting party policy. If mass CLPs existed now, their members could assert themselves politically only by creating, in parallel to the Blair Labour Party structures, structures akin to the “National Left Wing Movement” of local parties disaffiliated for refusing to obey the decision of the 1925 Labour Party conference to exclude members of the Communist Party who were elected as trade union delegates to Labour Party bodies. Had the left been in a better state in the mid 1990s, then something like the NLWM might have emerged then.

Under the old structures, any issue that animated any broad circle of working-class activists was sure to reach the conference agenda. Union delegations were more or less bound to vote in line with their unions’ policies on the issue. Under the new structure, the issue of the Tory anti-union laws can go undebated from year to year with neither rows nor ructions between the trade unions and the New Labour leaders. Today the union-Labour link is qualitatively more shut off from rank-and-file influence than it has ever been before.

Of course the Labour leadership could always defy conference decisions. But when it did so, it usually faced loud protest, sometimes very troublesome protest. The Labour Party was a living movement.

That real Labour Party democracy, limited and inadequate thought it was, has gone. The limited concession made by New Labour in 2003, that in future Constituency Labour Parties can put four motions on each conference agenda, does not change that.

Central control over the vetting of candidates at parliamentary and local government level now operates to stifle and strangle everything that used to be alive in the old Labour Party. The possibility of rank and file self-assertion and control through the selection and deselection of MPs, and even of local councillors, has been more or less destroyed.

By now, the central Labour Party machine rarely feels the need to intervene in candidate selections. That, however, does not testify to a loosening up, but to a decline in local Labour Party life; those who run the New Labour machine know that few unruly candidates have any chance of selection.

The channels and forums in which and through which the political life of the Constituency Labour Parties expressed itself have been cemented up. The old ramshackle, sluggish, but living Labour Party has in effect been strangled. There is some life left in the local Labour Parties, here and there, but it is confined to isolated pockets.

According to the latest figures, for the end of 2002, the constituency membership of the party on paper had declined to 249,000. From a survey of constituency secretaries, the Guardian (12 April 2004) concluded that further losses of membership due to the Iraq war have probably taken the figure down below 220,000. That is the lowest figure since individual membership figures were first compiled, with the possible exception of 1942, when the absence of Party members in the armed forces, and the atrophy of political life due to Labour’s agreement not to fight the Tories in by-elections during the war, brought membership down to 219,000. In the early 1950s Labour’s paper constituency membership was over a million.

The active membership has declined even more catastrophically than the paper membership. According to the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, who still think the CLPs should be the main focus of socialist work, the active membership now mainly comprises elderly people who dislike Blairism but have insufficient energy to make any new start, and young middle-class careerists. Trade-union delegates to CLPs are, so the CLPD says, “as rare as hens’ teeth”.

Many constituency General Committees have been wound up. The Labour youth movement exists essentially on paper. Very few student Labour Clubs exist. The vast number of abstentions in the 2001 General Election shows that the reflex class-conscious Labour vote has been eroded drastically. Many long-loyal Labour working-class voters abstained, or voted for the Lib-Dems because, compared to the Blair party, they are now, in many of their policies, the “left wing” party, and the party least subservient to big business. Working-class people who still voted Labour did so mostly out of inertia or “lesser-evil” anti-Tory sentiment.

In short, the relationship between the Labour Party and the political life of the working class, the trade union movement, and the left has been changed dramatically and qualitatively.

The recent expulsion of the RMT from the Labour Party for backing the Scottish Socialist Party in certain areas is probably only the beginning of a process of political unravelling and eventual realignment.

In addition to changing the Labour Party, the Blair gang have operated with equally unceremonious disregard for the institutions of bourgeois democracy, which they claim to revere. Under this New Labour government, the bureaucratisation of Parliament, long in train, has accelerated seriously. Where in theory Parliament controls the Government, the reality for the first five years of Blairite rule was that the Government rigidly controlled Parliament.

Statistically, the batch of Labour MPs elected in 1997 shows up as having produced as many Parliamentary rebellions in its first two sessions as the Labour MPs under the 1945 or 1966 governments, and more than under the 1964 government. Since the Iraq war, large numbers of New Labour MPs are so often in opposition to the government that it is not too much to say that the outlines of two Parliamentary Labour Parties can be discerned within the New Labour parliamentary group.

But many of the rebels would be disarmed if Gordon Brown, Tony Blair’s New Labour political alter ego, were to succeed Blair. We have yet to see whether any sizeable part of the “opposition New Labour Party” in Parliament will play a part in the recreation of a union-based working-class party.

The statistics of Parliamentary rebellions must be read against the background of Blair Government policies which are in flat contradiction to the sentiments of the labour movement, and in a way that even the worst Labour governments in the past were not. Most of the time, the majority of Labour MPs turn themselves into robots connected to a single mind in the Whips’ office and behave like speak-your-weight machines programmed with soundbites to justify ostentatiously anti-working-class and anti-old-Labour policies.

The MPs who revolted against Blair on the “illegality” of the Iraq war would have supported the war had the USA and the UK succeeded in bullying or bribing enough UN votes to make it “legal”. They have never revolted against Blair's maintenance, over nearly seven years in government, of the Tory laws that outlaw trade-union solidarity action and, indeed, most effective trade unionism. There are a few decent MPs loyal to the labour movement and the working class, but the Parliamentary Labour Party as a whole is an entity devoid of labour movement and working-class loyalty.

The result of the Blairites’ 1997 election victory over the Tories has been, paradoxically, to disenfranchise the working class and the labour movement and to deprive it of responsive parliamentary representation on any level. Politically, these developments have thrown the working class back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the Labour Party first emerged.

How did this catastrophe for working-class politics come about? Over the long years of Thatcher-Major government, the Labour career politicians and trade-union bureaucrats moved towards the idea of “getting the Tories out” at any price, even if it meant adopting Tory policies. So did many rank-and-file people in the labour movement, who failed at times to notice or understand what it would mean. They would not listen when we told them that their own demoralisation and depoliticised “anti-Toryism” was pushing them into an acquiescence with what the Kinnock-Smith-Blair leaderships were doing to the political labour movement which could not but prove fatal for all they wanted to achieve by “kicking out the Tories”.

In British politics the Thatcherites pushed everything to the right, establishing an anti-socialist consensus comparable to the consensus in favour of the Welfare State which the powerful Labour Government of 1945-51 had in its time and for a generation imposed on the Tories and Liberals.

Opinion surveys continued to show that grass-roots working-class people wanted the welfare-state provision and were against privatisation. But, after many years of Thatcherite rule, such feelings were combined with low and decreasing confidence.

The Labour Party and trade-union leaders gradually came to believe that, if they aspired to govern, they could not oppose the consensus of the media, academia, and big business; and then, positively to embrace that consensus. The Blairites embraced it wholeheartedly and from deep conviction. The trade union leaders, cowed and demoralised by the Thatcherites, came to accept it too, reluctantly, and to back the radical changes in the Labour Party which we now call Blairism (though in fact some of them had preceded Blair’s election as leader in 1994).

The union leaders who had the weight and the power to stop the Kinnockite drift and the Blairite coup instead threw their weight behind the transformation of the Labour Party into a bourgeois machine heavily insulated from working-class influence.

The Blairites, some of them ex-Stalinists or other one-time leftists, knew that what they would do in office could rouse the Labour Party and the labour movement against a Blair government, as the Labour Party in the late 1970s had counterposed itself to the Callaghan government. They decided on a pre-emptive strike. They would close down the channels and structures of the old Labour Party.

At the height of the left-wing Labour upsurge in the early 1980s, some of the Labour leaders, such as Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, and David Owen, who would split to form the Social Democratic Party (which later fused with the Liberal Party) had discussed such drastic changes in the Labour Party. In the early 1980s the present authors pointed out where all this would lead.

We quoted Bertold Brecht: “After the rising of the 17th of June the Secretary of the Writers’ Union had leaflets handed out in the Stalinallee in which it can be read that the people had forfeited the confidence of the Government… Would it not be simpler if the Government dissolved the people and elected a new one?”

We commented : “their [the Labour Right’s] goal is to restore, on a new basis, the situation where the MPs are beyond the effective control of the labour movement… to dissolve the Labour Party as it has so far existed and... to have the media elect a new one for them”. (Mobilise for Labour Democracy, January 1981).

The founders of the SDP had been too weak to do it. It fell to Kinnock and Blair to carry out the programme of the SDP within the Labour Party.

Before they could do it, the working class had first to be defeated by the Thatcherites in such clashes as the greater miners’ strike of 1984-5, and then ground down.

After 1997, socialists who had no time for the pretence that the Blair Labour Party is only an especially unpleasant variant of the old Labour Party had to decide what to do.

The situation was and is complicated by the fact that the transformation of the Labour Party had not, and has not, been wholly and definitively accomplished. Things are not yet cut and dried. The big unions retain a great potential weight even in Labour’s changed structures, should they choose to use it.

They still have that power because trade-union money remains an important part of the Labour Party’s financial support (combined now with money from bourgeois well-wishers). The docility and subservience of the union leaders after 1997 made it unnecessary for the Blairites to push through the clean break with the unions which some of them had suggested. They rightly calculated that they could continue to get money from the unions — no longer, as it used to be, the overwhelming bulk of Labour Party funding, but still substantial — without political cost.

The result is that though the Blair “project” has produced an anti-working-class and anti-Labour government, the trade unions are still potentially a great power within the New Labour structures. This is the major contradiction in Blair’s “New Labour Party”.

The unions remain a power within New Labour’s structures. But the big question is whether the new generation of leaders who now head the unions will take advantage of that contradiction to strike at Blairism.

We must be clear about this – any attempt at concerted use of that trade-union power now is mostly likely to provoke an organisational rupture with the Blairites, to split New Labour.

We — the AWL — advocate that the unions should use everything they have and can muster to challenge and fight the Blairites. If it proves necessary, and it will, the trade unions should split with the Blairites and found a new union-based political party.

In the meanwhile what should socialists do? We urge the unions to wage a fight to a break with the Blairites. Yet we cannot confine ourselves to only that. We cannot play the role of passive advisers or advocates for what the whole lumbering body of the trade union movement should do in years to come.

We are an autonomous political force. We are people engaged in organising those who want to be the representatives of the labour movement of the future in the labour movement of the present. We must win and educate those who will fight for and secure that socialist future of the labour movement. What therefore should we do now? What should we recommend to young people entering radical politics, or working-class activists disgusted by Blairism?

Should we continue automatically to back the “Labour” (Blairite) candidates in elections? Or, on the contrary, should we begin to use elections, where appropriate, to take the message of independent working-class representation directly to the rank and file of the trade unions and to the working class. Should we use elections to spread the idea that the unions should work towards a new union-based workers’ party?

Should we do now what our political predecessors, the socialists who founded the Labour Party, did back in the days when the trade unions backed the Liberal Party and got some union-financed MPs, the so-called “Lib-Labs”, elected on the Liberal ticket – that is, stand independent socialist candidates in elections?

In 1998 AWL decided to do just that. We helped found what became the Socialist Alliance of 2001, which the SWP has just decided effectively to wind up by sinking it into “Respect”, whose main activity is to elect George Galloway, the ex-tankie Stalinist and friend of the fascistic Ba’thist dictatorship in Iraq, to the European Parliament.

We turned towards electoral challenges to the Blair Labour Party without pretending that a revival of the New Labour party, or segments of it, into something resembling the old Labour Party, was absolutely inconceivable, five, ten, fifteen or twenty years ahead.

Our core argument was not that the Labour Party was completely, thoroughly, and irreversibly dead, but that the rhythms and tempo of socialists’ activity, and how socialists would present themselves to the broader working class and to youth, could not be tied down to any slow and flickering pulse of working-class activity still discernible in the Labour Party, or to caution and self-effacement to “keep in” with Labour on the basis of speculative hopes of a future revival.

We rejected the schematic approach of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant). For decades they were committed to the bizarre notion that the Labour Party was inexorably ripening into a mass socialist party. In the mid-1990s they swung, just as mechanically, one-sidedly, and undialectically, to the view that nothing at all was left of the old Labour Party, and that they themselves, in competition with the new Labour Party, would become the mass Marxist party.

This typically wooden, uncomprehending, and politically unbalanced schematism has made them unable to intervene rationally in the real political arguments developing in the Labour-affiliated trade unions. As they have gradually been forced into recognising that the SP is not going to develop linearly into a mass workers’ party, or win trade-union affiliations, they have been pushed into basing themselves on incoherent anti-political sentiment in the unions (as with their current campaign for a vote in Unison against maintaining the union’s political funds) or on flaccid ecumenism towards any even nominally leftish anti-Labour electoral enterprise (the Galloway/ SWP coalition, the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation, etc.)

In principle, if the unions, or a sizeable bloc of unions, launched a determined fight for their own policies, they could strike a tremendous blow at Blairism, a blow comparable to what the unions did to Ramsay MacDonald, the traitor Labour prime minister who went over to the Tories in 1931.

The question is, will they? And if they will, when?

That trade-union activism and assertiveness, and working-class political militancy, will revive, we take as guaranteed by the basic class contradictions of capitalist production. When and how that will happen we can not know.

In terms of time, it could happen relatively quickly. But in terms of the things that have to be done in the labour movement, short of a very dramatic working-class upsurge, it is a long way off.

In any case, it is far from certain that revival will happen in a tidy or even manner. It is downright improbable that it will take the form of a smooth and steady winding-back of the Labour Party from its present Blairite shape to what it was in previous decades; and it would be foolish and self-eviscerating for socialists to base their activity now on the belief that it will take that form.

Can socialists confine themselves to tactics based on and limited by hopes for a concerted trade-union offensive within the Labour structures? The only rational answer, based on the facts of the situation of the British working class and the socialist groups, is: no, they can not.

In the last few years the trade unions have elected a new generation of leaders who, as trade unionists and in terms of their politics, are a great improvement on their predecessors, the traitors who made Blairism possibly in the 1990s. These new leaders are — and this is the most important thing — genuine trade unionists, concerned to better their members’ lot, where their Blairite predecessors had come to see trade unions as primarily concerned with dispensing miscellaneous services to individual members and negotiating “partnership” with employers.

They could now do a great deal in the Labour Party. We urge the rank and file of the unions to insist that they should. We support and help promote the tentative moves now afoot to create a new “Labour Representation Committee” like the one set up by some trade unions and the socialist organisations in 1900, out of which the Labour Party grew.

But meantime, what do we do “until” the union leaders move seriously? We repeat: should socialists wait passively? No, we should not! No socialist working-class movement can be built on the basis of a policy of passive speculating and “waiting on events”. The socialist struggle for influence on the working class must be conducted now, however unfavourable the circumstances. In conditions infinitely bleaker than our situation today, Trotsky truly wrote: “Under the least favourable hypothesis, the building of a revolutionary party would mean to speed the hour of revenge. The wiseacres who duck away from his urgent task by claiming that ‘conditions are not ripe’ only show that they themselves are not ripe for these conditions”.

The larger revolts by Labour MPs since the Iraq war are a second new factor, paralleling the rise of the new trade union leaders. That some of these MPs fervently want to get rid of Blair is plain beyond dispute. Whether they would proceed to reverse Blairism is a very different question. Many of them would happily support Blair’s other self, Gordon Brown. Most of them have never objected to Blair keeping the Tory anti-union laws on the statute book. Most of them did not support the firefighters. Most of them are as complicit in the Blairite hijacking of the Labour Party as the old trade union leaders were.

Socialists should pay attention to the MPs’ revolts, and any movement they stir up in the CLPs. But meanwhile it continues to make sense to stand socialist candidates where that is practically possible.

Hard factual evidence is provided by the Scottish Socialist Party. For all its large shortcomings, the SSP has consolidated a sizeable working-class socialist electorate in Scotland. In the 2003 elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SSP’s lists got 7.7% of the vote across Scotland, and six members elected. They had 15% of the vote in Glasgow.

Conditions for socialist candidates in bourgeois-democratic elections are somewhat better in Scotland than in England and Wales. But the differences are not qualitative. And the Labour Party in Scotland is not worse than in England and Wales — in fact, in part because of the pressure of the SSP, it a bit more responsive to working-class sentiment than Labour at Westminster.

Additional hard evidence is provided by the railworkers’ union RMT. Its members had one of the highest rates of paying the political levy to the Labour Party of any union. It took its Labour Party links more seriously than other unions. It withdrew support from Labour MPs who flouted its policies — most notably Blair’s deputy John Prescott — and created a new RMT parliamentary group of Labour MPs loyal to union policies. It conducted a fight to get a proper debate on the Iraq war at the 2003 Labour conference.

Now its Scottish region has voted to support the SSP, and the Labour Party has disaffiliated the RMT. Socialists could, and did, argue that the Scottish RMT should have balloted its members on supporting the SSP. We can, and do, argue against the RMT’s ex-Stalinist-turned-syndicalist leadership, around Bob Crow, converting the RMT’s political activity into that of a funding agency for diverse middle-class leftist electoral enterprises. But we argue from the left — against their expulsion and for the RMT to work with other combative unions, and with socialists, to build a new Labour Representation Committee — and not from the right. Any socialists who would argue that in face of their expulsion from the Labour Party, the RMT leadership should instruct RMT activists to grit their teeth and continue to sponsor Blairites, instead of seeking a working-class alternative to Blairism, will have lost the political plot.

We do not urge that the RMT should wait for all the other unions to be ready to come with it. We remember that when the Labour Representation Committee, forerunner of the Labour Party, was launched in 1900, it had the backing of organisations representing only 350,000 of the two million trade unionists then in Britain. Most trade unionists supported the Liberal Party. If the socialists and activists had waited until the majority was ready to move, the trade unions would have remained tied to the Liberal Party. The Labour Party, whose hijacking by the Blairites socialists are now having to come to terms with, would never have been born!

It is salutary to recall that the miners, who had a block of MPs elected under the Liberal banner, did not break with the Liberals and join the Labour Party until 1909.

In the following pamphlet these issues and their implications are discussed. All but the introduction and a few small inserts or alterations was written in July 2003. It is a contribution to a discussion on these questions which has been going on for some time in Solidarity and inside the AWL. It deals in some detail with an article, The case for revolutionary realism, published in Solidarity 3/30, which was in its turn a reply to an article of ours in Solidarity 3/29 – the articles are printed here as appendices 1 and 2 – but also covers more general background debates and issues.

John Bloxam

Sean Matgamna

April 2004

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