Workers' Liberty #52  


The British Working Class Movement Today

Part one of the special feature on left unity

The British working-class movement is immensely strong. Does that statement surprise you? Think about it. Seven million workers are organised in trade unions. Yes, compared to twenty years ago, there has been a serious drop in the strength of the labour movement. But, compared to most of the world now, and most labour movements in history, the British labour movement is still strong, and potentially very strong.

But, you say, the relevant comparison is between what the British labour movement was and what it now is. Yes and no. Yes, there has been a decline over two decades, as a result of Thatcher's victories and our defeats. No: the level of organisation we had here before Thatcher came to power was very exceptional in the history of labour movements. Most countries have never had a percentage of the working class organised in stable trade unions equivalent to what we have now. The British labour movement cut down by the cold counter-revolution of Margaret Thatcher was close to unique in its size, social power, and potential. Labour movements do not often reach the size and day-to-day power in society that our movement had twenty years ago. When they do, they are at a crossroads - go on to take power, or be smashed in a "counter-revolution".

That historic opportunity for the British labour movement to settle accounts with capitalism and remake society on socialist lines was lost. The memory of it tantalises. The traumas of the Thatcher years still haunt, disorient and demoralise the older generation of left-wing activists. We can do nothing about the past except revenge our defeats. But we can shape the future. We must start from where we are now, and once more build up a dynamic labour movement. On the scale of broad historical comparisons, we start from a base which is still formidable.

Why, if the British labour movement is strong, does it count for so little? For several reasons. We live under what Prime Minister Tony Blair describes as "the most restrictive labour laws in Western Europe". Almost everything that makes for effective trade unionism, in the first place solidarity action, is outlawed in Britain. That is why there are so few open strike struggles in Britain today, and why swathes of industry are now unorganised. The strength of the labour movement is strength which is legally tied and shackled. It is latent strength. But it is there for the mobilising, there to become conscious of itself, there to free itself from the shackles of the anti-union legislation.

Yet our trade union leaders do not even dare demand of the New Labour government that it abolish the anti-union laws which it inherited from the Tories! Those leaders are well-paid officials who live a middle-class life. A large part of the present trade-union leadership have had little or no experience of working-class struggle. They came straight from college as career officials. They have neither memory nor perspective of working-class struggle. They seem to have forgotten, or never known, most of the social and political goals around which the trade unions and the political labour movement, the Labour Party, formed themselves.

The trade-union leaders are now loyal to a bourgeois government ostentatiously serving capitalist class interests. The Blairites are hostile even to working-class interests and even to working-class representation. There are fewer representative workers in Parliament now than there were Liberal-Labour MPs (trade-unionist MPs, sponsored by the trade unions, under the Liberal Party umbrella) before 1900!

The political wing of the labour movement has been hijacked by a gang of middle-class politicians who have no convictions or purposes higher than the promotion of their personal careers - and, in many cases, the amassing of personal wealth. It is symptomatic that the first senior member of Blair's coterie to be toppled is downed by a financial scandal, and that he is Peter Mandelson, the "architect of New Labour".

Everybody knows how things stand. Blair openly proclaims it as his ambition to refound "Gladstonian Liberalism", from which the working-class movement began to emancipate itself a hundred years ago! Yet the same trade-union leaders who do not dare demand a repeal of the Tory anti-union laws have meekly let the Blairites and Mandelsonites reorganise the Labour Party so as to reduce the trade unions to the role of financial milch-cow, and the rank and file of the Labour Party and trade unions to utter powerlessness. The hijacked Labour Party in government is pursuing Tory or even ultra-Tory policies. In abolishing student grants, introducing university fees, and abolishing elected control of the Bank of England, they went further than the Tories would have dared go, and than some Tories wanted to go.

What is new in the British labour movement?

IIn 1979-81 the Labour Left raised the slogan "Never again a Labour government like the last one". We indicted the Labour government of 1974-9 for pioneering monetarist policies, starting drastic cuts in the Health Service, using state power to try to suppress workers' wage demands, and serving the bosses and the bankers. Yet that government started off by repealing the previous Tory administration's laws to restrict strikes and force up council-house rents. It pushed through laws expanding union rights to control health and safety at work, mandating equal pay and outlawing sex discrimination. By comparison with the present New Labour government, it was left wing. Were we wrong in 1979-81? Utopian? Ultra-left? No! The 1974-9 Labour government was a bourgeois government concerned to co-opt the trade unions, by reforms, into the running of capitalism. This is a bourgeois government hard-faced against the trade unions.

If the Blairites stabilise their control, it means they will have driven the working class out of politics, and deprived workers of political representation. The old Labour structure, relatively open and loose, and with mechanisms that gave the trade unions a veto over party policy when they were sufficiently aroused to assert themselves, is being replaced by one in which a tight-knit bourgeois party machine rules over an atomised membership and recognises the trade unions only as a subordinate pressure group. Tony Blair himself is quite explicit that he wants to make New Labour like the US Democrats and the 19th century British Liberals. He wants its "pro-business" orientation to be as clear, as beyond doubt, and as immune to working-class pressure, as that of the Democrats.

The trade unions still have 50% of the vote at Labour Party conference. (They used to have 70%, and before that 90%). They have 20% of the places on Labour's National Executive Committee. But against this seeming strength of the unions in New Labour stand the following facts. Both conference and the National Executive Committee have lost their old powers. Policy is now made by a new body, the National Policy Committee, on which the Cabinet has 50% of the places, and the National Executive 50%, with a casting vote for the party leader. In practice, the Cabinet controls Labour Party policy. Conference has been restructured to make it impossible for local Labour Parties, and very difficult for trade unions, to put proposals directly on the agenda. The unions are still affiliated; there is some semblance of the old structures still there; but all the relations are changed.

The unions could still destabilise the not-quite-set new structures. They could try to assert the primacy of working-class interests in the Labour Party, if only on the matter of their own immediate self-defence, for example comprehensive repeal of the Tory anti-union laws. However, the Blair faction has its own political machine, finances, and hand-picked bands of MPs and political staff, quite separate from any union input. They have said repeatedly and quite plainly that - though union money and union support in elections is still useful to them - at a later stage they would be happy to cut loose and operate without the unions. The longer the present situation of union acquiescence continues, thegreater will be their freedom and their power. A union revolt would probably split the Labour Party, leaving the Blair faction, initially at least, with most of the MPs, rather than reclaiming Labour wholesale. Moreover, though the economic crisis may create conditions that will force the unions into a more vigorous opposition to Blairism than their leaders would choose, at present there is no large-scale, official, union revolt. Socialists must fight for the unions to assert themselves in the Labour Party. We must also work out what to do while we remain a minority in the unions and the union leaders go along with Blair.

The road to Millbank

The road to Blair's new "Millbank" regime in the Labour Party began, paradoxically, with the greatest upsurge of the Labour Left since the 1920s. The 1974-9 Labour government depended heavily on the support of the trade union leaders in its first years. The trade union leaders demobilised the workers who had by direct action forced the Tories out of office (the Tories called an early election on an anti-unions cry, and lost). Beset by capitalist crisis and helpless to deal with it, the Labour government turned against the trade unions, which were still assertive and confident from the battles of the 1970s. After the "winter of discontent" strike-wave in 1978-9 Labour lost office. It went through a tremendous crisis in which the contradictions of decades exploded in confusion and bitterness.

A mass revolt of the rank and file for democracy - that is, for the next Labour government to be accountable to the movement - was aided by the leaders of far-from-democratic unions. The logical next step for the battle was to turn the fight for democracy into the trade unions and to transform the whole labour movement so thoroughly that Labour could become an instrument for a real workers' government. Seeing this, the Times declared that the Labour Party was so unsafe that it should not be allowed to take office if it won the next election.

Tony Benn talked about "refounding the Labour Representation Committee" (the organisation set up in 1900, by the socialist groups and some trade unions, which constituted the beginnings of the Labour Party). It was not to be. Most of the Marxist left remained outside the battle, on the sidelines. There was no sufficiently big effort to organise a fight for rank-and-file control and militant policies in the trade unions parallel to the battle in the Labour Party, nor to fill out the battle over Labour's structures with genuine working-class politics in place of the reformist schemes (nationalisation of 25 top companies, import controls) which dominated the Labour Left. Where the trade-union militancy of the early 1970s had finally run aground for lack of a political dimension, the political revolt of 1979-81 failed for lack of a trade-union dimension and political clarity.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of the 1980s, the Tory government was still weak. The working class was undefeated. Yet the Labour and trade union leaders did not fight back against the Tories. Even the Labour left, where it gained strategic positions in local government, did not fight back to resist Thatcher's offensive against both the labour movement and democracy (local government autonomy was almost abolished, for example). The "left" Labour Party leader elected in 1980, Michael Foot, launched a crusade against "extremists" and "anti-democrats" - inside the labour movement.

Industrial resistance was allowed to peter out, dispersed and in disarray. No decisive attempt was made to draw a line and fight until the miners made a stand in 1984-5, and by then it was too late. The miners lost. By the late 1980s the Tories rode around like victorious horsemen on a battlefield, targetting anything wearing labour movement colours that still twitched.

In the midst of the Labour Left upsurge we had argued that if the left failed to press forward, to transform the whole labour movement thoroughly in line with working-class interests, then the result would be not a half-way house, or a return to the old Labour status quo, but a fierce backlash. The bourgeoisie would insist on Labour being proved safe and made safe against future disturbance, and they would find men and women in the Labour leadership to do their bidding. So it proved. Kinnock and then Blair set out to transform the Labour Party in exactly the opposite direction to that desired by the rebels of 1979-81. The Labour leaders' anxiety to make friends in the City made easier the industrial and social victories of Thatcherism; and, in turn, those victories made it easier for Kinnock and Blair to get away with what they did inside the Labour Party. As the Tory destruction of jobs, communities, and long-cherished working-class gains like the Health Service progressed, so an increasing number of Labour and trade-union activists came to value restoring Labour to office - at any price, anyhow - above any policy issue.

By the time we got Labour back into office in 1997, the political hollowing-out was complete. Unlike previous Labour governments, this one did not promise any reforms for the working class - except the minimum wage, and we were warned in advance how limited that would be. Unlike any previous Labour government, it did not even undertake to repeal the anti-union laws imposed by the Tories. Even the Liberal government elected in 1906 did better, legislating to overturn the "Taff Vale" anti-union court decision.

In the long years of Thatcher and Major, the goal of getting the Tory party out became for the labour movement a goal in itself - never mind what would replace the Tories. The original point of the trade unions and the working class getting involved in politics was forgotten - to win a workers' government that would serve working-class interests. The broad labour movement sacrificed everything in order to "get the Tories out", and only succeeded in getting new Tories in, wearing Labour colours. Although we believe that there was no alternative at the time but for socialists to vote Labour - and fight for the trade unions to assert themselves inside the Labour Party - the Labour victory in 1997 was to a large degree a kamikaze victory for the working class. We wrote at the time: "Labour victory... on all the evidence... will give the Blair group the last element of strength... to enable it to cut or choke the unions' channels into Labour politics" (Workers' Liberty 39, April 1997).

Facing up to Blairism: two choices

In this situation, socialists have two fundamental choices. We accept Blairism, or we fight it as it needs to be fought. We can accept it in various different ways. We can say that Labour is still "the workers' party". On a high level of one-sided abstraction, it is. It is still a "bourgeois workers' party", with the balance massively tilted towards the bourgeois pole. We can conclude that we must pursue a long-term course of burrowing away, deep in Labour's segmented structures, spreading as much left-wing influence as we can but restraining our voice and our language as much as is necessary to remain acceptable citizens in the New Labour polity. In other words, we simply disappear from view so far as most of the workers and youth who look for new political answers, against New Labour, are concerned. There are still, and will long continue to be, pockets of good left-wing and working-class activists inside the Labour Party. But they are much more isolated than they used to be, both from any real grip on what the Labour Party does at either national or local level and from most workers and youth looking for new political answers. With the new structures they live, so to speak, in air-bubbles.

Another way to accept Blairism is to set off to build our "own" new little labour movement alongside the existing one, hoping to annex a few small radical trade-union organisations to it but leaving the mass of the labour movement politically imprisoned in Blair's New Labour structures. It is to accept in advance that Blair's project of destroying working-class representation is complete and cut-and-dried; that can only help him complete it. It is to counterpose, against intervention within the labour movement geared to proposing political perspectives for the whole organised working class, gambits and stunts designed to build a little socialist group bereft of such perspectives.

And the third way to accept Blairism is to "wait and see", meanwhile limiting ourselves to individual trade-union or campaign activity.

To fight Blairism, and to fight it effectively, there is only one way. We recognise that if Blairism can be overturned, the initiative will not conceivably come mainly from within the Labour Party, but from within the trade unions. We strive to bisect the Labour Party along class lines. We propose to every trade union and every local Labour Party the perspective of fighting to reinstate working-class political representation; at the same time we strive to make that perspective visible to workers and youth not currently active in the emaciated structures of the Labour Party, hoping to win from them new activists who will help to revitalise the structures. In the unions we focus on making them fight for their own policy against the Labour government, both by mass action (strikes, demonstrations, etc.) and by use of the unions' latent powers within the new Labour Party structures. We put particular pressure on union-sponsored MPs to defend union policies, for example on a legal right to strike and to engage in union activity without fear of the sack. We build rank-and-file groups in the trade unions which combine the fight for labour representation in politics with a fight to democratise the trade unions and save them from the no-fight leaders who have surrendered the labour movement to Blair.

In constituency Labour parties, we fight for the de-selection of Blairite MPs and their replacement by working-class candidates. Probably the Blair machine will make full victory in such fights practically impossible; working-class-backed candidates blocked by the Blair machine will then have to decide whether to surrender or to stand anyway, against New Labour. If properly pursued, such efforts could lay the basis for more substantial independent working-class electoral challenges to sitting Blairites than can be produced just by organising the non-Labour left.

For now, however, the unions and most constituency Labour parties remain trapped and cowed. This may continue for some time. Moreover, immediately, in the Euro-elections of June 1999, it is irrelevant whether the unions and constituency Labour parties are rebellious or Blairite. The official Labour lists have been handpicked by the Millbank party machine anyway.

Working-class election candidates against Blair-Labour?

It was never a matter of principle amongst Marxists not to stand against the Labour Party. There were, however, massive practical reasons against it. The Labour Party had comparatively open structures. It had a genuinely open-valve relationship with the unions which allowed for the possibility of a flooding-in of union activists, and for union influence at all level of the Party. The choking off of these valves puts the question of candidates in a new light. So long as most workers continued to see Labour as their party, an anti-Labour candidacy made sense only as an occasion to make propaganda for socialism. To wrap that propaganda round an anti-Labour election candidate put an additional hurdle in its path because it tied socialism to a call on workers to break with the party that they considered their own. For so long as the open Labour/trade-union structures existed, so long as living trade-union-based working-class politics could exist in and through the Labour Party, then only in very special circumstances could it make sense to stand against Labour. Now that Blair-Labour increasingly stands as an impermeable barrier to working-class and socialist politics, things are becoming different.

We in Workers' Liberty are still debating out the issue, but to many of us it seems that to continue on the old lines dogmatically is increasingly to boycott our own socialist politics and our own proper working-class concerns. Independent working-class candidacies can spread our socialist ideas to many workers and youth who would not otherwise hear them, recruit new activists, and change the balance in the unions and the Labour Parties by challenging the idea that workers have no real choice but to hope for whatever little they can get from the Blair machine.

To run such candidacies effectively presupposes a shift by the organised left away from the policies pursued in the 1997 general election. There were a few independent socialist candidates then, few enough that it would have been no real problem for the socialist groups involved to divide up areas to avoid contests. Yet in several constituencies they ran directly against each other; nowhere did the groups campaign explicitly for votes for each other. The candidates were presented as the special factional candidates of particular small socialist groups, aiming less to promote broad socialist ideas than to promote the particular group as against other socialists. The policies they put forward were made tepid - by the Socialist Party, for example - in the hope of maximising the vote, but in a way that showed confusion about what the point was. Consequently the candidates did badly and were ineffective in posing an alternative to Blair along the axis of independent working-class representation.

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