Perspectives for British Labour Party

(Note: The Workers’ International Network (WIN), with which this blog site is associated, maintains an online socialist discussion list. One discussion going on on that list is about the new movements rising up in Britain. Some on that list believe that these new movements will go through the British Labour Party, which they seem to see as still being the traditional party of the British working class. Here, Roger Silverman, one of the founders of WIN, answers that argument.)

Some time ago, economist Michael Roberts predicted that Labour would lose next year’s General Election in Britain. I am coming round to his point of view.

Up to recently, I had expected Labour to win a small majority, or to form a minority government, based on revulsion at the Tory/LibDem coalition’s attacks on public sector jobs, welfare, pensions, the health service, etc. I had envisaged the possibility of a short-lived government of crisis, subject to unprecedented destabilisation, presiding over economic meltdown, sabotage, riots, racist provocations, possible terrorist atrocities (with or without state collusion); and that such a government would shortly be replaced by a Tory government far to the right even of this one, following a split and merger with UKIP.

This scenario is still quite feasible. But even a brief period of Labour government is beginning to look less and less likely now.

Who controls elections’ outcome?

Under bourgeois democracy, only in the most exceptional circumstances are election results determined by anything other than the prior wishes of the ruling class. In 1945 the Labour Party swept to power as an expression of the revolutionary mood sweeping Europe, which also produced popular front governments in France and Italy, etc., and in 1974 it was mass solidarity with the striking coal miners which dealt a decisive answer to the inept Tory government’s question: who rules Britain?

Labour Party poster from 1945

Labour Party poster from 1945

In contrast, in 1964 a narrow Labour election victory was at least tolerated by the ruling class to replace a tired and corrupt establishment. Between 1997 and around 2008, however, the carefully groomed New Labour clique of Blair and Brown was directly promoted, generously funded and enthusiastically endorsed by the ruling class, as the only conceivable means of extending the Thatcherite counter-revolution onwards  under a false label, once the Tories had become too discredited to carry it on any further. For a brief decade, New Labour became beyond any question the chosen political instrument of British capitalism.

Labour Today

A Labour government today would serve no purpose from the point of view of the ruling class, which is still content with a Tory-led government presiding over an albeit brief and shallow economic recovery, still capable of inflicting further ruthless cuts and intent on further driving down the living standards and democratic rights of the British working class. And yet such is the utter spinelessness of the Miliband leadership that it has quite deliberately muted its potential appeal to the mass of the electorate, who are appalled at the Tories’ disguised privatisation of health and education and are crying out for renationalisation of energy and transport. Labour’s programme is almost calculated to dampen the enthusiasm of the workers, the poor and dispossessed. Miliband personally, with his frightened-rabbit countenance and trembling voice, is the very embodiment of capitulation. The calculation of the Labour leaders is that their only chance of regaining political office is by placating the ruling class and reassuring it that they will continue as under the New Labour brand name to do its bidding.

Ed Miliband: Does he look like a workers' leader?

Ed Miliband: Does he look like a workers’ leader?

  • To take a recent example: the latest Labour policy statement has announced triumphantly that a Labour government would be “tougher” on welfare than the Tories:
  • it would cut the dole for the million or so youth unemployed and offer them compulsory “training” on minimal maintenance grants instead. This would apply to all unemployed young people without the equivalent of A levels (a post-secondary qualification)… as if the cause of unemployment were a shortage of people with A levels! How many skilled jobs are lying unfilled due to inadequate qualifications? How many A levels are needed to stack supermarket shelves? All this policy would achieve is better educated unemployed youth. It is a policy almost calculated to alienate a new generation of young voters.

If Labour does scrape through the election, probably  with a precarious wafer-thin majority, this can only conceivably be on the basis of a low poll, a wipe-out of the Liberal-Democrat vote, and a mass defection of Tory voters to UKIP. It would lack the clear mandate or mass base sufficient to withstand the kind of hysterically orchestrated destabilisation campaign of lies, blackmail and sabotage that would soon be let loose.

The question is: what would come next?

Labour Party then and now

It is significant that it is largely those comrades who have been living abroad for decades and who are relying on distant memories of the ‘60s and ‘70s who are insisting on the fundamentally unchanged nature of the Labour Party. Their arguments are formalistic and undialectical. There have been fundamental changes. It is not enough to drag from the past the false arguments of sectarians in those dim and distant days, as they do, and triumphantly flaunt them as prefabricated instant refutations of the considered analysis that we have patiently explained. These comrades insist on “answers” to their challenges, but we can only answer what we have already spelled out at some length. They have read the relevant section of the WIN pamphlet Preparing for Revolution, which devotes no fewer than six pages (roughly 4,000 words) to this question. They are welcome to disagree with its conclusions, but if so the obligation is on them to consider seriously our arguments and spell out their reasoned objections.

The view from within

I don’t accept for a moment the idea implied by these comrades that those socialists who still remain half-hearted token members of the Labour Party regard as splitters, renegades or deserters those who have opted instead to join Left Unity or the TUSC, or to participate in events organised by the People’s Assembly or the Coalition of Resistance; any more than the latter consider rank-and-file Labour Party supporters as opportunists or careerists. Left activists of all stripes understand that this is a period of flux, and that we are all searching for the best way forward. What kind of united left party will eventually emerge is still unclear.

Birth of Labour Party – then and now

There are clear parallels in the situation today with the period prior to the birth of the Labour Party more than a century ago. The established trade unions were politically allied to the Liberal Party, much as they are today to the current post-Blair Labour Party. Alongside them were the Independent Labour Party, the principal forerunner of the future Labour Party; the Fabian Society; the Social-Democratic Federation; the Co-operative movement; various socialist societies. Later, under the banner of the TUC’s Labour Representation Committee,  most of them (with the exception of the left-sectarian SDF) merged to create the Labour Party, which went on under the impact of impending world-historical events to adopt a socialist programme.

Today socialists are groping through a confluence of routes towards a coherent role. Some remain in the Labour Party; some have found their way into one or other of the small left parties or their fragmented offshoots; some stand in elections as TUSC or No To EU; some have joined Left Unity, welcoming it as a positive initiative towards a socialist revival.

Left Unity in Britain

Where does Left Unity stand today in relation to the rebirth of a mass socialist party in Britain? It was only to be expected that the first fumblings of what could conceivably lead to the eventual establishment of a new party of the working class would inevitably be confused, contradictory, riddled with reformist illusions. Left Unity is by no means the last word. It may fizzle out, like so many previous stillborn experiments: the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, Respect… On the other hand, it could prove to be a potentially important link, a transitory step in the current period of nascent political ferment within a section of the British working class, as expressed in repeated one-day public sector strikes. To demand of Left Unity from the outset a clear revolutionary perspective and programme – let alone the instant adoption of the theoretical ideas put forward by WIN – is utterly misplaced, simply incongruous. Millions of people find themselves suddenly thrown into destitution by mass redundancies, falling wages, cuts in benefits, the bedroom tax, food and fuel poverty, homelessness and real hunger. Many thousands of them have been newly awakened to political struggle. They don’t have the luxury to engage in pedantic theoretical seminars. For them the small print can come later; they need a voice now.

Left Unity is a very clumsy rough-and-ready tool. It can only be sharpened in action. It is the duty of socialists to help transform it from a mere umbrella of “left unity” (the name itself implies a half-hearted regrouping of failed former left activists) into a force that really can unify the struggles of a new generation of working-class men, women and youth; people who may never for a moment have ever considered themselves “left”, but whose livelihoods and futures are under attack now as never before, and who have been left abandoned, defenceless, disarmed and gagged by the historic defection of the Labour Party from its historic objectives.

The last word has yet to be written. Eventually the historic paradox of the Labour Party can only be resolved either by a victorious reclamation by the trade unions, which would entail a decisive break with the current parliamentary clique of parasitic New Labour special advisers and lobbyists; or by the proclamation of a new political voice of the trade unions. Either of these variants would represent a major new beginning. It is highly significant that Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s biggest trade union and principal Labour fundraiser Unite, has spelled out a clear warning to Miliband: that if he fails, then Unite is prepared to take the necessary steps to found an alternative new party.

If Labour loses the next election (a clear possibility), then that is a likely consequence. On the other hand, if Labour wins, then a similar outlook, perhaps after a slight delay, is likewise on the cards. A Labour government which continues the same programme of austerity and repression can expect to retain the loyalty of its working-class voter base only for so long.

Can Left Unity fill the void?

Can Left Unity fill the void?

The working class can no longer be expected forever to tolerate a state of permanent disenfranchisement. There is a huge yawning vacuum which cannot but be filled. Either way, it will… and Left Unity can be a pioneering forerunner and a significant strand of a new or revived mass workers’ party.

Roger Silverman

London, July 12, 2014

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