Which Way for British Labour Party?

One of the major differences between the workers movement in the US and in the European countries is that we have never had a mass workers’ party in the US (which, incidentally, is also why we don’t have any kind of socialized medical care). In the last few decades, though, with the ongoing crisis of capitalism, all these parties in Europe have turned sharply to the right. They have also been hollowed out of worker involvement. So much so, in fact, that some people argue that they are now capitalist parties. Some socialists used to argue that when the British workers arise, they will move into and transform the Labour Party, but now these same socialists say that things have changed and that a new mass workers’ party in Britain is more likely to be built. Roger Silverman, a long time British socialist and member of the Workers International Network, who used to take the position of a transformation of the Labour Party, explains the different perspective below:

We note the modest gains made by the “centre-left” in elections to the national executive committee of the Labour Party. Alongside the public sector strikes, the hundreds of thousands on TUC marches, the mass meetings organised by the People’s Assembly and the Coalition of Resistance, the formation of Left Unity, etc., the beginning of a modest polarisation within the Labour Party represents yet another small sign of the growing tensions caused by the government’s savage attacks on living standards.

I had not heard before of the “Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance”. Somehow its name reminds me of the new party once founded by the Czech revolutionary satirist Jaroslav Hasek: “The Party Of Moderate Progress Within The Bounds Of The Law”. Nevertheless, the fact that it has won a few seats, albeit on a Labour Party committee which has long ago been stripped of any political power, does represent another small sign of the pressures building up.

Len McClusky

Another is the warning by Len McCluskey of the trade union UNITE that his union may break away from Labour and pour both the funds from its political levy and the energies of its activists at regional and local level into the founding of a new party.

We should not dismiss out of hand the prospect of a breakaway from the Labour Party by one or more trade unions. Those comrades who are sympathetic to the Labour Representation Committee are adamant that Labour will be reclaimed for socialism by its rank and file. Those who support the Socialist Party (Committee for a Workers Iinternational) put their faith in the evolution of their electoral slate the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition into the nucleus of a new workers’ party. Both schemas would be exploded if Len McCluskey were to take practical steps to put into practice his repeated warnings that unless Labour under Miliband delivers, UNITE will take steps to launch a new party. So when further evidence appears that this might really happen, those from diametrically opposed points of view categorically rule out any such development. From opposite angles, each brushes aside a possibility that threatens to undermine their own preconceived pet templates.

New World Situation

But life has changed. Workers across Europe are being driven back into the pauperism, repression and violence of the first half of the twentieth century. In Britain, 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.

One way or another, a resolution must come to the historic paradox of the Labour Party. Whether through a victorious reclamation by the trade unions (which would mean 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 by the trade unions, either of these variants would represent a major new beginning.

“Something has to Give”

Something has to give. If Labour loses the next election (a clear possibility), then inevitably mass resistance will manifest itself through other channels. On the other hand, if Labour wins, then an explosion is all the more likely. A Labour government which continues the same programme of austerity and repression can expect to retain the loyalty of its voter base only for so long. 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, and those trade unions representing the most victimised working-class families will be at the forefront.

Socialist activists are all 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.

“Hedging Bets”

I have been criticised for “hedging my bets” (paradoxically, at the same time as for making predictions that were too categorical), but either way the contradiction between the pro-capitalist leadership and the trade-union base of the Labour Party break will certainly lead to an explosion; and in my opinion, almost certainly through a breakaway by several trade unions, probably following the next general election.

Next British Election

The next election is “too close to call” in terms of which party will win how many seats in parliament. However, the election can hardly be characterised as a “neck-and-neck” race when it hinges so completely on differential desertions, on a balance of respective apathy: how many Tory voters will vote UKIP, how many former Labour voters will feel motivated to vote, the likely beneficiary of the Lib-Dem wipe-out, etc.

“Two Party System” Already Broken

It has been argued that the traditional “two-party” electoral system in Britain rules out the formation of any new workers’ party because, they say, it crowds out minority parties and inhibits people from “wasting” their vote. They are blinding themselves to the fact that the traditional two-party system is already irrevocably broken down, due to mass disgust by the electorate at the performance of both parties.

In 1951 the two main parties between them received 96.75% of the votes. In 2010, this had shrunk to 65.04%. In the same period, the share of the LibDems, which had been virtually wiped out before the First World War and been reduced to little more than a historical relic, had grown from 2.55% to 23.03%, reaching within six percentage points of Labour. The vote for other even smaller parties had risen from 0.7% to 11.93%.

Never mind a “two-party” system, even to talk about a “three-party establishment” is becoming outdated. Even leaving aside the 56 Lib-Dem MPs, how do comrades explain the recent election victories of other minor parties? The Scottish Nationalists have six MPs; Plaid Cymru, three; Independents, three; Respect, one; and the Greens, one. All of these were elected under the so-called “first-past-the-post” system which is designed to exclude “fringe” parties.


That’s before we even mention UKIP (note: a right wing nationalist party), which will almost certainly win a bye-election next month, and which seems almost certain to pick up at least a few more seats at the next general election.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland (admittedly under the special circumstances of armed conflict), the same process has gone even further. Both of the two traditional mainstream communal parties (the Ulster Unionists and the Social-Democratic Labour Party) have been eclipsed by new, even more sectarian, alternatives: the Democratic Unionists (who have eight MPs in the Westminster parliament) and Sinn Fein (five MPs). In addition, expressing a direct rejection of both traditions, the Alliance party also has one MP.

Scottish Independence?

And, last but not least, what about (excuse the cliché) the really monstrous “elephant in the room” that no one so far has even mentioned? The most glaringly obvious sign of the terminal crisis of the traditional establishment parties: the imminent threat to the very survival of the United Kingdom. A generation ago, the Scottish National Party was regarded as a quaint folk curiosity. Now it doesn’t just dominate Scottish politics; it has come to the very brink of marching Scotland straight out of the union with England as an independent country, in just two weeks from now.

“Left Unity”

Among all the other molecular changes, the formation of Left Unity represents just one of many halting steps along the road to a new political representation of the working class… but a significant one. It may be a clumsy rough-and-ready tool, which still needs to be sharpened in action, but it is our duty 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 considered themselves “left”, but whose livelihoods and futures are under attack now as never before, and who find themselves abandoned, defenceless, disarmed and gagged by the historic defection of the Labour Party from its historic objectives. Left Unity can be a pioneering forerunner and a significant strand of a new or revived mass workers’ party.

I hope that the French comrades will spare us some time from their very energetic and successful activities to keep us informed of the momentous events within the French Socialist Party: both the breakaway by the newly-formed Left Socialist Party and the split in the outgoing government. We could all learn a lot from their experiences. (Note: This last paragraph is a reference to the international socialist e mail discussion list that Roger’s comments come from, and a request that some French socialists who are on the list comment with what is happening in France.)


Roger Silverman



Categories: Europe, politics

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