The British Labour Movement today: forward to a New Party?

August 13, 2015 at 7:15 am (class, history, labour party, left, reformism, unions, workers)

Above: former T&G leader Bevin and Prime Minister Atlee in the 1945 Labour government

By John Rowe

Introduction: In the wake of the General election disaster we need an honest and clear-sighted assessment of the left’s response to austerity. At present the loudest voices of the anti-austerity movement persist in agitating for the Labour left and the unions to abandon the Party for some, as yet ill-defined alternative – a New Party (NP). These notes are a contribution to this debate. In them I argue our starting point needs to be the organising a truly social democratic tendency within the Labour Party. In putting forward this case I start by looking at the arguments of the NP left.

The NP view of New Labour

The NP left is not a distinct grouping. Rather it is a loose tendency defined primarily by a negative; the call to break from Labour. Inside this tent we find two very different visions. Some understand the new party as the beginning of a mass revolutionary party, a view held by socialist groups within it. Others, mainly trade unionists, view it more as a refounding of Old Labour. Within each sub-set there are myriad different perspectives.

The premise on which NP advocates call for a break with Labour is common to all and founded on a seemingly powerful point: New Labour’s record and policies made possible, according to the NP advocates, by its ability to function largely independently of the unions.  Such an analysis is not just factually wrong; it enables its proponents to reduce all the political problems confronting the working class to a simple matter of representation (i.e. the Labour Party), rather than this being just one element in the systemic crisis of labourism encompassing ideology, the unions, and the method by which ‘the movement’ has sought to advance working class interests. Nor are they willing to confront the root cause of this malaise which is located in the changing working class composition.

Rather than starting with New Labour’s record a more pertinent question is what forces enabled New Labour (NL) to dominate? To answer this we need to consider how the Labour Movement functioned and why it is unable to continue in the same way today. In fact any analysis of Labour’s record needs to start not with the Labour Party but with the unions

The decline of union power

Within a decade NL had replaced social democracy as the Party leadership, enabling it to evolve in two complementary ways: while its policies embraced neo-liberalism organisationally the Party machine came to dominate and determine internal Party life. At first sight one of the most astonishing successes of NL was the eclipse of social democracy, replacing its polices with pusillanimous pronouncements about mitigating the worst excesses of Neo-liberalism and trading in its traditions and ideology with a repackaged social liberalism.

In reality the death knell for post war social democracy was sounded by capital’s rejection of Keynesianism. Keynesianism, by allocating an active role to the state, had provided the foundation for post-war reformism, allowing governments to commit to full employment, redistribution and the integration of unions into state institutions. The end of the centrality of the state inexorably recast reformism into a pre-social democratic shape. In this world unions are expelled from any meaningful engagement with the state and left to defend workers terms and conditions as best they can in an increasingly marketised economy.

It was not just NL who let slip the Keynesian anchor: so too did the Labour left. This left had its origins in the movement for Party reform which had begun in the mid 70’s and was greatly enhanced by the experiments in municipal radicalism of the 80’s. In reality their approach to politics mirrors that of the non-Party left. Both are concerned with activism organised through an ever-changing patchwork of campaigns, substituting communalism, identity politics and hierarchies of oppression (pioneered by Livingstone’s GLC) for class politics. For this Labour left the idea of defending the core principles of social democracy was never going to appeal.

Internally Labour’s democratic structures were undermined and replaced by a top down bureaucratic structure, subordinating the CLPs and severely reducing the unions’ sway over the Party. Collins is but the latest episode in this process. For many of the Blairite ‘ultras’ the goal of reform has been a rapprochement with the Liberals which would be made possible by breaking the link between Party and unions.

The Labour left continually challenged the internal reforms and were continually defeated: so far so much common ground with the NP narrative. However the advocates of the NP perspective conclude Labour is impervious to the actions of unions or socialists and therefore unreformable – a position that is only sustainable if one ignores the unions’ role in those defeats. A cursory look at the voting record shows that none of the Blair reforms could have been passed without at least some union support: if Blair was NL’s architect then the unions granted the planning permission.

The lack of tangible gains unions have obtained from Labour raises the question, why do the unions persist with the relationship in its present form? Part of the answer lies with the intimate links between the union and Labour bureaucracies. At root however the unions’ relation with NL comes about from the decline in union power. While not excusing the bureaucrats’ concessions, the decline of industrial power goes some way towards explaining their actions in the 90’s and it is this decline which explains the present.

More than in any other European country industrial power was the sine qua non of the post war labour movement. In the most elemental form of direct action militancy, strikes were on occasion able to break free of their institutional constraints taking on a society–wide character enabling unions to veto Government policy. It was this industrial strength which defined state / union relations and, in the absence of positive rights, underpinned the authority of the unions. Industrial power also informed the relations between unions and Party. When Labour acted against workers’ interests it was always the unions which brought it into line. Union pressure on Labour was how the Party was renewed, or more correctly through the potential threat of working class direct action mediated through the union bureaucracy.

The unions drove forward working class interests industrially and when unable to progress on this front did so politically through the Labour Party. This movement between the industrial and political is what Miliband senior called the cycle of labourism. In fact this cycle pre-dates the formation of the Labour Party, pointing to this division between the economic and political being the norm for working class self-organisation.

In the 1980’s industrial strength went into a dramatic and (as I argue below), an irreversible decline.  There is no better index of this than a comparison of the number of strikes and days lost due to industrial action in the 70’s with subsequent decades. The table below shows in just twenty years days lost through strikes fell by 95% of their 1970’s total while the number of strikes declined by 94%. The figures for this present decade are in line with the 2000’s.

Decade Working days lost (thousands) % of ‘70’s total Number of stoppages % of ‘70’s total
70’s 128,706 N/A 34,196 NA
80’s 72134 54% 14,264 42%
90’s 6594 5% 3,744 11%
00’s 6921 5% 1,995 6%

All then was based on industrial power and with its decline the unions lost their ability to drive the cycle of labourism as well as losing their influence over the Party. NP advocates necessarily ignore this causal relationship. In their formula it is the Party’s machine which enables NL’s growing autonomy from the unions and the pursuit of its ‘anti-working class policies’. So while their claim that the Party is unreformable may be true, it is not because of their assertion the Party has been able to build a Chinese wall between itself and the unions. The reality is the very forces that the NP people hope will eventually form a new party – the unions – remain the main prop on which the New Labour (NL) machine rests. Not only does their positon obscure the reason for NL dominance and the continued conservativism of the Party, it removes from view the broader truth that the crisis in working class representation is but one aspect of a systemic crisis of labourism caused by the decline in union power.

While there is considerable disagreement over detail what is not in any doubt is the left sees the need to ‘rebuild our industrial strength’. For NP proponents this translates into the view that with diligent application of militant policies and the correct leadership (sometimes with the existing union leaders, at others under a new leadership) unions will regain their former power. The conundrum in this scenario is if unions were to regain industrial power then they would be able to regain control of the Party and restart the cycle of labourism. However its real flaw is that unions are unable to replicate the industrial power of the early postwar period. This is not to do with this or that ‘wrong’ strategy a union might adopt: rather it is rooted in the changing composition of the working class and its relation to capital.

The heart of the matter

Globally the reordering of the division of labour is drawing many millions into the working class and also radically reshaping the employment profile of European workers. In Britain this process began in the 70’s when the dominant profile of a manual working class (organised in large factories, located in working class communities, etc) began its long term decline. Although it is still possible to point to some millions of workers who continue to fulfil these criteria the numbers of this ‘old’ working class continue to drop and with it their social weight. In its place a new stratification has emerged; predominately white collar, more heterogeneous more atomised and less economically powerful. The character of this ‘new’ working class creates a huge and as yet unresolved problem of how unions can organise it.

While NP advocates rightly reject the end of class thesis they use often this rejection to argue nothing has changed – after all if you sell your labour power you are a worker. This truth is also an abstraction it fails to take account of how changing class stratification has altered the workers’ relation to capital. We can see this in three broad areas; firstly the number of workers in social class DE and C2 has shrunk from constituting a majority to a minority as have manual workers who now constitute a 1/3rd of those employed. Second, the growth of SMEs, white collar and service sector employment, has created a new and very different set of relations between these workers and the productive process. Third the new global division of labour has severely reduced the economic power open to skilled workers such as engineers although there remains a vast difference in their bargaining power and (say) that of cleaners.

Where unions have organised these new workers they cannot, in the main, replicate steward-based organisations and certainly not the industrial power that lay at the heart of the early post war working class. Even where steward organisation continues to exist – mainly in the ‘old’ working class – it is a pale imitation of the ‘70s; stewards neither have the economic power nor are they able to fulfil the function as organic working class intellectual. ‘When I started out as an apprentice in the early 70s the steward was God – he told us what was going on and if he told you to stop work you’d stop. (Now) we have to fight for every decision’: so says a convenor in a major manufacturing plant in a location which still merits the name ‘tight knit working class community’. For sure the actions of the unions themselves, alongside  government policy, have exacerbated union decline; however the idea that the problems besetting unions are primarily found in something other than these underlying causes is simply a wilful refusal to face facts.

This change had not only impacted on the unions’ ability to defend their members: it is inexorably changing their internal structures. The decline in steward numbers and the diminution of their powers means unions are moving towards a general union structure, where the full time officer has power over the workplace. However the epicentre for internal union change is located in the decline of collective bargaining which has fallen from approx. 80% of the total UK workforce in the 1960’s to below 30% today.

Only trade unions can undertake collective bargaining, their primary function and the sole means by which they exercise power. The procedures generated by the bargaining relation (apart from legal constraints) create the regulatory framework in which a union functions – the boundary as to what a union can and cannot do. As collective bargaining falls away the hold of this regulatory framework over a union’s internal life weakens and fragments providing activist and functionary alike with far greater control over the union’s affairs. Unions become freer to take up concerns other than collective bargaining. The paradox is this ‘freedom’ arises solely from the collapse of the collective bargaining relation = a union’s raison d’etre and only real source of power.

We have shown how the constituent elements of the labour movement are changing – something that in itself is unremarkable: throughout the movement’s history different characteristics have dominated at different times:  for example, the rank and file industrial strength of the early postwar period was the direct result of relative prosperity, while in the depression of the 30’s the movement was maintained largely by the trade union bureaucracy. Regardless of these different characteristics the movement rested on the rock of an unalloyed, numerically predominant and homogeneous working class. It is the crumbling of that rock which distinguishes the present situation from the past, and why we are confronted with a qualitively different situation from what has gone before. The working class from which the unions and Labour Party grew is undergoing a profound transformation, and that is the underlying cause of the different, but parallel processes of change in the unions and Party. It is simply not sustainable to see this solely or even primarily as a problem of Labour which can be solved by the unions forming a new party.

When the economic crisis began in 2008, there was no social democratic tendency within the Labour Party and the only organised forces against austerity stood outside of the Party. The crisis of 2008 shaped what was to become the anti-austerity left (predominantly supporters of the NP perspective), and put their ideas to the test. For them the struggle against austerity would create a sharp break with the immediate past ‘washing away’ the problems facing labourism by forcing the unions to the left and superseding the Labour Party with a new more radical party.

From the people’s revolt to the Tory victory

In the eye of the crisis the state was forced to assume the role of social organiser – the regulator of the economy where the Tories promptly anointed `the people’ as the lender of last resort to the banks. The crisis did away with the lies that the market was the only means to regulate economic life and with it all social interactions. The crisis showed on the one hand, the potential social catastrophe of uncontrolled markets and on the other hand how the basis for the socialist transformation of society is found in the capitalist system itself.

By the 2010 election of the Con-Dems a consensus had emerged among the left, linking calls for large scale public sector industrial action with wide ranging political struggles based around the defence of the social wage and the NHS, and against the bedroom tax etc. For many taking part in these struggles there was a belief industrial action could turn the tide against Government and by definition replace it, while the struggle against austerity would move large numbers to the left providing the foundation of an alternative political formation to Labour. Apart from propaganda exposing Labour’s support for austerity the left’s formula ignored any notion of building an anti-austerity opposition inside the Party.

At the end of five years of the Con-Dems the unions had mounted some big demos and a number of national strikes. The idea of a general strike never progressed beyond the propaganda of small groups – propaganda which became shriller as the new left party failed to emerge. On the ground rather than talk of the general strike, the most prominent theme was one of workers ‘collaborating’ with employers to trade terms and conditions for jobs. While the main political developments around the defence of the social wage generated activists, these were largely concerned with local issues. As far as they could, the left organised the activists into what in effect were national anti- cuts groups such as the Coalition of Resistance / People’s Assembly and although the left has built similar alliances before the important difference this time was national. official union sponsorship.

With the May 2015 general election the NP programme was put to the test, and one did not need hindsight to know how it would end for them, they were routed. The main contender for the NP mantel, TUSC saw its average vote fall from a 2010 high of 353 votes per candidate to 269.  Although slightly higher than the Monster Raving Loony Party it was somewhat lower than the folks from Yorkshire First. Just a few short years after the economic meltdown a majority Tory Government had been elected. Whatever way one cares to look at this the NP project had not taken off: it had not become a movement, a party, or any kind of half-way serious alternative to Labour.

The Two responses

In Europe we have seen two broad responses to the economic crisis. Countries that came under the direction of the troika (European Central Bank, European Commission and IMF) and have borne the brunt of the crisis, have moved to the left. Two criteria seem to have generated this shift: firstly government response to austerity was to preside over a rapid collapse of welfare provision and living standards for a majority of the working class and large sections of the middle class, forcing them into penury. Secondly, the established parties (along with the banks) were viewed as corrupt and culpable in causing the crisis. The consequence has been the replacement of traditional parties by mass anti – austerity movements which are yet to congeal into coherent parties; they have either won power or have established themselves as a viable opposition. To varying degrees Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland fall into this camp.

The criteria which spawned the mass movements in the troika-directed countries were absent in the rest of Europe. In Britain we have had large scale demonstrations but these are far from constituting a movement (compare it to Ireland’s Right2Water where they mobilised 200,000 onto the streets equivalent to a demonstration of some 4m in the UK). This lack of a mass movement has led to a second response: `continuity’. In these countries there is neither widespread belief the system (as opposed to the politicians)is corrupt, nor did the lash of austerity unify class (nor will it unless the Tory Government pushes the envelope so it impacts on far broader sections of workers). Here we see continuity with the processes which pre-dated the crisis; in the UK this means the continuation of Labour’s long term decline.

There is a similarity between these mass movements with the Arab Spring and Maidan. In each case ideas for change gripped the masses, turning these respective movements into a material force. By definition they are not constituted as parties and are undifferentiated in their class composition, making them very different from the 1930’s when mass struggles expressed themselves through social democratic and Stalinist parties with rigid ideological boundaries and where the dominant alterative was the anti-capitalist anti socialist ideology of Stalinism. What underpins the difference between the present and the 30’s is the lack of any pre-existing socialist consciousness, an absence which has defined the language and character of these movements as it has with all anti-austerity struggles.

Losing the election- our turn next?

Labour’s manifesto reflected the fault lines within the Party: while it had social democratic elements such as the energy price freeze, these were add-ons, secondary to an overarching ‘austerity lite’ approach. Although polling some 9m votes Labour’s support was drawn mainly from the poor – those most affected by austerity. With the exception of young people, renters, voters in social classes D and E and BME people, the Tories maintained their margins in every other category and among the 65+ they achieved a 5.5% point swing from Labour. While Labour held on to 72% of its 2010 vote, the 28% who voted ‘other’ moved to the right as the table shows:

Party % of Labour votes transferred to other parties
Tories 8%
Lab N/A
Ukip 6%
Liberals 5%
Green 5%
SNP 5%

Labour’s mix and match economic programme once again enabled the Tories to paint it as the party of the poor rather than the worker. Once again they were able play on workers’ fears of the poor summed up in Booth’s observation that ‘to the rich the very poor are a sentimental interest; to the poor they are a crushing load’. The crisis and the fault lines in Labour’s manifesto saw the Tories update their Dickensian narrative. In this rewrite `hard working families’ engaged in the endless struggle to lead a decent independent life found themselves pitted against two foes. Not only in the struggle of each against all were they confronted with the possibility of losing that battle due to the vagaries of the market, but also pitted against them were the ‘underserving’ poor (aka ‘scroungers’) championed by the Labour Party and the Guardian-reading metropolitan elite. The right wing populist version of this plays out with the undeserving poor personified by the immigrant. This perception of the world has become the common motif across much of Europe with Ukip, the Front National and most recently in Denmark with the electoral advance of the Danish People’s Party.

Although the red-tops propagate such views it is not simply a matter of their readers being dupes of right wing propaganda. Rather the lens through which most working class people understand the world is their lives, their insecurity and fears, engendered by living in an increasingly commodified world where they are atomised and disempowered in the face of the all-powerful market. Of course such views are not without their ambiguities – the idea of fairness is not only violated by the undeserving poor is also breached by the bankers. It is not just that labour needs to adopt a social democratic programme its starting point would be a recognition of the working class as it is; a working class which is not yet social democratic let alone socialist and which is dominated by this conservative understanding of the world.

While Labour enters a period of reflection and the struggle rages over who will become its leader, the NP left would seem to have no such need for reflection: once the distraction of the Labour leadership election is out of the way, we will be treated to more of the same (though the main NP proponents, the Socialist Party, have recently announced that if Corbyn wins, Labour will, in effect, have become a new party!). With the People’s Assembly’s now firmly established it will function as their faux mass movement touted as an alternative to Labour and to some extent the unions. The irony is the anti-austerity movement will replay, albeit in a far more radical form, the Labour Party’s role of being a movement for (rather than of) the poor. Armed with the anti-austerity franchise the NP advocates will, presumably, continue to call for the unions to disaffiliate from Labour, and no doubt dip in and out of calling for a general strike. None of this with be done with an insurgent working class at its back: instead it comes with a newly elected Tory Government intent on levelling what is left of union organisation and further clobbering the poor. Surely the NP left should inscribe on their banner: ‘Our turn next’!

 Finding an expression as a class –politics as a question of political programmes.

While politics is a struggle for competing political programmes what is striking, some 30 years after the rise of New Labour and some 7 years after the economic meltdown, is that no coherent social democratic alternative exists (though Corbyn seems to be attempting, belatedly, to grope towards one). Clearly such a programme could never emerge from the Party’s existing leadership: the 2010 manifesto took us to the boundary of any possible compromise of its competing cliques. When confronted with the need to adopt a radical Keynesianists based approach, it is not difficult to grasp the intellectual cowardice and political inertia which gripped Labour’s machine and the majority of MPs. Having risen to power on the back of neo-liberal shibboleths proclaiming the end of the cyclical nature of capitalism any return to Keynes would necessarily see New Labour unravel and Labour reconstituted along the lines of a post-war reformist party. The failure to adopt a more radical programme should not be laid at the feet of the hapless Balls or Labour’s high command – rather it is a failure of the left and the unions to develop and argue for such an alternative. It would be difficult to think of a more apposite time then the last five years in which to have developed that programme.

Such a left project would have run parallel to and be linked into Labour’s manifesto process. It would have drawn on the energy and ideas of the anti-austerity movement, of Keynesians, the experience and needs of the unions, and on the broader experience of workers. In short the process surrounding its development would have become a lodestone drawing towards it forces inside and outside of the party whose goal would have been the establishment of a social democratic tendency within the Labour Party and to win the Party to its programme.

A social democratic tendency would have linked the development of its programme into the official policy-making process providing a sustained and substantial challenge to the process, filling the policy forum debates with an alternative. Its absence meant Labour’s policy making process remained largely a bureaucratic exercise undertaken by the leadership and choreographed by the party machine.

In the last five years the left and the unions have done everything but undertake this central task of developing a social democratic tendency within the Party, an approach it would seem the anti-austerity movement are intent on repeating. This failure is without a doubt the greatest strategic blunder the anti-austerity forces have made to date. If elements of the left are unable to break from this continued trajectory and form a social democratic tendency within the party, then there will be no political alternative and without that a working class political voice will be lost for a generation. Whether a Corbyn-led Labour Party can develop such a programme remains to be seen, but in the event of his victory, that must be the central task for all serious socialists.

5 Comments

  1. Steven Johnston said,

    Socialists should help create another political party that wants to work within capitlaism? You can’t make this up!
    But hang on, didn’t Arthur Scargill set one up about 15 to 20 years ago so why do we need another new labour party?

  2. Political tourist said,

    You can forget Scotland.
    That’s completely lost as far as the “British” Labour Movement is concerned.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      The Scottish working class is now a thing of the past since the emergence of the middle class Scottish nats. And all thanks to the Union.

  3. Political tourist said,

    Scot goes pop.

  4. ted edwards said,

    Having been a member of the GMB and shop steward for more than twenty years my view is tainted on them because in that time it was only us on the shop floor that wanted to fight the managers properly and because of that being a militant contributed greatly in me eventually losing my job. I think if I say Sir Paul Kenny it says it all really. If only we had had a Bob Crowe or indeed a Jeremy Corbyn.

    As for the LP yes ok there may be some things questionable about JC but boy it would be a breath of fresh air if he was elected leader. It might even make me consider re-joining although I would have to wait and see where the party was going before I did.

    Today I was at London Bridge station and spotting a couple of youngsters in their railroad uniforms I struck up a conversation with them about the RMT of which they are both members and I was disappointed to learn that they were not even aware of Bob when I spoke to them about what he had achieved for his members and he just made me realise that we really need to get such youngsters involved in their unions and wider politically because if we don’t our struggles will be that much harder.

    Who was it that said that todays call centre are yesterdays dark satanic mills and its a message that needs to be got across to the youngsters of today.

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