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Can the Labour Party be re-claimed?

Is it possible that Labour can be reclaimed for socialism and the working class? There are no absolutes in politics and history knows all kinds of changes, some of them of the most unlikely character. PETER TAAFFE and BILL MULLINS analyse the growing divide between the unions and Tony Blair.

‘RECLAIM THE Labour Party? We can’t even reclaim our flat!’ complained Bob Crow, leader of the transport union RMT, about the difficulties which his union has encountered in trying to get the deputy leader of the Labour Party, John Prescott, to end his occupancy of a low-rent flat owned by the union. Ironically, Crow made this statement at a conference organised by the Campaign Group of Labour MPs in July, to precisely begin a process of ‘reclaiming’ the Labour Party.

Notwithstanding the scale of the Blair counter-revolution on policy and structure, hope springs eternal even in the breasts of former moderate or right-wing trade union leaders. John Edmonds, for instance, leader of the GMB, boldly stated: ‘I’ve come to bury New Labour, not to praise it’. Left Labour MP John McDonnell chaired the conference and appealed for ‘socialists to come back into the Labour Party’. Unfortunately, he did not say whether this invitation was extended to the hundreds of Militant supporters and others expelled from the Labour Party in the witch-hunt of the 1980s and 1990s for standing up for the rights of working class people.

But the very fact that union leaders like Bob Crow, Andy Gilchrist, Edmonds, Mick Rix, Billy Hayes and Dave Prentis supported the conference indicates that something is afoot at least at the top of the trade union movement. Some of these union leaders represent the very people, local government workers, postal workers and fire-fighters, who are coming into open conflict with the government over pay, privatisation, anti-union laws and cuts in living standards.

The mood of embittered hostility towards the government exists at the base of the unions. This was reflected in the council workers’ strike on 17 July, the tube workers’ strike the day after, as well as a series of rail strikes. London teachers have also taken strike action for the first time in 30 years and fire-fighters are planning the first national pay strike for 25 years. And the party and government, whom the participants of this conference wish to ‘reform’, are mobilising the army with their antiquated ‘Green Goddesses’ to break any possible fire-fighters’ strike. This has presented them with a dilemma. British participation in any US attack on Iraq may leave the government with not enough strike breaking troops at home! War abroad or class war at home is the invidious choice for Blair!

It is the bitter experience of New Labour in power that has led to a clamour within the unions for a reduction in the financial support for the Labour Party and from some for a complete break from Labour. It was this mood which led to the defeat of Sir Ken ‘Judas’ Jackson, Blair’s favourite trade union leader, in the recent Amicus-AEEU general secretary election. Jackson’s romance with Blair was itself sufficient for the union membership to reject him and elect Derek Simpson in his place. Jackson not only supported Blair on the privatisation of the public sector but, to the disgust of teachers, also persuaded his union to invest £250,000 in the privatisation of ten schools.

John McDonnell, writing in the Morning Star before the conference, spoke in the future tense when he stated that "New Labour… should leave the Labour Party and set up a US-style Democratic or Republican Party, funded in the US way by their friends in business and free from any constraints of policy, principle or democratic accountability". The problem for John, however, is that such a party has already been established through the Blair/Mandelson ‘project’ within the Labour Party. Blair himself openly proclaimed that he had established a ‘new party’. Moreover, the financing of this party has increasingly come precisely from similar big business sources as those that finance the Democrats in the US.

Labour broke with its long-term socialist goal with the elimination of Clause IV, Part 4 of its constitution. In its internal structures and membership, ordinary working people have been elbowed aside, as have the trade unions. They were initially replaced by an influx of middle class people, mostly liberal-inclined but not socialist. Even these, however, have been repelled in the past couple of years by the brutal pro-big business, pro-US imperialism stance of the Blair government. David Triesman, the new party general secretary, has admitted that Labour Party membership was artificially boosted by counting people as members who had arrears of up to 15 months! The ‘readjustment’ in membership means that it has fallen from 405,000 in 1997 to officially 288,000 today, but this still includes those who have not paid their subs for six months.

The New Labour hierarchy reacted with barely contained fury to Bob Crow’s suggestion that financial support from his union to MPs would be conditional on their support for union policy such as railway renationalisation. Yet , a poll commissioned by the RMT showed that 61% of the electorate backed the renationalisation of the railways and 63% believed that privatisation – dressed up in the fancy phrase ‘Public-Private Partnership’ – should be scrapped, while 88% backed the right to strike where rail employees thought conditions were unsafe.

Led by Triesman, the cry went up that Labour MPs’ votes ‘could not be bought’. Oh really! What about the millions of pounds received, which had to be given back, from the likes of Bernie Ecclestone in the ‘cash for ash’ scandal or the liberally supplied funds to New Labour by the pornographic publisher of the Express Group, Richard Desmond?

The influence of the trade unions has been well nigh nullified within New Labour by the reduction of its block vote at the annual conference, from 90% to less than 50%. Its political influence on New Labour in terms of measures to assist working people has been virtually nil. The New Labour tops have condemned the trade union leaders as ‘ingrates’. After all, hasn’t the government introduced the minimum wage? This is so low, it does not even come near the European decency threshold. Moreover, Blair has joined hands with the most reactionary right-wing leaders in Europe such as Berlusconi and Aznar in opposing any pro-worker/union legislation through the EU.

It is this reality that led to the unprecedented series of decisions in union after union to reduce financial donations to Labour. The CWU conference cut its support by £500,000 and the RMT is due to chop £700,000 over the next five years. Even the normally loyal TGWU under Bill Morris has cut its affiliation fees. This has compounded the financial problems of New Labour, which now faces its biggest deficit in history.

Paradoxically, it has been the introduction by the Blair government of ‘transparency’ in political donations which has harmed the major political parties, but particularly New Labour. Big business, it now seems, does not want to appear to be too closely aligned, to give substantial sums in case it is accused of ‘sleaze’. Hence the income of New Labour has dropped. This has necessitated Triesman proposing a subs increase at this year’s conference and extending the begging bowl once more to the trade unions for the £5.5m which Labour will pay out on its new HQ. In a referendum of ordinary trade unionists this would be overwhelmingly rejected. This will probably not prevent, however, the trade union tops from once more, despite their growls of opposition, coming to the defence of New Labour, at least financially.

‘History knows all kinds of changes’

NOTWITHSTANDING ALL OF this, is it possible, as the organisers of the July conference maintained, that Labour can be reclaimed for socialism and the working class? There are no absolutes in politics for Marxists, short of the fact that capitalism is incapable of satisfying the needs of the working class and humankind in general. Moreover, Lenin remarked that history knows all kinds of changes. Some of them can be of the most unlikely character.

In the early 1990s, the then Militant, now the Socialist Party, took a decision to work independently from Labour in order to carry on a struggle of defence of working class rights and conditions, and for socialism. It was no longer possible to do this within the increasingly rightward moving Labour Party. Many of our members and supporters were expelled merely for organising against Thatcher’s hated poll tax and, in particular, refusing to pay the tax. The further shift to the right under Blair transformed Labour into an open capitalist party.

Tony Benn, in his recent TV lecture ‘Free at Last’, maintained that Labour had never been a socialist party but had always had socialists within it. This is broadly correct but is not the whole truth about Labour history. After all, there had been socialists prior to the establishment of the Labour Party who were in the Liberal Party and there are some reformist socialists even within the Democratic Party in the US at the present time. Tony Benn’s remarks could be construed to give the impression that the Labour Party was merely a radical capitalist party with some socialists in it. Nothing has therefore changed and socialists should continue to work within it. But up to recently it was much more than this; it represented a huge step forward in the consciousness, in the understanding, of working class people in Britain. They concluded, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, and particularly the trade unions, that they needed their own party because the two capitalist parties were incapable of solving their problems.

The creation of the Labour Party, in effect, brought into being a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, as Lenin described it. This was a capitalist party at the top, whose leadership had at least one foot in the camp of the ruling class – they were not prepared to break from capitalism – but with a working class and increasingly socialist base, particularly after the October 1917 Russian revolution. This meant that the ruling class could never completely trust such a party, particularly when it formed the government, because it was susceptible to the pressure of the organised working class in particular through the trade unions.

All of that was, however, completely changed through the counter-revolution of Kinnock, Smith and, particularly, Blair and Mandelson. They created a bourgeois party, which is correctly seen by the bourgeois as entirely trustworthy, in the sense that it would stoutly defend the interests of the capitalists, as they perceived it, no matter what pressure was exerted from below. Moreover, the change in the character of this party is clearly perceived by the working class which is coming into bitter opposition with its leadership on a whole series of issues. This is reflected in a number of ways: in the turning away from voting Labour to mass abstentions – in effect, a voters’ strike – and more consciously, in the unprecedented pressure in the trade unions to break from Labour.

The conference in July constituted, if not an attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, at least to stop him falling from the wall. We do not believe that this is likely to succeed. Marxism is not dogmatic. History demonstrates that mass parties of the working class can move from left to right and back again. Bourgeois parties also, or a section of them, can break away and form the nucleus of new workers’ parties, and former workers’ parties can metamorphose into bourgeois parties.

In Greece, for instance, PASOK, which was formed in 1974 as a socialist party, with an extremely left programme, historically evolved around the figure of Andreas Papandreou from the liberal capitalist party, the Centre Union. Similarly, although on a smaller scale, MAPU, a small left radical party which was in a front with the workers’ parties, the Communist and Socialist parties in Chile, evolved from a split from the Christian Democratic Party. They later participated in Allende’s Popular Unity government.

History also demonstrates the opposite process, whereby a workers’ party, such as the Italian Socialist Party, under the corrupting influence of Craxi who laid the basis for the rise of Berlusconi, evolved into an almost completely bourgeois formation and then eventually disappeared. On the other hand, the split from the Italian Communist party in 1991 led to a new mass party in Italy, Rifondazione Comunista.

Theoretically, Marxism has never discounted that, under the impact of great historic shocks – a serious economic crisis, mass social upheaval – the ex-social democratic parties could move dramatically towards the left. Indeed, when we were forced out of the Labour Party, we worked as an independent organisation but with the perspective that events could later lead to a further shift towards the left in the Labour Party and the beginning of its transformation. Subsequent events, however, falsified this perspective. Only tiny handfuls of isolated quasi-Marxists clung, and still cling to this perspective, although most of them barely participate in the empty Labour Party organisation.

In the changed situation of the 1990s we launched the slogan for a new mass workers’ party. This idea was confirmed in the growing support for a break from Labour, with steps taken by good rank and file fighters and leaders towards the formation of such a party. Arthur Scargill’s initiative to form the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was welcomed by ourselves and others. However, the hopes that this could lead to a genuine workers’ formation, open, democratic and pluralistic, which in turn could lay the foundations for a much more powerful party at a later stage, were dashed on the rocks of Scargill’s policies and his intolerant and high-handed methods of organisation.

The SLP lost whatever support it had from good rank and file fighters such as Mick Rix and Bob Crow. Initially, Bob Crow was involved in discussions with us in an attempt to persuade us to wind up our party and enter the SLP. Crow and Rix, as well as many other potentially good rank and file fighters, became disillusioned with Scargill but have not been attracted to the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance, which does not offer a broad appeal to workers looking for a new socialist alternative.

It is this experience, combined with the shift of the trade union leaders to a more critical position vis-à-vis the New Labour government, that led to the initiative in July. Can it succeed? Is it possible, against all the odds, to recapture Labour for the unions and the working class? Despite the seemingly radical stance of the trade union leaders, most of them still standing on the right, they are moving in the opposite direction to their own members. They proposed to ‘reclaim’ the Labour Party, while the members are voting with their feet. Despite all their urging, workers will not join the Labour Party, nor will they vote for it in elections in the same numbers as in the past. They are completely alienated from Labour at every level.

David Clark in The Guardian, points out that in the new reality in the workplace "it pays to be anti-Blair". He goes on to state that union leaders "suffered in silence as the New Labour government adopted positions on workplace consultation and recognition so pro-business that even the Director-General of the CBI considered them (the union leaders) ‘craven’." These union leaders "swallowed the mantra of fairness not favours without getting either". More ominously for these union leaders, he reports "grassroots hostility to the government not seen since the darkest days of Thatcherism". Even if they decide to seriously organise to ‘reclaim the Labour party’, it is extremely doubtful that the ranks of the unions will heed the call.

Undoubtedly, there are some disillusioned socialists, ex-Labour Party members and left trade union leaders too daunted by the task of creating a new mass party, who will seize on the call of the July conference as a ray of hope. If we believed it was possible to successfully begin the process of retransforming the Labour Party in a socialist direction then we would welcome it. What is the point of engaging on the difficult task of creating a new mass formation if it is possible to renovate even a battered ramshackle party that still exists?

Unfortunately, these hopes can be cruelly disappointed in the next period. The growling of the trade union leaders has not prevented New Labour from continuing with its policy of privatisation, despite trade union representatives on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party. This is, in any case, a toothless body, which is due to lose even the limited powers that it has after the party conference. The Blairites are proposing that policy will no longer be discussed by the NEC but will be shuffled off into the ‘policy forums’, in which the party machine, including councillors and MPs, predominates.

Occasionally, the New Labour tops may allow some critical motions at the conference. This year, it seems, on Iraq, such motions will be allowed in order to ventilate opposition. But on decisive issues they intend to completely ignore the trade unions as Mandelson explained in the Financial Times: "It is unimaginable to me that an administration led by Tony Blair would tolerate the unions telling an elected government what it should do".

In 1968, the trade unions did tell Harold Wilson’s government precisely what to do – to abandon that government’s anti-union bill, In Place of Strife. Wilson promptly accepted this because not to have done so would have split the cabinet and the government would have probably been brought down. There is no possibility, as Mandelson explains, of this government responding to such pressure today. They control the machine, the overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and, ultimately, can rely on the financial backing of big business.

They would prefer to continue receiving money from the trade unions but not in the way this has been done in the past. This is why proposals are now made that, rather than block affiliation fees from the unions, money should come at local and regional levels from the trade unions to local Labour parties. This is another means of dissipating the political clout of the trade unions within the Labour Party.

Will New Labour ‘break the link’?

EVEN THE SLIGHT pressure that has been exerted by the RMT, ASLEF, the GMB and others has immediately raised the suggestion by an array of bourgeois commentators that the Labour leaders should, in effect, themselves break the link with the unions.

The means of doing this, they suggest, is the state funding of political parties. Up to now, there has been opposition to this from most bourgeois commentators but a noticeable shift has taken place. Blair is in favour of state funding but wants the Tories and the Liberals to also agree before he proceeds to introduce it. Triesman has urged him to use his big parliamentary majority to introduce this, even if the Tories and Liberals demure.

MPs now can have a salary, including expenses, of £155,000 a year! Moreover, the state financing of so-called political assistants has doubled for New Labour and dramatically increased for the Tories. A Tory MP, Andrew Tyrie, has also pointed out the extent to which the parties are already dependent on state funding. He says that if every aspect of public money – from free postage to the use of BBC licence payers’ money to finance party broadcasts – was taken into account, £67m of the £178m spent by all the parties in an election year is privately raised and the rest is from public funds.

Not just the CBI but Tory luminaries such as Norman Fowler, Lord Garel-Jones and John Maples are on record now for the state financing of parties. If this should be implemented – and there are still formidable obstacles – this will further remove New Labour from any control of the organised trade union movement. Moreover, this will not prevent corruption, as is claimed by its supporters, as the experience of Germany and France demonstrates – where state funding exists.

A serious attempt to reclaim the Labour Party for socialism and the working class would involve the trade union leaders and their Labour left allies issuing an immediate challenge at this year’s party conference. They would demand the immediate adoption of a programme for the renationalisation of all privatised industries, beginning with the railways and air traffic control, the end of all privatisation in health, education and other industries, the repeal of the anti-union laws, and the readoption of a Clause IV, Part 4 type aim to establish socialism in Britain. They would propose the abolition of the undemocratic procedures which have reduced the Labour Party organisations, including the conference, to mere rubber stamps for ‘King Tony’ and his cabal. They would seek to drive Blair and his supporters – who are capitalist agents – out of the party and invite all socialists who have been expelled or driven out of the Labour Party to rejoin.

If the Blairites block any attempt to discuss such a programme – as they surely will – the union leaders and the left should immediately call rallies and a conference to organise for a new, fighting, workers’ party. This would strike a chord amongst millions of workers and young people who are waiting for such a lead. The truth, however, is that the union leaders will not fight on this programme nor organise to defeat the Blairites. In the main, they want a greater say, they want to enhance their own position, in what will still be a Blairised party. In the meantime, the working class will face the same diet of job cuts, service cuts and a deterioration in living standards at the hands of this New Labour party and government.

It is therefore likely that the efforts now going into ‘transforming’ the Labour Party will run into the sand. If, however, despite our arguments, it does appear that there is a possibility of success, that Labour begins to change in a socialist direction, it would be false and dogmatic for any genuine socialist or Marxist to stand apart from such a process.

If there is a serious shift towards the left in the Labour Party we would seek to participate in it. However, at the moment the Labour left is historically weaker than it has ever been. John Pilger estimates that there are no more than five genuinely left MPs in the present House of Commons. Even the new list of RMT-approved MPs includes extremely dubious characters, such as Bob Wareing, MP for Liverpool West Derby, who played a pernicious role in attacking the Liverpool city councillors when Kinnock was engaged in his witch-hunt in the 1980s. Peter Kilfoyle, former witch hunter-general, is now a prominent member of the Tribune group!

Therefore, rather than dissipating the energy of socialists, trade unionists and rank and file fighters in this fruitless task, it would be far better to direct this into creating a genuine new mass pole of attraction for the working class in the battle to defend living standards and prepare for a new alternative socialist society.

Unfortunately, the trade union leaders are presently incapable of proceeding in this direction. This will not, however, prevent ordinary trade unionists, socialists, Marxists, environmentalists and workers in struggle moving in the direction of such a formation. We will give support to this as well as building a genuine force of Marxism which can provide the ideological backbone for such a new formation in Britain.


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