“The differences are so slight between the two brothers, indeed between all of us.”
– Andy Burnham
“Let me say, I believe strongly that we need to reduce the deficit. There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. Some of them will be painful and would have been if we were in government. I won’t oppose every cut the coalition proposes. There will be some things the coalition does that we won’t like as a party but we will have to support. And come the next election there will be some things they have done that I will not be able to reverse.”
– Ed Miliband
by Edd Mustill
Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference on Tuesday was no funeral service for New Labour. He defended the alteration of Clause 4 and the “spirit of 1997,” talked of making Labour “the party of enterprise and the party of small business,” and gave nods to supporting further welfare “reform” and public service “reform.” Anything more positive, such as a foreign policy “based on values,” was so vague as to render it meaningless (which values exactly?).
There were a lot of Cameronish “I met a man who told me…” sort of anecdotes. There were a couple of references to the Good Society. I suppose they will see how that one plays out in focus groups before they decide whether to keep using it, but it smacks of the Blairite logic of beating the Tories by using Tory political language.
Tellingly, Miliband stated out-and-out that he wouldn’t be supporting “irresponsible strikes.” We are not given any indication as to which strikes are “responsible.” It was “the unions what won it” for Ed. But this is no sense means that he stands, or could stand, in the interests of militant trades unionism.
Some on the far left see Ed’s victory as a significant defeat for Blairism and the Right of the party. Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party take this line. Workers’ Power go as far as to claim that it will be hard for Labour to ignore the wishes of the union rank-and-file, because it was the rank-and-file that delivered Ed as leader. But was it?
The breakdown of votes from affiliates shows that “Spoilt ballot” came third in the Big Three unions, GMB, Unison, and Unite. This has been blamed on the inability or unwillingness of union members to tick a box on the ballot paper confirming that they were eligible to vote.
Spoilt ballots in some unions
I’m not sure what could account for 6% more TSSA members than Aslef members spoiling their ballots unless there was at least an element, albeit an unknown quantity, of deliberate spoiling going on.
Nevertheless, the biggest sign of union members’ disengagement with the Labour Party is the turnout among the unions. Aslef, among whose members Diane Abbott came first, posted by far the highest turnout at 25.2%. Turnout in the Big Three was 7.8% (GMB), 6.7% (Unison), and 10.5% (Unite). Usdaw brought up the rear with a whopping 4.3%, within which David Miliband won a landslide victory.
The Unison figure is even lower than it seems when you take into account that only 419,142 ballots were sent out to a union claiming a million members. This suggests that the majority of workers in local government and the NHS disenfranchised themselves by opting out of paying the Labour levy, for whatever reasons.
The vast majority of unionised workers are totally disengaged from the Labour Party, even at a time when it is electing a leader for the first time in sixteen years. Within the party, we shouldn’t forget that more individual members preferred David than Ed. We may expect the Parliamentary party to back the most right-wing candidate, but for the membership to do so after fifteen years of experiencing Blairism is, to say the least, thoroughly depressing. Given all this, are we to see Labour as still, on some level, a working class party?
When is a workers’ party not a workers’ party?
For those in the Bolshevik tradition, the idea of Labour as a workers’ party that Marxists should affiliate to and work within dates back to 1920. The formative Second Congress of the Comintern held a session to discuss this question, the only session which dealt exclusively with the politics of just one country. This shows how important the Labour Party question was deemed to be. But due to time constraints Zinoviev, chairing the session, only allowed two speakers from each side.
Sylvia Pankhurst opposed working in the Labour Party, saying:
“… all members of the parties which belong to the Labour Party are subjected to the strictest discipline and when it is a question of making a showing in parliament on this or that question then they are officially subordinated to Party discipline.
In the elections, too, a local organisation can choose its candidates, but when it is a question of being put up as a candidate one must be confirmed by the Labour Party headquarters. It is the same with the individual speeches and votes.”
William McLaine, and engineering shop steward who had been heavily involved in the workers’ committee movement during the war, supporting affiliation to the Labour Party because, he said, the unions were being pushed leftwards by the course of events. McLaine went on:
“I insist on two points: first of all that the Labour Party is the political expression of the workers organised in the trades unions and must be conceived of as a political organisation, and secondly that within the Labour Party the supporters of another party retain their complete freedom of movement and of criticism.”
We can see that both his and Pankhurst’s arguments are still put forward today in very similar terms. Sylvia’s arguments about the power of the party machine are arguably even more relevant now. No one could argue that the modern Labour Party would allow revolutionaries complete freedom of action inside it, but McLaine’s view of the party as somehow organically linked to the working class due to the influence of trade union leaderships is at the bottom of the analysis of many who hold that Labour is a “bourgeois workers’ party.”
Lenin, while pushing for Communist affiliation to Labour, strongly opposed the idea that there could ever be anything as simple as the “political expression of the trade union movement” that McLaine had spoken of. He said, famously:
“whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only that determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie”
At the time, the Communist International was attempting to mark itself as a clearly revolutionary alternative to the Second International, famously putting stringent conditions on parties that wished to affiliate. Lenin’s attitude to the Labour Party was therefore contradictory, and was based on the following belief:
“the British Labour Party is in a very special position: it is a highly original type of party, or rather, it is not at all a party in the ordinary sense of the word. It is made up of members of all trades unions, and has a membership of about four million, and allows sufficient freedom to all affiliated political parties.”
This is where I think Lenin went wrong, and where we can come back to the present day. No-one, especially given the level of trade unionists’ participation in the leadership election described above, not to mention the policies of the Labour Party towards the trade union movement, would today argue that the party’s membership included the millions enrolled under the banners of the affiliated unions. The Labour Party is not the political expression of the will of these workers.
Comintern tactics in the revolutionary period following the First World War were geared towards the ruthless splitting of the working class away from the reformist movement. For Lenin the point of Labour affiliation was never to build up a “Labour Left”, and the building of an independent revolutionary Communist Party was certainly not to be subordinated to any manoeuvrings inside the Labour Party. His idea was simply that the revolutionaries eventually leave the party in a stronger position than when they entered it. Lenin argued that if the Labour leadership moved to expel the Left, this would be a victory for revolutionaries and would win them support among the class. History has since shown this not necessarily to be true, as the experience of Militant and others shows.
In Left Wing Communism, published just before the Second Congress, Lenin argued for the revolutionaries to support a Labour victory over the Tories and Liberals on the grounds that the working class had not experienced a Labour government before. Such an experience would shatter illusions in Labour and lead workers to revolutionary conclusions. Again, history tells us differently. Our class has experienced numerous Labour governments and their betrayals, and it has not increased consciousness towards revolutionary levels. On the contrary, it has served to demoralise.
The idea that workers will look to Labour in a crisis is not borne out by historical experience, or anything much more than wishful thinking. A party of liberal Fabian types and trade union leaders who have accepted social partnership instead of class struggle, cannot itself be a vehicle for class struggle. Ed Miliband represents no more than a toned down version of the right-wing liberal strand within the Labour Party which realises that it can no longer get away with openly calling for its most dogmatic excesses, like further privatisation of the public sector. He is not, and cannot be, a workers’ candidate, just as Labour is not, and cannot be, a workers’ party.
Thanks, as ever, to the Marxists Internet Archive for making the relevant sources readily available.