The 2005 Labour Party Conference marks a significant shift in the situation in Britain. It deserves careful study by Marxists and by every trade union and Labour activist. It was chiefly marked by a sharp conflict between the Party leadership and the trade unions. In the course of the week, the leadership suffered a series of defeats over key issues in the “New Labour” programme, such as NHS backdoor privatisation plans and the restoration of some form of right to secondary picketing for strikers.
On Monday September 26, the opening day of Conference, The Guardian carried an article with the headline: Leadership team prepares for battle with unions. That set the tone for the rest of the week. In the course of the week the leadership suffered a string of humiliating defeats, one after the other. On Monday Conference voted to restore the right to take secondary strike action, lost under the Tories. A second defeat followed when the conference overwhelmingly endorsed a GMB union motion calling for the pension age to be kept at 60 for public sector workers and linked to earnings.
Finally, on Thursday, Conference threw out the proposal of the government to introduce still more private sector involvement in the NHS. A resolution demanding the immediate suspension of private sector involvement was approved by an overwhelming majority of about 70 to 30. In addition, the manhandling of an 82-year old delegate led to a debacle by the leadership and provoked a furious response by the rank and file that is destined to have serious repercussions. This was not supposed to happen!
Blair and Brown
At the beginning of the week, the media focussed all their attention on what was supposed to be the “central issue” – the succession to Tony Blair. Lately the press has been commenting on how old and tired poor Mr. Blair looks these days. This tiredness is not personal but political. The working class has passed through the Blair school and learned some bitter lessons. There is now an angry backlash against Blair and New Labour in the rank and file of the Labour Movement. At the present time this is reflected most clearly in the unions. But inevitably it is finding its reflection in the Labour Party. What happened this week was a warning of stormy times ahead.
The days when Blair could get his ideas passed easily in Conference have passed into history. According to some sources delegates at this Conference were told: “if you do not stand up during a standing ovation, you are out.” Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that he is thinking longingly of his retirement in the Tuscan hills. But he is remarkably slow to hand over to his friend Gordon. Clearly a deal was struck a long time ago. Yet everything seems to indicate that Blair will hang on as long as possible, even though this will discredit him completely and damage Labour’s election chances.
One newspaper carried an article entitled: “Blair's selfish vanity risks poisoning Labour's future”. Tony Blair is both selfish and vain, of course, but that is not the reason why he continues to cling to office. Why is he hanging on so tenaciously? Because the ruling class fears that Brown will not be able to hold the line, that he will bend under the remorseless pressure of the unions and the rank and file, that Labour, having swung so far to the right will start to swing back to the left. They know this has happened before. That is why they are pressing Blair not to step down until the very last moment, in an attempt to keep their hold over the Labour Party. But given the ferment of discontent that exists, to postpone the day of reckoning will only be to make the conflict more violent when it finally breaks out, and break out it must.
Gordon Brown's "no going back" speech was therefore intended to steady the nerves of big business. When Brown addressed the Conference he was not speaking to the delegates but to the City of London and the ruling class of Britain. He was saying to them: “You don’t have to worry about me. I will carry on with the same New Labour (i.e. bourgeois) agenda.” The media concentrated on this all week. It was going to be a case of “the king is dead. God save the king!”
In an interview with the Sunday Times he said: "The programme of reform will continue when Tony steps down because it is the right programme for Britain. Indeed it is the only programme for Britain if we are going to compete in the era of globalisation." This is the language of Blairism, pure and simple. But the message of this Conference was very different. Although it is very doubtful Brown succeeded in winning the confidence of big business, he has certainly alienated a wide spectrum of Labour Party members and trade unionists. They do not want to get rid of Blair to replace him with Blair Mark-2. More and more people realise that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown really represent the same political trend. There is no real difference between them.
Given the mess in the Tory party, the ruling class has no alternative but to cling to New Labour. But they do not trust Brown in the same way that they trust Blair. Blair, after all, he is one of their own. He has no interest in maintaining the Labour Party if it does not accept his capitalist policies. In that case, he would prefer to see it destroyed. He has his nice little three million pound house to go to, with a comfortable pension and the confidence that his big business friends will not desert him in his old age.
The New Labour “democrats” have an ingrained tendency to ignore the views of the majority. They also suffer a marked allergy to elections, in which they might end up in the minority. The right wing has therefore suggested that no Party election will be necessary when Mr Brown takes over. But this is not a popular view with Labour’s rank and file. After Brown’s disgusting performance at the Conference it will be even less popular. Some delegates and MPs ‑ who would have a vote in such a contest ‑ openly challenged that view. They want a proper debate and the right to choose the new leader.
According to The Guardian: “Mr Brown's unambiguous message also angered some union leaders. Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, said that continuation of the Blairite modernisation agenda would lose Labour the fourth term which John Prescott's opening conference speech invoked yesterday.
“Tony Woodley, general secretary of the TGWU, and Amicus's Mr Simpson said that ‘inappropriate’ New Labour policies could lose them the election of 2009-10.
“Unison's leader, Dave Prentis, called Mr Brown's comments ‘very disappointing’ and warned against ‘going back to the Thatcher days of the market’. The GMB echoed that view. Ministers believe that is the opposite of the truth and that voters are broadly in favour of their strategy.”
The attitude of the trade union leaders is only a pale reflection of the seething anger among the rank and file. The battle lines are being drawn for a ferocious struggle in the Labour Party in the coming period.
The attitude of Blair and his faction is like that of the absolute monarchs of old. Louis XIV famously remarked: “L’etat, c’est moi” – “The state? I am the state!” Now Blair says: “The Party? I am the Party!” The domination of the apparatus in Labour Conference resembles the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy in a one-Party totalitarian state. Not even the slightest dissent is tolerated. The rules for electing Conference delegates have been carefully rewritten to ensure that most delegates are inexperienced and easy meat for the platform to deal with. In case any awkward delegates are elected, the Party machine immediately swings into action. The delegates concerned are invited outside the Conference, where they are subjected to brutal arm-twisting by Party full-timers.
The Blairite apparatus has rigged the Conference from top to bottom. In the past at least it served as a forum for debating policy, although in practice the leadership usually ignored Conference decisions. Now the last vestiges of Party democracy have been destroyed. With the most astounding cynicism, the people who are always harping on about “our democratic values” have trampled democracy underfoot.
John MacDonnell, speaking on the BBC’s World at One programme, stated that this incident was not at all isolated but only the tip of the iceberg. The root of the problem was the complete lack of respect of the leadership for the opinions of the Party membership. What was the point, he asked, of going to a Conference where resolutions are passed by big majorities, thereby becoming Labour Party policy, and then a government minister gets up and says: “This is not government policy.” He also cited cases where delegates were text-messaged to instruct them which way to vote.
As in everything else, the Blairites have double standards. They eject an 82-year old man from the Conference, for heckling. Yet at the meetings of the PLP, whenever an MP attempts to criticize the official “Party Line” (i.e. the Line dictated by the Prime Minister’s Office) a number of Blairite cronies immediately commence organized heckling to intimidate the dissident MP and reduce him or her to silence. At the Fringe Meeting of the left wing Labour Representation Committee, former Labour MP for Halifax, Alice Mahan, gave a striking picture of meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which shows that the same strong-arm tactics are used to silence dissenters even at this level. It was torture to attend these meetings, she said.
The systematic neutering of the Party Conference is only part of the Blairite tactic of hijacking the Labour Party. The real aim of Blair and his right wing clique was to change the class nature of the Labour Party, breaking its links to the unions and turning it into a second edition of the Tory or Liberal Party. In fact, Blair has made no secret of the fact that he considers the setting up of the Labour Party a hundred years ago to have been a mistake.
Tony Blair himself has nothing in common with Labour. His membership of the Party is a mere accident, dictated purely by career considerations. He would be equally as happy – much more happy, in fact – in the Tory or Liberal Party. He is, in fact, a bourgeois politician with a bourgeois agenda. That is why the ruling class is so delighted with him. He has got away with murder, carrying out Thatcherite policies that would have been unthinkable for a Tory administration.
The extreme right wing policies of New Labour have driven away Labour voters in droves and turned the Labour Parry into an empty shell. Party membership has plunged. Many of those who have left are Blairites, now disillusioned with Blair. But many are left-wingers and Labour stalwarts, sickened by the rightward drift of the Party and alienated by the repressive and dictatorial atmosphere that reigns at every level within it.
Failure of Blair agenda
Yes, all this is quite true. But there is also another side to the coin. Despite all the rigging, the dirty tricks and the bullying of the apparatchiks, the Blairites were unable to prevent the emergence of a clear oppositional trend in the Conference, centred on the unions. This represents a big difference with the past, when it was the local CLPs that were on the Left and were systematically thwarted by the bloc vote of the trade unions. Now the boot is on the other foot.
The Labour party conference inflicted its first defeat on the leadership in a vote to allow secondary striking in the wake of the Gate Gourmet affair. In the week before the Conference the big four unions at the TUC called for supportive, solidarity action to be made legal after the sacking of 667 staff at the in-flight food firm saw British Airways baggage handlers down tools in sympathy. Delegates on the floor voted in favour of the resolution on this issue, which was put forward by the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). In the past, the Labour leadership would call the union leaders into a smoke-filled room and twist their arms until a rotten compromise was reached, but not any more. All attempts to reach a compromise on the issue of solidarity action broke down.
The resolution sparked a furious row during the debate. It overshadowed the build-up to the prime ministers' big address in the afternoon. William Bain, from Glasgow NE, was jeered when he claimed the call amounted to a "return to the employment practices of the 1970s or '80s". The MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, Robert Flello, was also jeered when he urged delegates to reject the resolution. But four sacked Gate Gourmet workers received a standing ovation from the conference, one of them breaking down in tears at this gesture of support.
Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, defending the resolution, said: "It's about protecting workers' dignity and stopping bosses victimising ordinary men and women." Woodley said the case exposed "severe weaknesses" in labour laws, which allowed the "legal exploitation and bullying" of staff.
"It is unacceptable and immoral," he said. "We aren't calling for wildcat action. We aren't calling for flying pickets. What is this movement about if it isn't solidarity with those less able to defend themselves?" He also attacked ministers for taking so long to condemn Gate Gourmet management.
Gerry Doherty, of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, said Gate Gourmet workers were in a "David versus Goliath" position and warned delegates not to be "hypocritical" by applauding Gate Gourmet workers and then voting against the motion. He attacked Blair for telling a recent TUC dinner that no Labour government would restore the right to take secondary action. Mr Doherty said: "I don't think it is up to the current prime minister to tell us what we are going to do in the future, because we will deal with that when it comes." Ed Blissett of the GMB warned that it was "simply unacceptable that in the third term of a Labour government" workers could be sacked while absent from work due to sickness or maternity leave.
Alan Johnson, the industry secretary, was defiant. He told delegates: "In our quest for full and fulfilling employment we realised that we could not go through the 80s and 90s only to emerge in the 70s. Back then this party supported secondary action and opposed the minimum wage. Now it's the other way round, and that's how it needs to stay." But Conference ignored him and voted by a majority of 70 percent to back the resolution.
A stinging defeat
This was a stinging defeat, but the “democrats” of New Labour knew how to react. The Party leadership promptly announced that the defeat would be ignored. But there was no disguising the fact that the secondary picketing vote is a blow to Blair and Brown, who vowed to oppose it. To make matters worse for the leadership, only a manoeuvre by Ian McCartney prevented Labour's national executive committee from backing that stance.
Displaying the usual New Labour aversion for elections where the result is not decided in advance, McCartney prevented the vote by adjourning the NEC meeting after it appeared that a narrow majority of the 32 members would support secondary picketing. Had the vote gone ahead, it would have been the first serious policy defeat of Mr Blair's leadership by the NEC since 1997. That such a situation could arise even on the normally docile NEC is a clear sign that Blair's authority is slipping away. The Guardian reported:
“In a day of frantic backstage power politics, some NEC members repeatedly asked for the meeting to be reconvened so they could express support for solidarity action. The leadership eventually struck a deal with the Amicus union involving a compromise on pensions in return for the unions not inflicting a defeat on Mr Blair. The NEC reconvened in mid-afternoon and decided to not to make any recommendation on solidarity action.
“In an increasingly familiar pattern, the vote showed a clear divide between union and constituency representatives. Downing Street claimed the unions had put themselves in a dangerous position by being seen to be out of step not just with ministers but with the constituencies.”
On the contrary, the unions are expressing the will of their members and of millions of workers in Britain who are being denied their most elementary democratic rights (as we know, democracy is not a strong point of New Labour). It is really ironic that the right wing leadership – who are out of touch with everybody – should appeal to the constituency parties. In the past they were quite happy to base themselves on the bloc votes of the unions to counteract the left wing resolutions from the CLPs. Now it is the other way round. They are trying to base themselves on the votes of moribund and empty local parties, whose delegates are manipulated, intimidated and instructed how to vote by text messages, against the votes of the unions.
On Wednesday the Labour leadership suffered a major defeat on pension policy after a fierce if truncated debate. Delegates voted heavily in favour of a motion calling for a universal state pension linked to average earnings, and for compulsory contributions from employers and employees. David Blunkett, the pensions secretary, and another New Labour “democrat”, insisted the vote would be ignored. It nevertheless circumvents the forthcoming pensions review by former CBI chief Adair Turner and a white paper looking at options for a Labour fourth term.
On Thursday, the last day of Conference, a motion calling for an end to the "further expansion of the role of the private sector into the NHS" was also supported by a big majority. Once again, the unions took the lead. The motion was tabled by Dave Prentis, the leader of Britain's biggest union, Unison. He told the conference: "An NHS driven not by patient need but by profits and markets - is that really our vision?” Accusing ministers of not consulting on the policy change, he said health visitors, community midwives and district nurses were threatened with transfer to the private sector and with being "left to the vagaries of the market". He condemned this as "government by diktat" and said it was "simply not acceptable from our Labour government".
Iraq – or how to deal with hecklers
The leadership had manoeuvred Iraq off the agenda, which was a scandal, considering the importance of the question and the well-known fact that the immense majority of Labour supporters oppose the war and the occupation of Iraq. But no matter how they intrigued and wriggled, it was impossible to avoid the question. It was present all the time, if not on the floor of Conference, then in the foyers and bars and the streets outside.
Barry Camfield of the TGWU, used the debate on Britain and the World to attack the government’s record on Iraq and demand withdrawal of British troops: "You cannot invade a country and declare war on it on an unacceptable and false premise then decide to occupy it on the basis that you were wrong in the first place and that it might be a little embarrassing or involve a loss of face to give Iraq back to the Iraqis. […] Our troops should be pulled out now and quickly.”
This speech was greeted with a loud ovation from delegates. By contrast, Jack Straw was heckled as he told the Labour party conference Britain was in Iraq "for one reason only - to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation". Iraq took up only one page of Mr Straw's nine-page speech on foreign affairs. This manoeuvre was so blatant that it naturally sparked a bout of heckling in the hall.
Now heckling is a very old part of the tradition of British democracy, and any half-decent orator knows how to deal with hecklers. But New Labour hacks like Jack Straw are, as we know, not really very good at democracy. They are as bad at public speaking as they are at everything else except conniving and intrigues. People who are capable of ordering delegates to come to their feet during standing ovations and sending delegates text messages instructing them how to vote will naturally regard heckling as a crime equivalent to high treason, to be punished accordingly.
The full extent of the Blairite bullying was exposed when New Labour apparatchiks brutally manhandled an 82-year old man who dared to heckle while Jack Straw, the Foreign Minister, was speaking on Iraq. This disgraceful episode was compounded by the fact that the man concerned was not some wild ultra-left but a Party member for over 50 years. This contrasts sharply with the record of the middle class Blairite carpetbaggers, who have infiltrated the Party in droves in recent years in search of careers.
Not only was he forcibly dragged from the hall, but once outside, Mr Wolfgang had his pass seized by police acting under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Here New Labour really touched bottom, even by their own standards. But the days when they could get away with such things with impunity are long gone. The mood of the delegates, already critical, turned to fury. These strong-arm tactics are completely alien to the traditions of Labour. They aroused indignation on the floor of the conference.
Sensing the mood, the leadership was forced to retreat. The real problem, however, was that the incident was captured on the television screens and seen by millions of people. Blair was forced to make an uncharacteristic apology to limit the damage to his democratic and Christian image. The zealots of New Labour had broken the Eleventh Commandment, the most important one: Thou shalt not be found out!
On the last day, the incident continued to haunt the leadership. There was a plethora of apologies, which reeked with hypocrisy and fooled nobody. Walter Wolfgang accepted the apologies with dignity but warned: “You cannot stifle debate by hiring heavies. A party has got to be open to the world and must discuss international problems, because if you do not discuss them they are not going to go away.”
On the same day, the trade unions inflicted yet another sharp defeat on the government by throwing out its plans to expand the role of the private sector in the NHS, ignoring a desperate plea from health secretary Patricia Hewitt. She argued that the NHS had always “made use of” the private sector, not least the pharmaceutical industry. That is to say, the big pharmaceutical monopolies have for year been making use of (i.e., plundering) the NHS.
In the course of her speech, she asked: "Haven't we learned that profits are not a dirty word? They are part of a dynamic economy and they are helping build 100 new hospitals as well?” As a good New Labourite, she is a fervent admirer of the profit system. But she appears to imagine that profits come out of thin air. She did not explain that in making these profits /not a dirty word!), the private sector is plundering the state, enriching itself at the expense of the taxpayer, worsening conditions for NHS staff and undermining the whole basis of the National Health Service.
The minister’s words cut no ice with the Conference. In a stormy debate Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, the biggest NHS union, argued that ministers have persistently failed to consult patients, NHS staff and even MPs over "fundamental changes" that threaten to fragment the service and reintroduce "destructive markets and competition" into the system. Union opposition made it impossible for the government side to win. Ministers were reduced to hoping that a majority of constituency delegates would support them. In the end, once again, the leadership was heavily defeated on a key element in New Labour’s right wing agenda.
This Conference ended not just in a defeat but in a rout for New Labour.
Blairism, a liability
Under the leadership of Blair and his cronies the Labour Party has languished and declined. Party membership has slumped from around 400,000 in 1997 to 201,000 at the end of 2004. Affiliated union membership is down too. On May 5 just 9.5 million people voted Labour - 4 million down on 1997. In the modern era Labour has only once polled fewer votes than it polled this year, and that was in 1983, an election in which Labour came close to extinction. Labour won the support of only 35.2% of UK voters in 2005, a lower share than it got under Jim Callaghan in 1979, in an election that it lost.
In the face of these figures the argument that Tony Blair and the New Labour “modernisers” are the reason for Labour’s electoral success is completely unsustainable. The main reason why Labour continues to win elections is because the Tory Party is in a state of complete prostration and internal disarray. The truth is that Labour has been winning elections not because of Tony Blair and his right wing gang but in spite of them.
The warnings by trade union leaders that, unless Labour changes course, it can go down to defeat at the next election is not an empty one. The Tory Party will not remain forever in its present state. To the degree that Blair and the other New Labour crowd (including Gordon Brown) continue with capitalist policies, Labour’s supporters will be disillusioned and the Tories can win back lost ground. The Party faces significant electoral defeats in the local elections next spring, especially in London.
But the prospect of electoral disaster is beginning to concentrate minds, even in the PLP. So long as Blair seemed to guarantee victory (this was always an illusion, but many believed it), opposition within the Party and unions remained muted. But now the mood is beginning to change. The Guardian explained the electoral arithmetic:
“Twenty Labour MPs have majorities of less than 1,000 votes now. A swing against Labour next time of the sort which the voters inflicted in 2005 would remove its parliamentary majority altogether. That generates a very different kind of political reality to the sky's-the-limit feeling of 1997 and 2001. Labour MPs who feel the electoral earth moving beneath their feet are unlikely just to wait patiently for the end.”
The stage is thus being prepared for a revolt against Blair and Blairism, even within the PLP. The main problem is that the Left is still very weak and amorphous. Even so, the ruling class will be watching the situation very closely. They will have been alarmed by the events at this week’s Conference, which prove that ultimately the Blairite agenda for the Labour Party has failed. He has failed to break the umbilical chord that links the Party to the unions. And despite all the efforts to neuter and control the Party, the rank and file are beginning to find their voice and reassert themselves.
David Clark, a former adviser to the Labour government, writes in the pages of The Guardian:
“The Labour party is in urgent need of renewal and that can't happen until Blair has gone. The party that met in Brighton is visibly exhausted. More than a third of constituencies failed to send a delegate and the ones that did turn up seemed lost and demoralised. Membership is below 200,000 and falling, and the base that is left is ageing and largely inactive. Labour is in a state of incipient organisational collapse. With Blair still in charge, next year's local elections threaten the sort of wipeout that would leave Labour effectively moribund in large parts of the country. The great worry for Gordon Brown must be that, like Major, he will inherit a party broken beyond repair.”
And he continues:
“It was clear even before Brighton that Blair's purpose for remaining in office is to constrain his successor. The Blairites realise they can't stop Brown, so they are determined to create an environment in which it will be hard for him to pursue his own political course. This is what lies behind the shrill insistence that Labour must not vacate the centre ground. It is a cynical ploy and one that carries dangers for Labour. It involves the exaggeration of the policy differences that exist within the government and the stigmatising of Brown as a recidivist who, given half a chance, would revert to Labour's failed past. Their objective is to force Brown to overcompensate by tacking right, but the risk is they will be so successful that the label will stick regardless of what he does, and the post-Blair Labour party will struggle to keep its electoral coalition together.
“Subconsciously, this may even be part of their design. Electoral success is Blair's only real personal achievement of note and it would rather suit him if Brown were to falter at the polls, especially if it could be blamed on his more ambitious political agenda. The corollary of the argument that Blairism is the only way is the desire that everything else should fail, and it is possible to detect in the manoeuvrings around Brighton an element of wilful sabotage. It is a distasteful conclusion, but what this reveals is a truly monstrous vanity. Blair's remaining time in office will be consumed by the search for vindication regardless of the cost to his party.”
These words are significant. They mean that Blair and his cronies would actually prefer to destroy the Labour Party than give up their control of it. And this closely corresponds to the purpose of the ruling class that stands behind them. That is the fundamental line that divides the Labour Party from top to bottom on class lines. The leaders of the unions – even those who are not on the Left – do not want to destroy the Labour Party. Nor do the great majority of Labour Party members.
The Blairite carpetbagger seem strong because they have occupied the top positions in the Party apparatus. They have a base in the PLP, although this may not be as strong as they imagine. But at rank and file level they are weak and will be even weaker as the struggle inside the Party unfolds. Ultimately, they will be vomited out of the Party like the aliens they are. The opposition is set to grow, making life increasingly uncomfortable for these bourgeois elements. There will be turmoil and upheavals at all levels.
A bourgeois Party?
The bad situation in the Party have prompted some people to ask whether the transformation of the Party is now irreversible and whether the Labour Party has not been changed from a workers’ party to a bourgeois party. The ultra-left groups on the fringes of the Labour Movement consistently harp away on this theme, like an old record with a repeating groove. They really have no other song to sing. But many honest workers are asking the same question.
The answer to this question is given by the whole history of the Labour Movement, which over the years has experienced many changes, both to the right and the left. The class nature of the Labour Party is ultimately determined, not by this or that leader, but by its historic relation to the class.
In the course of its history, the working class comes to the conclusion that it requires a political expression. This does not happen every day! Historically speaking, the proletariat has only ever created a mass political party on two occasions: the Second and Third Internationals (the Socialist and Communist Parties). When the working class looks for a vehicle to express itself politically, it always moves in the first place through its traditional mass organizations. This is a profound sociological law that knows no real exceptions – at least as far as the developed capitalist countries are concerned.
This law continues to operate even in Britain at the present time. It is true that at the moment, the workers are not moving through the Labour Party. Mostly they are disgusted with Blair and New Labour. But where are they expressing themselves? Through the ultra-left parties that claim to present an alternative to Labour? A quick glance at the election results suffices to answer this question. The working class does not even notice these groups, despite all the noise they make. It does not know they exist. The working class can never express itself through small organizations. The fact is self-evident for anyone that still has a brain to think.
When the workers turn away in disgust from Labour (which happens regularly when they are disappointed by the policies of the right wing) they do not look for an alternative outside the Labour Party, but simply go home and sit on their hands. More correctly, they pass from the political field to the industrial field and look to the trade unions to offer a way out. That is particularly the case in Britain with its very long traditions of trade union organization.
As long as the unions remain as an integral part of the Labour Party, Blair could never succeed in his plan to transform it into a bourgeois party like the US Democrats. The key to the Labour Party has always been the unions, and this is still true today. That is understood by the ruling class and explains why they are always demanding that the link between the Labour party and the unions must be broken, to “free” the Party from the influence of the unions. Ironically, the ultra-lefts have exactly the same position as the ruling class and Tony Blair on this question.
The demand that the unions should break from Labour is profoundly mistaken. It would be a big step back and would throw the Labour Movement back to its starting point a hundred years ago, when the trade unions set up the Labour Party to secure the representation of the working class in parliament. What is necessary is not that the unions should “contract out” but, on the contrary, they should contract in, and begin a serious struggle to get control back from the alien right wing elements that have hijacked the Party. With a serious campaign, that task should be easily realizable.
Transform the Labour Party!
In the past, the unions were under the iron grip of the right wing. The union bloc vote was always used by the Labour leadership to defeat left wing resolutions from the local Party organizations. The Lefts used to complain about this and demand the abolition of the union bloc vote at Labour Party Conference. The Marxists in the Labour Party always opposed this demand. We pointed out that the working class would transform the unions through struggle and the unions would swing to the left. This has now been shown to be correct.
It is true that the unions in Britain have lost many members in recent years, partly from the closure of factories and mines where there was a high level of unionisation owing to the wholesale destruction of manufacturing since the Thatcher years, partly because of the anti-union laws that shamefully remain on the statute book, but also partly because of years of right wing trade union leadership that was totally incapable of fighting for workers’ rights or even to defend the gains of the past.
However, in the last four or five years a change has begun to take place in the unions. It is quite natural that the change should affect the industrial arm of the Labour Movement before the political arm. The unions, for all their faults and deficiencies, are much closer to the working class than the Labour Party. As the class begins to reawaken, they are the first to reflect the change. But at a later stage this will be reflected inside the Labour Party, to which the majority of unions, including most of the biggest ones, remain affiliated.
The beginning of a change in the unions was reflected in the defeat of one right wing general secretary after another in union conferences. It is true that in many cases the newly elected general secretaries were at best only soft lefts and inclined to wobble. But as a symptom of a change in the mood of the class, these developments were very important. We now see the early beginnings of a reflection of this change inside the Labour Party. It is wrong to exaggerate, but even more incorrect to deny that a change has already begun.
The task of the Marxists is first of all to maintain a clear perspective, and not to be blown off course by ephemeral events. Our orientation remains firmly directed to the Labour Movement – in Britain that means the Labour party and the trade unions. Our first task is to win the new generation of youth to the ideas of Marxism. It is true that today these layers are not to be found in the Labour Party, which alienates the youth and the militant workers and pushes them away. Therefore we must have flexible tactics, but always keeping in mind the overall perspective.
It is necessary for Marxists to analyse carefully all the processes and trends that are occurring in the mass organizations of the working class. Simply to put a cross over the Labour Party, to draw the conclusion that it is a bourgeois party and cannot change, is short sighted in the extreme. It is the same incorrect method that only a few years ago drew equally pessimistic conclusions about the British trade unions, when they were dominated by the likes of Sir Ken Jackson. Let us remind ourselves that the ultra-lefts used to argue that it was impossible to change unions like the T&G, Amicus, the ETU and the G&B, and actually advocated splitting the unions to set up “left” unions. This has been shown to be completely false. The unions are now experiencing a process of change, reflecting the first stirrings of the working class after a long period of relative quiescence.
The mass organizations of the working class reflect the movement of the class itself. The working class does not move in a straight line. There can be long periods when it is dormant. Thus, Engels spoke of the “40 years winter sleep of the British proletariat”. The same Engels explained that in history there are periods in which “20 years pass as a single day”, but he added that there were other periods in which the history of 20 years can be summed up in 24 hours.
The period into which we have entered is one of the most turbulent periods in history. Dramatic events are unfolding on a world scale. It is unthinkable that Britain will forever remain aloof from the general world disorder. How can the Labour Party not be affected by the general mood in society? To ask the question is to answer it! In the next few years we can confidently predict that the mass workers’ organizations – both the unions and the Labour Party ‑ will be shaken from top to bottom. Not one stone upon another will be left of the ramshackle edifice of Blairism, which is built on sand. It will be blown away by events.
It is true that at this moment in time the Labour Left is weak both organizationally and above all politically. Nevertheless, the Left is destined to grow. The whole pendulum will swing sharply to the left, reflecting the unbearable growth of class contradictions in society. In the next period Party organizations that have been empty and stagnant in the last period will begin to fill out.
There will be a ferment of discussion and furious debate, which was already foreshadowed at this Labour Conference. The Marxists will participate in this process and fertilize it with the ideas and programme of scientific socialism. For every one that we can win and educate today we can win a dozen or more in such circumstances. The perspective is very optimistic, on condition that we keep our heads, continue to defend the ideas of Marxism and keep our finger firmly on the pulse of the workers’ movement.