[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

The New View of Society

Tony Benn has compared the present set-up in the Labour Party to a monarchy. This view is shared by other commentators who have nothing to do with the Labour movement: “For the better part of a decade – between his election as Labour leader in 1994 and the autumn of 2002 – he has ruled his party in the style of an absolute monarch”, states The Economist. “Everyone owed him allegiance. No one dared question his authority.” His cabinet is servile and have long since ceased to play the role that a traditional British cabinet is supposed to play. Power had passed from the cabinet to the unelected clique around Blair. Labour members of the House of Commons are equally subservient. Party activists in the country have been bullied and browbeaten into silence, and many have dropped out in despair.

However, absolute monarchs have an unfortunate tendency to end up dethroned. They surround themselves with a camarilla of flatterers and so lose contact with reality. The same thing is happening here.

“That phase ended abruptly amid Labour’s disputes over Iraq in 2002,” says The Economist. “Tony Blair no longer appears to be, as he did during the 1990s, a necessary condition of Labour electoral success. He will be blamed for the wave of labour unrest and for the public’s discontent with Britain’s public services. Like previous absolute monarchs, he will, in the end, be held absolutely responsible.”[1]

This observation is being confirmed with every passing day, not least by the effects of the war in Iraq and its bloody aftermath. The recent changes to the left in the trade unions are beginning to spill over into the Labour Party. There are growing voices of opposition, as the contradictions of Blairism rise to the surface. The departure from the Labour Cabinet of Robin Cook and Clare Short was only the beginning. Short’s sharp attacks on Blair and his regime, in which she accused the Labour leader of deception and worse, were an anticipation of the many splits and divisions that impend. The unprecedented Labour backbench revolts over Iraq, tuition fees, foundation hospitals, trial by jury, and not least the legislation against the firefighters, are a taste of things to come. The Blair regime that seemed so solid is like a house of cards that can be brought down by a determined push. “The fear of failure is starting to wear him down. Lonely, and it seems, intellectually exhausted, Mr Blair may be starting to run out of time.”[2]

Blair is an extreme case. But his behaviour is no accident. It flows from his acceptance of capitalism and the market. In this he is not alone. All the Labour leaders harp on about the “wonders” of the market and free enterprise, as if they are a panacea for all our ills. The market must decide, they say. But the market has ruined manufacturing industry, destroyed our communities and is throwing thousands of skilled and unskilled workers onto the dole.

“We are told to embrace the policies of the market, but it is exactly those policies which have devastated the lives of Unison members”, stated Rodney Bickerstaffe in the debate over Clause Four. The same can be said of the working class in general. The working class has been asked to accept the capitalist system as an eternal and unchallengeable system. However, experience has taught the working class the real consequences of the market.

The market is depriving millions of youth of a future, and forcing them into soul-destroying dead-end jobs. It is denying tens of thousands of homeless people a roof over their heads. The free market in electricity and gas, as well as other privatised essential utilities, is just a licence to print money. It means the creation of giant private monopolies that can hold the entire country to ransom, as was revealed by blacked-out London in August 2003. The privatisation of the railways has brought disaster after disaster. As a result, the overwhelming majority of people have seen through the whole gigantic fraud of privatisation. It is even unpopular with many Tory voters. Yet Blair, dismissive of all opposition, insists he will press ahead with privatisation, come what may.

It is not enough to simply oppose Blairism. The Labour movement needs to offer a real alternative to the policies of the right wing. The Blairites base themselves on the market, which they have attempted to dress up as a new idea or a “third way”. Of course, there is nothing new in these ideas. The Blair programme simply constitutes a defence of capitalism. Blair’s pro-capitalist stance naturally has the full support of the banks and monopolies. And we should understand that anyone who accepts the capitalist system must also accept the laws of capitalism. Even those who stand on the Left would behave no differently to Blair in the end unless they stood for a complete break with the market economy.

The left reformists complain that Blair is not carrying out reforms. But this is no personal question. Under conditions of capitalist crisis, lasting reforms are not possible. Declining profit margins, reduced taxes and government deficits means that the share going to the working class has to be reduced. The capitalist class can no longer afford “wasteful” social spending. On the contrary, the gains of the past are under attack. The new harsh climate will have catastrophic consequences for the British working class. For the first time since the war, this generation will be poorer than the last. This is the real balance sheet of two decades of so-called “New Realism”. The only way to reverse this trend is to commence an all-out struggle, and this must be honestly explained to working people.

It is time to reject the language and mentality of defeatism that reflects the past in the Labour movement, not its present or future. In Britain, the working class constitutes the overwhelming majority of society. But a tiny handful of rich parasites rules over us. We are like Gulliver held down by Lilliputians. The task remains to imbue the working class with the consciousness of its own power, not constantly harp on about our alleged weakness. The main weakness is at the top – the weakness of a leadership that refuses to lead. The question is therefore posed point blank: a fight to renew the leadership of the trade union and Labour movement from top to bottom. The trade union movement must create for itself a leadership equal to the tasks that lie ahead. All else depends on this.

This must go hand in hand with the essential fight for internal democracy within the Labour movement. To succeed, the workers’ organisations must place only the most honest and self-sacrificing fighters on its leading bodies. Accountability and democracy in the organisations of the working class are as indispensable as oxygen is to the human body. Only in this way can they truly reflect the aspirations of the rank and file and safeguard themselves against the alien ideas of capitalist society.

Regular elections and the immediate right of recall of all representatives are essential characteristics of such democracy. All Labour movement officials must receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. If the pay of all officials were based on this criterion, and rose in line with the wage increases of the membership, it would directly link together the interests of all members. There would then be a vested interest on the part of the leadership to struggle on behalf of the rank and file. Of course, in order to carry out their responsibilities, officials would receive genuine expenses, as long as these were open to rank-and-file inspection. This is the way to drive careerism and corruption out of the mass organisations and transform them into militant fighting organisations of the working class.

Naturally, we do not suggest that union leaders should live in poverty. We are in favour of a decent living wage for everyone – including union general secretaries and officials. But history shows that when the leaders of the movement are paid the kind of salaries that place them in a different social bracket to the members they are supposed to represent, they tend to get out of touch and fall under the pressures and influence of the bosses. Their mentality was well expressed by one Labour leader (a former left-winger) who famously remarked: “I am in favour of the emancipation of the working class, one by one, beginning with myself.” In fact, the best representatives of the working class are not self-seeking careerists but those (and there are many of them) who are prepared to make sacrifices in order to defend the workers’ interests.

What we advocate has nothing to do with crude “rank-and-fileism” put forward by syndicalist and semi-syndicalist groupings which regard all leadership and full-time union positions as alien and corrupting. This implies that it is somehow impossible to win the trade unions for revolutionary change. Such an approach is completely barren, as it fails to tackle the essential question of leadership. For serious militants, there are no such “no-go areas” for genuine working class representation. The alternative to a bad leadership is not “no leadership”, but to fight for a good, class-conscious, representative leadership.

The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself, as Marx explained long ago. Once the working class rearms itself with a bold programme, and takes up the struggle to reconstruct society on socialist lines, no force on earth can stop it. But the prior condition for changing society is that the workers must cleanse and reshape their own organisations for this purpose. The whole of history shows that the working class does not easily abandon its own traditional organisations, least of all for small groups. In fact, in times of crisis, the mass organisations become a focal-point for the working class, moving to change society. In the process, the trade unions and Labour Party will transformed and retransformed, and from them will emerge the revolutionary forces that will strive to the put an end to capitalism. These forces will sink deep roots in the working class estates, factories and workplaces, linking up the day-to-day struggles with the need to change society. In so doing, they will furnish a trusted and self-sacrificing leadership worthy of these historic tasks.

The Marxist tendency, that gathers together the most consistent fighters for the general interests of the working class, will play its full part in helping to shape this future revolutionary movement and leadership. We will fight for the victory of the Left over the old, discredited right-wing leadership. But at the same time, we will fight within the movement for a consistent socialist policy, for the socialist transformation of society. That is the only way forward for the working class in Britain and internationally. Marx and Engels expressed this approach in the Communist Manifesto:

“Communists do not form a separate party conflicting with other working class parties. They have no interests apart from those of the working class as a whole. They do not put forward any sectarian principles with which they wish to mould the proletarian movement . . . in actual practice communists form the most resolute and persistently progressive section of the working class parties of all lands; whilst as far as theory is concerned, being in advance of the general mass of the proletariat, they have come to understand the determinants of the proletarian movement, and how to foresee its course and its general results.”

Every gain for the Left over the Right must be welcomed as a step forward in the transformation of the Labour movement. But it is not enough just to remove right-wing general secretaries and executives. What is necessary is to arm the unions with a fighting programme and policy, and to mobilise the membership to carry this out. Nor is it sufficient in the present epoch for the unions to confine themselves to purely “trade union questions”. The British trade unions must become revolutionary weapons that challenge capitalism. Most trade unions in one way or another have the objective of socialism inscribed in their rulebook. They must begin to transform words into deeds. They must use, in Marx’s words, “their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”[3]

However, it is not sufficient just to fight for immediate demands. An overall strategy is necessary. For this, a deeper understanding of the fundamental processes in Britain and internationally is required. Theory is all-important. It is a weakness of the leadership of the British Labour movement that it has traditionally neglected theory, and is afraid of broad generalisations. This, in turn, is a reflection of the ideological weakness of the British bourgeois, which from a very early date adopted the standpoint of narrow empiricism and was allergic to theoretical thinking. But theory is a guide to action. It represents, in part, the summing up of the historical experience of the working class, without which there can be no progress. An individual worker can get by on his or her own experience up to a point. But in order to bring about a fundamental change in society an understanding of the generalised experience of the working class in Britain and internationally is absolutely necessary. That is to say, Marxist theory is necessary.

It is necessary to understand the workings of the capitalist system. Boom and slump, poverty pay, dead-end jobs, unemployment, casualisation, exploitation, homelessness, run-down schools and hospitals, and all the rest, are products of the profit system. The problem is not this or that policy, minister or government, but capitalism itself. The market serves to turn worker against worker in its constant endeavour to cut costs through downsizing, out-sourcing, de-skilling, short-term contracts and flexible labour. Under the capitalist system workers are forced to compete with each other, nationally and internationally. They are engaged in a continual race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions.

Market economy means that those inventions that should lighten the burden and reduce the hours of labour have exactly the opposite result. There are more time-saving devices today than in the whole of history, yet there is no free time. Stress levels have gone through the roof. There is a greater feeling of alienation among workers of all kinds than ever before. The wonders of new technology are used to increase the toil and slavery of the working class. These days, workers are even being sacked by text message. Workers at Accident Group, a Manchester-based personal injury claims company, were informed by just such a text message that they had lost their jobs. Recipients were instructed to call a number, where a recorded message told them: “All staff who are being retained will be contacted today. If you have not been spoken to you are therefore being made redundant with immediate effect.”

For the capitalist, profit determines everything irrespective of the consequences. The right wing of the Labour and trade union movement are hypnotised by the apparent successes of capitalism. In reality, capitalist economics are the economics of the madhouse. In the past people starved through famine and natural disasters, now they starve because we produce too much! Essential food is deliberately destroyed, crops are ploughed back into the ground, and fields are allowed to lie fallow, while millions die of hunger. Millions of workers are kept in enforced idleness, while the basic needs of society go unfulfilled. There is plenty alongside scarcity, riches alongside poverty! These are the results of the capitalist market.

The pioneers of the British Labour movement opposed capitalism. They looked forward to a different future, not based upon “dog-eat-dog” competition and gross inequality. They fought for a society based upon equality, co-operation, common ownership and a Socialist Commonwealth. In contrast to the market, they fought for common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

If the Labour movement – both the trade unions and Labour Party – is to serve as a tool for socialist change, it must consistently champion the real interests of the working class. It has to adopt a consistent socialist outlook and policy. What is required is to break the stranglehold of big business over the economy. Today, according to figures from the Times 1000 Companies Survey, the top 150 companies own 78 per cent of all productive assets in the UK, and the top 200 monopolies own 84 per cent. They are the real rulers of Britain. The top 20 or 30 companies have a combined budget far larger that the National Exchequer. In other words, the directors of these monopolies have far more power than the Cabinet itself. Labour governments have talked about a national plan in the past, but that was impossible to carry out for a very simple reason: you cannot plan what you do not control, and you cannot control what you do not own. We need a genuine plan of production, drawn up with the democratic participation of the people of Britain: the workers, the engineers, the farmers, scientists and technicians, students and teachers, the old and the young. That is only possible through the nationalisation of the “commanding heights” of the economy, that is, the 150 or 200 monopolies, together with the banks and insurance companies that dominate economic life.

In other words, we need a programme, based upon the old Clause Four, incorporating the nationalisation of the banks, the finance houses, and the big corporations, with minimum compensation on the basis of proven need only. But nationalisation can only serve the interests of working people if it is run democratically on the basis of workers’ control and management. The experience of the bureaucratically managed nationalised industries of the past was entirely negative and served to discredit the very idea of nationalisation in the minds of many people. Moreover, only the bankrupt industries were taken over as a rule, in order to provide cheap coal, steel and electricity to the private sector. The policy was always the same: nationalise the losses and privatise the profits. The public sector subsidised the private sector and paid out huge sums of money to renovate the nationalised industries, which were then sold at bargain basement prices to the sharks of the private sector. This is not what we mean by nationalisation!

Those who oppose the idea of a socialist transformation will object that the ruling class will never allow this to happen. But by this logic, the working class would never have achieved the Ten Hour Act or the vote, since the ruling class was also violently opposed to these things. The history of the trade unions over the last two hundred years proves that the working class are the real defenders of democratic rights and the bearers of a new society. Without their past struggles there would be none of the freedoms we take for granted: the right to strike, free speech, assembly, vote, and so on. Every one of these rights was won against the ferocious resistance of the ruling class. Now the same people who fought against the introduction of democratic rights seek to undermine them, as is evident by the anti-union laws and other laws directed against civil liberties. These “democrats” talk insolently in their newspapers about freedom and the rights of the individual, while supporting legislation that systematically undermines democratic rights, beginning with the right to strike and demonstrate.

In fact, behind the screen of formal parliamentary democracy there is a real dictatorship: the dictatorship of the bankers, the City of London, and the boardrooms of the big corporations. As the former Tory Cabinet minister Ian Gilmour blurted out in his book Inside Right, democracy for the bourgeoisie is simply a device, to be discarded when it is of no further use to them. Parliament in practice acts as a talking shop and decides nothing without the say-so of big business. In a formal democracy everyone can say what he or she likes, providing the ruling class decides what actually happens. This was clearly revealed in the secret discussions between Lord Cromer and Harold Wilson in 1964, dealt with in an earlier chapter. It is today revealed by the pro-business policies of the Blair clique.

Some people try to frighten us with the spectre of revolutionary chaos and violence. But given the colossal power of the British workers, a peaceful transformation of society is entirely possible. The only condition for this is that the struggle does not stop halfway, but carries on resolutely to a final conclusion. The British capitalist class is the oldest in the world. It has accumulated enormous experience in how to hold on to its privileges and power. Throughout history it has shown that it will not shrink from the cruellest methods to crush those who dare to challenge its rule. “Never underestimate the British Establishment’s ruthless determination to destroy its enemies”, Roy Hattersley once stated. Though they swear by democracy in every other sentence, they regard democracy as an inconvenient necessity. The ruling class was always opposed to it in the past, and it will only tolerate democracy insofar as it does not threaten its power and privileges.

So far, the banks and monopolies have been able to exercise their autocratic rule, while maintaining the pretence of “democracy”. They have been able to bribe and manipulate the Labour leaders, who act as policemen to control and restrain the working class. As one representative of the ruling class once contemptuously commented: “You can never win because we will always buy your leaders.” But this will not always be the case. The defeat of the Labour right wing will produce a sharp swing to the left. Even if Labour were defeated at the polls, the way would be prepared for a Left Labour government at a later stage, which would further intensify the political crisis.

How exactly the socialist transformation would take place in Britain is a complicated question and falls out of the scope of the present work. Of course, we do not possess a crystal ball. Much will depend on how the crisis unfolds, the strength of the revolutionary tendency and the reaction of the ruling class. However, given our historical traditions, and the influence of the mass organisations, the working class will time and time again seek to transform and retransform the unions and Labour Party into organs of revolutionary struggle. Out of this struggle will emerge the revolutionary forces determined to carry the fight to a successful conclusion.

The movement will make use of all the democratic channels – to the degree that the ruling class, the real power in society, permits these. But it is also necessary to be realistic, and to understand that the bankers and capitalists will not stand idly by while their property is taken from them. The real struggle for power will take place outside Parliament and will be decided by the relative strength and determination of the contending classes.

If a socialist government comes to power, given the deepening crisis for British and world capitalism, such a government would be the target of plots and conspiracies by the capitalists. They possess important reserve weapons such as the House of Lords and the monarchy. They control the army, the police and the mass media. The experience of the Allende government in Chile, and the more recent conspiracies and coups directed against the Chavez regime in Venezuela, are an indication of what we can expect.

Marx pointed out in the nineteenth century that England was the only country at the time that could carry through the socialist revolution entirely by “peaceful and legal means”. However, even then, Marx warned that the ruling class would not be likely to submit without a “pro-slavery rebellion”. The same point was made by Tony Benn, who wrote:

“Extra-parliamentary activity has been a way of life for the ruling class from the Restoration, through to the overthrow of the 1931 Labour government, and the election in 1979 of Mrs Thatcher.

“In opposition, they use the Lords, where they always have a majority, to frustrate the Labour majority in the Commons. They supplement this with a sustained campaign of extra-parliamentary activity to undermine the power of Labour governments by investment strikes, attacks upon the pound sterling…”

In the face of such sabotage, a socialist government would have to mobilise the enormous power of the working class in every factory and workplace to paralyse the counter-revolution. “There is clearly an inherent right to take up arms against tyranny or dictatorship, to establish or uphold democracy, on exactly the same basis, and for the same reasons, that the nation will respond to a call to arms to defeat a foreign invasion”, stated Benn.[4]

The struggle would finally be settled outside Parliament, in the factories, workplaces, and in the streets. But with a correct leadership, the colossal potential of the organised working class of Britain would be able to defeat reaction and carry through the socialist transformation of society.

In a socialist Britain, workers themselves would provide the management for the new nationalised industries, through democratically-elected committees. Not the bureaucratic boards of the old nationalised industries, but those based upon workers’ democratic control and accountability. The trade unions will in the future become schools for educating the working class in the spirit of socialist industry. Their future role will therefore be immense. This step would for the first time place the resources of society at the disposal of the working class. A national plan would be drawn up involving all sections of the population through elected committees of workers, housewives, pensioners, small business people, small farmers, scientists and technicians and other sections.

Once the fetters of capitalism are swept away, an economy of superabundance will be made possible by the application of conscious planning to the industry, science and technique bequeathed by the old society, on a world scale. The anarchy of capitalist relations, with its waste and injustice, its slumps and unemployment, will be swept away forever. With the nationalisation of the economy the laws of capitalism would be abolished, enabling the productive forces to be consciously controlled and planned. The production for profit would be replaced by the production for need. Just as General Motors or the Ford Motor Company plan their production and investment worldwide, so democratic socialist planning would organise the different branches of industry and the economy. It would be a relatively easy exercise. With computers and other new technologies, the control and running of the economy and state will become accessible to all.

What would this mean? In the first place, it would mean a colossal increase in production and therefore in the wealth of society. Instead of the miserable growth rates of 2 per cent that is now regarded as the norm under capitalism, socialist planning will guarantee an annual growth rate of 10, 15 or 20 per cent and rising living standards. Can we prove this? Yes, quite easily.

According to Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, on a capitalist basis, if there were no unemployment, “the Exchequer would be better off by nearly £20 billion a year, through saving on unemployment benefits and collecting taxes. So unemployment ‘costs’ each income-tax payer something like £1,000 a year.”[5] When you take into consideration lost production, Layard estimates that the present cost of unemployment to society rises to £60 billion a year. But even this is an underestimate. Another economist, Andrew Glyn, estimated that lost production was around 20 per cent of Britain’s GDP. Productivity of labour would also rise, as capacity would be used more efficiently. Something like an increase of 25 per cent would be achieved with full employment. As Gross domestic production in 2002 was just over £1,000 billion, full employment would mean additional production worth around £250 billion a year.

With 1.5 million unemployed in Britain (which is a gross underestimate), that means 547.5 million days lost production each year. Under a planned economy, unemployment would be eliminated and the excess capacity of the productive forces – which is not less than 20 per cent at present – would be put to work. Even on the most pessimistic estimate, an annual growth rate of ten percent would be a minimum. This production would be planned on the basis of the needs of society, for the first time taking into consideration the conditions of the workers and the most efficient use of resources. On this basis, the new wealth created will result in a massive general increase in living standards. As well as a reduction in the hours of work, there will be a sustained growth of wages and living standards.

These results could easily be achieved even on the basis of the productive forces that exist today. As far back as 1970, Jack Jones calculated that on the basis of using the excess capacity alone, the working week could be reduced to 19 hours. In a planned economy, the productivity of labour would be enormously boosted to record levels. And even if we take the very modest target of ten per cent a year, this would signify doubling the wealth of society within ten years. Within a relatively short space of time, the lives of the mass of the population would be transformed beyond all recognition.

The customary response of the enemies of socialism is to sneer about “utopianism”. Oscar Wilde once wrote that a map that did not include Utopia was not worth having. But in fact there is nothing utopian about socialism. The extraordinary advances of the productive forces – of industry, agriculture, science and technology – would be sufficient to guarantee a future of prosperity and plenty for everyone on the planet, if they were harnessed scientifically in a rational plan of production. Instead, a vast productive capacity is being wasted under the unspeakable anarchy of the market. A democratic socialist regime would take special measures to protect the environment. New forms of energy, kind to our surroundings, would be extensively used to provide power. Everything would be done to eradicate the damage done by capitalism and ensure a harmonious development of society.

In opposition to nationalism, the pioneers of Labour advanced the idea of an international fraternity of free men and women under a world socialist federation. Karl Marx explained that ideas become a material force when they grip the minds of the masses. To this end, the trade unions, which constitute the embryo of the new society within the old, must not only be consistent fighters for the day-to-day demands of the working class, but must also become schools of solidarity, struggle and socialism. The panorama of a new socialist future, free from misery, hunger and war, must continue to be emblazoned on the scarlet standard of the Labour movement. This inspiring vision is a vital component of the British working class tradition. It is a vista of a new world of co-operation and equality – the vision of a socialist Britain and a socialist world. It is a future that is within our grasp.


[1] The Economist, ‘The World in 2003’

[2] Ibid, 21 June 2003

[3] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, London, 1968, p.226

[4] Morning Star, 18 March 1982

[5] Richard Layard, What Labour Can Do, p.56, London 1997