British Labour movement

Clause4 700Ever since the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, there has been controversy on the left over whether or not to participate in the party. To develop a correct understanding of this question, it is important to look at the experience of the past. Our task is to learn from history in order to avoid unnecessary mistakes. History, after all, is littered with the wreckage of small sectarian groups who attempted to mould the workers’ movement into its preconceived plans and failed.

Different “Marxist” groups have made one mistake after another on this key question. Towards the end of the 1960s, a number of left groups abandoned work in the Labour Party in disgust at the counter-reforms of the then Labour government. They wrote off the party and set about building their own independent revolutionary parties, ignoring everything that had been written on the importance of the mass organisations. The more isolated they were, the more ultra-left they became. Rather than connect with the real movement, they continually sought to tear the advanced workers away from the mass. They saw their prime task as to “expose” the leadership through shrill denunciation. This has been the hallmark of all these different sectarian groups. With such antics they end up playing into the hands and reinforcing the position of the right-wing leaders.

— From Britain: Marxism and the Labour Party – Some important lessons for today

In 1947 a group of Russian workers over in Britain on a training programme were banned by the Soviet authorities from joining a British trade union, leading to conflict with the British workers who had fought for a closed shop. The Soviet bureaucracy could not tolerate the fact that these Russian workers might pick up a few ideas about basic trade union rights, which caused harsh debates within the British Communist Party.

After nationalizing Coal, it became evident to workers that conditions were not improving. A number of unofficial strikes broke out in 1947 provoking the threat of retaliatory sackings by the capitalist led Coal Board. Ted Grant vibrantly protested against the lavish acceptance of this measure by the leaders of the Miners' Union and called on them to give voice to the legitimate demands and grievances of the workers and fight for workers' control over the Coal industry.

In March 1947, Ted Grant welcomed the revolutionary opposition to the reformist policies of the leadership emerging from within the ranks of the Communist Party, especially among workers, at that year's Party conference. Differences were raised on the question of workers' control on the railways and the CP leaders' lavish support for Labour government's policies.

On the eve of 1946 post-war Britain was on her knees. The British ruling class reached a deal with the former U.S. allies for a huge loan, but the repayment conditions were very severe. The Labour leaders in office were willingly carrying out the dirty job of asking British workers to postpone any demands to improve their conditions. Ted Grant looked at the consequences of these policies for the workers.

At the end of the Second World War the Labour Party was elected into office, a clear rejection of Churchill and his anti-working class policies. But the statements of the Labour leaders revealed that they intended to continue with capitalism. The British ruling class understood they could use these leaders, discredit them and then bring back the Tories. Ted Grant warned the Labour leaders that this is what would happen.

The election of a majority Labour Government for the first time marked a definite turn in European, world and British history. In voting for the Labour Party, the mass of the British workers indicated that they wanted a complete change from the capitalist system. With such a decisive victory, the whole social structure of Britain and Europe could have been changed by a bold socialist programme on the part of the Labour leaders.

After the Crimea conference, the British Communist Party leaders came out with a position advocating a National unity government with the Tories for the post-war period. This policy of class collaboration was denounced by Ted Grant, who wrote in 1945 that, "to support Churchill is to support monopoly capitalism. To support the capitalists, the interests of the working class must be betrayed. It has taken the advanced British workers the experience of 50 years to realise that the Liberal and Tory Parties are parties of capitalism."

In early 1945 the radical mood within the British working class was preparing a landslide victory for the Labour Party. In this context the I.L.P. leadership raised the idea of re-affiliation to the L.P., but gave no explanation for its 13 years of independent existence. Here Ted Grant provided a sober-minded Marxist approach to the question of the Labour Party and the mass organizations of the working class in general.

In 1945 Churchill justified the brutal repression of the Greek workers at the hands of British troops. The then leaders of the Labour Party and the Communist Party in Britain hid the real meaning of the Greek events from the British workers. Ted Grant exposed this terrible betrayal in this article that appeared in the Mid-February 1945 edition of the Socialist Appeal.

In 1944 the Labour Party held its annual conference while British troops were being used to crush the Greek workers. The Labour leaders scandalously supported British imperialist policy in Greece, but even worse was the fact that the Labour left had capitulated on this issue. Ted Grant put forward a revolutionary Marxist position on the question.

Ted Grant in 1944 defends an internationalist approach towards the German workers as opposed to the utter nationalist degeneration of the Trade Union, Labour and C.P. leaders who enthusiastically joined the bandwagon of those blaming the German workers for the crimes of the Nazi regime, when in fact they were its first victims.

In October 1944 the Communist Party of Great Britain held a national conference where the leadership did everything possible to disguise in revolutionary sounding language their support for the Tories, for Churchill, for the Atlantic Alliance and so on. Some dared to criticise from the ranks but these were soon silenced. Ted Grant exposed the contradictions in the position presented by the leadership of the party.

Towards the end of the Second World War the coalition government in Britain was pushing through the Town and Country Planning Bill in such a way that it guaranteed the property rights of the big landowners. In this article (July 1944) Ted Grant called on Labour to break the coalition and nationalise the land without compensation to the big landowners!

At the 1944 conference of the ILP there were clear indications that a steady move to the right on the part of the leadership was taking place. This posed the question of what the left wing of the party should do. Here Ted Grant raises the need for the left to sharpen up its ideas and take a firm stand.

Contrary to the official mythology about Churchill, by 1944 he was already losing support among the people of Britain. This article by Ted Grant, written at the time and based on local election results, shows that the workers were becoming radicalised. This was to be confirmed in a dramatic way just after the war when Labour won a landslide victory.

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