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UK: We need to talk about Labour

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The biggest, most far reaching question posed by the Tories’ election victory is what will now happen to the Labour Party. Even before all the results were in, the pundits, and its own right wing leaders, were blaming Labour’s defeat on its continued links to the trades unions.

Yet, almost immediately, Len McCluskey, of Unite the union, insisted that Labour should “demonstrate that they are the voice of ordinary working people, that they are the voice of organised labour”. In other words, that Labour’s defeat was a result of the weakness of those links.

These conflicting arguments express the very real contradiction at the heart of the Labour Party; although its politics and its policies are clearly pro-capitalist, its social roots remain within the working class. From the point of view of the bosses, the bankers, the financiers, in a word, the capitalists, this makes it a potentially unreliable party of government, one that cannot be guaranteed to force through policies that would be bound to hurt its own supporters.

For the very same reason, those supporters see in the Labour Party a political representative that should at least defend their interests. That this remains the case is shown by the 650,000 more votes it won in comparison to 2010. But, despite that, Labour lost, and lost badly and that is why its future is in the balance.

For the right wing of the Labour Party itself, and the capitalists who want to see a more reliable “alternative party of government”, the answer is to resolve the contradiction by removing the party’s traditional links to the working class movement, principally the unions. This would create something like the US Democrat Party and would leave the working class with no representation of its own at all.

That would mark a historic defeat for the working class movement in the UK and should be opposed by all socialists, whether in the Labour Party or outside it.

Labour’s record
We’ve been here before. In 2010, the trades unions cast their block vote to install Ed Miliband as Labour leader. The media denounced ‘Red Ed’ and claimed ‘union barons’ would now hold Labour to ransom. As we pointed out at the time, and five years of bitter experience have confirmed, McCluskey had no intention of holding anyone to ransom.

Miliband, having gratefully pocketed the votes of Labour’s union membership, acted with unseemly haste to prove his loyalty, not to the class that funded his entire career, but to its class enemy. He blocked Labour from playing any useful role in the opposition to cuts and pension reforms, even where Labour was formally opposed to them. He denounced strikes, backed cuts to services to make workers bear the cost of bailing out the banks, and promised a Labour government would stick to Tory austerity targets for at least two years.

Under pressure from a Tory campaign against union funding for Labour, he forced through the Collins Review, which scrapped the Electoral College in favour of one member, one vote and removed the trade unions’ collective influence within the party.

In opposition, Labour even refused to counter the Tory lie that its overspending while in office caused the crisis. This reluctance to defend its positive record of reforms; increased NHS spending, pre-school childcare provision, school building and investment, allowed the Tories to start dismantling them.

Labour’s cowardice gave weight to the Tory claim that spending on the welfare budget wrecked the economy. In fact, the ballooning welfare budget was almost entirely due to Labour’s decision to subsidise poverty wages instead of making the Tories’ small and big business backers shell out.
Like the SNP, Labour accepted the bosses’ logic of deficit reduction but, unlike the SNP, it could not present an anti-austerity programme because it was standing for government office.

For Labour’s parliamentary leadership, and for the union leaders, electoral victory means convincing the capitalist class that Labour, despite its roots in the working class, can be a safe pair of hands to hold government office. To do that, the reformist leaders adapt to the “political centre”, the “aspirational” middle classes. This was expressed in Miliband’s luckless campaign to woo the “squeezed middle” and has now evolved into the “100 per cent” that Tristram Hunt, a bland middle class contender for the Labour leadership, thinks should be the focus, rather than “micro-groups” like the hundreds of thousands on zero hours contracts.

In fact, the “middle class” is not the whole nation, nor even a majority. It is a vocal minority, whose bedrock ideology of compromise between the classes stems from its members’ social position as a privileged layer bent on preserving and enhancing its privileges. It does so against the working class from below and the ruling class from above. The fact that the working class lacks an organisation focusing and sharpening its class instincts into political consciousness encourages the middle class to aggrandise themselves at the expense of workers in their council houses rather than the rich in their mansions.

As a leader of workers in the firing line, McCluskey naturally denounced the Tories and criticised Labour’s silence. Yet, when push came to shove, at Grangemouth, he capitulated to the billionaire Ineos boss, Jim Ratcliffe. This humiliation without a fight was a serious defeat for Scottish workers and their militant traditions. Although it was not the first time that a ‘left’ union leader demobilised or ducked a fight their members could have won, it came at a time that was most damaging to morale and class confidence in the wider movement.

It was no coincidence that this was on the heels of the Falkirk “scandal” involving Grangemouth convenor, Unite Scotland chair and Falkirk West CLP chair, Stevie Deans. When, after years of patiently waiting for Labour to do something, Unite tried to install a candidate in the Falkirk by-election selection process, Miliband backed the right wing witch hunt and actually called for a police investigation into the dispute. Following a Labour internal review, which revealed not only that Unite had done nothing wrong, but that it was the rightwing candidate who had paid the membership fees of his supporters, the party suppressed the report. Jim Ratcliffe took advantage of the ensuing chaos to sack Stevie Deans, provoking the Grangemouth dispute.

This is just one more example that expresses not only the existence of what Marxists call the “organic link”, that is, the thousand threads from the rank and file to the top officials that bind the labour movement to “its” party, but also the preparedness of both its Left and Right wings to subordinate the political independence of the working class to its pro-capitalist political programme.

What is to be done?
Labour remains a mass party rooted in the working class. In the absence of a fighting strategy, the danger is that millions of workers will agree with their union leaders and “wait for Labour” once again. It is the party’s roots and historic identification with the working class that make it, along with the trade union bureaucracy, one of the twin obstacles to an effective fightback against the Tories.

While opposing all attacks from the right wing, our tactics for resistance to the Tories, therefore, have to include tactics for breaking up this obstacle. Labour cannot be “killed by curses”, or propaganda exposing its past or present crimes. Nor should the Left try to “bypass” it by joining the Greens or the SNP. That would only fragment the labour movement, drawing activists away and leaving the great majority still under the sway of the current leadership.

The only method is to demand that the Labour Party join a united front of resistance to the Tories. We should demand this not in spite of its leaders’ shameful record, but because of it; because millions of workers who live with the consequences of their betrayals nevertheless continue to see these leaders as their leaders. They won’t be won to another strategy without witnessing and experiencing a confrontation between rival programmes.

In the unions and the Labour Party, we need to stop the bosses and their media choosing the leadership. In the constituencies, rank and file members, left MPs like John McDonnell, journalists like Owen Jones, need to mobilise members to defend the union link and union members’ involvement in choosing the Labour leadership. Miliband’s principal legacy of service to the bourgeoisie is his reform of Labour’s constitution that weakened the union link and rendered the conference almost totally redundant. This needs to be reversed.

More important than democratic reform though, will be dragging Labour MPs and councillors out of their Westminster and Town Hall bubbles and holding them to account in front of the working class that puts them in office to protect jobs and services, not cut them.

Labour and the trade union bureaucracy remain the leaders of a huge, organised and politically aware section of the working class. Only by mobilising this force, alongside the vanguard of activists who have already seen through Labourism, can we force the Tories from power. Without their involvement, there is little hope of stopping austerity, let alone reversing the cuts and fighting to take control of society’s wealth and redistributing it.

That means developing tactics to work alongside Labour supporters and activists and winning them away from Labourism to a new strategy and a new type of organisation. This cannot be done by simple denunciation of Labour as a “bosses’ party”. The reduction of Labour to a mere rump of its present organisation, as happened to Pasok in Greece and is so eagerly desired by the intelligentsia here, would be a disaster unless some other, better, organisation exists to replace it.

If, in the process, the left outside of Labour, first and foremost those involved in building Left Unity and TUSC, can overcome the self-satisfied sectarianism that has characterised the left’s strategies over the last five years, then not only can we repulse the Tory attack and kick them out, but we can build a new mass working class party that can pose the questions of power; Who rules? Which class shall be the master in society?