Tuesday, 29 January 2013
Reclaiming the labour party, was it ever really ours?
Many on the left now to fill their vacuum of ideas and principles are now calling to reclaim the labour party including Unite general secretary Len McCluskey who says we must all join labour to reclaim the party for us. He claims it is our party, working people’s party. I am a member of the socialist party and am of the view this is a non starter the democratic structures for reclaiming the party are no longer there plus there is no mass enthusiasm for going into labour to have a big battle to change it. But as the argument is back again I thought I’d look at if the party was ever really “ours” to reclaim. As Lenin described at the time the labour party was a bourgeois workers party with a conservative pro market leadership with a working class mass base. Those who wish to try and argue as the likes of the SWP do that the labour party has stayed the same only have to take a look at where labours mass workers base has gone. It’s been hollowed out. Yes the party still has the trade union link and those like left wing celebrity Owen Jones argue that it’s still tied to the working class and is still a worker’s party due to that link. I disagree; the Democrats in America have a trade union link yet are still an out and out capitalist party much like the labour party today. To understand why today we say the labour party is a fully capitalist party we must understand the transition and factors which have lead to this point. From its very inception it’s been a battle of ideas, of principles and factions. One hundred years ago, on 27 February, 1900, a conference of trade unionists and socialist organizations met to establish the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. This was to be a culminating step in a long struggle by workers in Britain to break with the Liberal Party and establish their own party. The Labour Party was from its inception a bourgeois workers party. At its head were the 'liberal' leaders such as Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowden, through whom the pro-capitalist ideology of the ruling class could be transmitted to the working class below. In parliament those leaders succumbed to opportunism, following the lead of the Liberal Party which they had separated from organisationally but not ideologically. But at the same time the party had its roots in the working class, with its working class base acting as a certain counter-weight to its bourgeois tops. One hundred years later, however, in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism and the boom of the 1980s, the pro-capitalist leadership is now completely dominant. The channels through which the working-class base of the Labour Party could hold the leadership in check have been cut off, and the party has made the transition to an openly bourgeois party. The historic task of building an independent mass workers' party is posed once again. But not under the same conditions. Despite the lowering of socialist consciousness generally in society over the past decade, a capitalist workers' party has been in existence for almost a century and that experience will influence the character of a new workers' party, especially in its early stages. In addition, the leadership of the trade unions today is more integrated into the capitalist state than it was at the end of the 19th century. That too will affect the process towards a new workers' party, making it much less likely that the leadership of large national unions would move to embrace a new party as they did in the past. Nevertheless, as in the 1880s and early 1890s, it will be mass struggle arising from economic, social and political crisis which will create the conditions for a new mass workers' party to emerge. And, as then, the intervention of revolutionary socialists in that process will be crucial. Socialists paved the way for an independent workers' party through their propaganda and involvement in the day to day struggles of the working class. But however determined they were to see a new party come into being, they could not transcend the limits of the objective situation. It was the interplay between mass struggle and socialist propaganda and activity which created the conditions under which they could take concrete initiatives to create an independent party of the working class. We believe that, without a major influx of workers into the Labour Party any campaign for rank-and-file control will be ineffective but, as the LRC discovered when it attempted to launch a recruitment drive in the anti-war movement, workers and young people entering struggle have no interest in joining the party they are fighting against. But reclaiming the Labour Party for the working class would require a mass influx of workers, organised around a campaign to remove the Blairites and recreate the party's democratic structures. A socialist programme would need to be adopted, including opposition to all cuts. The Socialist Party has concluded that this is not possible - and that instead what is required is the creation of a new mass party of the working class. If such a party stood on Unite's programme of opposing and reversing all the cuts, abolishing the anti-union laws, etc, it would provide a positive pole of attraction for all those millions of people opposed to the Con-Dems' austerity. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is an attempt to build a bridge to such a party. Plans to build it should be stepped up, including holding meetings and debates on the issue of political representation and developing supporters groups inside the unions. With e extracts from Christine Thomas’s excellent article in socialism today on the history of the labour party