|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 162 October 2012
The crisis of working class political representation is the crisis
Will Labour’s third annual conference under the Con-Dem government see any sign that the party could be reclaimed? Or is a new vehicle for working class political representation necessary? Earlier this year Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, editor of the Socialist, the Socialist Party’s weekly newspaper, hosted a discussion between the Labour left activist OWEN JONES, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, and CLIVE HEEMSKERK, deputy editor of Socialism Today and the national election agent of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge: What would it take for you to draw the conclusions we have – that the Labour Party is no longer a vehicle for working class political representation?
Owen Jones (OJ): That’s simple – it’s the breaking of the union link. If the union link is severed then the Labour Party no longer exists in any meaningful way. I’m not someone who’s attached to Labour out of any sort of dewy-eyed nostalgia or because of the name. It’s simply a fact that as things stand it has at least the potential to be a vehicle for working class political representation precisely because of that trade union link, however problematic and how bureaucratic that link is. That’s my difference with the Socialist Party, which says that the Labour Party was a bourgeois workers’ party which then changed into an out and out bourgeois party. But I don’t know that structurally there was any change in that dynamic. There was change in terms of the expulsion of Militant – of course which was only ever a minority – the persecution of the left and the ideological shift that was part of it, but my starting point would be the severing of the union link. If that were to happen then that’s the end of the road.
If I compare now to when my dad was in Militant in the 1970s and early 1980s, the left then existed as a mass political force and I don’t think it does now in any meaningful sense. It was consumed by a perfect storm, the rise of the new right, the ruling class offensive which that represented, the devastating defeats of the working class – the Stockport Messenger dispute, the steelworkers, the miners, etc – and then the collapse of Stalinism that unleashed a wave of capitalist triumphalism and the idea that there is no alternative. With all of that together then it wasn’t just Labour that was affected – the left across the world almost disappeared whether that was the ex-communist parties like the Italian CP which became the Democratic Left, or the African National Congress which advocated the nationalisation of the mines and then moved over to a position of neo-liberalism. Social democracy, communism, all of it – it all disintegrated at the same time and on a global scale. So I get frustrated with that analysis of New Labour which seems to adopt a ‘great individuals’ view of history, ie that a right-wing cabal, starting with Neil Kinnock, took over the Labour Party and made it right-wing, when actually it was just a product of all those defeats and what happened globally and that’s why things shifted in the way they did.
Clive Heemskerk (CH): The Socialist Party certainly puts the transformation of the Labour Party in its historical context, particularly the effects on the labour movement internationally of the collapse of Stalinism. Of course Stalinism for us was never a model of socialism but it was held in mass consciousness as an alternative to capitalism. But there is a point about the Stalinist regimes, where the ‘form’ of socialism, a residue in their constitutions etc, existed for a long time after their content had completely changed. Why isn’t that the same in relation to the Labour Party? Or do you rule out that the Labour Party could be qualitatively transformed? You seem to be saying that only if the unions formally disaffiliated…
OJ: No, it could take a number of forms – state funding could sever the union link, for example, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Blair’s original idea of Labour merging with the Lib Dems into some sort of US-style Democratic party – that’s just not going to happen now, in the foreseeable future anyway. As things stand I think it’s unlikely the union link will dissolve.
But the problem is that the union link hasn’t properly been used by the trade unions. You end up with unions backing right-wing prospective parliamentary candidates for selection, because they’re members of their union, against candidates who actually support the union. You’ve seen how the union reps vote for the leadership on Labour’s National Executive Committee. They don’t organise to use their votes properly before the party conference. But the problem there again is that there is not a sufficient groundswell of pressure from below – it’s in no way what it was before, when my parents were involved.
But Unite now are talking about using the link in a way that they didn’t before, to get candidates elected who actually back their policies.
CH: But how are they going to do that? Unite’s political strategy document talks about recruiting 5,000 union members to local Labour Party wards…
OJ: But they don’t have to just do that, because that’s not how MPs are selected. Trade unions have a role in selecting candidates. Trade unions could actually change the complexion of the parliamentary Labour Party.
CH: Recruiting 5,000 Unite members to local party branches by December 2012 was one of the strands of the political strategy that was agreed by the Unite executive in December 2011. Another was to increase the number of delegates to Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). But the new rules introduced under the Refounding Labour process ‘encourage’ CLPs to replace delegate-based general committees with all-members meetings. And anyway parliamentary selections, with shortlists ultimately centrally approved, are made on a one member, one vote (OMOV) basis, which was introduced, of course, to dilute trade union influence.
You say the Labour Party has not changed but in Liverpool, for example, in the council’s struggle against Thatcher from 1983-86, you had mass meetings of the District Labour Party (DLP) with 400 or so delegates from unions, ward parties and so on – there as representative delegates, not accidental individuals – who would decide on the conduct of the struggle, like a parliament of the labour movement. That couldn’t exist now. Refounding Labour is finally abolishing the already previously-neutered DLPs in favour of Local Campaign Forums led by the leader of the council Labour group. Effectively councillors dictate to the party, not the other way round. So while you say there are no structural changes there have in fact been fundamental structural changes. OMOV itself was a fundamental change in the character of the Labour Party.
OJ: The fundamental change is the collapse of the labour movement that has taken place. Look at the number of workers who were unionised in 1979 compared to now. Look at the collapse in the number of shop stewards – it’s nothing compared to when Jack Jones was around. If you look at trade union branches again participation has plummeted over the last 30 years. That’s a phenomenon that’s not restricted to the Labour Party.
The attacks on the Labour Party are taking place because there’s not sufficient countervailing pressure from within the Labour Party or from the trade unions.
CH: Exactly, and that’s allowed the capitalist wing of what was a capitalist workers’ party, the leadership wing, to carry out an historical change…
OJ: It’s not an historical change. Yes there have been massive attacks and a shutting down of basic democratic avenues within the Labour Party but the union link is still very considerable…
CH: These are processes, and they’re not finished processes, but the direction is clear…
OJ: The problem is that the union people are not working with the left. I don’t think it’s a bourgeois party – how can it be? Ninety per cent of its funding comes from the trade unions.
CH: But what about union funding for the Democrats in the USA? The AFL-CIO trade union federation spent $53 million backing Barack Obama in 2008. At the 2008 Democratic convention 10% of delegates were members of the teachers’ union.
OJ: But there’s no organic link. There’s absolutely no democratic participation at all.
CH: Union members are mobilised to vote in primaries to select candidates. At the convention they vote for the policy platform…
OJ: In a kind of approval or not approval way…
CH: But the Labour Party conference doesn’t decide policy does it? It just approves or not approves statements from the National Policy Forum…
OJ: Yes there’s a bureaucratic structure but you do have input, whether you like it or not. Do the unions use the link properly? As I said they don’t. Through their funding and organisation both at local and national level they could actually have got lots of people selected as parliamentary candidates and they failed to do that. They’re beginning to own up to that failure and to have a strategy to change that. But they’re not there yet and until that happens, and until there’s an organised strategy to take on the right-wing tendency within the Labour Party, then things will not change. And there does need to be a fight to re-democratise all those structures – but you think that it’s a bourgeois party and that therefore there’s no struggle to be won anyway.
CH: Do you really think we operate in such crude and simplistic terms? That we would oppose Unite conducting a serious fight within the Labour Party, for example?
OJ: But what’s the point if it’s a bourgeois party? Do you think the Labour Party is a bourgeois party?
CH: We think that it has moved on from its roots as a capitalist workers’ party. We think that the capitalist wing of the party, using the historical situation created by the collapse of Stalinism and the whole period since, including the processes you described in relation to the labour movement as a whole, has consolidated its position in the Labour Party. They have used the historical conjuncture to make changes – obviously ideologically, but also structurally and organisationally – to entrench their position, making it extremely unlikely that a successful struggle could be conducted. Unless it was literally to ‘re-register’ the parliamentary party – probably throwing out 90% – to restructure the Labour Party from top to bottom…
OJ: You don’t have to throw out the parliamentary Labour Party – I mean I know them. You wouldn’t have to purge them. You just need pressure from below to drag people kicking and screaming. Look at how Tony Benn moved politically in the 1970s – people change under pressure from below.
CH: And from above. Do you think the ruling class would just sit there and watch thinking, ‘that’s fair enough – we’ve managed to achieve this historical change, to gain effective control of the Labour Party – let’s now allow the unions, the organised working class, an avenue back onto the political plane’? You don’t think that they’d organise…
OJ: Of course they would…
CH: So it would be a battle, a bloody battle. But actually there is another question here, about those unions with a political fund who are not affiliated to Labour. Their combined membership of 1.673 million is bigger than those who came together to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900. We think that they could be the nucleus of a new workers’ party. But what’s your advice to activists in the NUT, PCS, FBU, RMT, POA, and UCU – that they should set up campaigns to get their unions to affiliate to the Labour Party?
OJ: The only way that would happen is if the affiliated unions showed it’s possible to transform the Labour Party and how it works. There’s no point going round leafleting NUT or PCS conference saying ‘brothers and sisters, pass a motion for affiliation to the Labour Party’, of course I wouldn’t.
If the affiliated unions used the link which does exist to change the policies and get candidates elected who will fight for working people then that would show it’s possible to fight within the Labour Party. It would show that it’s possible for trade unions to transform the Labour Party, and that would provide an opening for the other unions to do the same. But of course we’re not there yet – and we need to democratise the trade unions too.
CH: Is there a groundswell even in the affiliated unions to join the Labour Party to change it?
OJ: Well if you look at the number of people paying into the political fund in those unions, if you look at the fact that…
CH: Sorry, is that a yes then?
OJ: There’s not a groundswell for anything at the moment, not sufficiently. There’s not enough pressure from below anywhere on anything.
CH: But which way is the direction going? Do you think there’s more active participation in the Labour Party?
OJ: Well we’ve got a Tory government now. And if we look at the class breakdown, the Tories retain their support among the ABs and as you go down the social scale support for Labour increases…
CH: Sorry – you’re talking about voting now. We were talking about participation in the structures of the Labour Party.
OJ: Political engagement, political activity, political consciousness are all at very low levels so of course there’s little of that sort of engagement – nowhere near what there needs to be. That has to change. But that is an issue affecting the left generally. There’s not enough active involvement even in the unions. That’s the broader problem – there’s growing anger and frustration without any political direction.
CH: So why would you direct those who are active, or being pushed by events into being active, down an avenue that they don’t see as viable?
OJ: They don’t see anything as viable. The LRC was founded 112 years ago. The Labour Party was founded 107 years ago. There have been no shortages of attempts to form new workers’ parties in that time. The Social Democratic Federation walked out of the early Labour Party, the Communist Party was formed in the 1920s, the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s, Militant Labour and the Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s – every single attempt without exception has failed. TUSC’s vote at the last general election nationally was half of what John McDonnell got in his one constituency. I don’t understand the basis for arguing that, given every single attempt to form a new workers’ party in history without exception has failed in far better political conditions, why would it be any better now? You talk about blind alleys and me directing people up a blind alley – why is your blind alley any better?
CH: Seriously Owen, we had a discussion at the start on the new world situation after the collapse of Stalinism and the massive ideological retreat that followed, with all its consequences. This is a new historical period and yet now you’re talking about the 1920s and 30s when the Labour Party was still a relatively new formation, you still had the attractive force of the Russian revolution – even the 1930s with the rise of fascism was still a period which saw possibilities for the balance of class forces to be changed – and you seem to say that they’re part of the same historical period as now when they’re obviously not.
OJ: But what makes you think you’re going to succeed in this new historical period?
CH: Who said that the post-Stalinist period of ideological retreat, and the need to re-build the labour movement, made the struggle for working class political representation easier than in the past?
OJ: What’s your point? Of course it won’t be easy. Changing the Labour Party won’t be easy. If we can’t get the unions to use their link properly what hope do you have of getting the unions to form a new workers’ party?
CH: Because of the argument that you yourself raised that the Labour Party is not seen by union members, even in the affiliated unions and certainly not in the non-affiliated unions, as an arena that they want to enter and fight in for working class interests…
OJ: But obviously they vote Labour.
CH: What’s that got to do with changing the Labour Party? Why aren’t the public sector pension strikers, for example, joining it to change it?
OJ: Ah but if they were disgusted enough they’d leave the political fund. That hasn’t happened in droves either.
CH: Hasn’t it, in the affiliated unions? That’s what I was asking you. The number of ballot papers issued to affiliated union members in the 2010 Labour leadership election was 300,000 less than the number issued in the deputy-leadership election in 2007, for example. That’s some decline.
OJ: Well the unions are facing a decline in membership numbers. The point is actually that most of those members, disproportionately, do regard Labour as their party. There’s no question about that whatsoever. It hasn’t changed. You can see that from voting patterns.
CH: Again that’s a big interpretation: they see Labour as a possible governmental alternative.
OJ: Well they might see it as a lesser of two evils but again let’s not overstate people’s political consciousness. It’s not like, as much as I’d like to think it’s the case, there’s hundreds of thousands of trade unionists going ‘well, Labour’s betrayed the working class, I’m so disgusted’. That hasn’t happened.
CH: But there is mass alienation from all establishment parties and institutions and, amongst a much smaller layer, a beginning of a search for an alternative means of political representation. The non-affiliated unions with a political fund represent about 7% of the British workforce at this stage, out of the 27% or so of the workforce that is unionised. So they represent, as a fraction of the unionised workforce…
OJ: But isn’t that syndicalism?
OJ: Look at the RMT and the FBU. Both left the Labour Party – and I’ve got nothing but admiration for the leaderships of Bob Crow and Matt Wrack – but there has not been any coherent political strategy to replace the Labour Party as a workers’ party. Bob Crow occasionally comments on working class political representation across the road [in Euston] but that has not translated into any steps forward for the kind of project you put forward. Your project is no further down the road than it’s ever been.
CH: I’m not sure why you say that. You know the RMT formally endorsed all TUSC candidates in the 2012 local elections?
OJ: Well I don’t think you’ve had a huge step forward in trade union backing. The RMT is very welcome but you’re talking about an absolutely tiny proportion of the labour movement.
CH: But I just gave you figures to show that potentially even just the non-affiliated unions are not a tiny absolute proportion…
OJ: They’re not actively backing any alternative to the Labour Party.
CH: Leading members of those unions are involved in TUSC…
OJ: They were in Respect and the Socialist Alliance as well…
CH: Actually no they weren’t, not in the same way. Trade union leaders did not participate to the degree that they do in TUSC. They had no rights within those organisations. Now the trade union leaders that are involved in TUSC have a veto over what’s decided because TUSC operates on a consensus basis – in other words they have ownership of TUSC.
OJ: What percentage of the British trade union movement do you have backing TUSC at the moment? In terms of the membership that’s represented by those unions?
CH: When the Labour Party was formed in 1900 the unions involved represented less than 3% of the workforce. It was the smaller unions, one of the biggest was the railway workers’ union with 54,000 members…
OJ: I know. A motion passed at the TUC in 1899 from the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, as it was, to secure representation of the working class…
CH: So the Labour Party when it was formed represented less than 3% of the workforce at that stage. I’m not saying…
OJ: Yes you are. But I’m sure you find it encouraging and I won’t say it’s discouraging in any way. However I don’t think in practice you’re seeing the nucleus of a new workers’ party. Even at a time of capitalist crisis and a woefully unpopular Labour government which had been around for 13 years you did very poorly at the last general election. And I don’t see why now that’s going to be any different. Because what happens now is that when people become disillusioned you get a leap in Labour support, simply because they are the receptacle of discontent. I can’t see how as people get more disillusioned with the Tories your potential vote won’t be squeezed.
CH: There’s two things here. There is votes but we’re also talking about whether it is possible to mobilise conscious fighters to go into the Labour Party. I’m trying to explore this issue about how you can cohere together that more politically thinking layer. They are generally not looking towards the Labour Party so how would trying to convince them to participate in the Labour Party bring them together? Isn’t it at least as profitable to argue for them to participate in a campaign to build a new workers’ party, certainly in unions such as the PCS and NUT, and as a weapon against the right-wing leaders in affiliated unions such as Unison?
OJ: Er, no, obviously I don’t agree it would be as profitable – there’s no precedent for its success.
CH: Well there is. The Liberal Party was replaced by Labour…
OJ: OK there is a precedent but it was 112 years ago in Britain. There’s no precedent for a new workers’ party having any success although there’s been countless attempts at building one. I personally feel that it is a dead end and a waste of people’s political energy. And what will you say when you get very poor election results? What will your conclusions be?
CH: What do you mean by a poor vote? Is one vote for every ten Labour votes poor?
OJ: It’s not a great result. If that means Labour got 35% that’s a way of saying you got 3.5% which is not very good. You don’t have to say it like that. Just talk in terms of percentages. Comparably, let’s say if you consistently get less than 15% then that’s not a particularly good result. But compared to most left projects if you consistently got 5% – that just shows how low the expectations are.
CH: What I’m trying to ask you is what would be a ‘good’ result in the context of what we’ve been discussing, on how could you impact on the Labour Party. You’re saying that when there are new struggles it’ll be possible to draw a significant number into the Labour Party to conduct the battle there for political representation. We’re saying well actually that won’t be seen as an attractive proposition to many of those workers – often struggling against Labour councils, or facing denunciation from the Labour leadership – and that it’s entirely possible to draw them into a battle for a new workers’ party, which would also have the effect of forcing Labour to look over its shoulder. And therefore the question of the comparison with Labour is not unimportant. That’s why I’m trying to push you – what do you mean by a ‘bad’ vote, in relation to Labour?
OJ: I mean if you get consistently less than 5% of the vote then you won’t have any greater impact than every single other attempt at a new party.
CH: The point of debate between us is, will the most combative sections see it as viable to have a political fight inside the Labour Party to reclaim it? Or will they draw the conclusion that you need a new vehicle for working class representation? But let’s approach it from another angle. We both anticipate new levels of struggle…
OJ: It’s not inevitable. Mass unemployment does not breed militancy. People are scared to go on strike or stick their neck out at a time when there’s millions of people out of work.
CH: There’s no question that there is not a simple connection between crisis and militancy. And actually there’ll be different events that can produce electoral surprises, like Bradford West. Look at the household tax in Ireland – there’s been limited industrial struggles but a mass movement has emerged. These events will develop…
OJ: Well I hope so. But whatever happens I’ll be utterly shocked, in truth, if we get a mass upsurge and tens of thousands of people join a new workers’ party.