Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Left And Labour

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service. - Clause IV, before its revision in 1995
One of the most frustrating aspects of the British Left is the obsession with the Labour Party. A somewhat understandable obsession, but an irritating one nonetheless. To understand Labour's role within the Left, we must first establish a brief and probably horribly inaccurate history of the Labour Party.

Firstly, we must establish what it means to be a Labour Party, not just in the UK, but around the world. A Labour Party is, as the name suggests, a party that seeks represent politically the will of labour. The definition of "labour" as a classification of people itself is hard to pin down, generally seen as those that sell their labour or man-power to an employer for a wage. At the time of the Labour Party's origins the labour that was seeking political representation was that of the urban proletariat of the 19th century. This is what we must keep in mind at all times when considering the Labour Party: That its role should be that of representing the wills and needs of labour. In modern times we would perhaps hesitate to say that labour in this country is the "urban proletariat", however. Especially if we take the Maoist Third-Worldist line that a proletariat does not exist in the 1st world, due to the labour aristocracy's exploitation of 3rd world labour. A convincing argument if one steps back and takes a look at our conditions compared to those of the 3rd world. But this is diverging into how to define a proletariat, a subject left for later.

The incarnation of the Labour Party that most socialists in the UK are infatuated with is the party under Clement Attlee. It's hard not to be infatuated with it. Attlee's government was one of the most radical British governments of the 20th century, initiating a swathe of nationalisation of major industries and utilities. These included the Bank of England, coal mining, railways, canals etc. One of the most notable achievements of this government was the creation of a welfare state, described as "cradle to the grave". However, the most notable achievement of this government was the formation of the National Health Service, constructed under Aneurin Bevan. This government represented, to many left wingers, the peak of the Labour Party in its current form. This incarnation of the Labour Party is commonly referred to as Old Labour.

However, where there is Old there is New, and we must move on now to look at New Labour, the most loathsome modern incarnation of the Labour Party. Headed up by the notorious Democratic Socialist Tony Blair and later on by Gordon Brown, this Labour government is one that is fresh in everybody's mind. It is the Labour party of the centre-right, of creeping neoliberalism. To argue that this government, despite its achievements such as the minimum wage, was remotely leftist is absurd. New Labour presided over PFIs, backdoor privatisation, the Iraq War, legislation that restricted unions. It has allowed the interests of business and corporation to dictate the trajectory of the party, with activists no longer able to play a significant role in affecting policy, especially after the reforms of Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. New Labour was a neoliberal, imperialist monster shambling through 13 years in power. It is not a party of the left, it is not the party of progressive socialist politics.

Many argue that since Labour swung from being the socialist Old Labour to the neoliberal New Labour, surely there is a possibility of the pendulum swinging the other way, especially as a reaction to the Coalition government's policies. I would argue that this will not be the case, and in fact may be impossible to achieve. New Labour is funded primarily through the donations of large business, with the donations of trade unions making up about a quarter of their funding. However, one would expect this quarter to shrink as unions continue to get sick of Labour biting the hands that feed. Many unions have threatened to pull funding already. They realise that Labour is hurtling, still, towards a neoliberal agenda and the election of "Red Ed" to Labour leader will not change a thing. Labour is irreparably broken. It is no longer a party of labour.

But where does this leave the left, both organised and unorganised? One can argue that even though Labour have become a party of the centre-right, it is the only party that can form an actual opposition to the Conservatives, especially after the Liberal Democrats destroyed their voting base. But so what? Labour would institute the same policies as the Conservatives, perhaps at a slower rate. They would still plunge the country into further economic peril through an ill-advised scheme of cuts and blind belief in the private sector. The privatisation of Royal Mail and of the NHS are all policies that New Labour didn't just fail to stop, but actively encouraged.

It is my belief that the organised left is damaging its power and its potential by continuing to affiliate with the Labour party. Time, effort and action are being put into a cause that, when elevated to the position of power, will ignore those that got it there and continue with its agenda of neoliberalism. Protests and actions are for naught. They are wasted.

The left needs to organise itself, not in the myriad of slightly-differently-trotskyistneoliberal nonsense of New Labour. The Labour party is not, and will not be again, a vehicle for progressive socialist change. The Labour Party does not represent Labour any longer.


  1. You misunderstand the argument for continuing to work within the Labour Party.

    There can be no illusions; Labour's leadership and Labour government will not be more progressive to any meaningful degree, it will still stand for the retention of capitalism, against threatening the current order, etc. This isn't really something in fact that hasn't been the case ever, even under Attlee and other party folkheroes.

    All this is obvious. But you conflate affiliation and so on with actively supporting the Labour Party. Now, this argue holds water with regards to such points as the position of the trade unions, because of the massive funding they necessarily provide, the resources they donate to Labour campaigns, etc.

    But when considered on the individual party level, it doesn't hold. And this is the key point. The Labour Party, as an institution, isn't a vehicle for progressive change, etc. But it is an institution that still retains large progressive tendencies within its ranks and in organisations that work with it.

    We must work for the building of a new worker's party on the left. But such a movement needs to woo over a wide range of progressive elements, including those that (misguidedly) throw their lot in with Labour. And this applies to other institutions too, such as the Green Party, progressive pressure groups, etc.

    Put more simply, we need to go into these bodies in order to make our case, using the access these groups have to progressive and proletariat organisations. It made sense when proposed by Lenin, and it makes sense now.

    It is not enough to simply organise; we have to educate and agitate also. Work within the Labour Party can be a means to an end to ultimately bring about the unification of progressive forces outside of it.

  2. I would agree in a sense, I was more aiming this at people I have encountered of late that believe that because Labour have made the most vocal (yet weakest) opposition to the Coalition government, they are truely a force for progressive change. I know alot of people that have joined the Labour party, without any intention of using what scraps of working class tools they have left. I was more taking a potshot at the almost American style of politics. That there are 2 (or 3 in this case) parties and that, although they are very similar to eachother, they must be polar opposites because They're Opponents. Which even a Labour Loving CryptoFascist such as yourself probably agrees with. :p

    This post was more aimed at those who believe that Labour as an instituation, as a party, can mount a formidable progressive defence not just against the Conservatives, but neoliberalism itself.

  3. Yeah, that's fair enough, and I'd add that it can be very difficult to break out of the 'government-opposition' mindset in a way. It's a bit of a weird thing that we encourage people to get interested and involved in politics in this country through measures (learning about the big parties, supporting candidates, voting, etc) that basically in fact close their minds by forcing the myth of binary politics.

    Sadly, the trend towards "oh, Labour are the Opposition so they must be our True Progressive Hope" is one that happens every bloody time Labour are out of office, it's nothing new (although it's curious that Labour can't even get opposition right at the moment; when there's any real chance a measure that they're not strongarmed into opposing could fail, they've been abstaining as of late)

    Honestly, for all the big issue that was made of the economic crisis, Iraq, etc., this is the time that we need to be stepping up organisation, and making sure progressives are aware of just how bad Labour are and that there is an alternative. Also, to stop shits like Aaron Porter from hijacking grassroots, obviously.