the future of the labour party and workers’ representation

Andrew Fisher from the Labour Representation Committee spoke at our 23rd November forum on ‘Where is the Labour Party going?’

Labour Governments do not have a good record at dealing with economic crises: in 1931, 1979 and now they have decided that it is the working class that should pay for the crisis. The electoral result in 1931 and in 1979 was to put Labour out of power for a generation.

Looked at from an historical perspective, Labour will lose the next election – it has every time it has behaved like this in an economic crisis. Even in 1931 however, Labour’s share of the vote – though reduced to just 46 MPs – did not fall below 30%.

At the 2010 general election, Labour’s share of the vote could dip below 30% – as it did, spectacularly, in 2009 in the local (under 25%) and European elections (under 20%), and it was only 36% in the 2005 General Election.

Labour could lose office in an arguably worse state than in 1931. Membership is down to 150,000 and dropping – less than 300 members on average per constituency, and in large swathes of the country the party is moribund: Labour no longer has the party machine to deliver leaflets, canvass, and pay the membership subs to sustain a viable major political party.

It was the unions that saved Labour from annihilation in 1931 – and controlled the largest newspaper in circulation The Daily Herald which had 2 million readers daily by 1933. Today the most influential media is universally right wing and increasingly hostile to New Labour, let alone left wing demands.

However, in both the post-31 and 79 aftermaths there was a significant shift to the left – is that likely post-2010?

The foundations of the Left are weaker than at any time for a century. Post-1979, the left drew its strength from a strong trade union movement of over 12 million members, which had the right to take solidarity action. It was not only larger, it had greater membership density in workplaces. It not only had more legal powers, but more workers were covered by collective agreements. And it was not only more potentially powerful, it was more militant – having just brought down the Heath and Callaghan governments in the 1970s.

This militant trade union movement inevitably fed into the Labour Party at the grassroots, and had fuelled class consciousness. This was given expression in a number of left wing councils including the GLC, Lambeth, Liverpool, and others.

Thatcher though understood these sources of power. She decimated trade union power with mass unemployment, privatisation, the destruction of the industrial sector and the anti-union laws. She abolished the GLC, and systematically removed powers from local government, centralising them in Westminster.

So is there any real chance of a ‘left turn’ after the election?

New Labour has destroyed the Labour Party as even a potential vehicle for social advance: internal democracy has been ripped up, dissent crushed, and as the membership figures reflect many (mostly on the left) have left.

Parliamentary selections have been abused and centralised, with an NEC panel to approve candidates. At the next election: around ten MPs who nominated John McDonnell for leader will be standing down. Several other rebellious and leftish MPs will be retiring too, and many others are at risk of losing their seats.

The only question therefore is whether New Labour will turn left, in opposition to the Tories’ agenda? A turn that might cause people to identify with Labour again, yet the current policies do not bode well – both advocating cuts, pay freezes and privatisation. Could a further rise in union militancy force the affiliated unions to seek greater control of the Party in order to counter the Tories’ attacks?

There are many what ifs, but one thing is sure – any labour movement revival will begin from a very low base.