the underlying character and future of labourism

by David Bailey, University of Birmingham

As we enter the beginning of what looks like it will be a long general election campaign the various elements of Britain’s political elite are lining up to convince the various sections of the electorate that it wishes to speak to, that they, really, are the best choice.

So, in heralding the Government’s Queen’s Speech last week the Labour Party announced:

“Britain faces a choice between a Labour government with an optimistic view of the future of the country – believing that government can be a force for good in securing prosperity, caring for the vulnerable and building public services for everyone … The Conservative approach is to abandon the responsibility of government; to let the recession take its course; and to leave people to sink or swim.”

Of course, we’d expect the Labour Party to say that. But it’s also an argument that you can see amongst those more critical on the left – albeit in a slightly modified form. Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Representation Committee published an article in the Morning Star in September warning of David Cameron’s ‘message of tough cuts’ and Cameron’s plans, under which ‘the better off would be encouraged into subsidised private provision and the rest would be forced to try and survive with a diminishing choice of last-resort public services’. Instead, Corbyn and the Labour Representation Committee argue for the Labour Party to move away from its New Labour anti-welfare, anti-working class, and surveillance society politics, that the Labour Party should adopt more redistributive policies, and should use public ownership to avoid job losses.

A third argument we have heard being voiced with increasing frequency over the previous few years is that what we need is a New Workers’ Party, to replace the currently unrepresentative selection of options open to those voters who seek a fairer capitalist economy in which worker’s would have a greater input, receive better welfare services and social security, and be free from the fear of unemployment and poverty.

The argument that I’d like to make is that all of these views are wrong. First, they’re wrong because they are based on the view that somehow political parties have the autonomy to introduce whatever policies they would like to see implemented – as if there were no constraints emerging from the shape of the international economy, no constraints in terms of the opposition that party policy faces from business leaders, trade unions, workers, activists, and consumers.

Instead, I would argue, any party policy will always have to be workable in the context within which it’s located. And that context is currently so constraining that a change in either government or parliamentary personnel will not lead to a change in the types of policies that are implementable. Real social change will only come when we have a real change in the relationships that make up society. It is only then that the constraints preventing the creation of a more equal society can be overcome. And, unfortunately, the quick fix associated with a change in personnel – either the personnel running the government or the personnel running the Labour Party or the personnel sitting in parliament and standing for elections – does not represent any real change in the social relationships within which we are located.

Indeed, in perpetuating the myth that voting for a political party can bring about real social change this view can only help to reinforce the current system – a system in which opposition, rebellion and resistance is only viewed as legitimate when it goes through, or is approved of by, a parliamentary chamber of over-privileged and out-of-touch members of a self-serving political elite. For similar reasons, any argument for a new workers’ party should be considered a class struggle cul-de-sac that needs at this point to be avoided by any resurgent workers’ movement at all costs. Electoralism led to failure and quiescence for the working class when it was tried the first time around, and I can think of no reason why it wouldn’t be the same again – in fact this time it would be even less successful due to the prior existence of the Labour Party and the need that creates to wrestle voters away from that party they have a psychological association with.

These views about the advantages of voting old or new Labour or a New Workers’ Party are also wrong, I would argue, for a second reason. And that is in their analysis of the Labour Party, what it is and what role it plays in contemporary society, why the move towards New Labour occurred in the first place, and whether we might see a return to the ‘Old Labour’ politics of redistribution, being pro-welfare, and employing policies such as nationalisation as a means of tackling unemployment. There is simply no reason to believe, I would argue, that the Labour Party could, nor would want to, move back towards the days of redistribution, welfarism, and trade unionism that we come to associate with ‘Old Labour’.

The argument that I’d make, therefore, is that there’s really no value in supporting and working for the re-election of Labour or for the creation of a New Workers’ Party. There is no reason to expect that a re-elected ‘New Labour’ government would be a more desirable outcome than a newly-elected Conservative one. There is no reason to expect that the Labour Party can or will be reformed so that it would be better than the currently noxious New Labour regime.

That Peter Mandelson was ‘beyond anger’ with striking postal workers is just yet another example (if we need one) that New Labour has gone ‘beyond despisal’ for workers. But this is not because the wrong personnel or policies are in place within the Labour Party (as the LRC would appear to argue) but rather because the relationships that make up contemporary society ensure that any worker’s party – a new worker’s party, an Old Labour Party, or the New Labour Party – will ultimately work to the detriment of workers’ resistance and rebellion by channelling it into a ‘safe’ system of representation and reinforcing the idea that class struggle can go on at the level of parliamentary representation rather than on the ground, in the workplace, and in our local communities.

In order to make this argument what I want to do is to highlight the way in which I think the Labour Party is best conceptualised, focusing especially on the role that it plays in society and the reason it acts in the way that it does. This will hopefully help us to understand the direction that New Labour has taken over recent years, to consider the course we expect the Labour Party to take in the years to come, and also to consider what we might expect from any New Workers’ Party that might arise in the meantime.

In seeking to understand where the Labour Party is going, therefore, we need to be able to conceptualise what the Labour Party is. In a couple of recent publications I’ve argued that social democratic parties in general should be conceptualised as a set of social relations. This can hopefully inform our discussion of the Labour Party. Two sets of relationships are of particular importance. The first is the relationship between the party elite and the party constituency – both amongst the grassroots membership and in the wider electorate. This relationship needs to be understood historically. As we of course know, it is a relationship that emerged out of the industrial revolution and out of the mass trade unionism that was born over the course of the 19th century. The Labour Party was formed by the trade union movement, alongside the early socialist parties and societies, which increasingly came to the view that there needed to be representation of the labour movement within parliament in order to provide some balance to the sets of laws and policies that would otherwise be consistently biased in the interests of the bourgeoisie. As social democratic parties were formed through the labour movement in each country, so they found that in order to be viable electoral parties they also needed to offer a viable policy programme that would benefit their predominantly working class constituency. This led them to seek to identify programmes that would enable them to manage capitalism in such a way that they could at the same time appear to be producing gains for workers. The beauty of Keynesian demand management for social democratic parties, therefore, was that it enabled them to both seek to manage capitalism – through spending in times of recession – and to target that spending on areas that would most benefit the workers whose support as members and as voters they relied upon (unemployment benefit, health, education, social security, pensions, and so on). This allowed social democratic parties to appear to kill two birds (the management of capitalism and the promotion of workers’ interests) with one stone. There is a second side to this story, though, and that is the side that recognizes that, in seeking to steer disaffected workers’ demands through parliamentary channels, and in seeking to make those demands compatible with the management of capitalism, the party elites of social democratic parties sought to perpetuate the dependence of those disaffected workers upon both representative party elites and upon the functioning of capitalism. The social democratic party strategy is therefore one that seeks to both meet workers’ demands for better living and working conditions and ensure that those demands don’t get out of hand. The aim for social democratic party leaders is to ensure that workers temper their demands so that they can remain compatible with the parliamentary process and so that capitalism can continue to be manageable by the labour movement’s parliamentary elite in its attempt to enter office. Social democratic parties, therefore, are constituted by a party elite that seeks to encourage working class demands, seek to meet those demands, but at the same time to ensure that those demands are sufficiently limited that they pose no threat to capitalism and no threat to parliamentary democracy.

The second set of relations that social democratic parties constitute, therefore, and which it must seek to reproduce, are those of capitalism itself. And here the important point for me is to have a clear understanding of the way that capitalism operates. As we know, capitalism constantly struggles (but fails) to deal with its internal contradictions. Competition between capitalists sees them constantly strive for efficiency savings, restructuring, and the constant drive for greater productivity and more intensive methods of production. This is the process whereby capitalists compete for a greater share of profit. But at the same time they make it more difficult for profit itself to be created.

Efficiency savings mean job losses, which means less demand in the economy. Productivity improvements mean the value of goods produced falls (undermining the value of existing stock). Capitalists are therefore constantly faced with the problem of making a profit within an environment within which opportunities for further productivity measures are difficult to find, and when they are found they undermine macroeconomic demand. Capitalism therefore, which depends upon the production of profit, at the same time faces a constant struggle to produce and realize profit, and in seeking to do so undermines the stable conditions necessary for exploitation to be profitable. This therefore produces crises, and these crises tend only to be resolvable through the further expansion of capitalism, the further extension or intensification of exploitation (so as to create new opportunities for profit making), which in turn reproduces capitalism (and all its contradictions) on a yet larger scale still. In being committed to the management of capitalism, therefore, social democratic party elites have been and always-already will be committed to seeking the further extension and intensification of exploitation at times of capitalist crisis.

In sum, the relationships that make up social democratic parties are ones whereby a party elite seeks to meet and limit the demands of the workers that form its electoral core. And, further, in times of capitalist crisis, it must seek to convince those workers that they should accept an increase in the extent and intensity of exploitation – and further still that they should accept this further increase in exploitation as being somehow reasonable and in their own interests. Social democratic parties, therefore, and this obviously includes the Labour Party, are constantly faced with the task of convincing the workers who form their constituency that they should accept the latest round of welfare cuts, pay cuts, job cuts, or workload increases, in order that capitalism can continue to be manageable, and to accept that somehow this is somehow in their interests so that social democratic party elites can continue to claim that they represent those interests. It is in this light that we should view the Labour Party, New Labour, Old Labour, and any potential New Worker’s Party – in that they are all ultimately required to advocate the worsening of workers’ conditions – and to seek to sell that worsening back to workers who form their core constituency as somehow in its best interests. This is in order that the Labour Party can continue to both manage capitalism and seek to meet the (ever more limited – they hope(!)) demands of the workers they depend on for their electoral survival.

Some Examples

I want now to briefly discuss some of the historical events in which the Labour Party has evinced time and again the way in which the problems and obstacles discussed above have proven the inability of the Labour Party to promote workers interests. Many of these examples come from Leo Panitch’s excellent book, Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy: The Labour Party, the Trade Unions and Incomes Policy, 1945-1974.

Perhaps most famously, we are all aware of the events of 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald chose the interests of the British capitalist economy and the value of sterling, over the interests of unemployed workers who the Labour Party ostensibly claimed to represent. In doing so, MacDonald chose unemployment benefit cuts and the abandonment and betrayal of the Labour Party, thereby showing how, when it comes to the crunch, the Labour Party elite opt for the intensification of exploitation when capitalism requires it.

Similarly, in the Attlee Government’s 1948 White Paper, Statement on Personal Incomes, Costs and Prices advocated a voluntary wage freeze in order to ensure the stability of the British capitalist economy and currency, a proposal which was accepted by trade union leaders at the time. Similarly, in the 1950s the Labour Party elite increasingly came to advocate workers’ moderation, for instance Crosland claimed “so long as we maintain a substantial private sector… socialists must logically applaud the accumulation of private profit”. The Labour Party’s 1957 policy document, Industry and Society claimed “under increasingly professional managements, large firms are as a whole serving the nation well … [and] no organization, public or private, can operate effectively if it is subjected to persistent and detailed interventions from above”. Further, in 1966 the Wilson Government, shortly after its re-election, and faced with an economic crisis, entered into a fierce industrial dispute with the National Union of Seamen, implemented a deflationary package, increased indirect taxation, imposed a 6-month wage freeze, and abandoned its commitment to full employment. All of this was presented as being in the interests of workers, in the following terms by prime minister, Harold Wilson: “The Prices and Incomes Policy is not a whim of a Government Department, not a bright idea that has occurred to [Secretary of State for Economic Affairs] George Brown and me. It is a necessary condition of maintaining full employment.”

Further still, in the run-up to the 1978-9 winter of discontent, William Rodgers, Transport Minister, claimed, in support of the government’s 5% pay limit that: “In the national interest and not least in the interest of maintaining and improving public services it must be understood that if public sector wages take a bigger share of the national cake then – if we are not simply to finance inflation by printing money, as our predecessors did – the consequences are clear.”

Turning now to consider the Labour Party’s turn to ‘New Labour’ under Tony Blair, we witness Blair making claims that not only should workers’ demands not be too dramatic, but that workers no longer even hold such desires for sound welfare provision and redistributive mechanisms. Thus, “in a global economy the old ways won’t do. Of course a fair tax system is right. But really a life on benefit—dependent on the state—is not what most people want. They want independence, dignity, self-improvement, a chance to earn and get on”.

Similarly, Blair sought to put down any form of dissent with the claim that this would only act to the detriment of workers’ interests in the long term: ‘You will have a ready ear in the media to attack the Labour government. But I will tell the Labour Party where that leads. It leads to twenty years of Tory government’(Blair, NEC meeting, 17 November 1997, quoted in Davies 2001).

Finally, just to show how all of these trends continue to the present, we can consider the Government’s pensions policies introduced in 2008, in which the government claimed in its Green Paper, No One Written Off, that the best way to help lone parents is actually to ensure that they make no demands of the state at all – and instead simply rely on the sale of their labour power (childcare responsibilities notwithstanding), claiming that “Helping more lone parents into work will reduce child poverty. From 2010, lone parents whose youngest child is seven or over will, where they can, be required to look for paid work. Those able to work will move onto JSA and be covered by its conditions. This will ensure they get the support they need to help move into employment and provide better life chances for themselves and their families. “ And, perhaps to sum all of this up, we hear only this month that Mandelson is ‘beyond anger’ at striking postal workers – what more evidence could we require that the Labour Party is, but also always has been, to the detriment of working people’s interests.

Where is the Labour Party going?

In sum, to return to the initial question, where is the Labour Party going? There are three key points that I wish to sum up with.

First, fortunately the working class increasingly refuses to buy the social democratic Labour Party line. This has led to both voter and member exit from the party. Measured in terms of votes of the total electorate (i.e. taking account of low electoral turnout), Labour’s share of the vote has fallen from 30.8% in 1997 to 24.2% in 2001 to 21.6% in 2005 (this latter figure is lower than that achieved in the 1979 general election).

Second, the Labour Party is not going to revert to an “Old Labour” agenda. With the British capitalist economy looking at a predicted 11.4% government deficit and debt currently at around 60% of GDP (and predicted to rise much higher), alongside sluggish demand, a prolonged recession, and rising unemployment, it is going to require a fundamental and massive intensification of exploitation in order for new opportunities for profitable investment to be created within the British capitalist economy, which is necessary for it to move towards its more smooth reproduction. There isn’t going to be a turn to ‘Old Labour’ values in such a context – to believe that there is is to fundamentally misread the trajectory of the Labour Party to date, and also to act to further perpetuate this myth that the Labour Party represents the best alternative available for workers.

Third, to answer the initial question, Where is the Labour Party going?, I would argue that what we are likely to see from the Labour Party, in the light of the foregoing discussion, is more of the same. More moves to intensify exploitation, more attempts to cut back on welfare provisions, more attempts to keep wages low, and more attempts to make workers more productive, less rebellious, and more disciplined. And all of this will be sold to us with the line that it’s in our best interests.

2 thoughts on “the underlying character and future of labourism

  1. Labour are right wing war criminal filth. That’s the start and end of it. But they still go around deriding the other tories because retrograde tribalism is the only substance to their case.


  2. It’s time they reorganised the benches in the commons to reflect political-economic views; though it will be crowded with everyone having to sit on the right.


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