the continuing assault on the unions

by Bill Butlin

As the general election approaches both the Labour and Conservative parties aren’t saying much about what they plan to do to trade unions. Why is this?

The silence reflects a pro business consensus in the two main parties, that ‘disorderly’ and ‘illegitimate’ collective action by workers is a pathology that harms business, employees and the consumer. And was it not that son of Thatcher Tony Blair himself who boasted loudly that ‘The Labour Party is the party of modern business and industry in Britain’? Continue reading “the continuing assault on the unions”

manchester class struggle forum, wednesday 24th

The first Manchester Class Struggle Forum will host a discussion on the Labour Party and the upcoming General Election.

We will discuss the 2010 general election and the position that communists should take towards bourgeois elections. Continue reading “manchester class struggle forum, wednesday 24th”

Thou shalt vote Labour : an eleventh commandment?

As many on the far left plan to call for a Labour vote in the general election, Barry Biddulph looks at the historic roots of this slogan and the dogmas on which it is based.

New Labour is the self-proclaimed party of business, neoliberalism, the free market, privatisation, public sector cuts, and partnerships with employers. A party that has kept the legal shackles on trade unions as a matter of conviction. New Labour is also the party of aggressive imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brown, and before him, Tony Blair, were the ideological sons of Thatcher. Peter Mandelson, like Blair, is a close friend of the rich while the party presides over increasing inequality. An indication of the pro-business activities  of New Labour is the recent complaint by ASLEF that the Labour government and the Secretary of State have compensated, through the rail franchise, the financial losses of train companies who have provoked industrial action by treating their workers badly.

However, there is nothing new about New Labour. All the early leaders of the Labour Party had a similar approach.  Arthur Henderson  was a Liberal agent for seven years, Phillip Snowden, was a man of respectable conformist views. Ramsey MacDonald  liked to dine with the wealthy and created a secret electoral pact with the Liberals. Keir Hardie  began his political career as an admirer of the Liberal leader Gladstone. The popular image of Hardie as the cloth cap member for the unemployed is an Old Labour myth. He wore a decent sporty deerstalker, and as a Labour parliamentarian advocated a liberal solution to unemployment: regimented work colonies in the countryside to set them to work. New Labour is very much a return to Old Labour’s Liberal roots. Labour stood for class co-operation, not class war.

At the second congress of the Communist International in 1920, Lenin compromised  his earlier analysis of Labour as bourgeois by recommending  tactics which have remained a dogma for much of the left ever since, despite profound historical change. These tactics of critical support for Labour at elections were partly influenced by the delegate from the British Socialist Party. The BSP later became a key component of the Communist Party. The BSP were Labour Party members and had a left-reformist perspective of capturing the party for socialism, as the Sheffield rank and file leader, Jack Murphy, and  Sylvia Pankhurst pointed out. Even Willie Gallagher who later became a leading Stalinist, described them as reformists. However, Lenin claimed this was an exaggeration, although he did disagree with the BSP view that  the Labour Party was the political expression of  the working class.

According to Lenin the only way to get a hearing for communist ideas from Labour supporters was to vote with them for their reactionary leaders. Lenin did not advocate voting Labour on the basis of political demands such as “Labour to power with a socialist programme” or “make the Labour Party fight for the workers.” The communists would be able to obtain a hearing for soviets and workers’ power by showing respect for the loyalty of Labour voters to their leaders and go through the disillusioning experience of parliamentary socialism with them. Jack Tanner, speaking from his own rank and file experience argued that workers are always accessible in the workshops, the unions, and the streets. Communist agitation would find the workers.  Lenin’s tactic implied that the  reactionary leaders would take the movement forward, albeit in a roundabout way.

In the Soviet Union Lenin had already turned his back on the self-activity of the masses  and focused on loyalty to leaders, hence the stress on Labour’s leaders. Pankhurst raised the obvious objection that Labour voters would not trust such convoluted tactics. It was better to be open, direct and honest as an independent communist organisation. Besides, any disappointment with Labour leaders could simply end in political disillusionment with communism and socialism or lead to a swing to the right, or more to the point, trap communists in a project of transforming Labour.

Lenin did advocate affiliation to the Labour Party. But he discussed Labour in terms of it not being a fully fledged centralised national party, as if it was still a federation of affiliated socialist societies and trade unions without an individual membership. This optimistic impression seems to have been given by the BSP Delegate to the Congress, Although the mistake was Lenin’s. But Arthur Henderson’s reorganisation of the Labour Party – with a centralised national structure, individual membership, the block vote of trade union bureaucrats to out-vote the real members, and the independence of Labour MPs from the sovereignty of the party conference – would not allow communist affiliation or allow communists to freely agitate within the Labour Party.

Lenin also overestimated the revolutionary potential of the situation in 1920, as John McLean wrote in his open letter to Lenin. Parliamentary politics were not as unstable as Lenin assumed. Lenin also assumed the advanced workers had been or could easily be won over to communism with the help of the Russian leadership so the task was now winning over the less advanced workers who voted Labour. His label of ‘bourgeois  workers’ party’ for Labour also muddied the water. A considerable number of workers are members and supporters of the Tory and Liberal parties. Because sociologically a party is working class does not make it fundamentally different from other bourgeois parties. The label implies Labour is not a bourgeois party and some kind of support is possible. The trade union link is not an organic link with the masses, but a bureaucratic indirect link, the ‘dead souls of socialism’, as one historian described it. Contact with the working class has never been dependent on contact with the Labour Party.

Some of Lenin’s disciples have followed his emphasis on loyalty to leaders and assumed mass struggle would pass through the Labour Party or be led by  Labour leaders. History has shown otherwise. The great workers’ unrest 1910-14, the general strike of 1926, the unemployed marches of the 1930s, the do-it-yourself reformism from below in the 1960s-70s, the anti-Vietnam war protests, the mass picketing of the great miners’ strike in 1984-85, the poll tax riots, the modern anti-war movement, and dockers and firefighters’ strikes have all taken place without the approval or support of the top parliamentary Labour leaders.

We should remember that the Labour Party was not a product of mass struggle, but a party which emerged from radical constitutionalism and a strong focus on parliament, rather than mass agitation.  The trade union link is not organic, but indirect and bureaucratic. There is no living connection with the mass of trade unionists in the workplace, much like the relationship between 19th century  British trade union leaders and the Liberals, or union leaders and the Democrats in the USA. So why settle for a lesser evil capitalist alternative?

the state of the struggle: london forum, 2nd february

The next of The Commune’s series of London public forums will explore the themes raised by the coming general election campaign. The first such meeting will review the class struggle in the era of the New Labour government. What were the successes, what opportunities were missed, and how will we resist the post-election ruling class onslaught?

The meeting takes place from 7pm on Tuesday 2nd February at the Artillery Arms, 102 Bunhill Row, near Old Street (map below). Speakers confirmed so far include participants in last year’s Royal Mail, Visteon and Tower Hamlets College strikes. Continue reading “the state of the struggle: london forum, 2nd february”

time to vote labour?

a letter to The Commune by Bill Butlin

The impending public expenditure cuts look like being a key issue for trade unionists at the next general election.  The Labour Party and the Tories both maintain that cuts are unavoidable and that no alternative exists to their implementation.

In an interview with Andrew Marr at the beginning of January the Tory leader was gung ho on this issue. He maintained that the cuts identified as necessary by New Labour were not stringent enough. Clearly any pretence by Cameron that he represents the acceptable One Nation face of the Conservative Party, and one that has left Thatcherism behind, is challenged by this professed policy objective. An objective that will not only see public expenditure cuts but further privatisations and a parallel attack on public sector trade unionism. Continue reading “time to vote labour?”

a class war in westminster?

by Adam Ford

When Gordon Brown claimed the Conservative Party’s inheritance tax policy was “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton”, he must have thought he was scoring an easy political point. However, he had touched off a storm which would fascinate politicians and commentators for days, by alluding to the great unmentionable: social class.

David Cameron responded by complaining that the “petty, spiteful, stupid” line marked the start of a Labour Party-led “class war” against the wealthiest in society, and pundits speculated that Chancellor Alistair Darling would use his pre-budget report to launch swingeing attacks on those at the top of the tree. In the event, he merely proposed a one-off tax on banker bonuses over £25,000. Considering the government has already spent £850 billion bailing out the banks, the £550 million he forecast this would bring in amounts to just a drop in the bucket. Even so, he provided sufficient loopholes to protect bankers from even this puny infringement on their enormous wealth, and increased VAT, which disproportionately hits the poorest. Normal service had resumed. Continue reading “a class war in westminster?”

capitalism, labourism and the ‘trade union party’

Chris Ford introduces a 1974 piece by Tony Lane

The question of the trade unions and their relationship to working class political organisation has been an ongoing debate in the labour movement for many many years; it has become especially prominent in the last decade.  In 1974 Tony Lane wrote the thought provoking book The Union Makes Us Strong: The British Working Class and the Politics of Trade Unionism. By considering the history of the labour movement Lane looked at the political consciousness of the rank and file, and the ways in which union leaders at all levels tend to become isolated from the worker on the shop floor. In particular he explodes the cherished myth that the failure of socialism can be laid at the doors of a succession of leaders who have ‘betrayed’ the movement.

He argues that trade unionism did not develop a ‘class consciousness’ in the full and proper sense of the term, which could grasp the total reality of capitalism. He considered the Labour Party as the parliamentary expression of the unions’ way of looking at the world as doomed from the start and concluded that the power to force much needed social change must be spearheaded by a new socialist party. Lane raised interesting questions for today in terms of the difference between a Labour Party mark II or an actual new workers’ party which would be something very different. Continue reading “capitalism, labourism and the ‘trade union party’”

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. Continue reading “the underlying character and future of labourism”

theses on the 2010 general election and its aftermath – for discussion

Dave Spencer sets out some points for discussion at our December 12th aggregate meeting. In the spirit of openness we want to publish as much material from our internal debates as possible.

1. No matter who wins the 2010 General Election, the working class will be under attack to pay for the economic crisis. There will be more unemployment and more cuts in public services – possibly on an unprecedented scale since World War 2.

2. Over 12 years of New Labour government, “the Left” and the Trade Unions have failed to organise an effective working class opposition. This has to be a failure of historic proportions and needs some analysing. Continue reading “theses on the 2010 general election and its aftermath – for discussion”

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%. Continue reading “the future of the labour party and workers’ representation”

videos of the commune’s forum ‘where is the labour party going?’

On 23rd November The Commune staged a public meeting in London on the social role, degeneration and future of the Labour Party. The discussion ranged from the nature of parties managing the capitalist state to the limitations of the ‘new trade union party’ objective of many left groups.

David Bailey from the University of Birmingham, Andrew Fisher from the LRC and The Commune’s Chris Ford led off the discussion, and videos of the event are gradually being uploaded, starting with David’s talk – view them on this site, or see more content at our YouTube page. Continue reading “videos of the commune’s forum ‘where is the labour party going?’”

where is the labour party going? london forum, monday 23rd

The next of The Commune’s London public forums is on the subject of the social role, degeneration and future course of the Labour Party. The meeting takes place from 7pm on Monday 23rd November at the Lucas Arms, Grays Inn Road, near King’s Cross.

23rdnov

With some on the left turning back to Labour as the 2010 general election nears, and others predicting the party will turn ‘left’ in opposition to a David Cameron administration, it is important to understand the underlying characteristics of Labour in British capitalism and challenge the arguments that the workers’ movement should try and ‘reclaim’ it or create a Labour Party mark II. Continue reading “where is the labour party going? london forum, monday 23rd”

voting labour is not a fall-back option

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in…”***

by David Broder

The bitter chill of winter is never more harshly felt than at a labour movement conference with grandiose ambitions but limited prospects. This was much in evidence at the Labour Representation Committee last weekend, which marked a step back from any meaningful idea of renewing working-class representation.

Of course, the joke that the left is so keen on unity that it has sprouted a dozen competing unity projects is no longer particularly funny. But this problem is political, not merely organisational. For even worse than factionalism is simple retreat into the Labour Party. Continue reading “voting labour is not a fall-back option”

issue 9 of the commune

The November issue of our monthly paper The Commune is now available. Click the image below to see the PDF, or see articles as they are posted online in the list below.

issue9cover

To purchase a printed copy for £1 + 50p postage, use the ‘donate’ feature here. You can also subscribe (£12 a year UK/£16 EU/£20 international) or order 5 copies a month to sell (£4) online here. If you want to pay by cheque, contact uncaptiveminds@gmail.com.

are we ready for a winter of discontent? – by Sheila Cohen

post strike: this is no deal – by Joe Thorne

underground pay deadlock – by Vaughan Thomas

what is the union bureaucracy? – by Alberto Durango

occupation and state building in the new afghanistan – by Jessica Anderson

mixed reactions to cwu-royal mail deal – interview with a communist postman

manchester students build solidarity with post workers – by Mark Harrison

honduras: democracy has not been restored – by Socialismo o Barbarie

month long strike in france: ‘papers for all!’ – interview with Seni cleaners and piece from Où va la CGT?

communism twenty years after the berlin wall fell – interviews with eastern european activists

scottish ruling class: division over union – by Allan Armstrong

obituary of chris harman – by Andy Wilson

university occupations in austria – interview with vienna student activist

question time row: did the straw man really slay the griffin? – by Adam Ford

communist recomposition and workers’ representation – by Chris Ford

‘full and open debate’ on post-no2eu project: ok, when? – by David Broder

building from below: the work of paulo freire – by Dave Spencer

the global commune, january 16th

activities of the commune around britain