A Party of Our Own-A History of the Labour Party (Part I)

January 16, 2013 6:00 pm

There is no political party in Britain today that truly represents the interests of working class people.

You can’t fit a cigarette paper between the main parties. They are three wings of the same capitalist party.Ed Miliband labour

Since the 1980s, Labour – considered the ‘working class’ party – began to close down its democratic channels. It always had a working class base but with a leadership that accepted the confines of the capitalist system.

The ‘Labour left’ has now all  but disappeared. Genuine socialists have been expelled or left in disgust, particularly when ‘Blairism’ began to get a grip on the structures of the party. The strongest signal for this was prior to Blair’s ascendancy under the short-lived leadership of John Smith, who died in 1994.

At the previous year’s party conference, Smith had drawn the remaining s0-called ‘soft Left’, represented by the likes of John Prescott, behind him. In return for the promise of electoral victory at any cost, they agreed to ‘one member, one vote’ and the ditching of ‘Clause 4’. This was a long held aim of the Labour rightwing – to undermine trade union influence and remove ‘Clause 4’s call for wealth re-distribution.

The ‘Making’ of the Working Class

The working class came into being as capitalism became the dominant economic system by the late 18th century. The British class of traders and merchants (including the slave traders) used their profits to invest in scientific developments that spawned new industries and brought them into the new ‘factory system’.

Landowners enclosed land to make way for the expansion of the profitable wool industry and arable farming. As a result, the drift of landless peasants moved to growing industrial towns to take up work in the mills, mines and factories. They lived in crammed, substandard rented accommodation that often belonged to their new employers.

Parliament, as its name suggests, was very much the talking shop for the ruling class, divided as it was between the landowners (mainly Tory) and the rising class of industrialists and merchants (mainly Whigs, later to morph into the Liberal Party). For the millions of ordinary people beneath them, there was no representation, and, indeed, no vote unless you had a property qualification.

Workers who organised trade unions were sacked, evicted, beaten, imprisoned, even transported to some far flung colony for standing up for their rights in direct contravention of the ‘Combination Acts’.

Early trade unions met in secret, especially at the time of the French Revolution that inspired millions in Europe and beyond. Britain had also lost the thirteen American colonies. The bourgeoisie were in no mood for dissent. Though they banned trade unions and made arrests, they could not ban an idea whose time had come. By the end of the 1820s, trade unions were legalised to help dampen down further protests and strikes.

The Chartists

It was clear that ‘allowing’ trade unions to exist did not mean that social conditions would improve. The movement needed teeth. The Chartist Movement was the first political formation of workers that demanded root and branch reform – annual parliaments, universal manhood suffrage being their main demands. Millions signed the charter (a kind of petition), and there were magnificent strikes and demonstrations from 1837 -1845. The movement faded and fell into fractious disunity where factions clung to their own sets of demands. However, the ruling class had been shaken and made reforms at the top to prevent revolution from below.18 century labour

The Liberals brought in reforms, including votes for skilled workers – a move that drew in the ‘labour aristocracy’ of the craft unions (or skilled workers) who became a pillar of the establishment with faith placed in any crumbs the Liberals could toss them from the top table. Subsequent elections became a battle between the two capitalist parties for the skilled workers’ endorsement that brought further reforms around public health, education to win those crucial votes. Where both parties could make concessions, on the whole, they regarded the workers as voting fodder to be discarded when one or the other party gained power. Concessions given could easily be taken away, especially when the economy moved towards recession, as it approached the twentieth century.

By the 1880s, the international labour movement was clearly established. In Germany, for example, a large social democratic party was already influential there. A relatively new set of ideas accompanied the growing workers’ movement – socialism, as shaped by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. There was the Second International, a body that represented working class parties across the world.

In Britain, by the 1890s, a series of mass strikes by newly-unionised unskilled workers broke out. This emboldened the will to struggle to improve wages and working conditions across industries whether under a Tory or Liberal government. Workers’ illusions in the Liberal Party were being undermined. Already, Keir Hardie, a former miner, had entered Parliament as a Liberal MP. He worked in the labour movement for the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900.

The ‘heat’ of the Labour Party

The Liberals, soon to regain power by 1906, felt the heat of the now named Labour Party coming up on its left. They were forced to enact reforms that might stop their supporters deserting them. A raft of Liberal policies, including unemployment benefits, pensions, some reforms in housing, health and education, resulted because of this pressure from the left.

As the new century progressed, support for the Labour Party grew and correspondingly fell away from the Liberals. A layer of  iberal supporters with political careers in mind,  jumped ship and joined the rising Labour Party. If they couldn’t beat it, they were going to ‘ride the tiger’ to tame it for capitalism.general strike

What made this a matter of urgency was the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the founding of the first workers’ state in history. Labour’s leadership became ’embourgeoisified’. Middle class interlopers who could not find a career with the fading Liberals or those of the ‘labour aristocracy’ – the bureaucrats of the trade union movement who enjoyed the spoils of office were determined to steer the movement towards compromise.

‘Gradualism’ was a creed amongst the non-Marxist, non-revolutionary left who believed socialism could be postponed to some point in the future. In the meantime, they could content themselves in gaining gradual reforms. The last thing the bureaucracy wanted was a mass movement they couldn’t control. One that might democratise the labour movement, putting their own privileges and positions at risk.

It was the bureaucratic TUC (Trade Union Congress), aided and abetted by the British Communist Party’s obeisance to the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow, that derailed the mighty General Strike in 1926. Under the liberal-leaning Labour leadership of those around Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour government of 1929-31 formed a National government coalition with the Tories in the face of the ‘Great Depression’, similar to the Coalition we are experiencing today, who likewise demanded workers bail out the failed capitalist system with unemployment, low pay, benefit cuts and ‘means-testing’.

The western capitalist democracies, together with Stalin’s government, facilitated the rise of Hitler in the 1930s which led directly to the second bloody conflagration of WWII.

Between capitalism and socialism

At war’s end, rather than implement socialist policies, the 1945 Labour government that won by a landslide (defeating the ‘inspirational’ Tory war leader Churchill) preferred to install the Liberals’ Lord Beveridge’s reformist programme of nationalisation of key industries, health and welfare reforms and a massive house-building programme – a halfway house between capitalism and socialism.

The worldwide economic boom, underwritten by the wealth of the American colossus in the post-war, post-colonial world, meant a significant rise in living standards-in the industrial world, at least. But, the laws of capitalist  boom and recession cycles still applied. While there was boom, there were reforms. With recession, those reforms would be clawed back by the 1970s.

The trade union movement, strengthened by the gains of the extended post-war boom, naturally resisted curtailment of any improvements to their living standards. The capmargaret thatcheritalist class were unscathed, cossetted as they were by the profits made by workers.

The 1974 Labour government was elected on the basis of protecting much of those gains. When Labour’s leaders, once in power, rejected this and chose to go to the IMF with a begging bowl instead, civil war broke out within the labour movement. Union members struck against their own government (the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’) which, in 1979, brought Thatcher’s Tories to power through Labour supporter abstention and a significant shift of some voters to the Tories.

Another defeat in 1983 meant the new Labour leadership began to change the class outlook of the party. ‘New Realism’ meant rejecting socialist ideas and expelling socialists by bureaucratic means. The new leader, Neil Kinnock, set the party on its new, disastrous course towards ‘Blairism’. Disenfranchisement of working class voters was underway.

As the Blairites dragged the party further to the right, adopting Tory policies, distancing itself from the trade unions in all but its financial links, Tony Blair hinted at future links with the Liberal Democrats. Following a succession of defeated leaders, the Tory successor Cameron attempted to shunt his party to the Blairite centre ground to regain electoral support. Meanwhile significant numbers left to bolster the rightwing anti-European UKIP.

A party of the left needed

Growing disaffection and cynicism with our politicians has grown significantly in the last period. From the days of the Thatcherite parliamentary dictatorship to Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ series of scandals. From the Blairite ‘Iraq War lies’ and ‘Cash for Honours’ to the more recent MPs’ expenses, Murdoch’s phone-hacking and police corruption, voters turned away from politicians.

‘They’re all the same’ or ‘they’re all on the make’ is the word on the street of the abstainer. Worryingly, some turn to formations on the far right – the BNP, the EDL or UKIP who offer negative solutions.

What we need is a genuine party of the socialist left to implement policies to benefit the majority, the working class and, increasingly, the impoverished middle class.

A party that will benefit the millions, not the millionaires.

(Next: ‘A Party of Our Own’ Part II)




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