A Party of Our Own (Part II) – Battlelines Drawn

January 21, 2013 12:08 pm

Watch any TV news report, political show, read any newspaper article, and you will find a common thread amongst our political class across the main parties.

‘We have no money’ they say. ‘The cuts are necessary’. ‘We must reduce the deficit’, and, of course, the phrase that will be hung around the Tories’ neck forever: ‘We’re all in this together’.

Hardly anywhere will you see a genuine counter-argument. Only some trade union leaders, such as Len McCluskey (UNITE), Bob Crow (RMT) or Mark Sewotka (PCS) will offer anything like an alternative. They call for jobs and growth. But, as far as the capitalist media are concerned, such voices are like drops in the ocean.

This, in my view, is one of the reasons why we need ‘a party of our own.’

In ‘Part I’ of this article, I outlined the rise of the Labour Party and how it has failed, particularly since the 1970s, to fulfil the needs of the people it claims to represent.  How, essentially, it has always been a party that was at base a working class party but with a middle class capitalist leadership. A leadership that has taken such a firm, organisational grip that the party’s democratic structures, at all levels,  have been either controlled or shut down.

It now functions as a US-style Democratic Party, an electoral machine that only requires its members to work as canvassers, fundraisers and cheerleaders at stage-managed conferences and photo opportunities.

But how did it arrive at this state of affairs?

The Road to ‘Blairism’

The Labour Party has always been a ‘broad church’ of the left and centre-left. Under its umbrella, such diverse formations and factions as the Fabian Society, Solidarity, the ‘Tribune’ Group, Labour Briefing, the Militant Tendency, Christian Socialists, the Co-operative Society and a variety of trade unions have co-existed for decades.

Each society, or formation, had its own meetings, conferences, journals and magazines to get its message ‘out there’. They all had stalls at Labour conferences and put forward many a resolution and debate. Yet only the openly Marxist Militant Tendency has been expelled as an entire group in recent years.

Ever since 1918, under the influence of the enthusiasm workers had for the Russian Revolution, Labour’s membership card bore the ‘Clause 4’ amendment that called for wealth re-distribution. This was finally airbrushed out at the 1995 conference. The party made its home straight dash to become a fully paid up member of the capitalist establishment, opening the way for ‘Blairism’ to complete the transformation.

Defence of living standards

But it wasn’t always like that. Labour politicians played a lot of lip service to ‘socialism’, whichever way they defined it. To some, it was ‘social justice’ or ‘social democracy’. To others more  to the left, it was ‘left reformist’, as the 1945 Attlee government was.

Under Attlee, Britain was transformed compared to the 1930s. Yet for genuine socialists this was, at best, progressive and on the right road, but still only a halfway house between capitalism and socialism. As soon as the political Right re-asserted itself, the capitalist class would begin to claw back whatever gains the working class had made.

And this process began in the Attlee government itself when it hiked prescription charges for the newly-established NHS. This, while they hung onto the foreign policy shirt-tails of the US. They repeatedly failed, year on year, to properly invest in the modernisation of the nationalised industries.

Production quality and levels began to be challenged by rivals abroad. This was the perfect excuse to lay the fault at the door of ‘socialism’ and the trade unions whose members were denigrated by the media for daring to defend the gains to their living standards.

As the 1973 oil crisis hit the world economy, quadrupling inflation, workers were again accused of bringing the country down. The ideological battlelines were already drawn in the dirt.

Left and Right

In the ‘Right corner’, we had the ‘Chicago School’ of neo-liberal monetarism according to Milton Friedman. He called for ‘balanced budgets’, cutting the social wage, withdrawing funds from the public sector, shrinking the involvement of government and cutting taxes. The prerequisite for doing this was to ‘neutralise’ the ability of the trade union movement to defend its members.

His theories were borne out, as he went to observe for himself in Chile in the early 1970s, when General Pinochet conducted a bloody military-police coup: counter-revolution as political laboratory.

In Britain, Friedman’s theories were already adopted by a section of the Tory Party who were heartily sick of seeing ‘their’ government unable to take on the unions and win. There had been a series of massive strikes in 1972-1974 around pay, working conditions, housing and industrial relations. As the then Tory PM Ted Heath announced on TV when he called for an election: ‘Who rules Britain?’ Heath lost the election.

But the Tory mantle then switched to Margaret Thatcher who, under the tutorship of arch-rightwinger Keith Joseph, embraced ‘monetarism’. These were the themes the ‘Thatcherites’ bandied about on their road to Downing Street – ‘to roll back the frontiers of socialism’, ‘to curb the power of the state’, ‘to establish a property-owning democracy’.

Young Socialists

In the ‘Left corner’, the Militant Tendency had come into being in 1964 with the first edition of its newspaper ‘Militant’. As a Marxist group within the Labour Party, its programme for Labour had deep roots within the theories of Lenin and Trotsky, leaders of the Russian Revolution. Directly descended from other groups that had been affiliated to Trotsky’s ‘Fourth International’, they oriented themselves to workers’ parties to build support for socialist policies.

After years of campaigning, Militant recruited and widened its readership within the labour movement. By the early 1970s, they had a member sitting on Labour’s National Executive Committee and the leadership of the Labour Party Young Socialists. By the time of the breakdown of the 1974-79 Labour government’s ‘Social Contract’ –  an agreement between the Labour cabinet and sympathetic union bosses to hold down wages –  Militant members were at the forefront of the mass strikes during the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’. It was a Militant member whose call for strikes at the 1978 TUC was taken up.

Labour paid dearly at the ballot box for its betrayal. Workers either abstained or voted for other parties, which let the Thatcherites come to power in 1979 with their monetarist policies about to unfold. Within eighteen months of the Tory ascent to power, there were three million unemployed as a result of their assault on industry. Next in the Tory sights were the privatisation of public utilities, attacks on local government and on trade unions themselves.

The Heart of the Party

While many working class families reeled under each blow, Labour began to tear itself apart as factions began to fight for the heart of the party.

Tony Benn, the acknowledged leading figure of the Left, failed in his bid to become Labour’s deputy leader and take his place beside leader Michael Foot. Instead, rightwinger Denis Healey won by a whisker when Neil Kinnock switched allegiance from Left to Right, endorsing Healey.

Kinnock’s was a futile bid to bring Labour’s Left and Right together, while positioning himself as Foot’s eventual successor following Labour’s second defeat at the hands of Thatcher in 1983.

With Kinnock’s succession, he was part of Labour’s ‘dream ticket’ with his deputy, rightwinger Roy Hattersley. They sought to turn Labour away from leftwing policies by re-branding the party and removing the ‘threat’ of the ‘hard left’ – namely Militant socialists – thus, they believed, making themselves ‘more electable’.

Promptly, the Militant Editorial Board members were expelled from Labour  as it was claimed that Militant was ‘a party within a party’. In fact, they were little different to any of the other affiliated groups – apart from their socialist ideas.

However, Militant still had many other supporters within Labour and the trade unions. They were to gain three MPs in Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Pat Wall. Each of them only accepted the average wage of a skilled worker, ‘Workers MPs on a Workers Wage’.  Famously, Militant members were among those Labour councillors who gained control of Liverpool City Council in 1983.

The Liverpool Labour group ran their election with promises to build homes and create jobs. Policies that would fly in the face of what central government required them to do as support grants were about to be slashed further. Unlike many councils, Liverpool Labour were determined to fulfil their electoral pledges. They campaigned throughout the city, alongside their workforce and their community, to demand a return of the withdrawn grants of £60 million.

As Thatcher’s government was tied up in the titanic struggle with the miners throughout 1984, the Tories did not want a ‘war on two fronts’ and so conceded and released the grant  to Liverpool.

Thatcher could be beaten

With the money victoriously returned, the council proceeded to honour its promises to the people who elected them. They set in motion the building of 6,000 homes and created nearly 7,000 jobs in Merseyside, one of the most dire unemployment and housing black spots in the country.

In one fell swoop, Liverpool Labour, led by Militant members, had demonstrated that Thatcher’s government could be beaten and electoral policies could be fulfilled – if you were willing to organise a fight back.

While the Tories seethed, their hands were still tied with the miners’ strike. Kinnock and the other Labour leaders were exposed – militant action could  and did make a difference.

Kinnock’s campaign of re-branding Labour’s image was under threat. The government, backed by the capitalist media, demanded he did something fast if they were to believe he could change his party.

Kinnock, and those around him, were only too happy to oblige.


(Next: A Party of Our Own Part III – ‘Militant’s Revenge’)

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