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’)

  • “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

    This is really interesting, I’d never thought about that. Could you link/recommend sources?
    It’s interesting to ponder whether money saved from abandoning a failing empire might’ve made a big difference.

  • ChrisRobinson

    Jonathan, thanks for your comment – Whose debt? Whose deficit? Certainly not working class (and increasingly impoverished) middle class families’ debt or deficit. There’s £750bn – £800bn laying idle in the bank accounts of big business who refuse to invest (a strike of capital?).
    There’s OUR tax payers’ money in the banks we are propping up that were gambling our assets on the capitalist markets that failed so disastrously (£325bn).
    Meanwhile, obscene bonuses continue to be awarded. There’s ALWAYS money found for wars and military operations. There’s the millionaire class and companies who dodge, evade, avoid paying taxes, these need to be drastically reined in. If these individuals move abroad, let them go, but their assets should be seized and their bank accounts frozen where possible. This can then all be invested in GROWTH, in industry and manufacturing, in research and development.
    Another example – the private pharmaceutical companies that are stinging our NHS, take them into public ownership and invest their profits into saving and expanding our health service instead of what’s happening now. The same should apply to the PFI schemes where big business is holding our hospitals in hock where ‘Trusts’ (and I use that word advisedly) pay millions a year to companies who own the land on which hospitals are built instead of using it to employ nurses, doctors, equipment etc.
    A massive house-building programme would not go amiss – there’s five million people who are either homeless, living in poor, substandard cramped conditons or in the high rent private sector. This would help not only to provide a social need but would create hundreds of thousands of people to work, provide apprenticeships to unemployed youth, expanding our skill base, provide a welcome boost to a myriad of related industries that supply building materials (and more jobs) ALL thus contributing to the Exchequer in taxes/NI paid IN, instead of benefits bill at its current high level for unemployment. Let’s not forget, while benefits are being cut, the wealthy class are getting tax handouts from 50% down to 45% – someone ‘earning’ a million a year will save £40,000pa.
    And let’s not forget the assets of ‘our’ ruling class – the Royal Family, the MPs and those unelected bodies in the House of Lords, let’s look into what wealth THEY have hoarded away. Let’s put our MPs on an average wage of a skilled worker and see how many of them would like to go into ‘public service’ then.
    The wealth is there. We’re the sixth or seventh richest country in the world. It is just concentrated in too few hands. (eg. At the beginning of ‘The Apprentice’ programmes the voiceover states Alan Sugar’s ‘personal fortune’ to be £860 – odd million. That’s his PERSONAL fortune. How much money does an individual need? His business investments are accrued from the profits made from his already up and running businesses, and this is just ONE individual. By and large, profit is the unpaid labour of workers. He’s made his millions on the backs of ordinary working/middle class people.
    Yes, your point is correct, hanging on to empire cost us dear. However, we replaced direct rule by economic domination. The grossly unfair trade deals with former colonies underwrote much of the postwar boom, causing untold misery across the globe, something not only our capitalist class are guilty of perpetrating.
    None of the current crop of political parties would entertain any of these policies, which is why we need – you guessed it – ‘A Party of Our Own’.
    (Useful reads: ‘Capital’, Karl Marx; ‘The Revenge of History’, Seumas Milne; ‘A Socialist World is Possible’, Hannah Sell)

    • Oh cool, thanks for such a detailed reply. I think I agree with you in spirit and broadly in detail, save a few reservations.

      Don’t you see a bit of a paradox in arguing big business and banks should invest, but immediately afterwards savaging them for former ‘gambling’?
      Equally, in a liquidity trap they don’t just have loads of cash floating around -that cash is invested, just in slow growing, stable businesses and investments. I agree it’s not providing the necessary stimulus, but they are doing *something* with it.
      Quite agree that tax loopholes and dodges need to be strongly tightened, and publicly owned banks limit their crass bonus culture.
      Big Pharma – it’s illegal to take them over under EU rules (even if government could afford it, which is unlikely). There are nevertheless big potential savings in NHS procurement.
      Likewise we can’t just stop paying PFIs. They were a terrible idea, people (e.g Private Eye) said so at the time, and lo! They are indeed terrible. But the government chose them, and it’s illegal to just stop the schemes. If the government starts breaking its own laws, we’re basically all fooched.
      Housebuilding would be an excellent idea. Ironically, one of MacMillan’s big success stories in the 60s…
      I’d totally reform the Lords, but that’s kinda another topic. I’m not sure about MP salaries, as there are *some* good MPs, and it’s important to attract skilled people to what is (demonstrably) a difficult and near-thankless job. Very few go into politics for the money – it’s a uniquely unstable job, and many MPs give up higher paid, cushier positions to serve. Equally, I don’t think MPs should be allowed second jobs, and maybe should forfeit pay if they have substantial wealth already (…Gideon.)

      Even if I’m not sure I’d vote for it, a proper socialist or neo-Trotskyist (or even hard-Keynsian) Labour party would be really good for this country. New Labour is so devoid of conviction or value that it’s depressing. I work near Westminster and walked past Ed Balls on Friday. He looked a bit like I imagined Napoleon at the end of Animal Farm, all puffed and entitled.
      That’s not my revolution.

  • ChrisRobinson

    I’m talking about a different ballgame though, Jonathan, where a genuinely socialist party would play by a different set of rules. The laws and rulebooks of the capitalists would no longer apply if they stood in the way of forging a socialist society. We would invest in jobs and services, for instance, not gamble on prices of commodities, something more palpable. We would plan the economy according to need, not, as they say, according to greed. I reiterate, big business has £750bn-£800bn resting in their accounts doing very little. As for the capitalist EU rules, we would simply ignore them and invite other similar governments to join us if a similar party came to power. We would abolish PFIs and, in a similar fashion, take control of the privatised utility companies (and the ‘commanding heights of the economy) under democratic workers control, and we would only compensate the private owners based on proven need. We won’t play by their rules, we will introduce our own. Why allow their rules to tie us up in knots as, for example, our anti-trade union laws tie up the right to strike. We would simply tear up their rule book. That’s revolution. After all, it was ‘against the rules’ for the East European masses to congregate and form a mass movement that brought down the Iron Curtain. It was also ‘illegal’ according to the capitalist rulebook, to refuse to pay Thatcher’s poll tax, but we only got rid of it by organising a mass campaign of civil disobedience which did for her tax, and forced the Tories to ditch her into the bargain!

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