A Socialist World is Probable (II): An Absence of Fire

March 11, 2013 6:00 pm

labourHere in Britain, 2013, we have one of the weakest, most unstable governments in living memory – certainly since John Major’s time as PM (1990-1997). The humiliating defeat at the Eastleigh by-election saw UKIP push the Tories into third place. A fresh round of knife-sharpening is imminent.  The wolves prepare to devour each other with calls for a ‘re-think’ or even for the scalp of David Cameron.

As if the removal of one man would make all the difference.

Though their coalition ‘partners’, the LibDems, managed to scrape a win, the future promises more divisions between these two uneasy bedfellows as we make our torturous way towards the next general election – if we even get that far.

Anyone may think  Labour would have made hay all the while,  being (allegedly) the official and foremost opposition party. Their ‘leader’, Ed Miliband, is bereft of hardly any discernible alternative policies. Sure, he has the puerile ‘One Nation’ tag – a term lifted from grand old Tory PM Benjamin Disraeli. Does he think nobody reads history books? But no, Labour’s showing in Eastleigh was nothing to crow about, especially if  ‘One Nation’ is meant to appeal to, well, ‘one nation’. Clearly, it doesn’t.

It should only take a feather duster to knock this CONDEM government off its perch yet they are allowed to limp along, dishing out cut after cut, lashing out like a wounded beast.  They cut more  jobs and services,  benefits and  taxes for the rich.  All the ‘Miliband Tendency’ do is stand on the sidelines. They wring their hands and wait for ‘their turn’  in a  never-ending game of musical chairs. They offer ‘nicer, slower cuts’. They even admit that they ‘will not be able to reverse Tory cuts’.

Likewise, the biggest political organisation in the country, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) which has more than sixty unions affiliated, numbering nearly seven million members. In two years, they have organised – reluctantly, it must be said – three national demonstrations and a one day national strike. Leaders of two of the biggest unions – Dave Prentis (UNISON) and Paul Kenny (GMB) –  pulled out of the fight against pension cuts, just as the momentum was building. They signed up to the ‘Heads of Agreement’  that accepted the CONDEMs’ terms, and thus sold their members’ out.

Those union leaders still prepared to fight – Mark Sewotka (PCS), Matt Wrack (FBU), Bob Crow (RMT) and others – continue to rally their members against job cuts and pay squeezes. Meanwhile, grassroots organisation the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) successfully lobbied the last TUC conference. They forced them to ‘consider the practicalities of a general strike’.

As we speak, union branch after union branch are now discussing and voting on this. But why, it has to be asked, does it take a movement from below to do this? Where is the leadership from our leaders? Why are so many of them reluctant to lead a fight back? Why do they still persist in having faith in the Labour Party project? Why does there appear to be an almost complete absence of  ‘militant fire in their bellies’?

To consider this, we have to take a brief look back at the history of the labour movement itself.

‘labour aristocracy’

It was the coming together of the trade unions and socialist societies that formed the Labour Party in February, 1900. Working class people had, until then, largely relied on any concessions and reforms from the Liberal Party once it gained power. Reforms dictated by the fortunes of whether they deemed capitalism ‘could afford it’.

In the 1890s, a wave of national strikes broke out among millions of unskilled workers. They formed new unions to defend their positions. They struck against Tory and Liberal governments alike until a movement for the establishment of a working class party was finally realised.

The older unions – the ‘craft’ unions of the skilled workers – had long been in existence. They had, in their day, been the pioneers of labour when the forming of a union was illegal and workers could be imprisoned or deported for such activities. They won their hard fought  right to be recognised. They learned the lesson that ‘unity is strength’.

Their campaigns managed to win a shorter working day, fairer pay and even pressured the government to extend the franchise that skilled workers could vote. By 1867, the main unions formed the TUC and sent representatives to the First International Workers Association, among whose leaders included Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Indeed, socialist ideas were, by then, beginning to gather support internationally. In Germany, the Sozialist Demokratic Partei (SDP) had a membership numbering millions. They gained concessions on pay, working conditions and pensions. They also gained several representatives in the Reichstag (parliament).

Chancellor Bismarck cannily decided that Germany was wealthy enough to grant such concessions if it staved off the threat of revolution. Thus, the German ruling class brought worker representatives ‘into the fold’, as long as they stayed within certain parameters – ie. they could talk ‘socialism’ all they liked, putting it into practice, as the Marxists called for, was another thing entirely.

Labour movements are not monolithic. They are living, breathing organisms. Within them, they contain several strands of thought. Marxists argued for ‘international socialism’, democratic control of the means of production, wealth re-distribution, a democratically planned economy etc. There were those,  such as Eduard Bernstein, who argued in favour of  ‘postponing the revolution’  to some far off distant future. He believed  ‘the movement is everything, the final goal nothing’. He called for a form of  ‘gradualism’. Socialism would be gained by evolution, that workers’ lives would improve as capitalism ‘improved’. As if capitalists might one day see the errors of their ways and decide to ‘be fair’ and share out a nation’s wealth.

The bureaucrats at the top of the international labour movement were able to earn a comfortable living on their members’ money. They became immune  from the every day struggles of the workers they represented. They prefered mediation and compromise and,  if they were lucky, a slightly bigger cut of the cake. They could wax lyrical in a leftwing radical fashion to use their members as a bargaining tool. Ultimately,  they fulfilled their role as an agent between the workers and the ruling class.

This was no better demonstrated than at the outbreak of the First World War, each component of the Second International, that had for years sworn massive international general strikes should a devastating war be declared,  capitulated to their own ruling class.

As internationally, so it was in Britain.

labour 1900Lib-Labs

The ‘labour aristocracy’ of the TUC became socially, politically and financially entwined with the Labour Party politicians. Labour MPs were initially expected to fund their own livings. They became that more independent when all MPs were given payment by the state. The unions were still affiliated to the party and helped to fund Labour Party campaigns. They also had a large say at conference where policies were democratically debated and agreed upon in practice.

However, the radical character of Labour, and by extension the TUC, altered down the years as the party became a more accepted part of the political landscape. The fortunes of the Liberal Party waned in direct contrast to the rise of Labour.  Liberal ‘careerists’  jumped ship and joined the Labour Party. Within the Labour Party, they made natural allies of the more conservative strain of union officials – those ‘gradualists’ , let’s call them ‘Lib-Labs’ – rather than the Marxist elements. But, because of the then more democratic structures of the party that kept democratic debate open, policy was there to be won or lost.

However, the Labour leadership, mainly drawn from the ‘Lib-Labs’, would time and again betray the membership. In 1931,  the leadership under Ramsay McDonald joined with the Tories and Liberals to form a ‘National’ government at the height of the Depression. They introduced anti-working class policies such as slashing unemployment benefits, introducing the ‘Means Test’ etc.

Labour leader Clement Attlee, deputy prime minister under Churchill’s wartime coalition, wanted to stick with the Tories after the war. He was forced by the grassroots membership to call an election to introduce the ‘Beveridge Plan’ that promised the NHS, the welfare state, a massive house-building programme and full employment. When society moved to the left, as at the end of WWII, the leadership had to bend if it wanted to retain credibility.

When the post-war capitalist boom began to sink beneath the horizon by 1973, once again, internal strife affected the Labour Party and its union affiliates. Labour ministers, aided and abetted by most of the cossetted TUC apparatchiks, attempted to force cuts in jobs, pay, working conditions to preserve  capitalist profits. The so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978-79) demonstrated a Labour government’s willingness to cut the standards of living of the very people they were supposed to represent. Workers had little option but to strike to protect their jobs and services.


The internal warfare between left and right, socialists and those on the right of the party and the unions, weakened Labour throughout much of the 1980s.  This allowed Thatcher’s government free rein to implement anti-union laws, introduce attacks on local government, create high unemployment, push through wholesale privatisation of public utilities, de-industrialisation, tax cuts that largely benefited the wealthy and the de-regulation of the City of London.

Labour Party disarray included the splitting of votes by the breakaway Labour MPs who formed the Social Democrat Party (SDP). It ensured Tory consecutive electoral victories. Such Tory victories confirmed, in the eyes of Labour’s and the TUC’s rightwing, that only jettisoning socialist policies and competing with the Tory centre ground would gain them power.

This meant changing the original ‘working class character’ of the party. Socialists were expelled, democratic structures curtailed; the nomination of parliamentary candidates strictly controlled; trade union share of the votes was restricted. MPs were required to stay ‘on message’ or be exiled from any prospect of ‘career development’.

Tony Blair was the most recent, and prominent,  blueprint of this retreat from the left  to the right.  Labour, and the tops of the trade unions, are little more than ‘pale pink Tories’  now. Their policies differ little to those of their alleged opponents.

And that is the point at which we have arrived – three main parties that are merely three wings of the same capitalist party. Or, as George Galloway succinctly puts it – ‘three cheeks of the same arse’.

Why, then, have Labour leaders and the tops of the TUC  failed to come to the aid of ordinary working people during this most savage of periods?

It’s a question of class outlook.


NEXT: A Socialist World is Probable (III): A River of Blood




%d bloggers like this: