In view of what some consider as a right-wing turn in Labour's policy - although it is only the continuation of its evolution over the past two decades - there have been several initiatives (the "People's Assembly" and "Left Unity", among others) aimed at building a "left alternative" to Labour. They all have some form of electoral agenda and refer more or less to the so-called "old Labour" tradition. They all involve - or seek the support - of figures from the very small "left" of the Labour party and from so-called "left" trade-union leaders. And they presumably hope to tap into the personal and organisational clout of these figures, to gain support from larger layers among disgruntled Labour party supporter and trade union members.
Of course, if there was a wave of radicalisation in society, it would have an impact within the labour party and trade-union movement. In that case, such initiatives might make sense, but only provided they were based on a clear programme stating the necessity to fight the capitalist order in the name of the interests of the working class. But this is not what these initiatives are about, nor is there any sign of such a radicalisation at present.
The myth of the "spirit of 1945"
A number of proponents of these initiatives - Ken Loach's appeal in the press following the release of his film "the spirit of 1945", being a case in point - refer to the "achievements" of the 1945 Labour government under Clement Attlee.
Ironically, though, this is also a reference that the leadership of the Labour party use, as a kind of sweetener to the grim perspective their offer. Thus, in Brighton, Miliband invoked "the belief that helped drive us out of the Second World War and into that great reforming [Labour] government of 1945 [which], in really tough times, raised its sights and created the National Health Service. I want the next Labour government to do the same, even in tough times, to raise our sights about what the health service can achieve, bringing together physical health, mental health, and the care needs of the elderly: a true integrated National Health Service".
Except that it's about time the history of this period was turned back on its feet. No matter how deeply-rooted the myth of the "spirit of 1945" may remain today, the reforms carried out by the postwar Labour government under Attlee were designed to help British capital to rebuild its profits and "sold" to the working class to ensure its passivity . This was obviously the case of the wave postwar nationalisation which were exclusively aimed at providing British shareholders with fresh cash to use for more profitable ventures, while the state took on the cost of adapting wartime industry to the peacetime situation, rebuilding infrastructure, while making up for the capitalists' failure to invest since the Great Depression.
Likewise, the welfare system which was developed at the time, was not specially designed for the welfare of working people. It was based on the Beveridge report whose recommendations were explicitly aimed at getting workers to pay part of the bill for their welfare, while reducing labour costs for companies. This was to be achieved by shifting the burden of in-house pensions onto the state, ensuring that the workforce would be healthier - and therefore, more productive - and allowing employers to pay ultra-low wages by providing a state top-up paid by the entire working class. As to the NHS, it was the brainchild of a wartime Tory minister, Henry Willink, whose main concern was certainly not the interests of the working class.
Just as much as Miliband's "One Nation" Labour, Attlee's Labour party claimed to stand above classes, presenting its reforms as designed to "build the peace" for the benefit of the working class, when, in fact, they were designed to rebuild the profits of British capital. Indeed, as Attlee stated himself during the 1945 election campaign, "the Labour party is, in fact, the one party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life" - meaning, in other words, the party which was most able to defend the interests of the ruling capitalist class by deceiving the working class.
And his government was certainly a loyal servant of British capital, not just in the domestic sphere but also in defending its interests abroad, where it presided over some of the worst crimes of British imperialism, from the crushing of the Indochinese anti-colonial uprising and the massacre of the Greek communist activists, at the end of World War II, to the partition of India, in 1947. If there is a tradition that should inspire the working class in this country, it is certainly not that of the 1945 Attlee government!
To go back to Miliband, despite the similarities between his rhetoric and Attlee's, he has even less to offer to the working class. If and when Labour returns to office, it will be as the successor of Blair's and Brown's governments, under whose watch the welfare system became an instrument for turning the screw on the jobless and forcing them into casualised employment, while NHS reforms were used as a cover for backdoor privatisation. And since Miliband has no plans to increase the state's social expenditure nor to get British capital to foot the bill for its crisis, it won't do anything to restore the already badly damaged parts of the welfare state. His government will definitely not be a "great reforming government", as Miliband would like workers to believe, but an axeman on behalf of British capital.
Warning against what Miliband's Labour has in store for the working class is a necessity. But exposing Miliband's policies without warning against the myths peddled by Labour about its past record, such as the myth of the "spirit of 1945", is just fuelling illusions within workers' ranks - illusions that the working class just cannot afford to have at a time when it is under such systematic attacks from the capitalist class and its politicians in office. And, yes, it is high time those who claim to fight in the name of the interests of the working class, told the working class the truth about this period of its history.
The party that the working class needs
As mentioned before, the present "left alternatives" to Labour initiatives all show a similar soft spot for so-called "left" trade-union leaders. So one may wonder what these "left" union leaders really represent politically. And, to answer this question, it is necessary to look closer at the relationship between the union machineries, the Labour party and the working class.
In the run-up to the conference season the media - especially the Tory press - showed a lot of interest in an alleged "rift" between "Red Ed" Miliband and the leading circles of the union machineries. This originated in the Falkirk saga, last May, after police were called in by Labour's national headquarters against the local Unite branch over its role in a Labour candidate reselection process. Then, in September, the GMB's general secretary Paul Kenny announced a cut in the number of the GMB's Labour-affiliated members, from 420,000 to 50,000 - and a corresponding £1.1m cut in the GMB's party contribution. Commentators saw this as further evidence of a "split" between Miliband and the unions. But was it?
As it happened, Kenny's announcement fitted in perfectly with Miliband's plans to tweak Labour's image. Indeed Miliband had declared ahead of the TUC conference that the members of Labour-affiliated unions should join the party as individuals, not automatically. And this was what Kenny was delivering.
In fact, there again, Miliband is just following the same trajectory which was initiated by his predecessors and the union machineries are, by and large, supporting him, just as they supported his predecessors.
It was back in 1993 that the then Labour leader John Smith ended the trade-union block vote in Labour party elections. Instead, a 3-college electoral system was put in place, in which MPs, constituency party members and members of affiliated unions voted separately in party elections, but on a "one member-one vote" basis. The aim of the exercise was never to introduce any kind of democracy within the party, since this system gave each MP around 600 times more say than other members. Its real aim was, rather, to try to rub out what was left of Labour's historical roots in the working class movement, in order to make it appear more like a "normal" bourgeois party - and all the more so, as, politically, it had played that role ever since it was offered seats in the cabinet, during World War I. On the whole, John Smith's move was not resisted by the union leaders, partly because it did not really change anything with regard to their real influence at the top of the party, and partly because they hoped, just as John Smith did, that this would help to boost the party's electoral prospects among petty-bourgeois voters.
Subsequently, Blair took over the "modernising" drive from where John Smith had left it, by inaugurating the era of "New Labour", declaring that "unions do not want and will not get favours from a Labour government" and insisting that the role of trade-unions should be to "defend individual rights, provide innovative services and contribute to important debates on industry and the economy". Although a handful of union leaders did show their displeasure on this occasion, most went along. The then TUC leader, John Monk, championed what he called the "New Partnership" policy, whereby the TUC would "extend its hand in partnership to anyone - government, employers, political parties, social groups - who will take it". This was the trade-union translation of a line which was still implicit behind the "New Labour" policy, that the era of the class struggle was now over. This became explicit after Blair came into office. As far as Labour and the TUC were concerned, bosses and workers had the same common interests in ensuring a successful economy - meaning one that was successful from the point of view of capitalist profit - thereby, tying the future of workers and the satisfaction of their demands to the profits of their employers.
What is different in this respect today? Not much. A very small number of "maverick" unions are not affiliated to Labour - like the railway union RMT (which was disaffiliated by Labour) or the civil servant union CPS (which was never affiliated). Others are run by so-called "left" leaders who distanced themselves from Labour's official line, often when it was in office, at a time when the discontent against the government was such that appearing anti-Blair or anti-Brown was popular among the membership. But in the main, the union machineries followed the party's official line, when they did not actually initiate it. For nearly two decades, their policy has remained that of the "New Partnership" without any change.
In other words, just as the working class has nothing to expect from Labour, it has nothing to expect from the trade-union machineries either.
At shopfloor and office level, the trade-unions may well provide the only form of organisation on offer and the only one which can allow workers to defend their conditions on a day-to-day basis. But even then, this is only possible, provided one gets involved in the local branch or other structure, so as to exercise some control over what the reps and officers do in the name of the membership.
But at the level of the working class as a whole, especially when it comes to fighting the bosses' general offensive in the crisis, let alone regaining some of the ground lost over the past years, workers can expect absolutely nothing from the union machineries. At best, they will come up with the occasional strike, bureaucratically-decided (and often just as bureaucratically cancelled at the last minute), always tightly controlled without leaving any space for the strikers to take any initiative or make any decisions, always designed to "strengthen the hand" of union negotiators, but never to boost the workers' confidence in their own strength, and as a result, largely ineffective and demoralising.
Already, in many workplaces, the union structures have been operating for far too long as adjuncts of the employers' management structures to be willing to rock the boat in a way that would threaten their cosy relationship with the employer. This is even more true for the leaderships of the union machineries which would do anything to retain their partnership with big companies' managers and the ministers with whom they have got into the habit of brushing shoulders.
And all this is not only true of the "Labour loyalists" among the union leaders, it is just as true of the "left" union leaders and even those of the "maverick" unions. In this respect, the policy of the "left" leadership of the Communication Workers' Union CWU in the postal services provides a telling example (see our article on this subject in this issue of our journal).
So, whatever their "left" rhetoric on meeting platforms, relying on such leaders - and even more so, on their union machineries - in order to build a working class alternative to Labour can only be self-deception.
To fight the capitalist offensive in this crisis, the working class does not need negotiators seeking to make compromises on its behalf and behind its back. It needs activists and leaders who seek to build up its confidence and its collective consciousness as a class which, one day, sooner rather than later, will have the task of freeing society from the profit system. It needs a party which does not seek positions in the institutions of this society for the sake of managing the capitalist system - nor even for the sake of "reforming" this system, because it is bankrupt and unredeemable. It needs a party which, instead, will seek to take the lead in its struggle against exploitation and treat this struggle as part of the process whose necessary aim and outcome will be the overthrow of capitalist rule.
In short, the working class needs a revolutionary, communist, workers' party.
20 October 2013