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May 10, 2010

Labourism and the working class

by lenin


There’s an interesting post over at Socialist Unity. Did you just spew your tea over the computer screen after reading that? I assure you it’s true. I’m not entirely convinced by the concrete assertions, which at times are closer to emotional affirmation than analysis. But I’m sure it captures a mood among many Labour members and supporters.
Particularly where it argues that the way in which working class voters mobilised for Labour, shows that the party is still after all the party of the workers, and that the New Labour freak show may be at long last coming to an end. For this layer of people – hardly insubstantial – the idea of the party having been saved from electoral oblivion by its core working class voters means that the party has to return to representing that base.

I argued in another post that the opening for a left-of-Labour alternative has been closing down since 2006. This isn’t to say that the idea of such an alternative can simply be abandoned, for reasons I’ll come back to. But I suspect that many of those who would be footsoldiers for such an alternative will drift back to Labour now. I have a feeling that Respect will be gradually wound down, as George Galloway heads to Hollywood, where he is reportedly going to make political documentaries.

Many of its supporters, I suppose, will return to Labour’s fold, perhaps enthused by the idea of a genuinely post-New Labour leadership. Some people have suggested that Jon Cruddas would be an obvious contender. Cruddas, a member of Labour’s soft left, has argued that New Labour forgot that it needed its core working class vote.
Having distanced himself from his previous support for the Iraq war, opposed privatization and aligned himself with campaigns like Defend Council Housing, he has also emerged as an opponent [pdf] of the highly undemocratic Blairite reforms of the Labour Party itself. And since Cruddas would have more pull in the party than a Campaign group contender such as John McDonnell, he is probably the natural candidate to unite the anti-Blairite forces in both the parliamentary and constituency Labour Party.

However, it is unlikely that Cruddas and the Compass group would be able to out-manouevre the Blairites in any future leadership struggle. The elections for party leader place a considerable amount of power in the parliamentary Labour Party, of which 45 MPs would have to back Cruddas for him even to be nominated.

That’s a tall order in itself, and on top of that he would have to persuade an atomised, largely passive, and disproportionately middle class membership to vote for him and not for a more media friendly Blairite suit. A majority in the unions might back him, but then they only have a third of the vote. Recall how this state of affairs came about. In 1993, Labour introduced reforms misleadingly dubbed “One Member One Vote”, which were designed to reduce the influence of the organised labour movement in the party.
The right-wing around Smith, Brown and Blair blamed Bill Morris and the trade union leadership for having lost Labour the 1992 election. This was a perverse judgment, as opinion polls showed that people were increasingly opposed to union-bashing, and supported more rights for trade unions. Of those who didn’t vote Labour in 1992, only 4% gave the union link as a reason for not doing so.

But the attack on the union link was consistent with the general drift of the party leadership since the 1983 defeat, in which it was deemed necessary to move away from being seen as a working class party. So, the right-wing moved to replace the union block vote with an electoral college system, in which the trade unions, constituency members, and the parliamentary Labour party would each have a third of the vote.

This was not really “one man one vote”. It meant that a few hundred MPs would have as much of a say as hundreds of thousands of party members, and millions of trade unionists. It narrowed the franchise and concentrated power at the centre, as would most of the Blairite reforms.

In the short term, a membership drive was able to give the Blairites cover – they increased membership by 1997 to about double its 1992 level, thus ‘proving’ that the reforms had been attractively democratising. The make-up of the membership, they said, had also changed. New Labour was a party more middle class, more at ease with the bomb and the banks, less concerned with the issues that motivated old Labour – or such was the case according to both the Blairites and some of their left-wing critics.

It was actually not true in a number of ways – first of all, because the party had already become disproportionately middle class in its membership, long before the advent of Blair. Perhaps back in 1952 when it had a million members, its membership was mainly working class. But not by the time of “one member one vote”, when the trade union affiliation provided Labour with its working class base. Secondly, because even after Blair’s changes, the membership remained committed to old Labour ideas such as the redistribution of wealth.
They just didn’t believe that such ideas could win elections, which is they dropped clause IV and went along with almost everything Tony Blair did. The collapse in membership since 1997, reducing the party to its smallest size since it was founded by 2008, may well have further exaggerated the middle class basis of the constituency party, arguably giving a further advantage to the most energetic and powerful faction in Labour, the Blairites. The drift back to Labour on the part of some left-wing activists is unlikely to make much of a dent on this overall picture.

Of course, it is true that Labour’s voting base remains working class, and that it was largely working class voters who turned out to stop the Tories in the 2010 election. But, if we can set aside teary-eyed sentimentality about Labour being “our party” – if we can, in a word, avoid bullshit – a sense of perspective will prevail against false hopes.

First of all, the turnout did rise to 65% (still among the historic lows in terms of UK electoral turnout, which has not yet even recovered to its previous historic low in 1997), but in many working class heartlands, it was as low as 55%. Secondly, though a minority of the working class did rally for Labour – and it was a minority – this doesn’t necessarily mean that the party will respond appropriately to such loyalty. The Labour Party is similar to its electorate neither in its class make-up, nor in its political make-up.
The party’s membership was only 0.4% of its electorate in 2005, and I think I may have mentioned that it was comprised disproportionately of those from middle class backgrounds. Thirdly, anecdotes and impressionism aside, I see little evidence of real enthusiasm for Labour among working class people. There remain millions of workers who basically identify with Labour, and mediate their aspirations through Labourism. But that number has been declining for years.
Far more obvious is their loathing for the Conservative Party which, given the high stakes of this election, asserted itself over any feeling of disaffection with Labour. I would contend that far from signifying some sort of pre-cognitive “tribalism” or “visceral” connection to Labourism as such, the working class turnout for Labour was a rational, class conscious act of self-defence. And even though the Liberal “balloon” rapidly expelled its energies on electoral night in a sort of raspberry arabesque, it still remains the case that millions of Liberal voters are ex-Labour voters, many of them – perhaps hundreds of thousands – having shifted from Labour to the Liberals between 2005 and 2010. This is one reason why a Con-Lib government could cost the Liberals in any future general election.

The above being the case, I don’t see that the Labour Party has the resources, constitutionally or sociologically, for a shift to the Left. Moreover, such a shift would only be sustainable if it corresponded to an objective strengthening of the working class, which is the exact opposite of what has been happening continuously for a generation. Of course, the resistance to the cuts could produce greater militancy and cohesion in the labour movement, and any success could attract new members, thus providing a basis for Labour to return to a more traditional social democratic posture.

Even then the very nature of the state would have to be fundamentally altered, because a neoliberal state – which all party leaders are committed to – of necessity excludes long-term public sector expansion, extensive nationalizations, Keynesian planning and demand management, and the subordination of the financial sector. It logically drives all governing parties to further downsize and asset-strip, subject service provision to market-driven mechanisms, boost the power of finance, deregulate the economy, contain and suppress wage rises, maintain a flexible labour market, etc etc..
Brown’s temporary interventionism is just that: it is crisis management, not a shift in paradigms. Only a combination of renewed economic and financial crisis coupled with a surge in working class radicalism could produce the sort of fundamental re-orientation of the state that would make a revival of social democracy sustainable. And even then, social democracy has run up against fatal objective limits once before, and could easily do so again.

So don’t believe the hype – New Labour is not so much dead as undead. Like the zombie banks, it will roll ahead on life support for the foreseeable future, even as it further hacks away at its base, the very support system that keeps it animated. It is not about to emerge from a period of chrysalis as a beautiful, vibrant new life form.

The secular trend remains for Labour to increasingly erode its position in the working class, for party identifications to decrease, for exclusively parliamentary politics to become less and less relevant. The issue of electoral abstentionism – abstainers in 2010 included over 15 million voters – can no longer be reduced to people being apolitical, apathetic or anything of the kind.
It is increasingly a political act, a rejection of the electoral alternatives, and it is disproportionately taking place among the working class – something that has been true in American politics for decades. A growing sector of the working class in the UK is simply boycotting elections – disenfranchised and unrepresented, they are not twitchily filling in their applications to join the Labour Party, not raising their mugs of tea to Gordon Brown and his SureStart centres, and not rallying to the booths and plazas in support of tax credits. Maybe they will in the future, but I suspect it will be a future very unlike the present. At the same time, they are not joining radical alternatives, much less revolutionary parties. If Labourism is losing its hold in the long term, reformism isn’t.

This brings me back to my earlier point. Although electoral opportunities are unlikely to re-emerge in the short term, the Left can’t afford to think that the field can be vacated in the long-term. I think it probable that any period of renewed militancy and organisation in the working class will call for some sort of formation that is to the left of Labour, and is neither revolutionary nor parliamentarist. And when that comes to pass, then we had better have learned the right lessons from the missed opportunities and failures of the last decade or so.

Update: Bye bye Gordon, hello David.

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