Labour’s addiction to the rubber stamp
From Labour Worker, January 1967.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow, Bookmarks, London 1982, pp. 210–4.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle, Selected Writings Vol. 2, Bookmarks, London 2002, pp. 123–7.
Transcribed by East End Offset (TU), London.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Ralph Miliband, in his book on the Labour Party, points out:
Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour ...
The leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system. The Labour Party has not only been a parliamentary party; it has been a party deeply imbued by parliamentarism. And in this respect there is no distinction to be made between Labour’s political and industrial leaders. Both have been equally determined that the Labour Party should not stray from the narrow path of parliamentary politics. 
A number of historical factors have conditioned the mass of British workers to accept parliamentarism. Above all, parliament, for over a century, has been at the centre of reforms granted to the workers.
All through the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, the typical employer was a great deal smaller than he is today. And the market in which he sold his goods was extremely competitive. Not only were firms much smaller in size than today, but there were far more of them in any particular line of production. Being small, and being in fierce competition amongst themselves, these firms could not on the whole afford individually to pay their workers more or grant them greater concessions than their competitors. An employer who granted his workers very much more than his competitors ran the risk of putting himself out of business.
The economy was subject to a cycle of booms and deep slumps, and the heavy unemployment characteristic of this earlier stage in the capitalist economy provided employers with a reserve army of unemployed workers. In this situation the employers felt no especially strong need to compete with each other for labour by offering their workers a little more to stay with them. And, to a greater extent than today, workers” skills (or lack of skills) were more transferable between factories and industries. This was true of skilled and unskilled workers alike.
When the employers were forced to grant reforms to the workers, they tended to do this all together and all at once through such agencies as parliament. The 19th century and the early 20th century were the great periods of reforms won for workers through parliament. It was through national agitation and propaganda, focused on the parliamentary centre, that workers made many of their gains through their representatives (or their misrepresentatives). When, to avoid worse trouble, the employers paid out for these reforms, they applied to all workers equally, and the cost of them was borne by employers equally. In this way no employer was put at a competitive disadvantage with his rivals.
So long as sharp competition between workers for scarce jobs and cut-throat competition between capitalists were predominant features of the economy, reforms through parliament were central to workers’ lives.
Over the last two decades the situation has changed. The typical employer of today is a great deal bigger and there are far fewer employers. As firms have grown in size their monopoly control over the market has increased and competition, in the national market at least, has become much less cut-throat. Because of their size, and because they are less afraid of their competitors than they were, they are more ready to grant reforms to their workers one at a time and on their own.
Also, with some exceptions in backward areas like Northern Ireland, the British economy since the beginning of the Second World War has had almost full employment and today there is a shortage of workers. With the virtual disappearance of the reserve army of the unemployed, labour has become a scarce commodity – and the employers are worried about recruiting and keeping their workers.
Machinery and technical processes in factories nowadays are a great deal more expensive than in the past and far more complicated. Because of technical changes, in many industries – and especially in the new, fast-growing and technologically advanced industries – it is becoming increasingly expensive to train workers and increasingly expensive to lose them. The employers hate labour turnover today almost as much as they hate strikes.
The workers therefore turn their attention and their militancy towards the shop floor, which is the most important area where wage gains and fringe benefits can be won, and away from parliament, which has ceased to be a central locus of reform.
The workers have become more and more indifferent towards parliament. A Gallup poll showed that many people do not know who George Brown is – some think he is a band leader, others that he is an escaped train robber! Everyone, of course, knows the Beatles. The explanation is probably quite simple – one gets more pleasure from the Beatles than from Brown.
While parliament has ceased to be a locus of any serious reforms, and hence hardly in the centre of workers’ attention, it gets a further knock by showing itself completely impotent in face of the real powers that be. The legend of the sovereignty of the British national parliament has shown itself to be a complete sham.
Today Britain is no longer the capitalist “workshop of the world”, but merely one among a number of advanced capitalist countries. It is by no means the largest, and its share in world trade drops year by year as other nations enter the market as industrial producers.
The British government is not the only, or even the most important, agency deciding what happens in Britain. This is particularly clear with regard to its “social welfare” policies. Even if the Labour government had wanted, for instance, to give the old age pensioners their increased pensions immediately it came to power in October 1964, the pressure of international banking opinion made this impossible. The same is true of its “incomes policy”, the present squeeze, the wage freeze, and so on. International business opinion sets the policies of a British capitalist government within quite narrow limits.
This is true of all capitalist countries, of course, but it is especially true of Britain, which is disproportionately “open” to the pressures of the world market. The fact that the pound is maintained as an international reserve currency, that Britain is dependent on the world market for its importing and exporting activities, and so on, places severe limits on the freedom of movement of any British government that accepts the existing capitalist rules.
Governmental decisions are not made in parliament. They are made at the points of intersection of industry, finance and the civil service, in the cabinet, the new “planning” bodies and so on – anywhere, indeed, except in parliament. Parliament largely exists now to rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere. Questions of central importance are made without reference to parliament at all – the decision to manufacture the atom bomb is a famous example, when even the defence minister, Shinwell, was not informed of the decision by Attlee and the chief of staff.
Even today knowledge about how the government made its decisions about the Suez campaign is kept a closely guarded secret. At no stage was parliament given a chance to vote on the growth patterns for different industries proposed in the National Plan. George Brown’s plan was drafted on the basis of discussion with the management side of industry and on information supplied by business. Not even the Labour MPs, let alone the rank and file of the labour movement, were consulted about it. The first time the plan was discussed by the Parliamentary Labour Party was on the morning of 3 November – the eve of parliament’s reassembly after the summer holidays, and some six weeks after the plan was published.
The rising role of Royal Commissions, State Boards and government inquiries is further evidence of the decline of parliament. Its complete impotence as a focal citadel of power becomes clear in every financial crisis. Lord Cromer, the governor of the Bank of England, managed to negotiate a $3,000 million loan in one night in November 1964.
The atrophy of parliament radically affects Labour MPs. If power corrupts, lack of power corrupts absolutely. If the “gnomes of Zurich” – or international capitalism, of which British big business is a part – decide the central policies of Britain, why should we bother to send MPs to parliament, each costing us £3,250 a year? Wouldn’t we do better to send a delegate to Zurich?
With increasing capitalist planning, with the continued merging of big business and the state, and with the growing importance of the state, the executive becomes more and more independent of parliamentary decisions. There is an increasing consensus between the heads of government executives, Tory or Labour, and the needs of planned capitalism, above all with regard to the planning of wages.
It is true that remnants of old, traditional Labourism remain in the present, more modern, party. Just as within and alongside the new planning, old capitalist anarchy can still be found, so inside the Wilsonian Labour Party there are still footholds of the old reformism, particularly in the defensive actions on behalf of workers in depressed areas or declining industries.
Suspended between state monopoly capitalism above and an indifferent mass of people below, Labour MPs are completely powerless and more and more irrelevant.
Until 1914 Marxists called the parties of the Second International – to which the British Labour Party belonged – socialist parties. It was the traumatic experience of August 1914, when the very same leaders who year in and year out inveighed against imperialism and war, jumped on the nationalist bandwagon and rushed to vote for the military budget, that caused Lenin and Luxemburg and their friends to change their characterisation of these parties.
They were no more called socialist parties but reformist parties, which did not intend to overthrow capitalism but to preserve it while, at the same time, carrying out some reforms within its framework – in other words, tinkering with it. They were called parliamentarian-reformist, as they were attached to the bourgeois parliament as the arena for carrying out reforms.
In the present stage of planned state-monopoly capitalism social democracy enters its third state. It is neither socialist nor even authentic parliamentary reformist. It is much less than this. Its main task is to discipline the workers to the needs of state-monopoly capitalism.
The struggle of the left inside the Labour Party, and the attitude of socialists towards the party, will be the subject of our next article. This subject is of particular importance, for the overwhelming majority of organised workers still by tradition see in the Labour Party their political organisation.
1. R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London, 1961), p. 11.
Last updated on 3 February 2017