Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party


THE LABOUR PARTY is the dominant political force in the British labour movement. It is an enigma, neither fish nor fowl, a mixture of unmixables. Labour claims to be socialist, yet when in government it does its best to defend capitalism. Its supporters are largely working-class but at the same time it poses as representative of all sections of society. The party derives most of its income and support from the mass of trade unionists, yet it has attacked this section each time it has come to office.

While Labour governments invariably support the system as zealously as the Tories, the party’s working-class adherents are very different from their Tory counterparts. They have fought time and again to maintain their unions and their class in the face not only of the bosses but of Labour administrations. Yet Labour is still the central political focus for the majority of workers, and electoral defeat for Labour means disappointment for the class.

One Labour supporter has written: ‘The Labour Party has been at once the manifestation and the expression of the economic emergence of the working-classes [giving] political expression to the hopes and needs of the industrial workers.’ [1] We reject this formulation in favour of Lenin’s:

most of the Labour Party’s members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely up a membership of workers, but also up the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers. [2]

Thus the Labour Party is a ‘capitalist workers’ party’. It defends the interests of capitalism (particularly when in government) but has the mass support of workers. This support arises from the nature of working-class consciousness in Britain. Marx discussed how on the one hand ‘the prevailing ideas are the ideas of the ruling class’. He also argued that on the other hand the pressure of the system inevitably generates struggle and through this a resistance to capitalist ideas develops. Over the past century there has always been a minority of reactionary workers who uncritically accept capitalist politics. There is another small minority of revolutionary socialists who unequivocally reject them. The bulk of the working- class however are reformist, combining acceptance of the basic tenets of the system with elements of protest against it.

The key element of ruling-class ideology is the concept of the nation uniting all people within it. The key element in struggle against capitalism is class consciousness. Labour tries to combine the two by channelling working-class aspirations through the institutions of the national state, such as parliament.

In doing this it is different from other types of reformism such as trade union consciousness, or ‘do-it-yourself’ militancy within an individual workplace but with nothing beyond. Trade union consciousness and parliamentary reformism are the pillars of Labourism. The Labour Party is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, aiming to influence parliament. The trade union bureaucracy is a mediating element between workers and employers. The Labour Party is also a mediating element, except that it is at one remove from the direct struggle at the point of production. In addition the Labour Party leaders are sometimes called upon to run the ship of state: the trade union officials are never given the running of enterprises.

Like any mediating element between the classes, the Labour Party depends in the final analysis on the balance between the contending classes. Any meaningful analysis of the Labour Party, therefore, must view its history as being determined above all by the changing balance of class forces.

In this book we endeavour to answer a number of questions:

  1. The relationship between the Labour Party and industrial struggle.
  1. What do the Labour leaders say about industrial struggle?
  2. What happens to Labour support during, before and after major periods of class warfare such as 1910–14, 1919–26, 1968–74; 1976–87? Does Labour do well in downturns, or does it benefit from upturns – what is the relationship?
  1. The organisation of the Labour Party.
  1. Who controls whom? What are the respective roles of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the National Executive Committee and Conference?
  2. What influence do the trade union bureaucrats have on the party, and what influence does the Labour Party have on them?
  3. What is the relationship between Labour’s grass roots and Labour in parliament?
  1. The politics of the Labour Party.
  1. How does its political practice compare to its programme and how have the two developed?
  2. How have the right and the left fared in shaping Labour policy?
  1. The internal divisions in the Labour Party.
  1. What decides the relative strength of the party’s factions?
  2. What are the limits on the activities of the left and of the right?
  3. What is the relation between the party’s policies and popular support?
  1. The Labour Left.
  1. Who are they? What do they say? How do they see parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity?
  2. How do they operate inside the party – through MPs, through general management committees, the trade unions, or local councils?
  3. How does the Labour left relate to left forces active in industry?
  4. Should revolutionary socialists enter the Labour Party? What were the views of Lenin and Trotsky on this?
  1. The loyalty of workers to the Labour Party in spite of its betrayals.
  1. Is this loyalty affected by whether Labour is in office or in opposition?
  2. Is it affected by the state of the economy – whether it is booming or not?
  3. Is loyalty dependent on the ability of the Labour Party to deliver reforms? Can there be reformism without reforms?
  4. How can revolutionary socialists convince the majority of workers to go beyond Labour’s reformism? What role does a mass revolutionary party and a big rise in the level of class struggle play in this?

The struggle for socialism can be fought and won only by the working-class. This will only happen if guided by a revolutionary party, an alternative to Labour’s reformism. Hopefully this book can help those who want to build such a party – one that can do more than criticise capitalist politicians at the despatch box, one that can sweep away the system bag and baggage. In that struggle we know which side the Labour Party leadership will be on – they will be fighting the mass of the working-class who today pin their hopes on Labour’s electoral road.


1. F. Williams, Fifty Years March (London no date), pp. 376–77.

2. Lenin, On Britain (London 1959), pp. 460–61.

Last updated on 4 October 2016