Chris Harman

Thinking it through

A tale of two parties

(May 1995)

From Socialist Review, No.186, May 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The 300,000 plus network of shop stewards and workplace reps is bigger than the active membership of all three political parties combined’

‘Labour is finished. It will be no different from the US Democrats. It’s not a workers’ party in any sense. Socialists have to oppose it as much as we oppose the Tories.’

That’s the reaction of many on the left to Blair’s aim of ditching Clause Four. Such sentiments even find an echo among those who have spent a decade or more trying to change the party from within.

There’s an element of truth in them. An important section of the Labour leadership is trying to weaken its formal links with the trade unions. It is going out of its way to court big business to get funding from major companies.

Blair’s own personal inclinations do seem closer to those of the SDP types who split with Labour in the early 1980s than to those of classic reformists of the Crosland or Hattersley type.

Finally, a Labour government formed under the present conditions of world capitalist instability will be even worse than the Wilson and Callaghan governments in the 1960s and 1970s. The shadow cabinet has already virtually admitted as much by insisting it cannot make any promises of reform.

But that is not the end of the story. Labour has never been a thoroughgoing workers’ party, and was not even committed verbally to socialism for the first decade and a half of its existence.

It was built out of an alliance between three groups – the full time bureaucrats who ran the major manual trade unions, parliamentarians who were often refugees from the Liberal Party, and thousands of individual socialists who propagandised for a better society in the localities.

Key decision making always lay with the first two groups, with the parliamentarians choosing the party leader and the union bureaucrats dominating voting at the annual conference and decision making by the national executive committee.

Both took it for granted the party would operate through the structures of existing society.

So no one thought it strange that major party figures in the 1920s like Ramsey MacDonald and Jimmy Thomas should mix in high society, or that many of Attlee’s cabinet in the late 1940s should send their children to public schools. Nor was it regarded as unusual that heroes of the left like Nye Bevan and Michael Foot should be personal friends of the Tory imperialist press baron, Lord Beaverbrook.

The party was based on the assumption that the desire of millions of workers to change society through collective action could be reconciled with operating within the existing capitalist system. It was, as Lenin put it, a workers’ party of a peculiar sort – a bourgeois workers’ party.

There were always tensions between these opposed interests, which became acute at moments of great social or economic crisis.

At such moments, there was movement among many workers to push the party to the left and to break from the leaders’ right wing politics. And there was pressure from within the leadership to pursue openly pro-system politics, unconstrained by the need to placate the party and trade union ranks. Blair is merely the latest in a long line of leaders to push in such a direction.

He finds part of his task easy after 20 years of setbacks for the working class movement. People are desperate for change, and are prepared to make many concessions over questions of principle to get it.

But there remain limits to how far Blair can go in changing the party. The Labour leadership as a whole cannot fail to realise that some sort of link with the unions is a political asset. The trade unions are by far the biggest voluntary organisations in British society, incorporating 8 million people. The 300,000 plus network of stewards and workplace reps is bigger than the active membership of all three political parties combined. And, in practice, the unions provide the bulk of Labour’s funding.

These are not things to be thrown away lightly by anyone whose career centres on elected office. What is more, its influence over the unions is one of the things which makes Labour an attractive option for a section of the ruling class.

Big business would prefer not to have to deal with working class militancy. But if it has to, it prefers a stable trade union bureaucracy to ‘uncontrollable’ rank and file activity from below. In the same way, big business would prefer there not to be any collective political expression available to workers. But if there has to be, it would prefer the political expression to be through a Labour Party controlled by people like Blair and Brown rather than anything more revolutionary.

Blair and Brown in their turn cannot exercise such influence without combining their talk of ‘new Labour’ and their promotion of pro-market policies with verbal concessions to ‘old Labour’s’ working class connections. Hence their willingness to accept as deputy leader John Prescott and their dropping the reference to employers’ associations from the revised Clause Four.

Hence too their acceptance that the trade unions nominate most representatives to the national executive and most delegates to conference, and that the individual votes of trade unionists are still as important in electing the leadership as individual votes of party members (although not as important as the MPs).

Labour remains, for the moment, the hybrid beast that Lenin described more than 70 years ago. Blair is not out to kill the beast, but to increase the influence of the ‘bourgeois’ component, so reducing the risk of a working class backlash when, in power, he pursues policies even more nakedly right wing than those of Wilson and Callaghan.

The hybrid character of the party has two implications for genuine socialists.

On the one hand, most workers with any degree of class consciousness see support for Labour as a way of standing up against the Tories and striving for a better society. On the other hand, labour in power is committed to make the existing system work and will, in conditions of crisis, implement essentially Tory policies.

We have to be on the side of workers who vote Labour in the belief that it is a class vote, but make clear that Labour’s commitment to the existing system means it will not deliver the reforms people expect. We recognise that a Labour vote is a first sign of class consciousness, but insist that consciousness will not achieve anything unless translated into genuine struggles the Labour leadership will denounce.

Last updated on 21 December 2009