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International Socialism, Autumn 1960



Power in the Labour Party


From International Socialism (1st series), No.2, Autumn 1960, p.2.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What happens when Reforms are possible without Reformism? What happens to the agent, the jobber, the intermediary, when bilateral bargaining between labour and capital takes over? These questions probe the very root of Social-Democracy’s crisis today. They were implicit in the debate on Clause 4 of the Labour Party’s constitution; they have emerged from the debate on defence as an open clash on the relations between the Parliamentary Labour Party and Annual Conference.

Few will argue against the thesis that the competition inherent in capitalism has resulted, via increasing technical and organizational complexity, in the combination and centralization which distinguish it today; that this complexity necessitates a measure of planning within each ‘sphere of influence’; and that the ability to plan derives from the concentration of capital and the increasing interpenetration of business and government which goes with it. Again, few will deny that planning, however imperfect it remains within an orthodox capitalist economy, must take account of the major productive force – labour. The more inclusive such planning in time and scope, the more complex the economy and therefore the more vulnerable to attacks from within, the more necessary is it for capital to implicate labour in the machinery of economic direction, the more necessary is it to integrate the trade-union bureaucracy with that of business and the state; and, of course, the easier it is for trade-union brass-hats to accede.

Evidence of collaboration is not hard to find. It ranges from the combined operation of bosses and unions mounted against shop-stewards’ movements (Briggs at Dagenham is a famous example) to the uninhibited translation of Alfred Robens from Labour’s Shadow Minister of Labour on the Opposition Front Bench to Tory Quasi-Minister of Fuel in the National Coal Board Chair. More significantly, it is to be seen in the anxious entries and exits of individual trade-union leaders at nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street whenever it appears in the interests of the Government to bid them do so.

The trend is clear: as the political organs of capital merge with its economic organs and try to engulf labour’s economic organs (the unions), our traditional political organs, the parties of reform, get squeezed out (despite the frenetic attempts of their leaders to retain a place in the system’s sun). The process is largely completed abroad. It is now happening in Britain. Indeed, the problem is less one of understanding why the unions are pulling away from the party than one of seeing what is preventing this growing estrangement from culminating in divorce. Why in a word are the unions keeping the Labour Party? What can they hope to gain from their parliamentary wing which they cannot bargain for in Downing Street?

The answer lies partly in the structure of our trade-union movement. Our unions are, predominantly, craft unions. They bargain for minimum wages on a national scale. With few exceptions, their membership is scattered within plants and industries in such a way as to prevent one union from representing all, or even most, workers when facing one management or one industry. This weak federal structure reinforces the traditions of British trade-unionism in making it look to the state for support.

Hence the importance for it of the Labour Party as an instrument of pressure and of legislation: hence the defence of Clause 4 (the ace of state intervention) by the trade-union bureaucracy against Gaitskell’s middle-class group of de-nationalizers and redecorators; hence their concern over the defence debate at this year’s Conference lest a defeat for the platform force the Parliamentary Labour Party to opt for autonomy and so weaken union control of its policies. For the Left to defend Clause 4 was thus not merely to defend the framework (nationalization) of a socialist program (workers’ control). It was also to defend unity in the labour movement, an attempt to stem the powerful current that is thrusting it towards the rocks of fragmentation. For the Left now to denounce the proposed organizational amendments and constitutional changes is to defend the very life of the Labour Party, to save it from death by middle-class anaemia.

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