The article on Left Unity, published here some weeks ago, has been widely reproduced and commented on.
The author demolished the case for the formation of yet another party alternative to Labour and predictably earned the ire of the swarm of more or less parasitical ultra left grouplets who have now moved on to infest the putative Left Party with their manifestoes and organisational recipes. Whether the originators of this project survive the infestation and find a way to play a positive and unifying role on the left – something they deserve given their generally well intentioned efforts in the past – is down to them. It is clear that the working class has little place in their project writes Nick Wright.
However, the substantial question raised by the Left Unity discussion – the necessity for the working class to find an independent role in British poilitical life – informs the present controversy over Labour’s link with some of Britain’s trade unions.
One of the Tory/media tricks is to imply that all unions have an organic link with the Labour Party. This is nonsense. Apart from those that have recently separated (firefighters FBU and rail, maritime RMT) the teacher and civil service unions have never been linked (and in the case of the civil service unions were forbidden to affiliate).
Unison’s link is deeply problematic. In its origins it represents – within the merger of manual and white collar public service unions – the largely unarticulated traditional link of manual unions to Labour – now substantially atrophied – while the white collar NALGO was never affiliated.
Politically, Unison’s link to Labour is the property of a tiny, unrepresentative and largely unaccountable (to the membership) cabal of careerists and opportunists who privilege loyalty to the Labour leadership over fidelity to union policies or the interests of their members.
The unquestioning sense among workers, especially those in basic industries, transport and manufacturing, that union membership and support for Labour were both natural expressions of class interest cannot be sustained while Labour so manifestly pursues policies that are directly opposed to these class interests.
At root this is not an organisational or constitutional problem but political. Until a sizeable section of the working class, as it is presently reconstituted in British society, conceives of Labour (and the union relationship to Labour) as a natural expression of its collective presence in political life no number of appeals by trade union leaders for union members to become individual members of the party will bear fruit. The GMB leader is right on this question.
And unless and until Labour begins to articulate policies that find a resonance among the most class conscious workers and those most affected by the crisis particularly and capitalist relations of production generally – then these people are unlikely to join in decisive numbers.
It is worth remembering that individual membership of the Labour Party arrived late in the party’s development and only when significant numbers of middle class people who did not have union membership – and could not enjoy an organisational relationship with the party unless they did so as members of the affiliated socialist societies and co-ops – wanted to support Labour.
In that sense, Labour was in its origins the alliance of basic class organisations and socialist parties. The first great betrayal of the Labour leadership – support for the war aims of the cabinet in 1914 – ended much of that alliance. The more recent imperialist crime on Labour’s charge sheet – Blair’s war on Iraq – largely benefited the Liberal Democrats; an organisation that arguably has refined opportunism beyond the wildest imaginings of Guardian leader writers.
We are unlikely to return to such a state but until the working class has a distinctive role in society with organisations that express its class interests as distinct from other classes then this issue of the Labour Party is unlikely to go away.
The logic of the clash as it develops is that one side or the other will have to give way. Unless the more progressive trade union leaders and their organisations begin to more decisively influence Labour policy in opposition (and more critically government policy in office) then the question of an alternative political and electoral expression will remain even if our undemocratic electoral system limits is success.
If, however,the balance of power and influence in Labour begins to shift and the Blairite and post-Blairite right wing lose influence we can expect a media storm, increased right wing millionaire-funded subversion and the threat and reality of splits from the right SDP/Polly Toynbee style. The most positive benefit of such a development is the potential it would release to motivate working people, who susbtantially abstain in elections, to vote Labour again.
Unless Miliband makes up his mind which side he is on he will go down in defeat whatever happens.