Stifling all debate
Robert Griffiths looks at how the Labour Party’s comprehensive change of its leadership elections rules will almost inevitably weaken its historic link to the working class and any realistic future challenges to the capitalist system itself
On February 4, the Labour Party’s national executive committee endorsed the main proposals of the Collins Review to change the party’s membership and decision-making structures. Tomorrow’s special conference will do the same, with the result that:
* Affiliated trade unions will no longer cast any kind of collective vote in elections for party leader, deputy leader or London mayoral candidate.
* Instead, members of affiliated unions can opt to become cut-price ‘Affiliated Supporters’ of the Labour Party and vote in these elections as individuals.
Trade unionists who until now have paid a political levy and thereby been able to vote in deciding their union’s position in Labour Party elections will be disenfranchised. They can only participate in future if they become Affiliated Supporters (but with no vote in local party organisations), ‘Registered Supporters’ (ditto) or, much more expensively, full members of the party.
At the February 4 Labour NEC meeting, all union representatives except one from Unite voted for this dog’s breakfast. A subsequent meeting of the Unite executive council decided – despite the severe misgivings of many present – to switch the union’s position to support the reforms.
This helps ensure that the changes will receive near unanimous approval at tomorrow’s special conference, with only some MPs, constituency activists and Young Labour representatives voting against.
Thus all the biggest union affliates – Unite, Unison, the GMB, Usdaw and the CWU – will help speed the beginning of the end of the Labour Party as the mass party of the organised working class movement.
It has long been the party which seeks to reconcile working class interests with those of British monopoly capitalism and imperialism. But its trade union, class base has also held the potential to make Labour a party and a government that, alone in British conditions, could enact far-reaching reforms that benefit workers and their families.
We had such reforms from Labour governments in the mid 1940s and 1970s and in the late 1990s, although the social democratic trend in the Labour Party has always steered shy of shaking the foundations of capitalism itself.
Stifling the collective voice of affiliated trade unions within the party will severely limit that potential in future, raising serious questions for all who want radical reform in Britain – and especially for socialists and communists who want to see a fundamental transformation of society.
So why are trade union and party activists and some left Labour MPs helping to remove the remaining wheels from their party as a vehicle for substantial change?
Firstly, they do not want to embarrass Labour Party leader Ed Miliband in the run-up to next year’s General Election. He has nailed his yellow colours to the mast over these reforms.
Last May, running scared from the right-wing media in league with New Labourites, Miliband had summoned the police to investigate whether Unite officials had tried to rig the selection of Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the Falkirk by-election.
Shockingly, it seems, she had turned out to be a working class trade unionist rather than a backroom policy wonk, a media consultant or a defecting millionaire Tory MP.
In July, Miliband’s cowardly response to charges that Labour was still being manipulated by trade union ‘barons’ was to propose ‘reforms’ that would further weaken the collective influence of unions in Labour Party affairs. These were later incorporated into the ongoing review of Labour membership and decision making structures by Baron Collins of Highbury.
To keep up the pressure on Miliband, the Ineos management at Grangemouth oil refinery then suspended the senior Unite official at the centre of the Falkirk allegations and subsequently locked out the aggrieved workforce. The SNP joined the Tories in attacking Labour’s inability to control its union affiliates.
Secondly, some reluctant ‘reformers’ may have convinced themselves that the proposed changes really will open Labour up to a democratising and radicalising inflow of trade union supporters. They may even imagine that they can influence how the mass of their own members will vote.
All available evidence suggests otherwise.
Currently, unions affiliate to the Labour Party some 2.7m of their members who pay the political levy. Of these, only 235,000 – fewer than 10 per cent – voted to decide who should lead Labour after Gordon Brown in 2010. Many were already full party members. How many more will now opt to enrol as Affiliated Supporters is – even by the most optimistic estimates – unlikely to exceed the number who voted back then.
Certainly, the decision almost three years ago to allow ‘Registered Supporters’ to join the party for free and eventually take part in leadership ballots has been a flop. Indeed, Labour Party officials refuse to disclose the figures.
So far from drawing more of the 2.7m levy payers into active affiliation with the Labour Party, the impact of the Collins proposals will be to exclude them altogether.
Moreover, affiliated unions will henceforth be excluded from the balloting process and so will no longer be able to issue a collective view to the rump of Affiliated Supporters, alongside the ballot papers.
The loss of several million affiliated members would deplete Labour Party coffers by up to £7m a year in affiliation fees (around a quarter of the party’s budget) over a five year transition period. Some unions will doubtless attempt to plug the funding gap with hefty general donations, irrespective of their members’ views and with liyyle or no ability to influence party policy. We can also expect a new drive for bigger state aid to the Westminster parties, in the teeth of widespread public opposition.
While a looming General Election may attract more new members, registered supporters and individual affiliation dues, this will be limited should Labour fail to adopt and implement policies that appeal to people who have had enough of austerity and privatisation.
Thirdly, some gullible trade union leaders have been mollified by the promise of a review of the new system around 2019. They, of all people, should know that reviews are invariably promised by leaderships when they want a reluctant membership to swallow unpalatable schemes handed down from the top table.
These latest changes – due to be in place by the end of this year – will not only continue, of course. They will be extended into such areas as the trade union share of the vote at Labour’s annual conference.
In fact, the whole thrust of organisational ‘reform’ in the Labour Party from the 1990s and Partnership in Power (1997) onwards has been to reduce trade union influence locally and centrally, close down genuinely democratic and participative decision making and concentrate ever more power in the hands of the party leadership.
Making Labour safe for big business has been the central purpose of this process, championed by the New Labourites.
Already, we have reached the point where Labour conference policies can be ignored, as with renationalisation of the railways, while party leaders proclaim others – such as the creation of foundation hospitals and the introduction of student top-up fees – for which they have no democratic mandate.
That tomorrow’s special conference is scheduled to conduct its momentous business in just two hours speaks volumes about the leadership’s contempt for inner-party democracy.
Finishing off the trade unions’ collective and sometimes decisive role in the election of an omnipotent party leader is, therefore, an even more significant step than finishing off the annual conference as a forum for debate and policy making.
Furthermore, another new ‘reform’ raises the threshold of support needed in the Parliamentary Labour Party to stand for the party leadership from 12.5 to 15 per cent. This makes it even more difficult for a socialist to run than left MP John McDonnell discovered in 2010.
For the Communist Party, however, tomorrow’s decision does not invalidate the case for securing a Labour victory at the next General Election.
This will still be necessary in order to get rid of the present unelected Con-Dem regime. Victory will raise people’s morale and open up the opportunity to exert pressure on a Labour government through the trade unions and campaigning movements such as the People’s Assembly.
Yet the need for a Labour victory may now be a tactical question rather than a strategic one, if the Labour Party no longer contains the potential to play a positive and major role in the struggle for socialism.
It will be akin to socialists in the US voting for the Democratic Party as the ‘lesser of two evils’ rather than as a vehicle for socialist advance.
In the new political conditions being prepared by this year’s Labour conferences and next year’s General Election, how should the Communist Party and other socialists respond?
For many workers across Britain over the past century, the Labour Party has represented their aspirations for a better life and a fairer, more humane society.
A declining number have believed that Labour in government would or even should legislate for a transition from capitalism to socialism, from a system of rule by big business to one of rule by the working class and the people generally.
The experience of majority as well as minority Labour governments in the 20th and early 21st centuries has dispelled most such illusions on the left.
For decades, the Communist Party in Britain used to envisage a ‘Labour government of a new type’ playing a central role in the revolutionary transformation of society. More recent editions of the party’s programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism (2011), have projected instead the need for a militant movement and mass campaigning to secure the election of a ‘left-wing government at Westminster, based on a socialist, Labour, communist and progressive majority at the polls’.
This would mark the culmination of the first stage in the revolutionary process in Britain, complemented by the election of left governments in Wales and Scotland based on a similar anti-monopoly alliance of forces led by the labour movement.
Many on the left in Britain broadly agree with this perspective, whatever their view of the Communist Party and other parts of its programme.
Others continue to fantasise about Britain hosting a replay of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, or Scotland taking a separate Cuban-style road to socialism. When not infiltrating the Labour Party, they are usually to be found denouncing any involvement with it, although most sections of the labour movement have not even considered what the alternative might be.
The Communist Party, on the other hand, is clear that the labour movement – and in particular the trade unions – must have its own mass electoral party which is capable of winning general elections, forming a government and enacting reforms in the interests of the working class majority of the people.
Workers and their families need, want and expect such a party.
It could play a vital role in representing, inspiring, politicising and – especially at election time – mobilising people on a mass scale. This would be part of the preparation for the transition to the next stage in the struggle for socialism, whereby a militant mass movement and its left government challenges the economic and state power of the monopoly capitalist class.
Is tomorrow’s Labour Party, in which the trade unions are no longer able or willing to exercise decisive collective influence, likely to perform such a role? That prospect will recede significantly when the Collins proposals are passed at this year’s Labour Party conferences.
Britain’s Road to Socialism explains that it has been that party’s affiliated federal structure and its trade union and working class composition that have ensured the existence of a significant socialist trend within it. It is this structure and composition which is now being put in mortal jeopardy.
Of course, it’s not impossible that the unions could rally and renew the fight with greater intensity to reclaim what used to be their party. But from the 1990s onwards, they have helped put the very anti-democratic obstacles in place that would make victory much more difficult.
In the meantime, the fragmentation of the labour movement’s political unity is likely to continue. New left parties and electoral alliances will proliferate, falter and reappear in new guises. More trade unionists and even some unions will wihdraw from active participation in the Labour Party.
With this danger in mind, the Communist Party threw down a challenge to the labour movement in its Open Letter to Workers, Trade Unionists and Socialists in 2012 (and updated the following year). We urged the unions to take specific action to step up the struggle to reclaim the Labour Party.
Some did but have now capitulated to Miliband, the New Labourites and – for all the good it will do – the anti-trade union, Tory press.
We also warned in the Open Letter that ‘should the Labour Party continue on a right-wing course, its future will be at risk and the trade union movement will have to re-establish a mass party of labour’ for the purposes outlined above.
Labour’s election manifesto and the record of the first year of any Labour government in 2015-16 will decide whether the task of re-establishing such a party must supplant that of reclaiming the Labour Party.
A rising tide of industrial and campaigning action would make the choice all the starker and more practical.
Even so, the debate about how best to resolve the crisis of working class political representation cannot be postponed for yet another year. Anyway, it has already begun formally in some unions and, informally, among other union activists.
Striving for greater clarity, understanding and agreement across the labour movement needs to proceed now, before problems of demoralisation, fragmentation and division worsen.
Engaging big trade union battalions in this discussion will be vital for progress. The crisis will not be resolved by narrow electoral and political formations in which sectarian or ultra-leftist elements wield a disproportionate influence.
Instead, we need trade union bodies at every level – up to and including the Trades Union Congress – to organise discussions, meetings and conferences to consider how many more workers and their families can be drawn into political activity and representation.
Hand in hand with this effort must go the drive to popularise the ideas and concept of socialism. Tony Benn has often pointed out that our problem in Britain is not a shortage of socialist parties but of socialists.
The essential role played by socialists in the general and industrial unions, as well as through Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party, in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (forerunner of the party) in February 1900 is often overlooked.
Today, we need more socialists in order to reclaim the labour movement for socialism, as the pre-condition for the labour movement reclaiming or re-establishing its mass party.
None of this negates the need, too, for a much stronger Communist Party in Britain.
On the contrary, a bigger and more influential Communist Party, non-sectarian and rooted in the labour movement, active on every front of the political class struggle, unwavering in its commitment to socialism, guided by Marxist theory and imbued with internationalism, is essential for rebuilding labour’s mass party and advancing towards socialism.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
This also appears in the Morning Star newspaper