by Robert Griffiths
In January 2012, the Communist Party issued an Open Letter to Workers, Trade Unionists and Socialists setting out its thoughts on the crisis of working class political representation in Britain. An updated edition was launched later at the TUC conference in September.
Our chief aim was to stimulate debate in the trade unions and on the left about the nature of this political crisis and how it might be resolved. We argued that the Labour Party was failing to represent the interests of workers and their families and that the labour movement should fight to reclaim or re-establish the party that it founded more than a century ago.
Since then, the crisis of political representation has deepened.
While Labour has rejected some of the worst Tory-LibDem policies such as the Bedroom Tax, it continues to side with the vicious ruling class offensive against public services, the welfare state, working class living standards and trade unionism. Workers, their families and the labour movement still don’t have their most basic interests represented in parliament or government.
That is why the Communist Party is issuing this renewed appeal to the labour movement to consider and take the necessary steps to secure such representation.
In particular, we assess the profound implications of the Labour Party’s latest organisational ‘reforms’ for the future character and political direction of that party.
Because they cast further doubt on the Labour Party’s potential to become a vehicle for far-reaching progressive change, socialists and communists who wish to see the revolutionary transformation of our society may need to adjust their strategic perspectives accordingly.
With this in mind, too, the Communist Party suggests some immediate steps towards resolving the crisis of working class representation in Britain. As ever, we would welcome any comments on our thoughts and proposals.
Is Labour still a labour party?
On March 1 2014, the Labour Party decided to embark on what might well be the final stage of its mutation into a non-labour party.
Delegates to its special spring conference decided by an overwhelming majority to weaken –perhaps fatally –the collective basis of trade union involvement in the party.
They endorsed the main proposals of a review chaired by Lord Collins, agreeing to abolish the electoral college, including its trade union and socialist societies section, which elects the party’s leader and deputy leader.
They decided to phase out the system whereby workers in affiliated unions can pay a political levy and vote in Labour Party leadership elections.
The conference agreed to introduce instead a new category of ‘Affiliated Supporters’ for workers to be enrolled in the party locally at a reduced rate, with a vote in Labour leadership ballots no longer administered by their union.
It also raised the threshold required for nomination to stand for the leadership from 12.5 per cent of Labour MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to 15 per cent.
Collins also suggested severely limiting the money trade unions can spend during party leadership campaigns and during the selection process for Westminster parliamentary candidates.
The 2.7 million workers who pay a political levy to the Labour Party will be disenfranchised during the transition period to 2019.
They can only vote in future leadership elections if they opt to become Affiliated Supporters, ‘Registered Supporters’ (similar but without their fees paid through their union) or full members of the party at a much higher rate.
Supporters may attend but not vote in local party meetings and they will be screened locally to keep out members of other political parties.
This erosion of trade union influence in the Labour Party has only been made possible by the acquiescence of trade union leaders and union representatives on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC).
At crucial points, even left-inclined union leaders have yielded when concerted resistance might have saved party democracy.
At the March 2014 special conference only the Bakers, Food & Allied Workers Union and Young Labour voted against the Collins proposals.
Why did all the other trade unions and even some left MPs and activists support these latest reforms?
Why have the unions swallowed a new raft of measures which threaten to complete the mutation of the Labour Party into British version of the US Democratic Party?
First, they did not want to embarrass Labour leader Ed Miliband in the run-up to the June 2015 General Election by sinking his constitutional flagship.
Second, many critics fell into line because the reforms were not quite as regressive as had been feared earlier. In the pre-conference period, the possibility had been floated that the nomination threshold for leadership candidates could be raised to 20 per cent of the PLP or higher, while also allowing ‘open primaries’ of almost anyone to elect the top two Labour leaders as well as Labour’s candidate for London mayor.
Third, some gullible trade union leaders were mollified by the promise of a review of the new system as it unfolds. Yet the Collins Review itself became the vehicle for weakening union influence on the pretext of assessing the the Labour-union link in light of previous reforms.
And some reluctant reformers appear to have convinced themselves that the proposed changes really will open Labour up to an influx of trade union supporters.
They may even imagine that they can influence how the mass of their own members will vote under the new system.
But all the available evidence suggests that most of their members will not enrol and that those who do will be shielded from union influence as much as possible during the election process.
Only 234,000 (that’s fewer than 10 per cent) of trade union political levy payers voted to decide who should lead Labour after Gordon Brown in 2010. Of them, around 60,000 were already full party members. The number of levy payers who will now opt to enrol as Affiliated Supporters is unlikely to exceed the non-party members who voted back then.
Certainly, the decision in 2010 to allow ‘Registered Supporters’ to join the party for free and eventually to take part in leadership ballots has been a flop. Labour Party officials refuse to disclose the enrolment figures.
Since the March 2014 conference, Unite’s executive council has already slashed the union’s number of Labour Party affiliates by half to 500,000, and expects the number of Affiliated Supporters to be far fewer at the end of the transition period.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny reckons that fewer than 60,000 of his union’s 400,000 levy payers will opt for Affiliated Supporter status.
Far from drawing more of the several million levy payers into active participation in the Labour Party, then, the impact of the special conference decisions will be to push most of them out altogether.
Moreover, affiliated unions will be excluded from the balloting process and so will no longer be able to issue a collective view to their members alongside the ballot papers.
Before and since the conference, New Labour and other right-wing figures in the party have demanded that low numbers of Affiliated Supporters should trigger a further reduction in trade union representation on the party’s NEC and at annual conference.
Labour’s mutation from a broad, federal party based on the working class and the labour movement to a mass of atomised individuals will be nearing completion.
The whole thrust of organisational change in the Labour Party from the 1990s and Partnership in Power (1997) onwards has been towards reducing trade union influence locally and centrally and closing down democratic policy-making.
Successive reforms have ended direct union voting in the selection of parliamentary candidates, shrunk the share of union votes at the annual policy conference, transferred powers from the conference to policy forums and commissions and abolished trade union collective voting in the election of party leaders.
Over the same period, power within the party has been increasingly centralised in the hands of the leadership and its functionaries, working from offices funded by wealthy donors.
Through a combination of bribery and coercion, successive leaders have imposed their preferred Westminster and European parliamentary candidates on constituency Labour parties.
It is no accident that these structural changes have gone hand in hand with the New Labour drive to abandon a broadly social-democratic outlook in favour of a neoliberal one.
Politically, the central purpose of the reform process has been to make Labour even safer for big business.
First, Clause IV of the party’s constitution was rewritten to eliminate its socialist objectives.
Since then, policies supporting public ownership in a mixed economy, full employment, macro-economic planning, substantial wealth redistribution, progressive taxation and a strong welfare state have all been jettisoned.
Labour conference decisions to renationalise the railways and Royal Mail and review the Private Finance Initiative have simply been ignored, while policies to introduce student tuition top-up fees and foundation hospitals have been introduced by Labour governments with no democratic mandate to do so.
More recently, Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls have made clear their intention to continue with privatisation, public spending cuts, the welfare spending cap and the public sector wage freeze should Labour win the next General Election.
The most recent capitulations to neoliberalism coincided with the establishment of the Collins Review in July 2013, following a campaign of Tory, media and big business lies against Unite officials involved in an industrial dispute at Grangemouth oil refinery and the selection of Labour’s parliamentary candidate in nearby Falkirk.
That the March 2014 special conference passed the resulting reforms in just two hours speaks volumes about the party leadership’s contempt for what little remains of inner-party democracy.
The downgrading of Labour conferences makes it all the more serious that trade unions will no longer have any significant role in the election of what has become an omnipotent party leadership.
Raising the threshold of PLP nominations needed to stand for the party leadership will also make it even more difficult for a socialist to run than left MP John McDonnell discovered in 2010.
Why do these regressive organisational and political developments matter? What will they mean for workers, socialists and communists?
These questions should exercise the entire British labour movement.
Decision time is coming
Since the early 20th century, the Labour Party has been the mass electoral party of the labour movement in Britain. As Lenin pointed out, it was unique in that it included in membership millions of trade unionists.
Its class base and broad popular appeal have enabled it to win elections, form governments and introduce far-reaching reforms in the interests of workers and the people generally.
Labour’s federal structure with its affiliated trade unions and working class composition have helped to ensure the existence of a significant socialist trend within the party, as well as the predominant social-democratic one.
Not surprisingly, generations of working people have seen Labour as the main repository of their aspirations for a better life and a fairer, more humane society.
That’s why for decades the Communist Party has urged the labour movement to turn left and help secure a ‘Labour government of a new type’, one whose policies would open the road to socialism in Britain. But while Labour governments have sometimes changed economic, social and political conditions for the better, they have never challenged the foundations of capitalism and imperialism.
The social-democratic trend in the party has always refused to pursue a strategy for taking state power and using it to replace capitalism with socialism.
After its first term in office, the New Labour trend led by Tony Blair openly pursued a neoliberal agenda on behalf of monopoly capital and the state apparatus which serves its interests. This agenda included dismantling the trade union and class basis of the Labour Party to make it completely safe for big business
Thus the most recent edition of the Communist Party’s programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism (2011), reflects the change in the balance of forces inside the Labour Party as well as the diversification of the left.
It projects the need for mass campaigning and a militant extra-parliamentary movement 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.
It would help prepare the transition to the next stage in the struggle for socialism, in which a mass movement and its left government would challenge the economic and state power of the monopoly capitalist class. However, the question posed by recent developments is whether the Labour Party can in future be a vehicle for far-reaching or fundamental change. More specifically, is the labour movement able and willing to reclaim the Labour Party or, failing that, to re-establish its own mass party of labour?
While the union-led alliance between socialists and social democrats actually defeated New Labour’s preferred candidate in the 2010 Labour leadership election, it did not go on to finish off the faction and its policies.
Some social democrats have since moved leftwards, but more –especially in the Parliamentary Labour Party and Shadow Cabinet –have moved back to the right in alliance with the New Labourites.
Meanwhile, the socialist trend in the PLP and the constituency parties has not grown significantly stronger.
The trade union surrender at the March 2014 conference, where they backed extensive ‘reforms’ to the party-union link, indicates that most unions have neither the political understanding nor the will to fight to reclaim the Labour Party.
This situation is unlikely to change before the June 2015 General Election, although two of the biggest unions –Unite and the GMB –have embarked on a strategy of recruiting their members to join and become active in their Labour Party organisations.
Indeed, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has warned that the party might lose the election if it continues to advocate an austerity programme instead of enthusing and mobilising its core working class supporters with bolder, more progressive policies.
Certainly, the period up to and immediately following the election could demonstrate conclusively whether or not Labour can be reclaimed as the mass electoral party of the labour movement. That’s because workers, their trade unions, socialists and communists will be confronted with stark choices about the way forward.
First, Labour’s election manifesto will reveal whether any surviving trade union influence has produced a programme with policies for the millions and not the millionaires. Will it, for example, contain commitments in favour of public ownership, progressive taxation, public sector housing, price controls and additional rights for workers and their trade unions?
Will Labour move away from austerity, privatisation and the renewal of nuclear weapons?
If the answer is Yes, it will indicate that the battle to reclaim the party can possibly be won, reinforced by an upsurge in enthusiasm and determination to implement such policies in the face of what would be ferocious ruling class opposition.
This year’s May Day celebrations should mark the beginning of an all-out offensive by trade unions and the Labour left to win back the party to social democracy, if not to socialism, and to see this represented in Labour’s General Election manifesto.
It is the duty of the whole trade union movement and the left, including non-affiliated unions and the Communist Party, to assist this struggle in every practical way. Should no such initiative be taken –or fail to make substantial headway –and no such policies appear in the manifesto, Labour will disappoint rather than enthuse many supporters, either losing the election or subsequently governing with neoliberal policies. Under these conditions, the labour movement and the left will have no option but to take the necessary steps to re-establish a mass party of labour.
It could be argued that trade unions not prepared to fight to reclaim the party to which they are affiliated are even less likely to leave it to undertake a much more politically advanced task.
This will be no doubt be the case with many of the 15 unions currently affiliated to the Labour Party. But sticking with a party which no longer represents working class interests –and where the prospects of it doing so have all but vanished –is a recipe for permanent defeat and despair.
It may well be the case that the initial moves towards re-establishing a labour party will have to come from a minority of unions, including non-affiliated ones.
The vital necessity is for the forces involved to include at least one or two of the big battalions of the labour movement. This scenario might not be as distant as it once appeared. In March and April 2014, Len McCluskey warned that his members might disaffiliate the union and help form a new workers’ party if Labour doesn’t reject austerity and adopt a pro-worker election manifesto. Other unions currently outside the Labour Party might also be prepared to consider participating in such a project.
Labour’s next steps
The Communist Party’s view is that a rising tide of mass campaigning, industrial action and political discussion would provide the most favourable conditions for resolving the labour movement’s crisis of political representation one way or another.
A significant turn to the left in the trade unions and within the Labour Party would help ensure that the crisis is recognised and addressed.
It would also test the practicality of reclaiming the Labour Party or, failing that, re-establishing a mass party of labour.
This makes it even more important to build the People’s Assembly as a broad militant movement which unites the trade unions, trades councils, anti-cuts groups, community campaigns and the non-sectarian left in action against austerity and privatisation, in support of a left and progressive alternative programme.
A powerful movement of this kind is needed not only to combat the Tory-LibDem coalition, but also to prepare for whichever government takes office in 2015 and attempts to continue the ruling class offensive.
As a further benefit, it would also demonstrate the value of working class and popular unity across England, Scotland and Wales in the common fight against the British capitalist class and its state power.
By sharpening the contradiction between people’s anger and action on the one side and Labour inadequacy on the other, a militant People’s Assembly with its left policies based on the People’s Charter –which has been supported by most of Labour’s affiliated unions –could undoubtedly help bring the crisis of political representation to a constructive conclusion.
An important aspect of the struggle for an alternative to austerity and privatisation will be the battle over Labour’s manifesto for the 2015 General Election.
The Communist Party is clear that the Tory-LibDem coalition must be defeated, which means supporting the election of the only practical and viable alternative, namely, a Labour government.
This need not require support for every Labour candidate, especially where communists and other candidates may be standing on a broad left platform against the worst Labour champions of neoliberalism and imperialism.
That notwithstanding, only a Labour victory in the General Election overall would raise people’s morale and determination to fight for left and progressive policies.
In the meantime, in order to help secure such a result, maximum pressure must be exerted on the Labour leadership to propose a winning programme.
At the forefront of Labour’s manifesto should be a commitment to end the austerity and privatisation offensive. Real increases in wages, benefits and pensions would boost living standards, production, investment and employment. Selective controls on rents, fares and energy and food prices would bring relief to the many millions of people on low incomes.
A massive council-house building programme would give hope to many families and young people desperate for a home of their own, as well as creating up to a million new jobs.
A Labour pledge to take the gas, electricity, water and subsidised postal and railway industries back into public ownership would be a vote winner. Britain’s repressive anti-trade union laws should be repealed and employment rights expanded.
Such a left programme could be be financed by abolishing Britain’ useless nuclear weapons and reducing military spending to the average European level; taxing the rich, financial speculation and big business profits more equitably; and ending the tax haven status of overseas territories under British jurisdiction.
Nor should the connections between domestic and international matters be neglected, which is why the labour movement needs to develop its own independent foreign and defence policy in opposition to EU and NATO, and in favour of fair trade, social justice, popular sovereignty, international cooperation and peace.
While it is unlikely that many of these policies will be accepted by the Labour leadership, arguing for them will raise the level of political understanding in the labour movement, better equipping it for the tasks ahead.
This battle of ideas will be central to the debate which needs to be taken forward urgently about reclaiming or re-establishing the labour movement’s mass party. In particular, ways have to be found to engage the trade unions more extensively in this discussion, however difficult this may be in the run-up to the General Election and during any post-victory honeymoon period.
Trade union bodies at every level –up to and including the Trades Union Congress –should organise discussions, meetings and conferences to consider the future of the Labour Party and how more workers can be drawn into political activity and representation.
The proposal floated at the 2014 Campaign for Labour Party Democracy conference that unions form their own distinct party affiliated to Labour like the Cooperative Party merits further consideration. It would need to have its own policy-making conference, elected leadership and financial autonomy. Such an initiative could give unions a clearer, stronger and collective political voice both inside and beyond the Labour Party –all the more so if it did not operate bans and proscriptions on some union members, such as communists, who pay the political levy.
Were unions to decide later that they need to re-establish their own mass party outside the Labour Party, much of the initial preparatory work would already have been done.
In any event, full account will also have to be taken of the national question when seeking to solve the crisis of working class political representation.
In Wales, the Labour Party and the Welsh Labour government pursue policies which broadly reflect a social democratic outlook, notably support for jobs and public services, selective nationalisation and the rejection of privatisation of health and education services.
While Welsh Labour is not organisationally independent, it may have to assert its own political and organisational autonomy in order to retain trade union influence in its own policy making processes.
In Scotland, Labour has followed much the same political line as the leadership centrally, although its April 2014 conference indicated that this may be changing. However, Scotland’s separation from the rest of Britain would mean that, inevitably, any developments in a positive direction would take place in an increasingly different and separate set of political conditions.
Striving for greater clarity, understanding and agreement across the labour movement needs to proceed before current problems of demoralisation, fragmentation and division worsen.
As the left’s only daily paper, with six Labour-affiliated unions (including Unite, GMB and the CWU) and three non-affiliated unions (including the RMT) on its management committee, the Morning Star is especially well placed to stimulate the debates and initiatives necessary to help resolve the crisis of working class political representation.
Strengthening the Communist Party and its influence would also contribute directly to bringing about a positive solution.
This is because the Communist Party is rooted in the labour movement, organised to build mass campaigning and seeks to apply its Marxist outlook to vital strategic questions in a non-dogmatic, non-sectarian way.
Indeed, a bigger and more influential Communist Party, active on every front of the political class struggle, unifying in its approach, unwavering in its commitment to socialism, imbued with internationalism, would be invaluable in the effort to rebuild labour’s mass party.
Tony Benn appreciated the role played by the Communist Party in the fight for progress and socialism. He also enjoyed pointing out that the problem on the left in Britain is not so much a shortage of socialist parties as a shortage of socialists.
Today, we need more socialists in order to reclaim the labour movement for socialism, as well as reclaiming or re-establishing a mass party for the labour movement.
This will only happen if the left and the trade unions make a conscious effort to discuss and project the ideas and values of socialism.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
This is an edited version of articles which appeared in the Morning Star