Labour and the unions: back to square one

Most people join a trade union for a practical reason: to get some protection at work from arbitrary decisions by their employer over pay, hours of work, promotion, safety and working conditions generally.

Some do so in the same sort of way as they might take out an insurance policy or join the AA. Others are more committed and take advantage of the structures most unions have that allow some degree of membership participation. They see unions as a collective way of getting a better deal for themselves and their work colleagues. Others take a broader view; they see unions as a collective way of getting a better deal not just for those in their own workplace but for all those in similar workplaces, be it a coal mine, a car factory, a hospital, a school, a local council, or a government department.

The next step up is to see unions as a way of improving the position of the whole class of wage and salary workers under capitalism. This is the highest degree of what Lenin called “trade union consciousness” which, writing in 1903, he described as “the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc” (Lenin was wrong on most things, but not on this).

There is nothing revolutionary about trade unionism, even at the highest level of trade union consciousness. It’s only about trying to get a better deal for yourself, your work colleagues and perhaps for all wage and salary workers within capitalism. There is nothing wrong with that in itself and socialists, who do want to replace capitalism with socialism, as wage and salary workers ourselves also join unions to try to get some protection from—and to fight against—employers. But clearly trade unionism by itself is quite inadequate.

Trade union party
A hundred or so years ago in Britain active trade unionists recognised this and proposed what to them seemed the next step: to sponsor a political party that, once it got into parliament, would “strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc”. Hence was born the Labour Party, which in 2006 will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first MPs. In this sense, the Labour Party was originally an expression of trade union consciousness on the political field, an attempt to get a better deal for wage and salary workers within capitalism by political means.

Some who called themselves “socialists” welcomed this development; in fact it was they who had actively worked for it. But our predecessors in the Socialist Party (we go back to 1904) took a different position: a political party to further the interests of the whole class of wage and salary workers was indeed necessary but not one whose main aim would be to “strive to compel government’s to pass necessary labour legislation, etc”. What was needed was a workers party that would have as its only aim the replacement of capitalism, its class ownership and its production for profit by socialism and its common ownership, democratic control and production to satisfy people’s needs. In short, a socialist party not a “Labour” party. It is for this reason that we have always opposed the Labour Party and that the unions should have any links with it.

What are they thinking now?

Now, a hundred years later, there can be absolutely no doubt who was right and who was wrong. The Labour Party still exists but it is no longer a trade union party as it was when it was first set up. In fact, the first step away from this was taken as long ago as 1918 when Labour adopted a new constitution and a new aim: not simply to compel governments to pass laws to protect workers within capitalism, but to itself form a government that would pass such laws and that, if re-elected again and again, would pass more and more of them so that eventually capitalism would have been gradually transformed step by step into socialism.

This was a new doctrine that was distinct from trade unionism: reformism, or the view that capitalism could be gradually transformed into socialism by MPs passing reform measures. Trade unionism never had this pretension. It does not aim at trying to replace capitalism, but only at protecting workers within capitalism against the constant pressures from employers. As it happens, generally speaking, unions have not fared too badly in pursuing this more modest aim, even though they have done – and can do – little more than follow labour market and productivity trends, pushing up wages when there’s a labour shortage and applying the brake a bit or negotiating redundancy terms when there’s a slump – and even though, at times, especially under past Labour governments, trade union leaders have put the interests of “the country” (i.e. the profits of capitalist employers) before those of their members and been rewarded for so doing with knighthoods and seats in the House of Lords.

But hopes that the Labour Party would be able to gradually reform capitalism into socialism have been completely shattered. Today nobody thinks that Labour has anything to do with socialism and nobody joins the Labour Party with the aim of furthering the cause of socialism (however understood, or misunderstood). Instead of Labour governments gradually transforming capitalism into socialism, the opposite happened. The experience of governing capitalism (in 1924, in 1929, in 1945, in 1964 and in the 1970s) gradually transformed Labour into the open party of capitalism and proud friend of the City and Business that it is today.

Labour management of capitalism
There was a certain logic and inevitability about this. Capitalism, being based on the exploitation of wage labour for profit, can never be made to work in the interest of the class of wage and salary workers. Even though political pressure can sometimes extract a few, precarious concessions from capitalists, capitalism can only function as the profit-making system that it is, in the interest of the one class in society that lives off profits, the class of capitalist employers and owners. So, all governments, whatever their original intentions, have to give priority to profit-making over pro-worker reforms.

Once you’ve had one experience of being in government you’ve already begun to learn this, but once you’ve been in government five or six times, as Labour has, then this lesson has really sunk in. Pressures begin to build up to drop the pretence of wanting to change society into socialism; in fact, even of wanting to change existing mixed private and state capitalism into full-scale state capitalism (everything nationalised) which was what Labour used to be committed to on paper and which those who took it seriously imagined was the same thing as socialism. This point of view began to be expressed in the Labour Party as early as the 1950s but did not finally triumph until the 1990s under Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.

Trade union leaders and activists have been rather slow to realise this. There was evidence from the time of the first Labour governments of 1924 and 1929 that Labour in government was not and could not be a party furthering the interests of wage and salary workers within capitalism, which is what they wanted it to be (see the Fifty Years Ago column in this issue for how the ruling class viewed the Labour Party at this time). They entertained the illusion that, if only they exerted enough pressure on Labour, from inside and from outside, it could still become the political arm of the trade union movement. It seems that it is only now that it has at last dawned on them that Labour is not only not a party seeking to further the aims of socialism but that it is not even a party pursuing the same aims as the unions of protecting the immediate interests of wage and salary workers against employers within capitalism.

Back to 1900?
So, what conclusions are they drawing from this? Some, such as Arthur Scargill, have given up on Labour and are seeking to . . . form another Labour party on the same basis as a hundred years ago, despite the evident failure of the whole idea of a “Labour” party as a trade union party. Predictably, Scargill is followed in this by the 57 varieties of Trotskyism who, true to form, are trying to jump onto a moving bandwagon (even if this particular one is moving back in time) pretending that they too want to re-create “Old Labour”.

Others, such as the Labour MPs and trade union leaders who met at the TUC’s Congress House in London on 20 July for a conference on “After New Labour”, still think, believe it or not, that there is some chance of recapturing Labour for the unions. They still imagine Labour can be transformed back into (in the words of an Australian union leader where a similar debate is going on, for the same reasons) being “advocates of working people dedicated to a fair society”. But there is absolutely no chance of transforming Labour back into such a reformist party, even if it were desirable. Which it isn’t, since reformism as the attempt to reform capitalism into becoming a “fair society” was a mistaken tactic anyway as the whole history of the 20 th century has shown. There is nothing fair about capitalism and never can be.

The most these trade unionists have done is to cut back on their payments to Labour, so, apparently, provoking the biggest financial crisis in Labour’s history. Good, we’re not shedding any tears about that. If we had our way, the unions would give no money at all to the Labour Party. In fact, even today nothing obliges a union member to pay towards supporting Labour; they can opt out of paying the “political levy” as Socialist Party members of unions do.

So the 20 th century proved to be a dead-end for the working-class movement. But the mistake made a hundred years ago was not to try to move beyond pure-and-simple trade unionism to a workers’ political party but over the nature of that party. Political action is indeed necessary if capitalism is to be got rid of and, for this, a political party is needed but a real socialist party not a “Labour” party.

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