progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

on the future of labour

I was born in the eighties, the decade in which the labour movement suffered a series of defeats and the party struggled to come to terms with the neo-liberal reforms of the Tories. The collective power of working people was eroded and poverty and inequality soared as mass unemployment became an accepted part of the new settlement.

The rebranding of the party as New Labour was seen as the launching of a new party which would completely accept the shift in power from elected institutions to institutions geared towards securing capital accumulation, and would discipline the broader labour movement against radical democratic change. In electoral terms, it meant that the strategy for holding office was not to challenge those interests which have the power to influence public opinion, nor to challenge the assumptions of swing voters.

The failure of Labour to secure a fourth majority should not be a surprise - what was surprising is that Labour managed to win a third term in office. The price for becoming a party of the established order was that although a great many progressive reforms were enacted - investment in public services, creation of children's centres and the minimum wage, etc. - these are sometimes overshadowed by the sight of unelected business figures becoming ministers to please the capitalist class, and by support for US-led wars in the middle east and elsewhere.

Despite the ruling class offensive in the past three decades, social attitudes surveys still find that a majority of people regard themselves as working class - better understanding the notion of class as a socio-economic condition of dependence upon an earned income or that of a spouse or partner.

A great many people understand the historic mission of the Labour Party - to represent the interests of working people in all levels of government. This obviously contradicts with the ruling elite's view of democratic representation as a means of legitimising huge inequalities of wealth and power.

The outgoing Labour leader perhaps had a greater understanding of the history of our movement than his predecessor, though he lacked the communication skills - not to convince voters, but to convince the ruling class that he could make ordinary people pay for the bailout. For this, the Tories (of both blue and yellow) are more convincing.

You still find, though not as much, people who will declare their politics with "I am Labour" - a proud identification with a party conscious of its historic mission. Despite everything, it is considered shameful to have voted Conservative. I expect now people will speak of having voted Liberal with regret - since the party has sold out its supporters in pursuit of power.

I first considered joining the party in 2007 when it became clear there would be a change of leadership and - I hoped - a change of course. But as it became clear there was to be no open debate through a leadership contest, I didn't join for another two years. In the deputy leadership contest, the only candidate who seemed to understand how people were feeling was Jon Cruddas.

No doubt that in this leadership contest, there will be an acceptance of the view that Labour needs to become a party of social movements again - and there will be much talk of the Obama '08 campaign in the US. But there is a debate which needs to be revived - and it stems from the result of the party's last leadership contest.

The change to Clause IV of the party's constitution marked an attempt to end debate on the content of democratic socialism. Although it made the party's goal explicit, the new Clause IV sought to assuage the fears of the ruling class by making it clear that the party would not reverse privatisation or embark on a programme of nationalisation of industry. In other words, it would not challenge the power of the ruling class.

However, the triumphalism of the early nineties is no longer with us - we are now in the shadow of a systemic crisis of the capitalism and on the verge of being forced to pay the price for the continued rule of a wealthy few with cuts to living standards and public services for the many. We need to recognise that although Labour was in office for a longer period than ever before - it had less power than ever before, accepting capitalist globalisation and ceding power to the Bank of England.

The new Tory government has gone even further - it will outsource decision-making on spending cuts to an independent body led by Sir Alan Budd, a former banker.

Budd appears in a 1992 film from Pandora's Box, a series produced by the documentary-maker Adam Curtis. He says the following of Tory economic policy of the '80s:

The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.

They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes -- if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

Now again, I would not say I believe that story, but when I really worry about all this I worry whether that indeed was really what was going on.

This surprising admission is made more surprising by the denial of belief - to those on the recieving end of Tory policy, it was apparent what was happening and why. And it will happen again unless the Labour Party can purge itself of fear and confidently assert itself as a democratic socialist party.

My saying this does not imply that it is either possible or desirable to re-fight old battles - rather that there is a lot the party can learn from the movements with which is has historic connections - The Co-operative Party, which represents democratic enterprises accounting for millions of pounds in business; and the trade unions, which represent interests of millions of people in the workplace.

I doubt that a leadership contest will mark a period of reflection - it is after all a competition. I certainly hope it will be conducted in a comradely manner. And whilst it will focus on the personality and past actions of candidates, I hope that the candidates will make an attempt to advance the party's position on the economy beyond acceptance of existing power relations and towards greater democratic control by ordinary people.

No comments:

Post a Comment