The workers’ movement in the UK has faced years of defeats. Legislative and industrial change has reduced the collective bargaining power of workers through their unions to the advantage of capital. The composition of the working class has changed – there are more workers who are sole traders, and the nature of the workplace has been transformed as information-communication technology has proliferated.
The workers’ party, the main political organisation of the labour movement, has also faced defeats – but after an unprecedented period of success. The nature of that success is hotly contested, both its causes and what led it to end in defeats (narrowly in the 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections, then in the UK general election of 2010). Undoubtedly, something went badly wrong.
The Labour reshuffle has brought to the forefront a number of concerns. For example, how are differences of opinion to be expressed? What are the forums for debating areas of disagreement? These are democratic questions for the whole of the workers’ movement as it undergoes a legislative and industrial assault by the British ruling class.
Civil war or broad church?
Understanding people’s fears means imagining their best self. If you were in their position, what would be your hopes and how might these be threatened?
From the perspective of those that won the Labour leadership contest, the fear has been that those who lost were not and are not going to accept defeat. The concern is that their view of what constitutes electoral success will not be heard because a losing faction are seeking a re-run of the leadership contest.
From the perspective of those who lost the Labour leadership contest, the fear is that being dropped from the shadow cabinet is the beginning and not the end. The concern is that their view of what constitutes electoral success will not be heard and that Labour is on course for another general election defeat as a consequence of elements of the leadership platform.
As an observer watching from a distance, it seemed unlikely that a broad-based cabinet could last given these fears. There was not acceptance from some that there could be an organisation to advance the platform of the leader, just as there were organisations to advance the platform of previous leaders.
If Labour is described broad church, then it makes sense think of there being a division by an aisle. Seated on one side, members whose perspective is closer to Momentum and Open Labour, and on the other, members whose perspective is closer to Progress and Labour First.
Faith is something that we trust others possess – we cannot see the ideas people have in their heads, their hopes and fears. So, this takes time to be established.
Losing streak or learning curve?
It is fair to say that the congregation has swelled in the past year. This poses challenges for those who lost the leadership – how to organise at the grassroots where previously this was perhaps not thought as necessary outside of party conferences? Labour First have taken the lead, to some degree, and this perhaps reflects the organisation’s origins in the broader labour movement. And Progress is now organising meetings across the country.
Regardless of their origin, activity, or funding, it is the case that both Progress and Labour First represent traditions within the workers’ movement which – like Momentum and Open Labour – can only find effective representation through the Labour Party.
For those of us who were active in supporting the election of the party leader, the main challenge is not just sustaining and developing participation of new and returning members, supporting and developing activism which will deliver election victories. We are also having to sustain and develop the approach taken in the leadership contest, where the candidates focused on policy and campaign ideas in a series of comradely hustings.
In the coming period, we will have to listen carefully to the voices of those who lost – not just those who lost the leadership contest, but the people whose support for Labour was lost and those whose trust has never been gained.
We must listen to the concerns of people losing out under the Tories and work hard to learn and win trust.
Things can change. Let’s start the new year with a renewed focus.