Ed Balls’ announcement at the end of last week that Labour now supports the coalition’s public sector wage-freeze (in fact pay cut, in the face of wages being whittled away by high inflation), and its intention to maintain it, and all the Tory/Lib Dem cuts, in the next parliament, has thrown the labour movement into a major crisis. Ed Miliband promptly went on Sunday morning televsion to back up Balls. These announcements totally rip apart the carefully maintained soft-left political profile that Miliband has maintained since he was elected leader last year promising to do something to address the ‘crisis of representation’ of Labour’s traditional working class ‘core’ vote.
Faced with a major, full frontal attack on working class living standards and vicious cuts consciously aimed at making the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society – the sick, the disabled, even those suffering from terminal cancer (!!) pay for the defecit resulting from a capitalist crisis caused by finance capital that has benefited for decades from low taxation (which as often as not they manage to avoid by ‘creative accounting’), and was bailed out with public funds when it faced ruin three years ago, Labour backs up the Tories on the fundamentals.
This at a stroke disenfranchises milliions who looked, however sceptically based on previous experience of self-serving politicians, to Labour to provide some opposition to the coalition’s increasingly clear agenda of ripping up what is left of the welfare state and public provision. Now all three parties agree in practice with making the working class pay for the entire mess created by neo-liberal capitalism.
This has caused ructions among the trade unions who support Labour, including some of the biggest. The GMB;’s Paul Kenny, for instance, threatened that the GMB would disaffiliate from Labour if the policy was not reversed. Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and one of Labour’s chief financial backers, fiercely denounced Miliband and Balls in the pages of the Guardian (17 Jan), comparing them to the National Government of dole-cutting traitors that went into coalition with the Tories in 1931, in the face of the Great Depression. McCluskey described this turn as a Blairite policy coup, effectively disenfranchising the working class, and predicted it will lead to electoral defeat for Labour. Mark Serwotka of PCS likewise called the Balls policy ‘hugely disappointing’, while Bob Crow of the RMT also predicted it would lead to electoral defeat.
The real question is: what are these trade union leaders going to do about this? If Labour were what it were 40 years ago, with a real working class base not just among affliliated trade unions, but also an mass individual membership with some kind of class-based, socialistic outlook, then it would be possible to envisage a major fight within the Labour Party. But this is very far from the situation. Over decades, Labour’s working class base has been frittered away in terms of active membership, and though many unions, particularly the largest like UNITE are still affiliated, the active engagement of the membership in Labour politics is not great.
Many years of contempt for trade unionism and everything it stands for by Labour’s neo-liberal bigwigs have taken their toll. It is scarcely feasible that these union leaders could lead a fight to overturn the Brownite reactionaries, and their Blairite ugly-twins, who have once again seized control of Labour’s policy agenda. Ousting an entire ruling layer from a party and fundamentally shifting its policies to the left requires not just angry rank-and-file trade unionists, or even angry trade union leaders or bureaucrats, but also requires a political cadre to replace the reactionaries. No such cadre exists in Labour, it was driven out and marginalised decades ago.
But we need a political fight against the neo-liberals nevertheless, and to assemble such a cadre to re-arm the working class politically for the battles to come against the coalition’s deep-going attacks on our class, and against their allies, the Brownite/Blairite Thatcherites who now have Ed Miliband as their pet (until they consider it expedient to replace him, of course). Such a cadre can begin to be assembled, if the unions were to carry out Kenny’s threat, break with the Labour leadership and support the building of a new party that can fight for the independent interests of the working class.
We do not need, however, to build a mere replica of the Labour Party with the kind of tepid pretend-oppositional posture that Miliband has just thrown overboard. A party that simply limits itself to social democratic reformism will not succeed, even in its own terms, since one key index of what is behind neo-liberalism is that capitalism itself is suffering from a decades-long crisis of profitablity, which is driving increasingly ferocious attacks on the working class particularly in older capitalist countries like the UK, the US and the countries of the Eurozone.
Revolutionary socialists cannot simply dictate that a new working class party ‘must’ be a fully clarified, revolutionary party right from the start. That would be sectarian idiocy of the highest order. But neither can we passively tolerate the hegemony of reformism and therefore the repetition of all its betrayals, culminating in Blairism and Brownism. Such a party has to be open to the highest level of political debate, and must include various manifestations of the ideas of Marxism as open trends, in the knowledge that world historic events in the past two decades, the terminal crisis of Stalinism and now a major crisis of neo-liberalism and capitalism, demand new answers and syntheses in which the insights of opponents of capitalism and Stalinism must play a major part.
In the past two decades there have been three significant attempts to form a new working class party. Scargill’s ill-fated Socialist Labour Party quickly descended into an insanely bureaucratic farce in 1996-8. The Socialist Alliance in the early noughties made some real gains, but was never much more than a coalition of parts of a fractious and divided far left. It was torn apart, partly by the sectarian flaws of that far left, and partly by differences of principle posed by the ‘war on terror’ and the Iraq War. Respect, emerging from the massive protest movement against the Iraq war, also had some important successes in inflicting political blows against the war criminal neocons led by Blair, but in a period of relatively low working-class activity found itself substantially confined to sections of the oppressed Muslim working class alienated by Iraq and open to an alliance with the secular and radical left. It never really had the political opportunity to tap into the core of the working class movement, and was eventually torn to pieces by a combination of the sectarianism of the SWP and the political weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of its principled and stiff-necked, but ultimately Labour-loyal and steadfastly reformist leading figure, George Galloway.
Now another opportunity is opening up, and this time with the possibility of strategic unions being major players in its formation. The formation of TUSC in the last year or so of New Labour rule may well have been an anticipation of what will ultimately happen. TUSC is very rudimentary, not a party, but a three cornered bloc between two left organisations (Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party) and part of the leadership of the RMT. It is a federal bloc, currently without an individual membership structure, though it has recently established a section that individual otherwise non-aligned members can join, the TUSC Independent Socalist Network (ISN). But this is not enough, TUSC is obviously not a finished product or in any way a model. If larger forces of trade unionists and other working class people get involved, a party must have a membership structure to allow members to play a full part in political life.
If the working class is to rearm itself, democratic, dynamic, renewed organisations are going to be key means of doing this. We must learn from the positive features of other radical movements, particularly the Occupy movements that have been causing some real problems to capitalist politicians particularly in the US, but also here. We need to build on old traditions of organisation, but not be dogmatically bound by them – as well as reaffirming what is positive about the past, we need to conquer new ground, elaborate new ideas, take things further. This is likely to be a protracted process with many complexities, but once again, with the rift between the Labour leadership and strategically important unions, it looks like the opportunity to begin this process is opening up again.