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The Labour Party has lost four elections in a row. Yet many of its leading supporters still say that, with just 'one more push', Labour can make it back to the top of British politics. Pat Roberts sees a rather bleaker future for a party trapped in the past

A party without a cause

Political parties somehow manage to survive long after they cease to have any relevance to society. On the Continent there is a peculiar mixture of royalist and fascist formations run by very old men, which keep going of their own accord. In Britain, despite the 'strange death of liberalism' earlier this century, the Liberals have managed to preserve an organisational presence in mainstream politics.

It is one thing to survive, but quite another to represent something in society. This is the problem now facing the Labour Party. To be sure, Labour has a significant presence in mainstream politics in terms of MPs and percentage points in opinion polls. Yet it is now a party that cannot attract any new support. Despite all of the talk of 'modernisation', Labour is rooted in the past. It has no organic relationship with any of the key forces at work in contemporary society.

A century ago, the Liberals were the party of industry and commerce. Today they represent nothing. More recently Labour has undergone a similar conversion. Having once been a party which represented the interests of a distinct and important layer in society, the Labour Party has now become an empty electoral machine like any other.

The contest for Labour leader and deputy leader, which ends with the elections in July, has clearly indicated the present trends and problems. In the wake of their fourth consecutive electoral defeat, most members of the Labour Party establishment have been concerned to use the leadership campaign to emphasise that their organisation is no longer the Labour Party of old. This sentiment has been best expressed through the widespread criticisms and even denunciations of the party's connections with the trade unions.

The almost casual fashion in which Labour's historic links with the unions have been attacked by leadership candidates, other MPs and even top trade union officials, indicates that these links must have little practical relevance for the life of the party. Yet in the first half of the twentieth century, the trade union connection was the key to Labour's emergence as a party of national standing and influence. If something as fundamental to the Labour Party's traditional identity as its links with the unions is now negotiable, then everything must be up for grabs.

It is relatively easy to bury old traditions. It is much more difficult to forge new links with society. If the Labour Party is no longer the party of labour, then which forces in British society should it or could it represent?

In the past, Labour was a movement. A movement is a social force, an integral part of everyday life. The elementary aspirations of working class people, as expressed through trade unionism, provided the Labour Party with a dynamic that could not be ignored. This assured Labour of a permanent base of support, a supply of steady recruits and a cause which had mass backing.

Good old days

The real existence of this movement meant that Labour had to be taken seriously a long time before it became a major parliamentary party. Because it was representative of a movement, Labour often possessed a greater sensitivity to developments in society than either the Tories or the Liberals. Consequently, it often seemed to be more in tune with popular aspirations than the other parties.

These attributes allowed Labour to become a viable political alternative. It became a major force in mainstream British politics. The first minority Labour government was elected in 1924. The first majority Labour regime took office in 1945. From the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, when Harold Wilson won four out of five general elections, Labour even appeared to have a legitimate claim to be 'the natural party of government'.

The wider labour movement, especially the trade unions, also became an important social institution in its own right. The bureaucracy which ran the labour movement was able to command significant support in society, and nothing important could be done without its agreement. In exchange for their cooperation in the running of British capitalism, the trade unions were cultivated and integrated into the management of the state.

As long as the Labour Party could mobilise and deliver the support of millions, it remained an indispensable part of the team which managed Britain. Whatever its electoral fortunes - whether it won or lost - Labour continued to speak for a key section of society. Because of this, the officials at the top of the labour movement were powerful individuals, received with respect everywhere from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace. Whatever their personal shortcomings, they symbolised a movement in the ascendant. The feeling that they were moving forward at the head of something powerful provided these individuals with confidence and a sense of certainty about what they stood for.

Labour lightweights

Labour today is no longer a movement. A comparison of Labour leaders past and present helps to illustrate the difference between a real movement and an electoral organisation. Compare the Neil Kinnocks, Bryan Goulds and John Smiths of this world to the Ernest Bevins, Aneurin Bevans or even the Denis Healeys of the past. The present generation look like lightweight student union politicos when placed alongside the heavyweight sluggers of the old labour movement.

Today's Labour leaders are not only short on substance. They clearly lack any firm relationship to society. Where did Gould or Smith come from? Just to ask the question invites the answer. These are an arbitrary group of individuals. They may possess some talent and ambition, but are still just individuals without any connection to a broader movement or a class or anything significant in society.

The career pattern of current leading Labour politicians reveals the isolation of this group. Many of them are indeed former student politicians and bureaucrats. In fact, the bureaucracy of the National Union of Students appears to have become the most important breeding ground for future Labour politicians. Alternatively, employment in a charity or a polytechnic seems to be a desirable background for those aspiring to become a future Labour member of parliament.

The Labour Party used to represent a movement but is now run by a collection of individuals. In this sense at least, it is very similar to the Liberal Democrats. Since Labour has not been able to evolve a relationship with any significant section of contemporary society, it lacks social roots and political stability. Its political complexion depends on the subjective inclinations of individuals, who make up policies as they go along - as they demonstrated when adapting to pressure from the media during this year's general election campaign.

Of course, electoral calculations have always played a key role in politics. But a party that is driven entirely by such calculations is an inherently unstable formation. That is why a formally left-wing party like Labour could often end up appearing to be on the right of the Liberal Democrats during the general election.

The tradition of Labour probably still motivates a section of the older generation of working class people. But the political habits of older generations cannot sustain Labour indefinitely. Moreover, the explicit rejection of Labour's tradition by the party's own leadership ensures that it has nothing distinctive to offer to the electorate. As a result of these trends, Labour has become a competitor of the Liberal Democrats rather than a contender for government.

It is difficult to be certain whether or not Labour's trajectory into obscurity is irreversible. However, it seems highly unlikely that Labour possesses the capacity to adapt to new circumstances and to reconstitute itself as a dynamic party. Aside from its loss of identity, it is too isolated to be sensitive to emerging trends in the outside world. Unable to relate to the contemporary concerns of working class people, Labour politicians' rhetoric of concern sounds like so many platitudes. Inevitably it fails to find any widespread resonance.

In May, the candidates for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership all turned up to address the annual conference of the Manufacturing, Science, and Finance union (MSF). An interesting encounter took place there. Of all the candidates, John Prescott seemed to receive the greatest applause from the union delegates. 'It is a sad reflection of the political climate in Britain today that it is necessary for me to say that I am proud to be a trade unionist', Prescott told the gathering. The MSF delegates loved it and gave Prescott a strong ovation.

Not trade unions

This exchange well illustrates the state of affairs inside the labour 'movement'. As Prescott implied, for most politicians trade unions are now an embarrassment. The union activists at the conference, who have been insulted and ignored so often in recent years, knew exactly what Prescott meant, which is why they embraced him with such affection. What they didn't seem to realise was that it didn't really matter what anybody said or did at the MSF conference. For the reason why Labour politicians can so easily ignore the wishes of organisations like the MSF is that the trade unions too have become institutions with little relevance.

On paper, as those delegates would no doubt be quick to point out, the British trade unions still have millions of members, constituting a far bigger section of the workforce than unions in other Western countries. But the large formal membership of British unions only obscures the real decline of this movement.

However many members they might have on their books, the fact is that the old trade unions no longer influence people's lives. They certainly no longer inspire people or engage the interests of workers. This is why the once-mighty unions have been incapable of reproducing themselves in new industries or in the new towns in the south. They have a more active relationship with employers than with their own members.

The devastating truth is that what they call trade unions today are not trade unions at all, in the traditional sense of the term. They are organisational relics - or, in the case of the public sector, an administrative convenience for management.

Living in the past

The so-called trade unions don't mobilise or organise anybody. They certainly do not actively recruit. These days if you join the MSF, you will eventually receive a variety of leaflets from the union offering different personal and financial services. One of these leaflets offers you insurance against redundancy. The idea that the union itself ought to be the insurance against unemployment is obviously never entertained by the leadership of the MSF. But then what they administer is not really a trade union, not really a collective organisation for the defence of its members.

Like the Labour Party, the trade unions have become isolated from developments in modern British society. Led by industrial relations graduates, these institutions survive through living off the legacy of the past. Their only role today is to discredit further the meaning of working class action.

Many on the left look upon the decline of the Labour Party and the trade unions as a disaster. In the short term, the demise of the labour movement has certainly strengthened conservative prejudices in British politics. Yet those who want to challenge the way in which society is run surely have no reason to mourn the death of Labourism.

Get lost

The old labour movement didn't just represent the concerns of working class people; it acted to contain those concerns within the limits of what was acceptable to capitalism. One way or another, the removal of that restraint was always going to be necessary before anybody could start to create a new anti-capitalist movement.

The Labour Party has lost its identity, lost its way, lost its hold on a movement in society. It is imprisoned in the past and has nothing to offer for the future. The biggest contribution it could now make to the creation of an effective opposition would be to lose itself altogether.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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