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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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