Since 1906 the Labour Party has harboured the illusion that it can be reborn, refounded, resurrected, reformed, rebuilt, resuscitated, rescued and returned to its ‘socialist’ origins. The periodic repetition of this illusion is its institutional and ideological purpose. This satisfies and provides a comfort zone for the radicals within it. The ‘left’ spend their lives seeking to redeem the party from its decline into the hands of the ‘right’. This is more entertaining perhaps than dealing with the nasty employer at work or tackling the absolute domination of our economy by finance capital and the EU.
When out of parliamentary power the line is not to rock the boat for fear of spoiling electoral chances. When in government (relatively rarely since 1906) the line is not to rock the boat for fear of the Tories getting back in. It is the crass politics of the lowest common denominator. Better the devil you know. Yet the history of capitalist ascendancy and domination through all its different phases, has been consistent since the day the Labour Party was born.
The pro-imperialist actions of Labour are ignored by its activists because of the dream of a better tomorrow, or by some because they actually believed in the war against Iraq, the privatisation of services, the straitjacketing of unions, student loans and the power of the City of London.
That the Labour Party contains the neoliberal Sainsbury funded group Progress and their complete opposites in the Labour Representation Committee and the like is a sign of the weakness of the broad church approach to party building. The battle between such opposed sides within the party has always been there in one form or another. Remember Healy running off for loans from the IMF in return for public service cuts etc? Remember Cripps and Callaghan on wage restraint? Remember Barbara Castle and the anti union stance of ‘In Place of Strife’? Remember Brown signing the neoliberal Lisbon Treaty without a mandate?
Consistently the trade unions provide the largest sources of funding and person power at election times, yet in and out of power for decades the Labour Party has delighted in rubbishing the unions or seeking to run them in its own favour. Appointments in many unions are still based on whether you have a Labour Party card not rather than your ability to do a job and democratically represent members.
Indeed the whole timing and organisation of the TUC Congress each year, held just before Labour Party Conference, is designed to rattle the cage a bit on the one hand and signal some dire warnings to the Labour party leadership, but on the other to dampen and constrain any real opposition to the enduring pro-capitalist agenda of the Labour Party. However, the majority of trade unions are not Labour Party affiliated which tend to be the larger general unions, hardly trade unions at all in the traditional sense, who pay their dues and enjoy the media knock about knocking the latest Labour leader.
The Labour Party has never been a mass party and is now around the size of the PCS union in terms of membership. Of course Blair and Mandelson took the party further from its social democratic purpose and the removal of the commitment to public ownership in the party’s constitution and the like did represent a sea change. So too does the current attempt to remove the collective voice of unions within the party.
But how can you remove from the party something that it would not be allowed to achieve in reality anyway? The state would never have allowed a Labour parliamentary majority to implement Clause 4 without a violent civil war. The battle for the soul of the Labour Party will never be won by socialists. Indeed most socialists have given up on this battle.
This institutionalisation of false hope is based on the deeper illusion that the Parliamentary system and existing state can be reformed in the interests of workers. Real politics begins when this illusion is debated and tackled. What we need is a recommitment to the real socialist tradition in Britain, and the world for that matter, that recognises the irreconcilability of the interests of labour and capital and the needs of labour to form a new form of society with a new form of government based on putting the needs of people first, peace and international co-operation.
This means a conscious control over the economy, much more difficult than control through affiliation fees and block votes of a party of parliamentary and TV pundits. Such a politics is based on the recognition that workers produce all value and wealth in society. Alternatively the Labour view sees workers as voters in elections or poor people to be patronised and ‘helped’. Our difficult path means arguing for a socialist republic of Britain and enshrining the ages old aspirations for democracy and social progress in a new constitution. It means power to the people becoming a reality rather than a cliché and a new form of people’s assembly to run the country.
Breaking with the illusion of Parliament as a source of progressive reform and therefore breaking with the notion of a representational party in that Parliament, remains the perennial challenge within the working class movement. Perhaps the current last ditch attempt by the ‘left’ within the Labour Party to save it from itself may stretch it to breaking point. But it is doubtful.