Self Certified

Personal Blog of Mark Hoskins – Anarchist Writer and Community Organiser

Are We There Yet? – Socialism and the British Labour Party (Part 1)

Labour Road

We’ve been this way before. No, I’m sure. Yes, of course it has changed a bit, it’s been over forty years. It’s definitely been spruced up since then. The people around here aren’t men in blue overalls anymore, but that’s progress for you. And gentrification. Look, there’s Owen Jones, lets stop and ask him. No, wait, he seems a bit lost, best not. We’ve been on this road for so long, I’m beginning to think we’ve been going the wrong way all this time. It’s been over a hundred years. Well over. I’m pretty sure we should have arrived by now.

Undoubtedly all those diversions and road closures didn’t help. Neil Kinnock was more concerned with getting the Trotskyists off the bus than he was was about running the Tories off the road. John Smith, just parked up in the hope the Tories would crash themselves, then Blair took over. Tony Blair, suave and smooth gave up pretending he was on the road to socialism and took the bus to Tory town and for a long time it looked like it would never leave. But after Ed Milliband’s ill advised stop at a motorway service station for a bacon sandwich, Jeremy Corbyn took the wheel and despite the Blairites at the back of the bus screaming that he was going the wrong way, things did start to look better.

Certainly where Labour is now looks a lot more appealing than it did at any time in the last forty years – in my lifetime in fact. They’ve taken up radical policies that are designed to benefit working people; The rhetoric is in the great tradition of British working class politics; Corbyn has energised the workers’ movement, and young people are being politicised and mobilised in numbers the UK hasn’t seen since the 80’s. This is all very positive, but we need to ask where this road goes. Has the labour route been the wrong road for socialism all along? Because, as great as it is to see left wing ideas returning to the mainstream, we have been here before, more than once.

Out of the underground


The British Labour Party grew out of the many pronged workers’ and socialist movement of the nineteenth century, which was itself intrinsically linked to the growth of the urban proletariat and the decline of the peasantry in Britain. Previous proto-socialist movements from The Diggers in the seventeenth century to Robert Owen’s utopian socialism were based on agriculture, but the rapid industrialisation of the nineteenth century saw the growth of an urban working class that was at once impoverished in wealth and spirit and ripe for radicalisation.

Engels wrote in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”:

Population becomes centralised just as capital does; and, very naturally, since the human being, the worker, is regarded in manufacture simply as a piece of capital for the use of which the manufacturer pays interest under the name of wages. A manufacturing establishment requires many workers employed together in a single building, living near each other and forming a village of themselves in the case of a good-sized factory. They have needs for satisfying which other people are necessary; handicraftsmen, shoemakers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, stonemasons, settle at hand. The inhabitants of the village, especially the younger generation, accustom themselves to factory work, grow skilful in it, and when the first mill can no longer employ them all, wages fall, and the immigration of fresh manufacturers is the consequence. So the village grows into a small town, and the small town into a large one.”

This centralisation of both production and population presented the possibility of transforming society on a socialist basis and many trade unions and socialist political organisations sprung up in the mushrooming urban centres where the working class were now located. Political organisations included the Social Democratic Federation, The Socialist League, the Socialist Labour Party, and the still existing Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Up until 1889, Trade Unions mainly existed as associations for the aristocracy of labour – highly skilled workers like Engineers and Mechanics. Like many of today’s big unions, they eschewed affective direct action, fearing that strike action would impact upon finances and the salaries of union officials. However in 1889 a strike broke out amongst unskilled and semi-skilled workers at the London docks from which was formed The Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union, which went on to become a founding member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1922.

The emergence of class consciousness, organisation and militancy among the British proletariat, gave rise to political demands beyond simple bread and butter issues. At the centre of this new militancy was the belief that the wealth produced by workers should be held in common, though often, in ‘the here and now’ the focus was upon winning a better share of the wealth and improvements like the eight hour day. The question over tactics was strongly influenced by historical factors peculiar to Britain. While in France, Spain, Italy and Ireland, syndicalism initially played a role at least equal to and in some respects greater than parliamentary representation, in Britain, the tradition of parliamentarism that stretched back to the seventeenth century and the more recent extension of the voting franchise to working class males were a decisive factor.

To the road most travelled



While previously, ‘labour’ candidates stood as independents or for the liberal party (such candidates were known as lib-labs), in 1899 a member of the amalgamated society of railway servants proposed that the TUC hold a conference to discuss forming a body to sponsor pro-worker candidates in elections. The group that was formed out of this was the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). In terms of today’s line up of political forces in Britain, the LRC could be compared to the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the main difference being of course that the LRC had some electoral success. In their first election, they won two seats in parliament, Keir Hardy and Richard Bell, after running only fifteen candidates. Five years later they upped this number to twenty nine. After the election, the LRC changed it’s name to the Labour Party.

Labour’s rise was meteoric. They went from supporting the Liberal government’s pension and welfare reforms, to becoming the second most popular party after the Conservatives during the war years.  The fact that they moved from an anti-war stance in 1914 to wholehearted support of the war effort after Germany invaded Belgium didn’t do them any harm electorally, but it did lay bare the tenuous relationship to socialism that such a broad workers party would have. They were not alone in their support of the war amongst European social democrats of course, and those who continued to oppose it on principle were notable by their minority status. The likes of Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg, James Connolly, Trotsky, Karl Liebnecht and John MacLean are remembered specifically for their stance on the first world war because they were amongst the few voices of Marxist Socialism who consistently stood in opposition to it.

The rise of the Labour Party from a coalition of trade unionists and socialists into a party challenging for power is one of the few moments in its history that has no parallel in its later life. Though attempts have been made to repeat this, mainly by Trotskyist organisations in the wake of Tony Blair’s New Labour counter-revolution, none have been successful. Ultimately this failure is down to the balance of class forces being completely different. The rise of the Labour Party was preceded by the rise of the industrial proletariat, whereas the more recent attempts have coincided with it’s decline.

To see anything remotely similar in the current epoch, we must look to Greece and Spain. Syriza and Podemos leaned more heavily on support from the social movements than the trade union sector. The latter explicitly grew from those social movements as the British Labour Party had from the trade union movement. These social movements then became battle sites between politics of direct action and representation like the trade union movements were before it.

Syriza in Greece leaned heavily upon the social movements in the city squares, mutualist self managed businesses and a strike wave that rocked the country, but, as Spyros TZ pointed out in an interview with infoaut, “The nearer SYRIZA got to the chance of seizing parliamentary superiority the more it distanced itself from the movement. The adoption of a lot of ex PASOK populist politicians into the party made clear that SYRIZA is a product of the defeat of the squares to pose a direct democratic alternative rather than a dialectic bloom of a socialist movement.” 

The Left Hand Doesn’t Know


Punch cartoon May 19th 1926

During the nineteen twenties the British labour movement was a battle ground on which the struggle for supremacy between rank and file direct action on one side, and trade union bureaucracy and representational politics on the other. Labour made serious strides for such a young party, forming their first government under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. Though MacDonald became Prime Minister, Labour only had a third of the seats and had to rely on Liberal support to prop up a minority government. Much as would have been the case with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour had they formed a minority government after the May 2017 general election, MacDonald’s government was not able to carry out its radical programme. The government collapsed after nine months, but Labour had gotten a taste of power and felt next time it would be different.

The general strike that broke out in 1926 was a potential spanner in the works for Labour’s new found respectability. Ramsay MacDonald was already opposed to strike action, believing that labour reform could only be achieved through parliamentary politics and the labour leadership worried that their association with the strike could damage future electoral prospects. In turn, the TUC leadership did their best to limit the impact of the strike, by restricting participation to workers whose jobs were pivotal in the dispute, for fear it could spread and become revolutionary in nature. MacDonald would later describe it as “one of the most lamentable adventures in crowd self-leadership of our labour history”.

The TUC and Labour Party’s hopes of containing the strike were dashed however, and up to one million seven hundred and fifty thousand workers took part. British workers effectively brought capitalism and the state to its knees over the week of the strike. The government responded by calling out the army to protect supplies coming in at the docks and a court hearing ruled the general strike illegal, except for in the mines themselves where the dispute was centred. The TUC leadership capitulated, ending the general strike and though the miners held out for several months more, their defeat was now inevitable. The Labour Party and the TUC could go back to being respectable and working towards a labour government.

This was not the first or the last time that Labour would turn its back on the extra-parliamentary wing of the movement. In the previous decade during what became known as ‘The Great Unrest’, a wave of industrial action that rocked Britain between 1910 and 1914, MacDonald worried that militancy was paralysing parliamentary action. A party who had designs on power, had to be able to control its base if it were to be perceived as a party who could control the country. After all, government, if it is about anything, is about control.

MacDonald understood what many in the ranks of the labour movement failed to grasp, that parliamentary action and direct action were not two arms of the same body working in tandem, but stood directly opposed to each other. For representational labour politics to work, workers would have to contain themselves and not be so ready to take their emancipation into their own hands. In 1910, the labour leadership had gone so far as to propose a bill to limit strike action with a legal requirement to give thirty days notice. John MacLean, the renowned Scottish communist wrote that same year, “the Labour Party, instead of fighting for the working class and maintaining a sturdy independence, has acted as apologist for Liberal ministers, measures and policy, and has, in consequence, proved the most efficient touting agency for that party.”

The Class Enemy Within


A recurring theme in all social democratic parties, is the accusation of betrayal when they turn their backs on strike action or implement some policy that is contrary to workers interests. There is a halcyon view of the Labour party, mainly because of the progressive reforms of the 1945 to 1951 government, that prior to Blair, while things weren’t always rosy, Labour was a fertile ground for genuine socialism to grow. In fact, the class struggle within the party, that seemed to have reached a conclusion in favour of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois elements under Blair, had been raging from the very beginning.

Ramsay MacDonald may have held a principled anti-war position during ‘The Great War’, but in most respects he was on the right wing of the party. That he lead the party through such turbulent times, in the wake of the Russian revolution and the upsurge of struggle that was happening not just in Britain, but right across Europe, showed that that wing of the party was not an aberration, but at its very core. MacDonald was not just a bad apple, but represented a wider milieu that stood opposed to workers’ direct action and at its most militant, wished only for a more compassionate caring capitalism. Their fight for reform was as much to do with recognising the danger to the state posed by simmering class resentment and trying to keep a lid on it as it was to do with improving the lot of workers for its own sake.

MacDonald eventually had enough of the socialist wing and decided to break with Labour, but not before he lead a second minority government, again propped up by the Liberals. Labour, as most governments were at the time, were woefully unprepared for the shock of the great depression. Though they were able to make improvements to pensions and social insurance, that had been introduced under the Liberals, the market turmoil that soon followed their ascent to high office meant that decisions on spending had to be made. A public finance committee appointed by the government suggested cuts to public sector pay and general public spending. This didn’t go down well with the left of the party, but the right wing of MacDonald supported it as a means of cutting the deficit. When agreement couldn’t be reached, he and his supporters in the cabinet tended their resignations and were subsequently expelled from the party.

MacDonald and his supporters went on to form National Labour, who saw themselves more as the Labour wing of what they hoped would be permanent national government rather than as a separate party. After the 1931 general election, MacDonald became prime minister once again, this time as head of a cross party coalition national government dominated by the Conservatives. National Labour’s ethos was to keep the class war at bay, not win it. But at any rate, though they would have denied it, the tactics of the left of the party, who of course branded MacDonald a traitor, would bring a similar result,  even if it was a slightly better result for workers. They were destined to play the role of the middleman, a mediator between the classes rather than a fighter for the working class.

The National Labour split did not end the internal struggles of the Labour Party. Throughout its history there have been splits and expulsions to the right and the left. One of the most famous of these was the Social Democratic Party, that was formed by ‘the gang of four’ – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, in 1981. The split was over Labour’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC, along with the fact that these ‘moderates’ felt the party had become too left wing under the influence of Trotskyist entryists. The SDP never had the impact that it’s leaders had hoped for and in 1988 it merged with the Liberal Party, the combined organisation that is known today as the Liberal Democrats.

The Sun that sets surely rises…

The SDP had really jumped the gun. If they remained they would have seen that a more effective way of defeating the left in the party was via internal struggle. Under Kinnock, the far left of the party was purged. Supporters of the Trotskyist newspaper Militant, who at one stage numbered up to eight thousand, were subject to a McCarthyite style inquisition. They, and some left wingers who opposed the purge were expelled in numbers. The result was a hollowing out of the base of the party and the way being paved for Tony Blair’s New Labour, the weakening of ties with the unions and the abandonment of clause four of the labour constitution which committed the party to public ownership of the means of production – a commitment that over the years proved only lip service to socialism by decree, but none the less held symbolic significance to the left.

New Labour was a party of technocrats, completely divorced from their working class origins. It was thoroughly neoliberal to the core. It was hawkish when it came to foreign policy and it set the ball rolling for the privatisation of the NHS, Labour’s flagship achievement. Blair once thought out loud that the foundation of the party had been a catastrophic mistake as it had split what he called ‘progressive forces’ and consigned Britain to a century of Tory rule – which as a fact in itself wasn’t even true. But his brain fart was only the expression of a tendency that had been within the Labour Party since its foundation, that had previously been expressed by Ramsay MacDonald’s National Labour, Barbara Castle’s ‘in time of strife’ paper and the departure stage right of the SDP.

It was then, a shock to everyone left and right, when from within the rotting corpse of the party, came new life in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s unexpected victory in the leadership contest after Ed Milliband’s departure, happened in conjunction with mass recruitment and a reinvigoration of the grass roots. Corbyn promises sweeping reforms that will benefit workers, he says he will take on big business and make Britain a country ‘for the many, not the few’. There is no indication that Corbyn and John McDonnell are anything but genuine. But the old problem of the right hasn’t gone away and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party will oppose the majority of what Corbyn wants to implement even if Labour win a majority next time around.

Prior to the latest general election there were murmurings of yet another rightward split in the party of up to one hundred MPs. However the result, that was beyond what anyone in the party could have expected a month earlier, put the kibosh on those plans, but they will rear their head again when the timing is more favourable. They might have to wait it out until after Corbyn has resigned or retired and ensure that no one as left wing gets on the ballot paper next time. Whether by splitting or by internal sabotage, the right will ensure that even a more caring form of capitalism, social democracy, cannot be implemented.

There are material reasons why social democracy is unlikely to work at this point in history, and I will return to these in part two, where I will look at Labour’s golden age, ‘the spirit of forty five’, and the programme that Corbyn’s Labour used to pull the party back from the brink.

For now, if you want to see my everyday musings on politics, football, dogs and beer, follow me on twitter. 





One comment on “Are We There Yet? – Socialism and the British Labour Party (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Follow the Yellow Brick Road – Socialism and the British Labour Party (Part 2) | Self Certified

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on June 19, 2017 by in Labour Party, Socialism.
%d bloggers like this: