Liquidating Labour

by James Doran

15 September 2013

In the event that it forms a government after 2015, the Labour Party is in danger of following its Greek equivalent, Pasok, and other relations in the Socialist International, by implementing austerity policies in government. One can presumably presume that this might in turn lead to similar, if not identitical, organisational and electoral consequences. The parliamentary leadership of Pasok, like that of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, has effectively split from the majority of its activists and voters. What was a mass party has become a minor player in a conservative-led coalition.

The result of the “Pasokification” of traditional social democratic parties across Europe is the growth of more radical electoral forces such as Syriza in Greece, which both contest and occupy the terrain of social democracy – defending the remaining gains of the postwar period of unprecedented social peace whilst asserting opposition to the class war agenda of the capitalist class. Whereas the traditional social democratic parties have come to distance themselves from their funding and organisational base in the trades unions and other social movements, the newer radical parties embrace extra-parliamentary activity and seek to give voice to concerns arising from below.

The Arab Spring of 2011 and its repercussions for European social democracy (such as the embarrassment of the party of the Egyptian dictatorship being affiliated with the Socialist International, and Tony Blair defending the dictator) prompted the German SPD to initiate the founding of a new international, the Progressive Alliance. Explicitly opposed to the “miserable failure” of neo-liberalism, but decidedly “progressive” rather than socialist, this is the international of post-ideological technocrats. The significance of the SPD – one of the oldest workers’ parties in Western Europe – setting up such a body cannot be overemphasised.

The intention of this article is to bridge the gap in understanding between people who are on the outside looking in at the Labour Party, and people like myself who are actively working within it. The aim is effective opposition to the cuts in living conditions known as “austerity” through a shared understanding of the processes at work. The mass availability of multi-channel communications technology: computers; laptops; tablets and mobile phones, poses a challenge to the dominant organisational culture of the party-form: closed and hierarchical communications, nurtured by state and corporate elites, incumbents cannot resist the pressures of social media given the potential for self-organisation that it gives to users.

The Labour Party faces the prospect of regaining office in the midst of an economic crisis and an ongoing austerity programme without the counterweight of extra-parliamentary forces which were strong in the past. The best solution to this would be for this balance to be restored – however, given the proposals to break the collective link with affiliated unions and introduce primaries for candidate selections, the likelihood is that funds will instead be made available to other projects. These may be electoral, as unions seek to found or back a new or existing parties which are more radical than Labour on the question of austerity – or more practically, unions may focus their resources on building grass-roots organisations which have the capacity to exercise power within workplaces and communities.

Other than the organisational liquidation of the Labour Party – both from above by the leadership’s desire to move towards state-funded politics, insulated from the direct pressures of organic links with social movements, and from below as a result of technological innovation – the category of wage-labour, upon which the movement has mobilised, is itself subject to liquidation. Agency work, zero-hours contracts, and bogus self-employment, all create subjectivities which threaten the stable patterns of employment that trades unions need to organise effectively.

A bit of background

When I joined the Labour Party in 2009 it was done, to paraphrase an old slogan, “without illusions”. The decision was taken with the realisation that Labour was the only electoral game in town when it came to challenging the impending austerity programme. At the same time as joining Labour, I became a member of the Co-operative Party, which exists to represent the interests of the co-operative and mutual enterprise sector and promote forms of economic democracy. Most of my political activism was, and still is, outside of the formal structures of the trades union and environmental campaign organisations of which I’m a member.

The global financial crisis unravelled in the course of 2008. It appeared obvious to me that the state’s response to the banking crisis – bailing out private financial institutions – would result in the retrenchment of public spending and the continued decline in living standards for the mass of the population.

I viewed the economic crisis as being one of capitalism itself – a systemic crisis, primarily concerned with the re-absorption of surplus value, the re-allocation of capital to profitable outlets for investment, but also with identifying or creating these outlets.

The situation faced by millions today, from the reduction in real incomes to the imposition of greater insecurity in gaining an income, is a result of policies aimed at reducing labour costs (pay, pensions, working conditions) and the social costs of reproducing the labour force (transfer payments through social security, healthcare and education).

I was, and remain, conscious of previous crises of capitalism and how they were mediated politically. The Labour Party’s link with the trade union movement through the affiliation of a number of unions, it’s electoral agreement and close relationship with the Co-operative Party and the co-operative movement, its status as the main electoral alternative to the Tories, and its rhetorical commitment to democratic socialism (even in Blair’s new Clause 4) are all reasons for my being a member.

From this position, it is possible to influence the debate on the choices which face individual Labour voters, members, and affiliates, as the party faces a re-run of the 1930s and the 1970s. It’s not a matter of “reclaiming” the Labour Party, but of using membership to make claims about the world in which we live. There was no golden age, only better days – and these have always depended on the capacity of ordinary individuals to organise and mobilise their productive power to advance their interests.

As Joe Guinan reminds us, the Labour leadership “rejected out of hand plans for social credit, guild socialism, and other such solutions in favour of the dismal managerialism of nationalization, and then only for industries – such as electricity, coal, gas, civil aviation, telecommunications, and railways – which were not particularly profitable at the time, and for which their owners were richly compensated.” Any radical potential for social democratic parties in Europe will depend on an economic programme which is aligned with new social movements and institutions.

Tragedy and transformation

In Greece, the sister party of Labour won a general election at a time of economic crisis. But Pasok’s parliamentary leadership had no alternative to the austerity policies required to revive capitalist accumulation. So Pasok followed the line of march set by the previous conservative administration, and by the structures of the capitalist state in Greece, and the continental and international institutions of capitalist power, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Consequently, the Pasok administration suffered a loss of parliamentary support when it ditched pre-election promises of a better way out of the crisis. Resignations and splits followed, with a decline of its activist base and poll rating. When the conservatives defeated Pasok in the next general election, Labour’s sister was reduced in size and influence – propping up the Greek Tories and their continuation of the austerity drive.

Syriza, a coalition of anti-austerity and anti-capitalist groups with representation in the Greek parliament, replaced Pasok as the main electoral opposition. As a consequence, Syriza is undergoing a process of transformation into a party of government and will probably become the permanent replacement for Pasok.

This development can be seen as part of a tendency for social democratic parties to ape their conservative opponents in deferring to the ruling class rather than articulating an independent alternative to austerity. In light of the Greek tragedy, I have termed this #pasokification.

Winning the election, losing the plot

In Britain, it seems unlikely that the general election in 2015 will result in a Tory majority government, or even a continuation of the Tory-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats in a hung parliament.

That the Tories could not win a majority in 2010 suggests that all is not well with the party. After presiding over a real-terms decline in living standards, they will struggle to make sufficient gains in 2015 to govern alone.

So it seems very likely, on the basis of current polling and the state of the incumbent parties, that Labour will “win” the general election – either as the party with the most seats in a hung parliament or with a slim majority.

In preparation for victory, the parliamentary leadership of the Labour Party have set about accommodating the policies of austerity within a social democratic narrative. In part, there appears to be an electoral rationale for accepting the cuts – the Tories have won the argument on the description of the situation, after all. But “too far, too fast” has been the Labour leadership’s attempt to avoid effective opposition to policies they criticise but do not intend to reverse in the next parliament.

Keynes: Dead and buried

Swing voters buy the line that the nation’s finances are constrained, that money is a finite quantity rather than a social relation mediating exchange. Whilst canvassing for the Labour Party, its not unusual to hear people complain about tax rises and spending cuts undertaken with the supposed aim of doing something they support. Accepting the notion that “money is tight” means entering a debate about how the cuts are implemented, rather than what the leader of my local Labour council referred to – at a public meeting on budget cuts! – as “esoteric arguments” about why we face a lack of money in the first place.

The problem here is that, even if the structural constraints of acting as Her Majesty’s Opposition could be overcome, the New Keynesian thinking of the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls actively militates against Labour developing a critique of capitalist accumulation. For starters, Keynes wasn’t particularly concerned with democratising corporate governance, giving power to workers and consumers in determining investment priorities – he wanted to make capitalism work effectively for capital-owners.

The New Keynesian school aimed to build on their master’s work by meeting the challenge of the conservative backlash against the postwar settlement by capitalists feeling the pinch of workers’ power. The New Keynesians want to save capitalism from the capitalists – hence the half-opposition of “too far, too fast”, which has conceded the necessity of retrenchment in the context of a slump as long as it falls on labour-suppliers and the unemployed, rather than capital-owners and corporate executives.

New Keynesianism ends up as Non-Keynesianism: Balls has now given up on his catchphrase and accepted the Tory spending envelope for the next parliament, hoping that establishing a British Investment Bank and allowing the Green Investment Bank to operate effectively will square the circle of austerity with a human face.

The Keynesians with the best understanding of what’s going on, and what needs to be done, are Post-Keynesians such as Ann Pettifor and Richard Murphy, who have both done much to popularise researched alternatives to austerity within the union and environmental movements.

New Labour: dead yet unburied

The Labour administration of 1997 to 2010 was the most electorally successful in the party’s history, governing for three full terms with a parliamentary majority. For advocates of the New Labour “modernisation” project, which involved the party dropping its constitutional aim of extending “common ownership” and “popular administration”, this is proof that moderation is the way to win. Let the capitalists run their system as they please, and remedy the ills of capitalism through tax and spending policies.

However, New Labour coincided with a long period of expansion in the global economy, which resulted partly from the “great doubling” of the number of labour-suppliers available to capital after the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe, the opening of China and India to foreign investment, and apparent growth as a result of innovation in information-communication technology. It was possible in these conditions for Labour to govern for a more sustained length of time than in the past – when the established pattern was for Labour governments to end up at odds with their trades union and voter base in managing the capitalists’ system.

Just as there can be no return to the “Great Moderation” of the pre-crisis period, it will not be possible for a return to “the spirit of ’45”. There is neither the balance of forces between labour and capital nor the material constraints which necessitated the consensus established by the postwar Labour government.

Even if the globalisation of production were to reverse and the free movement of labour across the EU came to an end, automation and digitisation are ongoing processes which prevent the kind of bottlenecks occurring in the economy which provide the basis for a revived social democratic settlement. A re-mobilised labour movement will not have the political outlook of the postwar years – and innovations in communications technology would make it harder to split the industrial from the political as separate spheres of activity, a consequence of the networked culture enabled by mobile phones and social media.

And yet despite this, the approach of Labour’s parliamentary leadership is to vary between the party-union bonding which took place before New Labour (in which the funding relationship was usually accompanied by the promise and implementation of laws allowing effective trades union activity) and the party-union distancing of New Labour (where, under the pretence of giving individual union members a voice, Ed Miliband effectively proposes that the collective power of union members should be diminished at the party’s conference). Partly this is due to the reluctance of union members to participate in strategies to “reclaim” the party by joining and participating in candidate selections.

Unions affiliated to Labour: opting-out of austerity?

By 2015, it is likely that there will have been a successful implementation of reforms proposed in the wake of the Falkirk selection scandal – in which the Labour leadership called in the police over false allegations Unite had attempted to rig the outcome in favour of its preferred candidate. These reforms to the union-link will ensure that constituency and branch parties will have access to those members of affiliated trades unions who have opted-in to funding Labour. This will allow election campaigns to tap into a potential source of unpaid labour – affiliated trades union members.

The gamble of the parliamentary leadership is that the loss of funds from affiliated trades unionists who opt out (possibly hundreds of thousands of people) will be worth it for the political capital. Added to this, the voluntary work of those union members who do not feel so alienated by the party that they are willing to deliver leaflets and canvass in their spare time.

The Tories will be attacked by Labour for their links to vested interests. The Labour leadership will have under its belt the quiescence of the trades unions – whose subsequent loss of conference votes could allow the drift towards “Austerity Labour” going unchallenged from below.

After the election, the risk for Labour is that the party’s existing divide over the cuts will result in a split. Unlike in the early eighties, it will be the “moderates” in the parliamentary party who stay put and the radicals who break away to form a new party or, more likely, fall into inactivity. (This is all based on an assumption that the special conference to be held to propose reforms does not result in unions disaffiliating or effectively doing so by withholding funds or directing them to pro-union Labour candidates.)

Collective amnesia and the death of DIY reformism

The question is, why does the leadership feel it necessary to take this risky course of action with regard to its base? Why would millions of pounds of funding be risked in the run-up to a general election?

Since Miliband was elected on the basis of his positioning during the leadership campaign of 2010, in which he successfully courted the support of a number of affiliated trades unions, he has tried to shake off an unsuccessful tabloid media tag: “Red Ed”. Given the turn towards Austerity Labour, there’s something ridiculous about the claims of Tory politicians that Unite’s general secretary determines Labour policy.

But going deeper than this shallow narrative around positioning towards the media, it is clear that the parliamentary leadership of the Labour Party have, throughout the party’s history, sought to assuage the fears of the capitalist class by insisting that the labour movement is a back-seat passenger rather than a front-seat navigator.

The awareness of this amongst Labour members has usually been limited to a minority of activists. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein referred to this aspect of the party as “collective amnesia”. Though their history of the Labour Party is in parts self-serving in its justification of the stance taken by the Socialist Workers Party – an organisation now in severe turmoil – it is insightful on the life and death of what they term “DIY reformism”.

In the postwar period, it was possible for workers to win reforms to their own conditions. Investment strikes by capital and an offensive by employers eventually rolled back the gains of a militant grass-roots labour movement. Richard Crossman, who served as a Labour minister in the 60s, observed that “to maintain the enthusiasm of party militants to do the organising work… a constitution was needed which apparently created a full party democracy while excluding these militants from power.” Historically, this meant trades union leaders and parliamentary leaders working to avoid the radical implications of conference decisions. This is not a situation which exists today – Labour leaders pick fights with unions while members have little faith in the party’s internal decision-making processes.

Colour-coded claptrap

Since his election, the Labour leader has flirted with different ideological formations – what’s known as “Blue Labour”, “Purple Labour”, and “In the Black Labour” – in order to create his “One Nation Labour”. There are a number of trends which these colour-coded schools of thought attempt to address: the anti-immigrant sentiment of emerging parties like UKIP which win votes from erstwhile Labour supporters as well as disillusioned Tories; the absence of a civic conception of English nationality in the post-devolution era, along with the threats posed to Labour’s Welsh and Scottish parties by Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party respectively; and the pressure from the capitalist class for a residual and commodified welfare state – one which subsidises shareholder dividends rather than providing social security for working people suffering illness, disability, and unemployment.

The over-riding pressure on the leadership has been to accept austerity, and it can be argued that the Labour leadership is crafting something coherent out of a tactical retreat. Paul Cotterill describes the current approach as “In the Black Labour with Brains” – fiscal conservatism matched with an argument about infrastructure spending which will “subtly change the way the term infrastructure is defined, so that it becomes inclusive of ‘social infrastructure’ such as childcare”.

But it is notable that “Red Ed” has avoided Red Labour – making the case for popular economic policies such as democratic control of the banks, renationalisation of the railways, progressive taxation and public investment in services. Instead there has been triangulation on migration, nationality, and social security – feeding discourses about “good” and “bad” migrants/claimants, rather than challenging the economic basis of the discrimination.

When the opportunity arose to call for zero-hours contracts to be banned, the PLP leadership promised a review of policy instead of a policy position. The leadership will remain wedded to “flexible” labour markets – for capital-owners, not labour-suppliers – thus, in place of workfare, there will be a “compulsory job guarantee”. This is effectively a form of workfare, where the state is the employer of last resort.

The prevarication is often cynically justified with reference to the procedural timetable of policy-making through the formal structures of the party – something which doesn’t prevent the leadership pronouncing from above on future policy with regard to austerity cuts. Some Labour activists attribute the inertia at the top of the PLP to the leader being held hostage by the Blairites surrounding him. This ignores the power the leader now has to sack the disloyal (in previous periods of opposition, shadow cabinets were elected rather than formed through patronage).

It is rumoured that Jim Murphy is the anointed leader of the New Labour faction – which is itself a problem, it’s just a rumour. Progress, the New Labour faction, is loyal to Miliband but, crucially, is disloyal to the platform on which he was elected – which was predicated on moving on from New Labour, which it continues to promote as “Purple Labour”. A call by Unite’s general secretary for the Labour leader to oust the shadow cabinet Blairites has obviously gone unheeded because Miliband appointed them in the first place.

Digital Bennism and the death of the party-form

The polarisation of the Labour Party during the late seventies and early eighties involved a turn by activists towards “resolutionary socialism” – if reforms could not be won through the workplace or through a Labour Party which refused to implement its own programme for government, then the party would have to be democratised. It was a struggle which saw a number of leading Labour parliamentarians break with the party to form the SDP, funded by the capitalist David Sainsbury, who served as a minister under Blair and who now funds the Progress faction – but not Labour itself.

During Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, there were whispers of Bennism by those who opposed what Lord Mandelson termed a return to a pre-New Labour formation. But despite talk of reforming the party to give members a greater say, there’s now no immediate potential for what one Labour group leader called “digital Bennites” to win democratic reforms to the party’s governance.

The “Refounding Labour” consultation in 2011 ended up gifting greater power to the party’s leader in parliament, abolishing elections to the shadow cabinet and creating a new form of membership in the “registered supporter”. It’s for this reason that Labour activists, and even some councillors, are turning to contentious forms of politics – from street protests to direct action.

The experiment with a form of guarded “liquid democracy” in the Your Britain website appears to have failed as a result of this disbelief in party consultation exercises. From personal experience, it seems that more time is spent by Labour members agitating and organising online than responding to party reports on policy. And this is largely outside the formal structures – using social media sites rather than the official Labour website.

Many members do not take up opportunities to participate in the party’s policy consultations because they know their ideas alone can’t make change come about. This is why digital Bennism, though Labour-supporting, appears to be primarily focused on activity outside the formal structures of the party – it remains to be seen if a Red Labour formation, articulating the ideas which appeal to a majority of party members and supporters, can cohere into a force capable of influencing the parliamentary leadership. Initiatives aimed at defending the collective trades union link and building support for extra-parliamentary movements could be the basis for a Red Labour revival. In any case, contentious political activity appears to offer more immediate opportunities to build and wield power.

Building a social movement base

The long-term future for the trades union movement lies not in the “new realism” of the 1980s and 1990s, in which union leaders pursued a policy of managed decline through a shift to a service model, but in the organising model of social movement trades unionism.

There is a debate to be had be around how a generation of anti-capitalists schooled in a networked culture relate to those legacy organisations (such as unions and parties created in very different socio-economic conditions) which are seeking active members to ostensibly carry on the mission. It will also concern the approach taken towards elective positions within the capitalist state – can horizontal movements flatten the hierarchy of electoral parties? Can “non-reformist reforms” – such as the abolition of anti-union laws or the establishment of a basic income guarantee, for example – be implemented through a parliament entrenched within the capitalist state?

In his article “Burn up not out”, Aaron Bastani argues that we can learn from the shift in the US from the socially conservative positioning of Bush to the cultural pluralism of Obama. This is obviously not about imitating the US Democratic Party, but emulating the work which nurtured a social movement base. The recommendations Aaron makes for the UK labour and social movements are:

1) Fund-raising: “an organisation, where community, media and mutual aid groups can raise money. If done effectively there is no reason why this would not take a great deal of charitable donations currently being advanced to frequently ineffective and sclerotic social movement organisations and third sector actors. For the anti-capitalist and union movements to not have a disintermediated funding network limits our ability to have sufficiently well-resourced organisations. This would be a relatively low-cost effort which would require several full time staff at most. If done effectively it would change the landscape for potentially thousands of organisations seeking to fight austerity, neo-liberalism, capitalism and authoritarianism(s).” Example: ActBlue.

2) Leadership and Building Skills: “where large numbers of people come together to discuss and learn about community organising and how to use specific tools”. Example: New Organizing Institute. I’d argue that, given sufficient pressure from below and resources from above, something like the NOI could be established out of the work the People’s Assemblies are doing in bringing people together from trades unions and community groups. Some trade unions realise that the organising approach is the only sustainable path – for example, Unite’s community membership scheme.

3) Social Events: “where people could get to know one another offline, where ‘newbies’ could discuss politics with others outside of formally hierarchical settings, where people could have fun, and where thin ties that characterise social networks built up over digital fora become thick ones. […] Again, given the low costs of creating this kind of online space – which might only require 2-3 full and part-time staff – such an organisation commends itself.” Example: Drinking Liberally.

4) Independent Communication Channels: “organisations that seek to combine the best of the old and the new; creating quality, user-led content that receives high levels of feedback and co-creation from viewers/ listeners […] Media hubs that created television, written and audio content and that could, during heightened episodes of contention, provide information and feedback to movements as well as extending their grievances and solutions to the wider population, would be of major practical benefit.” Examples include Project Syndicate and The Stream.

The efforts that Bastani describes would provide the ability for what Andre Gorz termed “non-reformist reforms” to be articulated as long-term goals. In his book Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright puts forward four examples of activity which go beyond electoral and trade union campaigning: experiments in participatory budgeting in local government, cultivation of the digital commons, construction of federated worker co-operatives, and agitation for the right to an unconditional basic income.

Conclusion: more questions than answers?

Part of the reason for writing this was the automatic anti-Labour position amongst many comrades outside of the party, which even includes people who believe socialists in the Party are sowing illusions and thus holding back the class struggle. As Ben Sellers has pointed out, this isn’t new – in the 1930s the Communist International held the view that socialists and social democrats in the established workers’ parties were “social fascists”, thus Communist Parties refused to unite against actual fascists, such as the Nazis in Germany.

Another motivation is the fact that there is a woeful level of political education within the Labour Party, leaving much of the discourse on the party’s policy and positioning to be conducted in elite media by prominent Labour MPs and Lords, supportive commentators, and the leaders of affiliated unions. The more ordinary party members who speak out about their doubts on the turn towards accepting austerity, the more chance that this issue will be sufficiently problematical to require a response by those who act as discursive gate-keepers.

This article is offered as a corrective – but it is an intervention in a debate, not a lecture on what should be done. If the Labour leadership stays the course and begins to liquidate the party, affiliated trades unions could continue to support the party or attempt to form a new mass workers’ party. Either way, there will of necessity be an orientation towards those active in a variety of social movements – and an immediate focus on the four kinds of organisation suggested by Aaron Bastani might offer the best course of action for anti-capitalists today.

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