Is the Party Over? Some Thoughts
Harry Vince Coulter
BEARING IN MIND that it’s ten years since I lived in Britain and therefore won’t be current with the minutiae of everyday political life, here are some thoughts provoked by Mike Phipps’ article "Is the Party Over?" (What Next? No.14).
It starts by saying that "for the last eighteen years the Labour Party has been moving unremittingly to the right". This is too global a conclusion, I think: it needs conditioning. What has changed in the way that the Labour Party governs? I specify governs, rather than any changes in the programme of the Labour Party, which has never been mainly programme-driven in its relations with the nation at large, and specifically with the working class. In fact the elements of programmes and manifestos, at both national and local level, have been subject to constant changes over the past eighteen years. It would certainly be worth looking at the nature of those changes and their effect on the practice of the PLP, local councils and the base of the party, which would begin to give a sense of the dynamic of Labour politics. But the ideology of the LP rarely in itself drives events.
If there is a "clear ideological shift", as Mike Phipps claims, it is not chiefly in the dumping of Clause IV, never more than a rather rhetorical piece of politics for any of the Labour leaderships down the years: it always seemed to have to wait for the next government! Removing Clause IV has been on the agenda of the right since the 1930s and came very close to happening under Gaitskell. Only Gaitskell’s death and the coming to leadership of Wilson prevented it. In reality, the continuance on paper of Clause IV had little influence on Wilson’s first government. It certainly didn’t stop the Times and other mainstream publications calling for a Labour vote in 1964. Likewise, the "Third Way" marks a programmatic change which is still more in the appearance than the substance of Labour leadership politics, although it is having a more profound effect on the already demoralised ranks of the LP, and its imposition down through the party as a whole has been much more rigorous than previous leadership assaults at a programmatic level.
Mike Phipps says Blairism is "meritocratic". In my opinion Labourism has always been meritocratic – the writings of the Webbs on education were meritocratic even before the Labour Party itself was formed. This flows from the link between 19th century radicalism and the pre-Labour Fabians to 20th century social democracy.
As regards the "special relationship" with the Liberal Democrats, Blair has no doubt pushed more to the front something which has long been inherent in the main strand of Labourite politics. Why has he done this? He wants to change the shape of centre-left politics in Britain, just as MacDonald, Morrison, Gaitskell and the Gang of Four did before him, but in his own way and not by abandoning the Labour Party. The Labour right wing has, from the very beginning, included people who stand in the space between radical-liberalism and Fabian reformism. It has always seen its constituency as extending away from the right edge of the Labour Party proper, into Liberalism and even the old one-nation Toryism of the Butler variety. What is specific to Blair is that the long years of demoralisation in the ranks of the labour movement brought about by Thatcherism have given him the context in which to do something to translate this sentiment into real politics.
It was under Thatcher that Blair created himself. They were the years in which he, as a pragmatic politician, grew up and learned to equate Labourism with defeat. He, and the grouping around him, wanted most to regain power, or, more properly, office. The Blair current comes from a variety of sources within the LP: old right, old left and new right. What they have in common is wanting to gain office and stay in office without breaking from the Labour Party. They know that they need the LP to get elected. Some of them have class origins to link them to it, others don’t. None of this is fundamental to them. They are not class-based politicians, and mostly not conviction-based ones either. But neither are they disguised Liberals.
Their relationship to the radical-liberal tradition is one which has existed longer than the LP itself and has always had a base in the Labour tradition. They are the continuators and modifiers of a certain type of Labourism, not yet its negation. When the Liberals were basically a rump, after the war, there was no pragmatic need to openly ally with them, but close personal ties have always existed between Liberal intellectuals and the Labour right, all the same. This has been a function carried out among academics, journalists and the London and Oxbridge intellectual dining circles. Morrison and then Gaitskell had no need to try to push the Labour Party as a whole in a Liberal direction, but they both had personal links with Liberal intellectuals. Labour governed with Liberal support for a period in the 1970s, because of parliamentary arithmetic, and Peter Hain is far from being the only ex-Liberal figure to join Labour’s ranks – not to mention the SDP, which went the other way without too much trouble. Not much changed in the politics of Jenkins and Co when they "came out". Since the Second World War, Labour leaders have tended to treat the Liberals with disdain – in public – because they were not a powerful part of the political equations of governance, not because of fundamental political differences. Harold Wilson, an ex-Bevanite, and George Brown, a straight right-winger, agreed on this. They brought into the House of Lords and then the Labour government a well known member of the Liberal Party. Blair isn’t the first to have this idea.
Left-wingers within the LP, who have rarely had positions of real leadership from which to influence political events in the state as such (the experience with Militant "government" in Liverpool was a negative exception and remains to be analysed carefully to avoid repetition), have consequently seen the LP primarily from an internal perspective, i.e. with reference to party structures, conference decisions and manifestos: things they want to mould or change and vehicles which allow them to speak. This is an error of perspective, one (understandably) based on the quotidian political life of left-wingers within the Labour Party, but one which can lead to substituting the agenda of the left (and its success or failure within the organisms of the Labour Party as such) for the real relationship between the working class and the LP, as a whole.
Those with a "Leninist" background have long held that the leaderships of social democratic parties are solely aligned with capitalism and the capitalist state, while their base is working class. Leninists have offered various formulae, such as "bourgeois workers’ party" and so on, which contrive to be "dialectical" but are in fact completely static and abstract. Lenin’s hope in the early days seems to have been for a Bolshevik wing legitimised within the LP. Stalinism took the CPGB away from the LP, leaving CP fellow travellers (sometimes plants). Later the Trotskyists came to carry on the Lenin idea of building a Bolshevik wing.
This mindset allowed "Leninoid" members of the LP (one cannot say "Marxist" because Marx, I believe, would not have had recourse to formulae and texts in the same way) to believe that they could have a steady, almost separatist presence in the party, usually at local level. Such a practice produced in the heads of those engaged in "long term entry" an image of the left and right progressing in roughly parallel lines, through the actual events, pluses and minuses of the struggle within the Labour Party, with the entrists working away until some event crashed them (as representatives of the working class) into the right, causing a split. Trotsky’s concept of long term entry foresaw a mass-supported split to the left, although I doubt that even Trotsky meant this process to go on for over 60 years!
The problem is that the hope of "future big splits" does nothing to deal with the problem of what the left should do in the party when Labour continually forms very right wing governments and the left makes little or no organisational progress. The assumption that, on this side of the political hill, a Labour left wing with rank and file support will emerge in strength looks unlikely in the current climate. It’s obvious that the Labour Party as a whole, or even a majority of it, will never break with the British bourgeois state and seek to destroy it. Militant workers have sussed this long since. Their relationship to the LP as it is now is tenuous and conditional.
In the current climate of slow atrophy of the traditional workers’ movement, what is occurring is the continual haemorrhaging of rank and file members and their replacement – not necessarily by Blair supporters, but certainly by people who do not have the same "training in depth" or traditions (workplace, family, locality etc) of older members. Waiting for an indefinable conflict to recreate a traditional left wing is no longer the end to which activists should apply themselves within the Labour Party.
Spending all one’s political energies in trying to make the Labour Party attack capitalism by piecemeal alterations to its programme from the inside is a particularly Zen-like approach to radical social change. The Labour Party apparatus, as an institution, may move to the right or left, but has always remained essentially pro-capitalist. There is no point in small left forces trying to capture and hold onto bits of the Labour apparatus for revolutionary purposes. This is a different statement than saying there is no point in fighting within the LP. The point is to know that what is gained can be taken back and that fundamental transformations will not occur from within the apparatus itself, or through the apparatus itself. This logic must inform left-wingers when they happen to control sections of the apparatus, or to be represented in them.
It is not the case, either, that the working class always remains monolithically to the left of the Labour apparatus, which was the bedrock position of Militant politics in their very long period of entrism. Sometimes the LP is in line with what people want; on the odd occasion, such as at the time when dockers, transport workers, carmakers and porters were demonstrating for the deportation of immigrants in the 1960s, the Labour leaders were to the left of large sections of workers. The perspective of "capturing" Labour from within was wrong then, it’s worse now.
This is not an argument for leaving the Labour Party, but it is one for thinking very carefully about where to put the weight of one’s daily activity in politics. To continually repeat the mantra that only from Labour will new socialist forces emerge leaves the left essentially waiting for the "one big shock" to finally wake up the working class to the benefits of left wing politics centred on the Labour left. It does not take into account that the internal life of the Labour Party is but one, albeit centrally important, aspect of the class struggle – and that if the working class is defeated in other ways this will affect their willingness and ability to engage with the left of the Labour Party as well, which is exactly what has happened since the zenith of the post-’60s left, when the campaign for Benn to be Labour leader had such an impact on the class outside the Labour Party and phenomena such as the GLC could have genuine and pervasive resonances in the population at large.
Taken to the extreme, the "workers are always left wing and never really (subjectively) defeated" line led some to the absurd view that even a defeat as profound as the miners’ strike was only a "setback" having no long term effect on the political stance of the industrial workers, since that was somehow an objective given. Such a merely quasi-Hegelian method, which posits an unchanging "class essence" for the British Labour Party, somewhat outside events and history, cannot stand up to a thorough analysis of the changing relationship between the working class and the Labour Party since the miners’ strike. Instead, what we might term the "active class essence" of the LP has altered as the working class itself has changed in size and composition and its various sectors have gone into battle and almost always lost. The class essence of the working class is not reducible to a rigid formula. The fact is that the working class and therefore the workers’ movement has changed greatly since the 1980s defeats, and when it recovers ground it won’t be in the old industrial forms and locations and it won’t necessarily be through one centralised trade union movement or political party.
The exceptionalism of the British working class movement in international terms may be coming to an end, or even be at an end. Those who see socialist politics as their vocation cannot continue to rely on the old formula of "one movement: LP/unions/Co-op" etc. They have to begin to suggest new ways to organise the left, which can include the Labour left but should be much broader in concept. The fact that people don’t take up such suggestions at this stage of what is essentially a massive historical economic and political reformation within Britain (and Ireland) does not make those suggestions invalid. Rapid change often brings about a falling back on versions of old ideas at first, since new ones are untested.
But the ways in which the new working class (or exploited classes) will take on political and industrial shape will be decided by mass movements themselves, nothing less, and if these don’t fall readily to hand we must be patient. This is not a historical epoch in which the masses can afford to be inactive, however hesitant and uncertain they are at the moment. Some aspects of the human condition, as world politics and society slide into a new form of chaos which represents the negation of traditional politics and the atomisation of many aspects of society itself, just cannot be discussed or reified away. Those with any sense of world history will have to act. Many people are acting, just not in the forms we who come from the old European workers’ movement might recognise. We must be open to forms of struggle and formations which currently seem strange to us. In Europe the ultra-right senses the growing instability and is readying itself for change; the left must do likewise or be rendered irrelevant.
The powerful British workers’ movement was made considerably less so in the battles with Thatcher, and a weakened working class produced changes in the balance of forces inside the Labour Party, undermining the left and offering space for a new kind of right. During the ’80s the left was nearly always one step behind Thatcher’s attacks and having to square up to the Labour right as well as dealing with defeat on the social and economic fronts. Even so, there remains a strong historic link with the unions and an almost elemental Labour sentiment in the industrial working class, which, however weakened it is, remains one of the key sectors of society. Blair and Co still feel unable to break with the unions without fatally damaging the Labour Party as a party able to govern on its own.
One might argue, of course, that the unspoken core of Blairism is that he does not want the Labour Party to be able to govern on its own (in the "old" Labour way) and believes that centre-left coalitions are the next step. I do not think this is true. It goes much further than the thinking of the broader Blair grouping themselves. If it were true we would have seen a much faster movement towards some form of PR, which would bring the Liberal Democrats more definitely into the equation. The Blair tactic appears to be based on a variant of the status quo which offers more weight to the middle ground (top layer workers, professionals, self employed etc) who are sometimes Liberal Democrat, whilst not allowing space for the bedrock of the working class to develop beyond a Labour Party under the control of a type of mutated right. It leaves open the question of co-operation/coalition/discussions etc with the Lib Dems without making fundamental changes to the stand-alone posture of the Labour Party.
Part of this thinking must be that staying in control of the old Labour apparatus helps to block the development of a renewed socialist current within the LP, but it more directly reflects the still indispensable role which the core of the working class (when organised and effective) can play in British politics and the fact that the Labour apparatus has need of its votes.
Personally I favour PR, even if its immediate outcome is a period of centre-right coalitions, because it could also allow new elements to emerge on the left which have a chance of being elected. It could also help to overcome the stifling hold which the Labour apparatus has on politics by its increased control over who can get to run as Labour (or what might be called "Labour-type") candidates.
I do not think it is part of the "Blair project" to finally break the link between the Labour Party and the working class – a sort of SDP on a grand scale. This would require a step further than Blair feels it necessary to take. The grouping most tightly involved with Blair must know that they still need the link with the unions and the working class as a power base – they will have learned that much from the Gang of Four experience. This is not to say that in think tank mode they never talk about forming a party which has cut loose. Certainly the Labour apparatus has always fought for such autonomy when in government. But it is the weakness of the unions (especially their rank and file) and not the strength of Blair which determines union-LP relations at the moment. There are Blairites in amongst the trade union leaders and this has also been brought about by a lengthy period of real defeats in battles made necessary by the material (and irreversible) decline of British industrial capital in its old forms. Under these circumstances it is more often the union conciliators than the union left, which tended to be directly leading – and losing – strikes, who have come to the fore, with certain exceptions like the RMT.
What has caused the diminution of the Labour left(s)? This has been brought about as much by their own crises as by the actions of the right. Problems include: the failed validity and viability of international Stalinism; sectarian flaws in the various long term entry work of various Trotskyist groups; the demoralisation of very large sections of the left after the many battles during the long years of Tory rule; the driving out of the organised labour movement of very large sections of its heartlands – shipbuilders, engineers, steelworkers; and, especially, the defeat of every single important trade union struggle since the miners’ strike. All these have had a negative practical effect on both the Labour left and the various groupings outside the Labour Party.
I do not believe the left, as we have known it in the post-war years, can now be rebuilt on some variant of the old basis. To what degree do people still think that any political party can drive social and political change through programmatic governmental intervention, without the direct input of mass action? It does not appear that there is an expressed wish by masses of people in England for extensive radical anti-capitalist measures at this point in time, although the mood has changed greatly from the "privatisation mania" of the Thatcher era. Re-nationalisation without big changes in the ways things are managed etc does not appear to be a mass mobiliser. Certainly there is a mood abroad to redress the disasters of privatisation, but this is not synonymous with a return to old style bureaucratic nationalisation, which caused problems of its own.
The character of governments may not be simply a reflection of "external forces", but such "external forces" as the industrial decline of imperialist Britain (the underlying material reason for the decline of the welfare state and the condition of the transport infrastructure); changes in technology in the workplace (driving changing work practices, contract law and skill values); the dominance of the world banking system over national central banks (which has left the British labour movement hanging in the air over things like EMU); new unstable trading patterns (which are driving conflict over agriculture); ecological damage and the effects of human demography (the world refugee crisis has only just begun – we ain’t seen nothing yet!); and the need to engage in "rebalancing" wars as part of the North Atlantic power bloc (see the recent thoughts of Henry Kissinger on current world power relationships and the tactics that the USA and Europe should pursue on this) – all these have proven to be beyond the control of the most determined governments at a national level (look at the continual posturing of France in seeking a balance to the hegemony of the USA and how Jospin/Chirac simply joined in the wars when called upon directly by the US).
In the face of the widely known excesses and failures of one-party states and military dictatorships claiming to be socialist, communist or progressive nationalist – and which have possessed about as much power as a political party or movement could in given nation states – it can no longer be argued that society, in its capacity as economic activity, social formation, intellectual engine etc, has yet produced the necessary political formations and parties able to face up to the objective problems mankind must work through in this epoch. There is a global failure of party/state politics and it is into this condition of fluidity that New Labour has cast itself.
The state is anyway a very imperfect vehicle for organic as opposed to centrally organised mass action (orchestrated mobilisations for purposes which the masses themselves have not fully grasped or willed), and this problem increases over time in even the most revolutionary of states, never mind the staid and institutionalised British capitalist state. Where parties and state machines merge, then eventually the party in government becomes the vehicle of a state caste, whatever its social origin.
Among the most important proofs of this must be counted the failures of all Soviet governments since 1918. Even the governmental policies of Lenin and Trotsky are more understandable as responses to events rather than the conscious production of them. The exceptions might be: the driving of other Soviet parties from power and then out of existence, the invasion of Poland and the crushing of Kronstadt – decisions of Lenin with Trotsky’s endorsement. Take a close look at any of the military, state-isation and economic policies of Lenin and Trotsky and what one sees are continuous attempts to stave off collapse, defeat, starvation etc. These could have been dealt with differently without destroying Soviet power.
The truth is that the victory of social democracy and human rights (surely the real content of revolution in this period of growing barbarism?) requires compromises, even from revolutionaries, if revolutions are not to degenerate, and that Communism/Trotskyism as a political project failed to understand this. The various phases of Stalinism produced social/economic changes all right, but not progressive ones. Any development of the productive forces that Stalinism brought about on the basis of coercion, slave labour and the command economy was more than negatively compensated for in the distortion of the social market ("to each according to his needs"), the destruction of human rights, the suppression of cultural development and the political murder of two whole international generations.
So, the international working class, including that in Britain, as long as it preserves a memory of the failure of socialist extremism, is going to be circumspect about breaking the mould of what it knows best. (The failure of social democracy and nationalisms in the old Stalinist states in Europe is producing an interesting revival of the revamped CPs, but this is a self-limiting phenomena I think – people have turned once again to what they know.) New Labour may not be perfect but it is also the continuator of a known quantity.
Governments are anyway unable to act as the ongoing engine of mass movements (this was one of the mistakes Hatton and Co made in Liverpool), and society has lately diversified under and around them. Even governments like Thatcher’s, which could claim, at certain moments, to have a mandate from the majority of British voters for attacks on the unions, on Irish Republicans, for war against Argentina etc, was never able to generate permanent mass movements of the right. What the majority of a population want at a given moment is not made permanent simply because a mass of people want it. The mechanisms of state/parties/population in political life are fluid, but the most important factor is the morale and aspiration of the masses. When the exploited feel powerless and apathetic, or are exhausted by struggle and defeat, the left will suffer, however pressing the need for political change.
But what we have now is new: a near global failure of belief in traditional politics which has produced a historical delay in political response to multiple crises unprecedented in history. Never in the last 100 years have political parties, and by extension governments, been less trusted. They are perceived by people in general to be unable to solve social and political problems. (I understand society in this context to be centrally human activity, but we have also to look at the quasi-natural outcomes of human intervention in the ecosphere, which are no longer exactly under human control although partly produced by us.)
There are a number of economic/social/psychological/political changes induced by late capitalism in the old industrial nations which have had/are having the effect of deracinating historic geographic populations; de-classing the working class in the old industrial areas (both in economic and political terms); challenging the primacy of labour in general as the sole producer of value by adding in a level of technology and associated skilling which has become a sine qua non for much of modern production and without which a lot of things could not now be produced (this appears to require some rethinking of the manner in which Marxists have viewed surplus value as the result of human labour alone, with fixed capital as an amortized value); devaluing unskilled male physical labour so much as to partially unhinge male psychology (something that can happen in war or revolution but is now a much more widespread occurrence in places like the US, parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America, where individualised or gang-driven male lumpen behaviour among the very poor has supplanted notions of family and class solidarity etc); de-programming all the political parties, not just the Labour Party or other broadly socialist parties, to the point where existing political programmes hardly mean anything real when those parties get into power.
The starting point for an understanding of where politics and political parties, including, but not exclusively, the Labour Party, have gone in the past two decades has to be where society itself has gone. So, the first question to be answered in the British context is: has society itself been moving unremittingly to the right? What does "moving to the right" mean when one speaks about a whole nation or class? Does the prolonged period of quiescence and retreat after large scale defeats that British workers have been living through mean that the social aspirations of the working class are no longer those of a conscious political force? When a class is less a class in itself, can it so easily make the leap to becoming a class for itself, and can these changes occur outside of a profound crisis and collapse within the capitalist system itself? What can the left do to help this process of "refinding" by the working class? Has this situation produced Blair, or allowed Blair space to work?
In the past our generation was presented with a mass movement in place, with structures (trade unions, CLPs and LP branches, Co-op, working men’s clubs etc, etc) which had roots in nearly every street, village and city, which had taken many years and many struggles to put together and which crossed generations and regions. Inside those structures it was possible to carry on semi-autonomous activity of a revolutionary type, even when the twists and turns of class struggle were unfavourable. This was possible because the industrial working class, which then formed the majority of the population, and which had allies among some in the non-industrial working class, the professions and the intelligentsia, was able to use its position within an industrial economy of world importance to exact concessions from the bourgeoisie and to keep in place a mass movement. That mass movement was bureaucratic and capitalist-oriented from its inception, but it could also contain all sorts of rank and file activity which was not centrally controlled and which could offer space to the spontaneous class struggles which erupted from time to time.
This is no longer the case, and the contraction of the space for spontaneous development has accelerated in the period since Michael Foot was deposed as Labour leader. But it was not brought about, in the main, by the organisational efforts of Kinnock, Smith and Blair. The main reason has been the effect of an objective collapse in the strength of the working class, brought about by the collapse of Britain as an industrial nation, and of the position of industrial workers as a political force. There is little, in the context of the British labour movement, that illustrates this better than to go into an ex-mining or ex-shipbuilding community, if you knew what was there before they collapsed.
The Labour Party left and the union left (within the LP) have not been able to reconstruct themselves from the base up in the face of this collapse, to reflect the new balance of power. Even with the best scenario in terms of competent left leaders this couldn’t happen very quickly after a prolonged period of setback and defeat, such as that since the miners’ strike. But look what sort of leadership the mining community has had since the strike in Scargill! In any case the Major Tories weren’t driven from power by the unions or by rank and file action, as Heath was.
The left has also been hampered by its own rigidity and inability to shift perspective and methods of organisation. The worst case scenario – formation of another small sectarian "party" – has occurred with the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party (ex-Militant). The Socialist Workers Party has never had enough clout on its own to provide impetus towards regroupment or united front activity. It’s like the SLP in practice. Those changes that have occurred have been brought about by collapses in older groupings (the SLP was really a product of the collapse of the CP and elements within Trotskyism) or the "biological" age factor as individuals put up their increasingly tired political feet.
For its part the Labour apparatus has tried continually, since Kinnock and Co decided the only way to get back into government was to attack the left, to reconstruct itself and present this as a change in the Party as a whole. But they can only do this because the labour movement at grass roots level has in part collapsed. Changes within the Labour Party, tending to separate the "functional apparatus" bits from rank and file activists, have been going on at least since the late ’60s. One of the big turning points was the battle over entry to the EEC. Callaghan decided that from then on conference had to be more and more controlled. Foot never reversed that and then Kinnock etc took it further and further. Before that, even, were the problems linked to the defeat of In Place of Strife. The Labour leaders began to work harder at organising the right in the unions to guarantee the block vote. From then on, successive waves of the leadership have striven to put ever wider gaps between the cabinet/shadow cabinet and PLP; the PLP and NEC; the NEC and conference; the conference and CLPs; the CLPs and branches; and ultimately between policy making and individual members. Blair is the recipient of a long series of right wing structural changes in which the left has consistently been driven back.
Another massive turning point was the destruction of the GLC and local government by Thatcher. The knock-on effects of this within the structures of the Labour Party have been profound. Councillors ceased being in any way really accountable to local parties as such and I think that the left’s operation of secret caucuses did not help in countering this in the long run.
To say, as Mike Phipps does, that witch-hunting has been nowhere near as widespread under Blair as during the Cold War is probably correct. However, the left is nowhere near as strong as it was then and this may have obviated the need for a big purge. To paraphrase James Connolly: the Blair leadership looks strong mainly because the rank and file is weak. Defeat after defeat has brought this about. The truth remains, though, that should Blair feel the need for a wholesale purge of the left he could probably do it. This may yet happen if Blair feels it would be useful as a safety valve or as a statement in preparation for the next election.
Mike Phipps raises the question of whether socialists can achieve more outside the Labour Party than in. Achieve more of what? The class struggle (in all its various mutations) throws up events from time to time (in recent times the Liverpool dockers’ strike) which give activists outlets in solidarity work, tactical thinking and sporadic attempts at organisational development. But it is an artificial extrapolation for anyone to extend these necessary ad hoc experiences to the building of small vanguard groupings which require one to have an "independent" existence. But what other material argument can be put forward to leave the Labour Party per se? Of course, in certain circumstances one could be expelled – then the question is posed differently. But leaving because of frustration will end up being no different from what Scargill has done, or the old Militant Tendency, which had to leave to try to hold itself together as a "vanguard" grouping (or more correctly, for its own apparat to hold themselves together).
In terms of a break between the working class and the Labour Party in Britain I do not see such a moment in the ascendancy of Blair, either positively, in the transcendence of Labourism by large sections of workers, or negatively, in another qualitative defeat of the working class. Such changes can only be brought about through conflict between the working class and the Labour leaders, not from within the Party alone, and not solely by ideological means.
One thing that is changing, though, is the historical relationship between the Party and the unions. Firstly, the trade union movement is not what it was twenty years ago. It has suffered the blows of defeat and the bureaucracies have acted within it to defend their existences as apparats. Industrial militancy, for the moment, cannot be a force (on its own) able to exert pressure on the political character of trade unions. Only victories in struggle can regenerate the union left and the unions themselves, and these require careful preparation of a political character. The real, as opposed to legal, affiliation between the unions and Labour Party, which used to send batches of interested delegates to GCs and provide avenues into the workplace for Labour politics, has been greatly damaged by the striving of the union leaders for influence with the state, which was for so long Tory-dominated, and this has required of them that they politically and industrially neuter their rank and file. The Labour leaders’ need to present themselves as an electable machine to the likes of Murdoch has required that the TUC’s "direct line" into Downing Street remain cut off. If the old style union-party federation still had the strength to deliver governments and defeat corporate capital, then Murdoch would demand Blair deal with the problem and the bureaucrats of all stripes would be lining up to extol the virtues of restraint within the "federation".
What they have done, in making a virtue out of the much loosened ties, is merely to give expression to an objective fact: in hammering the unions and diminishing the industrial working class the Tories (Thatcher mainly) also weakened the Labour Party as a root and branch class party. This cannot be overturned only on the electoral and organisational terrain. There have to be industrial, social and political victories which give space for the working class and its allies to reform and regain some confidence in their ability to act. And, indeed, underneath that there has to be an organic regrowth of working class communities and the production of new generations of local leaders.
The majority of the organised working class still supports Labour, but this is not enough to guarantee a Labour government – and it is certainly not enough to generate a new social movement (from within the dispirited compound of local Labour politics) which might or might not be to the left of the old Labour Party.
It is true that, while core Labour voters want to keep Blair in office (as against the Tories), they are willing to vote Green and SNP etc in "lesser" elections. But this represents more, I feel, than "maturity". It also signifies that the political aspirations of many people have really changed. People know that catastrophic ecological events are threatened; in Scotland and Wales they are exploring problems of national/cultural identity; sometimes they feel that even the Liberal Democrats are less corrupt and more amenable on local issues. There is the question of race, which in certain areas (Glasgow, Southall) has produced ethnic caucuses which merely utilise the Labour Party as a flag of convenience. These things are all about the content of democracy in a changing society, which cannot be served in the "traditional ways" through the British state and its local forms and parties.
It cannot be ruled out that people in the working class might come to vote in different ways. This is the beginning of a period in which it is possible for workers, progressives if you like, to have differing party affiliation, without going outside the boundaries of class politics. Labour may not have a monopoly on working class votes for much longer and this could force coalition governments (or councils) in places other than Scotland. This might also represent a positive development rather than a step back from pure Labour government, especially if Blair pushes things to the right within the leading apparatus, achieving dominance over one or two other bureaucratic factions, but does not go so far as a split within the Party itself. There might then be places where a specific Blair-nominated Labour candidate is not the best option and what Blair will want is for left wing activists to stay quiet and voters to have no choice other than accept the "least worst" option. This happened in the Euro-elections and in elections to the Scottish Parliament. It could become a regular feature of electoral politics at local level too. Even this would not be such a novel development. It is valuable to look back to the pre-war history of working class politics in Britain, where a rich complexity of parties, splinter groups, imposed personalities and cross-fertilisations took place – not to mention swings from government to near extinction and back again for the Labour Party – in the space of four or five years.