Labour’s hollow drum

Hilary Wainwright introduces Red Pepper's special on the Labour Party

October 1, 2004 · 4 min read

Periodically, the pundits predict the death of the Labour Party. At moments of disillusion with government, members leave in droves. Witness the late 1960s, the mid-1970s, and now today. The Labour Party appears like a hollow drum: empty but which the leadership assumes it can bang to rally support. Somehow, it remains intact. So, are we currently seeing history repeat itself or is something structural beginning to break?

Certainly, if Natasha Grzincic’s vivid report of decline (‘Ghosts in the machine‘) was about any other organisation, we would assume it was on its last legs. But there is something peculiar about the status of the ‘party’ part of the Labour Party – ie, the members and their local organisations. Rarely has the parliamentary leadership ever shown them real respect.

Richard Crossman, the Oxford don who became a Cabinet minister in the 1960s, penned an introduction to The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot’s description of the gulf running through Britain’s unwritten constitution, the gulf between royal ritual and the reality of prime ministerial power. Crossman described a corresponding gulf between ritual and reality within the Labour Party. ‘In order 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.’

In the 1970s ‘these militants’ attempted to give party democracy some substance. Tony Blair saw it as his job to make sure that never happened again. The reality of centralised power has become clear for all to see. Party members find that there is little point in being a cog in an increasingly purposeless electoral machine.

But the reality of power in the Labour Party isn’t just the prime minister; it is also the trade unions. To achieve his disempowering of the members, Blair had to rely, holding his nose, on the help of the same ‘big four’ trade unions (Unison, Amicus, the GMB and the TGWU) who are now pressing him to remember why their predecessors founded the party.

Union leaders are now facing a serious dilemma. All their old habits lead them like lost cats to scratch at the door of their old home: the ministers’ negotiating table. But on the other side of the table is not some old mate who knows what needs to be done but is under impossible pressure from the CBI or the IMF: Blair actually believes in the primacy of the market and the superior efficiency of big business.

Meanwhile, trade union members have had enough. Why, they ask, should their money support a government that is privatising their services or allowing employers to get away with murder? No amount of spinning will make them believe that things might change. And union leaders are beginning to realise that their pressure is like water off Blair’s back.

The smaller unions are disaffiliating. They’re looking for new allies, supporting the European Social Forum, joining campaigns against racism and fascism, becoming involved with campaigns in local communities.

But if this is to lead to the creation of new sources of social power it has to be more than street-wise PR. It will mean being willing to actually learn from the younger movements and developing new ways of organising and thinking.

This has been achieved, to some effect, elsewhere. Listen to Alessandra Mecozzi, international secretary of FIOM (the Italian Federation of Metalworkers). For her, the experience of the demonstrations against the Genoa G8 summit in 2001 and of the European Social Forum in Florence a year later made the unions understand ‘that the “non-global movement” showed signs of a new generation pushing to take part in politics in a new way, on the basis of personally assuming responsibility’. Mecozzi says: ‘This new generation also recognises that unions have valuable historical experience of battles and conquests. We can keep them close if we are open to discussion.’

So, unions in other parts of Europe are showing that there are ways of being political beyond keeping alive party structures from which real life has gone. This doesn’t mean ditching activists who remain inside parties like Labour; on the contrary, it means joining with them to work with ‘all that is moving outside’. (See ‘Union wild card seeks to trump modernisers from within‘). Any campaign that has had any impact whatsoever in the UK – from the anti-war movement to Defend Council Housing – has done so on the basis of an alliance that has roots way beyond the Labour Party but which also has staunch supporters inside it.


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