The Labour Party was set up at the turn of the twentieth century by socialist groups (the Social Democratic Federation) and trade unions, to provide a political voice for the working class. Previously there was no choice, other than Tories and Liberals – the bosses, landlords and aristocracy had political parties, but there was no representation for ordinary people. Prior to the struggle of the Suffragists and Suffragettes, and the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave men over 21 years old, and women over 30 years old the vote, you had to be male in order to vote.
The Labour Act 1906 made strike action legal, giving trade unionists more power. Trade unions switched from supporting the Liberal Party to the new Labour Party.
Clause 4 was introduced in 1918, as the leadership of Labour felt themselves under pressure from the working class to deliver socialist ideas, at least in theory. This was due to the end of WW1 and the Russian Revolution. It was printed on membership cards: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.
However, savage austerity measures, “the Geddes axe”, followed in the early 1920s. In 1926, with the defeat of the all too short general strike, the Trade Union movement suffered a blow – the mineworkers’ union heroically stayed out a whole year until they too were defeated by starvation.
After the Second World War, a victory for Labour brought the most left-wing government Britain has ever had. The welfare state was introduced and around 20% of the economy was nationalised – steel, coal, railways, etc. The NHS brought previously unaffordable medical care to the working class. These reforms were again given under pressure from below, with armed troops returning to Britain. With the end of WW2, the UK economy was on its knees, requiring socialist policies to kickstart it, with a huge injection of cash from the US. The government built millions of council houses. It is nonsensical, given the current deficit “crisis” to say that we cannot afford government expenditure. After World War II, the country’s debt measured 248% of GDP – dwarfing today’s figure of just 80%. However, these gains have been eroded ever since.
Hugh Gaitskill, a right-wing Labour leader in the 1950s tried unsuccessfully to do away with Clause IV and expel leading left wingers, such as Michael Foot, from the Labour Party. At that time, Labour was still relatively democratic, with a working-class base and the trade unions had a strong voice, so the left won this battle, but their victory was temporary.
The 1970s marked a high point in industrial struggle – the Tories were defeated in 1974 by the miners. The end of the decade brought the “winter of discontent”, and the collapse of Callaghan government in 1979. Workers had a high level of union organisation, with 13.5 million people in trade unions. The demise of Labour and the victory of Thatcher was not inevitable, had the leadership of the Labour Party and trade unions not been lacking.
In the 1980s, Thatcher brought in the anti-trade union laws and started a process of privatisation of industry, which has been ongoing ever since. There was a series of magnificent defeats for the working class – the printers succumbed to Murdoch in Wapping; the miners’ strike from 1984-85 was ultimately divided and lost. Militant in Liverpool from 1983-87 built thousands of council houses, leisure facilities and provided thousands of jobs. If this had been linked up with fighting Labour councils across the country, the outcome could have been different – unfortunately only Lambeth and Liverpool took the fight to the Tories at the time, and isolated, the Labour Party moved against its own left wing. At the time, Militant controlled the Labour Party Young Socialists, and had 8000 members.
Tony Benn was tipped to be Labour leader in 1983, but lost his seat in Bristol. The next challenge to Kinnock was unsuccessful for the left in 1987 – this was the last time a left candidate got onto the Labour Party ballot paper, such is the undemocratic nature of the party today.
1989 brought the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, which had an impact on left-wing parties worldwide, and hastened their capitulation to neoliberalism.
1990 saw the Poll Tax, and a mass campaign of non-payment, involving 14 million people, which defeated Thatcher.
Militant was expelled from and eventually left the Labour Party in the early 1990s. John Smith’s short reign as leader was succeeded by Tony Blair, who revoked Clause IV 1994, with the birth of “New Labour”.
The 1997 election of Blair saw a continuation of privatisations and cuts, with academy schools and foundation trusts in the NHS. The use of the Private Finance Initiative and Public Private Partnerships was expanded by New Labour. The Labour Party did not repeal any of Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws or bring any former public services or industries back under nationalisation. It is little wonder that Thatcher said her greatest achievement was New Labour.
1997 also saw the launch of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, but this unfortunately was undemocratic and sectarian in its outlook and has failed to match its potential.
In 2003 2,000,000 people marched against Blair’s invasion of Iraq – there was a huge opportunity for the left to form a new party, but this sadly ended up with the communalist politics of RESPECT.
In 2006, the Socialist Party launched the Campaign for a New Workers Party.
The worldwide financial crash in 2008, not long after Gordon Brown famously said he had abolished boom and bust, was and still is used as an excuse for more attacks on trade unions, with further cuts and privatisations – the most indebted part of the private banks were nationalised and are now being sold back, at a huge loss to the country.
2009 saw the Launch of the National Shop Stewards’ Network, an important vehicle for rank and file trade unionists to campaign together, supporting workers in struggle nationwide.
TUSC, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was launched in 2010. The same year as John McDonnell made an unsuccessful attempt to run for leadership as he could not get the required backing of 30 MPs – his support passed over to Diane Abbott, who offered no real left alternative.
The RMT formally backed TUSC in 2013 – this is appropriate since their forerunner, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants was pivotal in the formation of the Labour Party back in 1906.
We have seen the rise of anti-austerity party in Greece, with Syriza; a collapse of support for ruling parties in Ireland, with advances made by the AAA and Independents. Social democracy is unable to find a solution to the problems inherent in capitalism and workers will look for alternatives, provided a viable left alternative is given.
In 2014, Labour’s Falkirk fiasco resulted in UNITE’s favoured candidate being deselected for MP because they were seen as being too left wing. This resulted in the Collins Review, with Labour cutting off its nose to spite its face. This gave “transparency” of trade union funding, in other words union members now have no voice in Labour Party policy or leadership; and they have to pay as individuals £3 to have a vote in the leadership debate. The threshold increased to support from 15% of Labour MPs (or 35) needed to qualify. The Labour party has also long ignored conference decisions where these do not reflect the agenda of New Labour, such as conference decisions to renationalise the railways and Royal Mail.
Over 5,000,000 working class votes have deserted Labour since 1997 – some have gone to UKIP, many do not bother voting at all. There has been a huge defection in Scotland to the SNP, due to its “anti-austerity” posturing and Labour being implicit in the No campaign along with the Tories.
This brings us up to date and in 2015, with the resignation of Miliband – all the leadership candidates, except Jeremy Corbyn are Blairites. Unfortunately, with Corbyn on 23 nominations, he remains very unlikely to win (the bookies are offering odds of 100/1), but perhaps he could just reach the required threshold to at least be on the ballot. Socialists should give critical support to his campaign, saying that it is good that he is running, but due to the undemocratic and corrupt character of New Labour, he has little chance of success. If he is unsuccessful in his bid for leadership, but is serious about campaigning for socialism, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that he should leave the Labour Party and help form a new mass workers’ party.
The direction of events in Europe will inevitably come to Britain also, and we will need huge struggles by the trade unions aligned to a political voice of our own, against the Tories’ attempts to introduce even more draconian anti-trade union laws. The 40% threshold that would be required for strike action is rich, coming from a government elected with just 24% of the popular vote. We need to build a fighting alternative – the trade union movement and socialists need to come together once again to form a new, mass working-class party, just as it did in 1906.