by Bill Onasch
A Tale of Two Upsets I
Shortly after the British general election, a regular WIR reader and supporter sent me a brief message,
“Doesn’t what happened in England give you second thoughts about LPA [Labor Party Advocates]? They have had a Labor Party in England for generations.”
The question is fair and I had already decided to address the Labor election debacle. Next time I will also say a few words about a promising surprise victory by the Alberta provincial NDP, Canada’s labor party, last week.
For those interested in the history of the labor party question I made a presentation to a Midwest Socialist Educational Conference in Kansas City two years ago, available on the Labor Standard site.
This past week also was marked by celebrations of the seventieth anniversary of V-E Day—Germany’s unconditional surrender, bringing an end to World War II in Europe. Per the deal that had been made in the formation of Britain’s wartime unity government, long overdue parliamentary elections were immediately held. Much to the surprise of the rest of the world, British voters gave their Prime Minister Winston Churchill the boot with a landslide victory for Labor.
It was the first time that Labor was in a position to act on the objectives in the famous Clause IV of their party constitution which called for promoting “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.” There was a large and vibrant left wing who wanted to rapidly rebuild postwar Britain along socialist lines. The right wing, led by new Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was content with a much more modest reform program.
Viewed from today’s era of globalized austerity, even the moderate led 1945 Labor government looked like bloody Bolsheviks. They went on to nationalize much of basic industry, launched a much needed construction of low cost public housing, and installed socialized medicine known as the National Health Service.
These reforms certainly brought material benefits to British workers recovering from the hardship of Depression and war. But they failed to bring about fundamental, enduring social or even political change. The nationalized industries were not the beginning of a planned economy and certainly did not feature “the best obtainable system of popular administration and control.” And what could be nationalized could also later be de-nationalized. Over the years all of the major postwar Labor reforms—except the National Health Service–were reversed by subsequent Tory governments.
The professional politicians making up the Parliamentary Labor Party stopped fighting for even such modest reforms. They sought to become the kinder, gentler face of the rule of British capital, much like the Democrats in the USA. Some even jumped ship, hooking up with the aim of reviving the long moribund Liberal Party.
In the mid-90s, Tony Blair became leader of what he dubbed New Labor. The socialist Clause IV was repealed and socialist strongholds in London and Liverpool were expelled. The trade unions—always the foundation of the party—were stripped of their power. The self-renewing Parliamentary Party became the de facto supreme rulers. Serious platforms were replaced with meaningless pablum so familiar to Americans.
This happened as Labor Party Advocates was preparing to launch a Labor Party effort in this country. We were certainly aware of and chagrined with the degeneration of our British namesake. While crafting our constitution and electoral policy we built in as many safeguards as we could think of to ensure democratic control by the union and community chapter affiliates that could prevent a Blairite coup on this side of the Atlantic.
Though not explicitly socialist, the program adopted at the 1996 Labor Party Founding Convention in Cleveland was a clear declaration of working class political independence with the aim of putting our class in power. It ultimately failed because it could not rally sustained support from the class collaborationist leadership of most unions who stake their future and ours in backing one of the two boss parties.
The Labor Party eventually withdrew from active combat with honor intact, and can be revived without reinventing the wheel. Today the Labor Party question in America is relegated to what old socialists called propaganda—patiently explaining basic principles to any who will listen. But as class battles inevitably heat up in the USA that can quickly pass over in to agitation and action. That is why I favor keeping the LPA approach alive.
In Britain, some of the parliamentary elite became unhappy campers under Blair’s New Labor—especially after he became a junior partner in Bush II’s criminal invasion of Iraq. They saw their party developing an identity crisis, alienating many loyalists and failing to attract new ones. Blair’s successor Gordon Brown tried to revive some of the spirit if not substance of Old Labor but lost the 2010 election that produced the coalition Tory-led Cameron government backed by the Liberals.
After Brown stepped aside there was a weird battle between rival Miliband brothers, one leaning old, the other new. Old Ed prevailed to take on the lackluster Cameron’s Tories. Some campaign strategists from past Obama victories were imported. Labor again talked about taxing the rich and defending the National Health Service. Pre-election polls and odds given in betting shops all favored a Labor victory. Instead they suffered a humiliating defeat.
The Conservatives won an outright majority of seats—331 to Labor’s 232. Because Britain uses the same “first past the post” method as American congressional elections seats are not awarded in proportion to party vote totals. The xenophobic UKIP placed third in national vote totals with nearly four million but have only one seat to show for it. While Labor didn’t get a fair share of seats either the Tories got nearly 37 percent of the total vote against a little more than 30 by Labor. Any way you look at it Labor lost big time.
Clearly the single most devastating blow to Labor came in Scotland where they had long held a solid majority of seats. Punished for their eager collaboration with Cameron in opposing the vote on Scottish independence Labor lost forty seats—all but one. The Scottish National Party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats.
The British Socialist Resistance cited additional factors,
“Labour lost the election rather than the Tories winning it. They failed over the past five years to refute the Tory claim to economic competence. The leadership capitulated to the Tory’s economic policies and failed to offer a much needed alternative or to project an anti-austerity pro-working class agenda. When they put forward a few good and popular policies such as taxing the wealthy, these were overshadowed by what was seen as its ambiguous attitude to austerity, promising further cuts and leading to abject confusion about its message. Voters deserted it in droves”
The future of the Labor Party will undoubtedly continue to be debated by class aware workers in Britain. Some remain Labor Party activists fighting to reclaim Labor as a workers party. Others believe Labor is beyond reform, that a new mass working class party must be built.
So far, Labor alternatives have not fared well. The Socialist Labor Party initiative by the Miners union never really got off the ground. The far-left coalition RESPECT just lost its only MP, George Galloway, to Labor.
Whether old or new, in Britain as in America, the prospects for mass working class political action depend on revival of class aware struggles by union, student, nationalist, and climate change movements. They will nurture one another. When this will happen in either hemisphere is impossible to precisely predict. But like generations of Irish Republicans I believe Tiocfaidh ár Lá!–Our Day Will Come.
At least when we look next time at the Alberta election it will be, as Monty Python would say, something completely different.
Good & Welfare
Nationwide May 14
Postal workers under attack, and going in to contract negotiations, are asking for solidarity support in a National Day of Action Thursday, May 14. You can find the event nearest you by clicking here. In Kansas City the gathering will be from11:30-1 at the USPS Distribution Center, 1700 Cleveland Ave.
St Paul May 27
$15 Now and a Union—Panel Discussion
7-9PM East Side Freedom Library
1105 Greenbrier Street, St Paul
More information here
Portland, Oregon May 30
Labor Notes Troublemakers School
9-5 Panels and Workshops
UA Hall 20210 SW Teton Avenue
That’s all for this week.
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