Refound Labour as a real party of labour

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Peter Hain, chair of the national policy forum, was commissioned by Ed Miliband in November 2010 to write a consultation paper with the aim of reorganising the Labour Party, so that it could regain “the trust of British people”. Refounding Labour (PDF) has been widely discussed in the mainstream press, web forums and numerous Labour Party meetings. Submissions have been asked for. This is the contribution of the Labour Party Marxists

Refounding the Labour Party is long overdue. There have been too many wasted years. It is a crying shame then that Peter Hain’s consultation paper is so timid, so uninspiring. No damning critique of capitalism, no bold socialist vision, no proposals to radically democratise the party. Instead we are offered managerial, tokenistic, superficial tinkering. The continued existence of capitalism goes unquestioned. The deepest, most protracted economic crisis since the 1930s gets a mention, but no commensurate conclusions follow.

Our party, our society, our species face huge challenges. No-one objects to using the internet, tweeting, community campaigns or organising an annual “summer weekend” festival. Yet, given the ongoing massive cuts programme of the Con-Dem government, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, the terrible wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the drift into new ‘humanitarian’ interventions, the abject failure to counter the danger of ecological collapse, the urgent necessity for a socialist transition and a complete transformation of all existing conditions, more, much more, is needed.

There are those amongst us, of course, who fondly look back to what they imagine to be a golden age. The old clause four (part four) of our constitution committed us: “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.”

Mistakenly, this is interpreted as a sincere commitment to socialism. But when it was first adopted, in February 1918 – during the slaughter of inter-imperialist war – the idea of Sidney Webb and the Fabians was to divert the considerable sympathy that existed for the Russian Revolution into safe, constitutional, channels.

Needless to say, clause four was mainly for show. However, even if it had been taken seriously and put into practice, Fabian socialism is antithetical to working class self-liberation. Industry, banking, transport, etc, would be bureaucratically nationalised. The mass of the population, however, remain exploited wage-slaves. Capitalism without capitalists.

Nevertheless, the old clause four resulted from mass pressure. Because of World War I, because of the Russian Revolution, capitalism was widely discredited, viewed as inherently irrational, warlike, prone to constantly recurring crises. Socialism was seen as the answer. What was true of 1918 is increasingly the case in the 2010s.

There is a widespread rejection of capitalism; even in the United States an April 2009 Rasmussen poll showed only 53 percent of American adults rating capitalism “better than socialism” (www.rasmussenreports.com).

Showing how badly out of touch he is with the growing anti-capitalist mood, Peter Hain actually celebrates what he calls the “reforming” of clause four in 1994. A “hugely important political symbol”, he emphatically declares. Indeed it was.

Tony Blair and New Labour were trying to assure the establishment, the City, the Murdoch empire, the global plutocracy that capitalism would be safe in their hands. That a New Labour government would not even pay lip service to what was in fact a British nationalist version of state capitalism.

Whatever differences Peter Hain has with New Labour, he is impeccably New Labour on this score at least … meanwhile Ed Miliband flirts with Blue Labour.

Calls for a return of the old clause four are understandable, but totally misplaced. We need to go forwards, not look backwards. Labour needs to organise on the basis of an explicitly socialist, as opposed to a social democratic, neoliberal or Blue Labour programme. Only then can we fulfil our responsibilities.

That is why Labour Party Marxists advocate extreme democracy in society and throughout the labour movement, working class rule and international socialism.
Historically – in terms of membership, finances and electoral base – our party has largely relied on the working class. This has been our greatest strength; and here is the source of our hope and confidence in the future. Because of its constantly renewed social position the working class tends towards collectivist, socialistic solutions.

Despite Blairism, New Labour and the public sacrifice of the old clause four, we remain a distinctly class party. The historic relationship with the trade unions survives, there are still 2.7 million affiliated members and the working class “core vote” stood up well in the last general election.

Peter Hain is right, of course, when he points to a long-term decline of our mass base. Between 1997 and 2010 we lost five million votes.

However, there must be more to this than three terms in government, changing patterns of work and the “growth of sports and other leisure interests.” Maintaining Tory anti-trade union laws, widening inequality, Iraq and Gordon Brown’s fawning before the market, big business and the banks caused dismay and demoralisation. Our voters did not in general desert to other parties. They simply stopped voting.

We are asked how “better working class representation” can be achieved. Refounding Labour registers an aspiration to “re-create a much more organic link between the party and the trade union movement”. Underlined by Ed Miliband’s introductory statement that he does “not want to break the party up, but build it up”.

Unlike New Labour, he harbours no ambition to break the link with the trade unions. Nowadays, that would certainly result in a financial catastrophe – debt crippled our election campaign in 2010 and donations from the super-rich have almost entirely dried up. Yet, whatever the motivation, a commitment to retain the trade union link is to be welcomed.

So how to re-engage our traditional base, how to reinvigorate the relationship with the trade unions? We say the Labour Party can and must be refounded as a real party of labour. By that we mean rebuilding and thoroughly democratising the Labour Party. We want to make Labour into a common home for all workers and working class organisations – the goal of the founders of the party in 1900.

As a party we should commit ourselves to energetically campaign to revive the trade union movement. The fall from 12 million trade union members in the late 1970s to some seven million today can be reversed. Party members should take the lead in recruiting masses of new trade unionists and restoring the strength of the unions in the workplace and in society at large. Every level of the party needs to be involved. That includes our councillors and MPs.

Strikes must be unashamedly supported. There ought to be a binding commitment to back workers in their struggle to protect jobs, pensions and conditions. Inevitably the anti-trade union laws will have to be defied.

In parallel all trade unions ought to be encouraged to affiliate to the Labour Party, all members of the trade unions encouraged to pay the political levy to the Labour Party and join as individual members.

Unions that have either been expelled or have disaffiliated need to be welcomed back: eg, the RMT and FBU. But there are unions which have never had an organised relationship with the Labour Party: eg, PCS and NUT. Indeed of the 58 unions affiliated to the TUC only 15 are affiliated to Labour. Winning new trade union affiliates would help transform our present situation.

While Labour Party Marxists support the idea of making membership affordable for those who are students, unemployed or are on low pay, we oppose the suggestion of blurring the distinction between those who are members – with the right to elect, be elected and decide policy, etc – and those who are supporters. Membership of the Labour Party should be something to value, to be proud of.

Naturally, the fight to refound and rebuild the Labour Party cannot be separated from the fight to democratise the trade unions. All trade union officials ought to be subject to regular election and be recallable. No official should receive pay higher than the average of the membership. Moreover, rules which restrict the ability of the rank and file to organise and criticise must be swept away. They bring discredit to our movement.

Trade union votes at Labour Party conferences should be cast not by general secretaries, but proportionately, according to the political balance in each delegation. Conference cannot be dominated by four or five men in suits.

The Labour Party should be reorganised from top to bottom. All socialist and communist groups, leftwing think tanks and progressive campaigns ought to be allowed to affiliate. Towards that end the undemocratic bans and proscriptions must be rescinded. Clause two (five) must be reformulated. A whole raft of new affiliated socialist and other such organisations would not bring in hundreds of thousands of new recruits, it would though bring in many highly valuable men and women of talent and dedication. The culture of our party can that way be greatly enhanced.

The Parliamentary Labour Party has to be brought into line. We must end the situation where Labour members vote for one thing and the PLP does another. Musings about minimal parliamentary attendance and codes of conduct are a dangerous diversion. What is needed is not further measures of bureaucratic control from above, but democratic control from below.

Our ward and constituency parties will continue to wither and die if they remain under the thumb of regional organisers and are expected to act as mere transmission belts for Victoria Street. Local autonomy enlivens, educates and lays the basis for growth and national influence. All officials in the Labour Party must be subject to regular election and re-election.

Labour Party Marxists want the present post of Labour leader abolished. While our party has to fulfil the statutory requirements laid down in the thoroughly undemocratic Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, the Führerprinzip can be left to others. The leader of the Labour Party should be a nominal position. Instead of a Bonaparte with the power to appoint shadow ministers, the National Executive Committee should be responsible for electing chairs of the PLP, shadow ministers, etc.

Members are deeply alienated. The Joint Policy Committee, the National Policy Forum and the whole Partnership into Power rigmarole have demonstrably failed. Instead of reforming them they should simply be abolished. The NEC must be unambiguously responsible for drafting Labour Party manifestoes. And, of course, the NEC needs to be fully accountable to annual conference.

Annual conference must be the supreme body of the Labour Party. We need democratic debate and binding votes. Not a happy-clappy rally designed for TV producers. Make officials and shadow ministers report as humble servants. No more preening media stars, no more control-freakery, no more business lobbyists, promotions and exhibits. An authoritative, honest, no-holds barred conference would certainly guarantee an immediate increase in CLPs sending delegates to conference: numbers fell from 527 in 2002 to 444 in 2009 and only 412 in 2010 – under two thirds the total entitled to attend.
As with the trade unions, our elected representatives must be recallable by the constituency or other body that selected them. That includes Labour MPs, MEPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors, etc.

Likewise, without exception, our elected representatives should take only the average wage of a skilled worker. When it comes to existing salaries, the balance should be given to the party. On current figures, that means around £40,000 from each MP (at present they are only obliged to pay the £82 parliamentarians’ subscription rate). That would give a substantial fillip to our depleted finances.

It should be a basic principle that our representatives live like workers, not pampered middle class careerists. If that was done, no longer would people say, ‘All politicians are the same’ or that they are ‘all in it for personal gain’.

Our task is refounding the Labour Party as a real party of labour: a workers’ party.

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