Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

The Labour Party: An Obituary for a failed politics

If the Labour Party implodes into political fragments following a fractious leadership contest then it is good riddance to a bad lot. Socialists will not be shedding any tears. The Labour Party stands in the way of Socialism and is a pernicious barrier that needs to be quickly removed to foster clear working class understanding of capitalism and the necessity for the abolition of the profit system.

There was neither merit nor usefulness in the Labour Party’s continued existence. The Labour Party was an unmitigated disaster for the workers. Its anti-working class policies and futile reformism held back the establishment of socialism for the best part of a century.

The Labour Party began as a trade union pressure group and ended under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband as a Conservative Party clone embracing without question free trade, the free market and globalised world capitalism. The Labour Party was just another capitalist political party. The Labour Party agreed with Margaret Thatcher that there was no alternative to the rigours of market competition, of buying and selling and production for sale with a view to profit. Labour’s Ministers wanted to dine and holiday with the rich and take lucrative directorships or consultancies when no longer in office. Is this what the trade unions had in mind when they wrote the cheques for the first Labour Representation Committee?

After misusing and abusing the word socialism for the best part of a century the political charlatans who made up the party’s ruling circle after the election of Tony Blair in 1996 (many of whom, when students, were members of left-wing capitalist parties) had the shame-faced audacity to declare that socialism was dead and buried (“stories from the past”, as Tristram Hunt remarked). How could socialism be dead and buried when it has never been established in the first place? The Labour Party’s own obituary should have been written a long time ago.

And there is no going back to a mythical utopian past as portrayed in Ken Loach’s film “The spirit of ‘45” with its nostalgia for the birth of the NHS (just the rationalisation of the poor laws dating back to the 16th century) and Beveridge’s Welfare State, was written by a Liberal peer and endorsed by all three political parties during the Second World War but was shown by the Socialist Party of Great Britain to be nothing more than a redistribution of poverty.

There is no “pure” Labour Party to be found in the Clement Attlee era - now known as an age of bleak austerity, the beginning of the cold war and Britain’s development of the atomic bomb. One of the first cuts to the NHS was by a Labour government trying to find savings to fund the Korean War. Post-1945 nationalisation did not solve the problems facing the working class. In fact, it was quite the reverse. There were bitter strikes in the coal fields and in the docks; the National Health Service still gave a second-best service compared to the private health care enjoyed by the rich. Labour’s promise of “full employment” failed as Keynesianism failed to prevent economic crises, trade depressions and high levels of unemployment.

What was the Labour Party?

The Labour Party did not have the power to create a fair and equitable capitalism. Capitalism works for the rich and the powerful not the working class. Social Justice with its talk of “fairness” and the type of policies the Labour Party put forward in its election manifestos were all doomed to fail. You cannot have socialist distribution based upon the private ownership of the means of production and distribution.

The only sound egalitarian position is the socialist one: “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. And for this socialist dictum to hold true there first has to be the establishment by a socialist majority of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. That is, production for direct social use rather than for profit.

The Labour Party was neither socialist nor Marxist. The Labour Party repudiated Marx’s labour theory of value, his materialist conception of history and the political concept of the political class struggle. Even its alleged genuflection towards Methodism, with its core belief in the biblical injunction “Thou shall not kill”, was conveniently forgotten when the Labour Party supported the First and Second World Wars along with a string of minor ones, including recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

In the early years of the Labour Party people like Keir Hardie said that it was going to be the “party of peace” and it was going to solve each and every economic and social problem one-by-one with the enactment of the right reforms until there were no more problems left to resolve. The Labour Party not only failed to become the “party of peace” but all the problems facing the working class in 1906 are exactly the same problems facing the working class in 2015; poverty, social alienation, unemployment, poor housing or no housing at all, the list goes on and on. The Labour Party once talked about “abolishing capitalism” but all it meant was replacing private capitalism with nationalisation or state capitalism.

The last nail in the Labour Party’s coffin was to realise that it had no object. Without an object there was no point in existing. Nationalisation or state capitalism had failed and had seen to have failed. Labour’s “popular capitalism” of 1945 was by 1979 deeply unpopular with the electorate; a vote loser. Under Blair’s leadership in came the management consultants; there were “core values”, “partnerships”, “mission statements” and a host of other meaningless buzz words like “on message”, “singing from the same hymn book”, “big tent politics”, “branding” and the prefix “new” put in front of a political corpse which had died a long time ago. There was nothing of substance. The Labour Party had ceased to be; a wilting red rose marked an unloved and unmourned grave.

The Trade Unions’ major historical error

The trade unions wanted political representation in Parliament. However, they did not want this political representation to be seen as “socialist” and nor did they have a socialist object in mind. The TUC and trade unions that sponsored the Labour Representation Committee were all for the British Empire, free trade and hostility towards the socialism of Marx.

In 1899, the Trades Union Congress passed a motion to bring together political parties like the ILP, the SDP (who were soon to leave the group) and the Fabians to form a single body which would allow trade unions to sponsor Parliamentary candidates free from the Liberal Party. The conference was held at the Memorial Hall on Farringdon Street on 26th and 27th February 1900.

After a debate, the 129 delegates passed Keir Hardie's motion to establish:

A distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Representation_Committee).

A party, then, with no socialist principles, no socialist object, admitting to class collaboration and opportunism, producing policy independently from their trade union sponsors and forced, when in power, to support the interests of employers rather than the working class majority.

Class collaboration and opportunism came from the start for the Labour Party. In the 1906 general election, the Labour Representation Committee won 29 seats—helped by a secret pact in 1903 between Ramsay MacDonald and Liberal Chief Whip Herbert Gladstone to avoid splitting the opposition vote between Labour and Liberal candidates in the interest of removing the Conservatives from office. On 15th February 1906, at their first meeting after the election the group's Members of Parliament decided to adopt the name "The Labour Party" Keir Hardie of the ILP became Chairman and de facto leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Socialist it was not. The Labour has never been, is not and never will be a socialist organisation.

Trade unions in wanting political representation, were saying, in effect, that there was nothing beyond trade union action and nothing beyond capitalism. In taking this position they repudiated the advances made in the 1860s and 1870s with the establishment of the First international in 1864 and the work of Marx in bringing a scientific understanding of capitalism to the minds of the working class, particular his writings on the limitations of trade unions in VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT. The formation of the Labour Representation Committee was a retrograde step.

The trade unions rejected the need for a socialist political party based on principle and with a singular socialist object. They could not conceive of a social system that did not need either trade unions or employers. To want political representation just to further trade union interests within capitalism was the fundamental error made by the trade union movement and the trade unions have paid dearly for making this error ever since.

The Labour Party’s elected members of Parliament very quickly insulated themselves from the trade unions and the wider party membership while labour government ministers created a barrier between themselves and the parliamentary Labour Party; particularly on questions of foreign policy. The leader became increasingly supreme with an influx of non-party academics to give advice about how to run capitalism more efficiently and a huge office and staff producing policy independent of government departments and the party membership.

And rather than represent the trade unions the Labour Party represented the interests of the capitalist class and British capitalism. They had no choice. That is what reformist parties end up doing. They run capitalism until they are replaced by other capitalist parties.

Within a very short space of time the trade unions found themselves at odds with the political monster they had created. made worse by the Labour Party being injected with reformist ideas from the Independent Labour Party and the Fabians. From the ILP it was a list of immediate demands and from the Fabians a policy of “Gradualism” towards state capitalism signified by the old Clause IV drawn up by the Webbs.

The political monster, conceived in 1900 and born in 1906, has repeatedly turned on the trade unions. using troops to break strikes, imposing pay restraint legislation and siding with the interest of employers to increase productivity and profit. And now the ruling circles within the Labour Party leadership want it to be free from the trade unions altogether to become either a Tory party lite or mirror the Democratic Party in the United States. The trade unions should get in first and sever all contact with the Labour Party and destroy the monster they created.

If there is going to be soul-searching - a return to the past to understand where political errors were made and how they can be rectified - the trade union movement should look again at the First International and Marx’s lecture to the General Council in 1865 and also to the socialist Object and Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its criticisms of the Labour Party.

In his lecture to the General Council Marx put forward three resolutions to the general Council:

* Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.
* Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.
* Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.


These three resolutions turn the class struggle away from being just a defensive struggle by workers over the intensity and extent of exploitation towards a political struggle within a socialist party necessary to capture the machinery of government, including the armed forces, a perquisite for abolishing production for profit and establishing production for use.

The aim of a socialist political party, as Marx noted, is simply to abolish the wages system. In socialism there would be no buying and selling of labour power, no employers, no trade unions, no labour market and no class exploitation. And, since 1904, there has been only one political party in Britain who has this singular socialist objective; the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Socialism: Principles and Object

When the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1904, two years before the Labour Party, it introduced into socialist organisation two new principles. One was its rejection of the need for leadership. The second was that the SPGB did not have a programme of “immediate demands”. The SPGB stated:

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is the Party with socialism and nothing but socialism as its Object (SOCIALIST STANDARD, July 1911)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain also held in its seventh principle a “hostility clause” which kept the class interests of workers distinct and diametrically opposed “to the interests of all sections of the master class “. Socialists did not do deals with other political parties.

The SPGB also resolved the political questions of reformism and insurrection by advocating the revolutionary use of democratic institutions, especially Parliament, to achieve socialism. Parliament had only been used by the Labour Party and similar organisations to get reforms and it was assumed that this was the only purpose for which it could be used. The contribution to socialist theory by the SPGB was to point out that this was a false conclusion and there was no reason why Parliament could not be used by a class-conscious socialist majority to win power for the socialist revolution

Reformism and insurrection can be avoided by building-up a socialist party of convinced and committed socialists. Socialists will elect socialist delegates to local councils and parliament for the one revolutionary act of dispossessing the capitalist class and establishing socialism. The removal of the Labour Party from the political field will help both the working class and socialists in this revolutionary process.

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