Ordinary working people have faced an onslaught against their living standards over the past five years due to the crisis of capitalism. The leadership of the Labour Party should be offering concrete political proposals to combat this. Instead, however, the LP has spent the last four years concentrating on a reorganisation of the Party. Darrall Cozens examines the recent focus of the Labour leaders on organisational changes rather than political alternatives.
“There’s been nobody in my constituency coming along and saying to me: at this time of economic crisis, what we need is a reorganisation of the Labour Party.” (Glasgow South West Labour MP Ian Davidson – BBC 1st February 2014.)
Ever since the great economic crash of 2008 the pages of Socialist Appeal have been filled with facts and figures that demonstrate how the gains made by the working class in the post-war period have been eroded by the policies of austerity. Directly in terms of wages and terms and conditions at work, and indirectly in social and public service provision, working class people have seen their share of society’s wealth drastically reduced as they have been made to pay for an economic crisis they did not cause. Even the Labour Party (LP), in the first edition of its new publication One Nation, has stated that “working people are £1,600 a year worse off”.
Given this situation of falling living standards, you might have expected Ed Miliband and the Labour Party to have produced some concrete political proposals to combat this. The only promise made so far, however, is that after the election of 2015 labour would freeze energy prices until 2017, saving a typical household £120 a year. This is to be welcomed but nothing is said about restoring the remaining £1,480 that families have lost.
Instead, the LP has spent the last four years concentrating on a reorganisation of the LP, especially its relationship with the trade unions. Miliband believes that changes in the LP are necessary because they are “about making it possible for us to change Britain for the better.” (Speech, July 9th, 2013)
Many members of the Party have become increasingly frustrated with this concentration on organisational issues rather than policies. Yet it had all started so differently back in September 2010 when Ed narrowly beat his arch-Blairite brother David to become leader of the Party. After all, David was tainted with the pro-big business and pro-Iraq war stance of Blair and co. who dominated the Party.
A sign of the pressures that would be heaped on Ed came just after the result was announced. MPs and MEPs had voted 140 for David and 122 for Ed. Ordinary LP members had voted 67,000 for David and 56,000 for Ed. In the affiliated vote from trade unions, however, 80,000 voted for David but 119,000 for Ed. The bourgeois press were quick to pick up on this, labelling Ed as “Red Ed” and stating he was in the pockets of the trade unions.
This is the nature of social democratic parties who have one foot in the working class and one foot in the capitalist class. Whichever class exercises the greatest pressure on the Party will determine the direction that the Party takes, and the capitalists were quick off the mark to state their claim to influence where the LP was going. After all, at a time of crisis and rapidly falling living standards for the majority working class in Britain, the last thing the capitalists want is a Party with a programme and leadership that would not only defend but also fight to enhance working class living standards.
The immediate effect of Ed’s victory, however, was an influx of about 50,000 new members, taking membership up to around 200,000. But far from developing a new spirit of hope amongst Party members, events since 2010 within the Party and amongst the leadership have created a growing sense of disillusionment as the Party has been shown to lack policies and a leadership that could stand up for working class people and oppose the Austerity policies of the Tory-dominated Coalition.
In 2011, the first year of Ed’s leadership, the LP produced a consultation document called “Refounding Labour”. This was to be the beginning of a new era, a new direction for the LP both in terms of policy and structure. The document is brutally honest in assessing what went wrong with the LP for it to lose the 2010 election. Ed’s foreword admits that “we also lost touch with many of the people we were founded to represent” and the reason we did not suffer an even worst defeat in the 2010 election was because of the “determination and organisation of Labour party members and activists”.
The same theme is taken up by Peter Hain MP, the author of the document. He states that despite some achievements “sometimes we lost our way: we lost hundreds of councillors, thousands of members and five million voters…..many members felt disillusioned….certain parts of our membership began to feel disengaged…..we were beaten by UKIP into third place in the European elections”. He asks some searching questions as to “why labour had been abandoned by people who used to support us”. He also recognised that “we lost support in our working class or ‘core’ vote – many of whom just didn’t bother voting”.
It is one thing, however, to ask questions and recognise hard facts, it is quite another to come up with policies that will address these issues. Despite recognising that “our policies and promises may command more credibility if they are promoted enthusiastically by volunteer party members on the doorstep”, the document suggests organisational changes rather than the development of policies that would attract voters to Labour. To be honest the document recognises this when it states that “the fundamental aim of our policy making process should be to support the party in developing a policy programme which appeals to, and connects with, the electorate” but the process has been undermined by fewer CLPs sending delegates to conference and “a command and control culture which as sometimes seen at odds with dissent and diversity. Too often party members felt that they had no influence on policy outcomes”.
Despite the claim that discussions on this document would result in the return of the Party to its members, as “too few feel part of the process”, the practical outcomes have been felt locally and nationally. Locally, the Local Government Committees, where CLP and trade union delegates came together to jointly formulate with the Labour Group the electoral policy at a local level, have been replaced by Local Campaigning Forums with a very much reduced level of member participation and where local policy is now decided solely by the Labour Group. Far from involving more members in policy development, the opposite has happened.
The Collins Report
The other outcome of the Refounding Labour document was the Collins Report which put forward, as is the trend in the Party, organisational proposals to try and encourage a greater level of participation by trade union members in the life of the Party. The issue of a political programme to enthuse and involve members is not addressed.
So important is the link between the political and industrial wings of the labour movement, a link that stretches back more than 100 years, that two hours have been graciously allowed just before the Labour local government conference on March 1st to discuss and vote on changes to these links despite the fact that the trade unions created the Labour Party as its political voice.
The Collins Report was a discussion document, but its whole approach is very revealing as regards its intentions. Again we have hopeful beginnings. The “Tory-led government…listens only to the big donors, the corporate lobbyists, the richest and most powerful – never to you” as it stands up for “the wrong people”. “Labour was formed by working men and women in trade unions and socialist societies outside of Parliament” and Ed wants to “mend, not end, that relationship with the trade unions”.
The assumption made, therefore, is that the relationship must be broken for it to need mending! Yet the desire is for the link with working people to be deepened, not weakened, in particular with working people in trade unions to “underpin a collective engagement with our party for trade unions”. And this is important as “trade unions have a wealth of experience, knowledge, research and ideas based on their role in the workplace and communities…that is expressed collectively…that the three million working people currently affiliated to Labour through these unions…are the most under-utilised asset in British politics”.
The collective voice is therefore important yet the first proposal is to get rid of the collective voice so that trade union members can choose actively as individuals whether or not they want to join the LP, where they will then have a “real voice as individuals within the party”. Then implication, therefore, is that the collective voice was not real, but that the voice of trade unionists as individuals is. Yet we are also told that “Ed does not want this individual relationship with the trade unions to damage the collective relationship”. It seems that Ed wants to keep his cake and also eat it.
How would this happen? The first task is to try and “convert as many as possible of the levy-payers of affiliated unions into individual membership of our party”. At the moment roughly 2.8 million political- levy-paying members of trade unions affiliate to the LP at £3 per person, bringing in about £8.5 million as much needed party income. Many of the unions affiliated to the LP have already indicated that, at most, some 10% of their members would make an active choice to join the party as individuals. The first outcome would therefore be a financial crisis with a massive drop in party income.
The second difficulty would also be the rights that these new members would enjoy if they became members at a reduced rate. Would they have the same rights as full subs paying members? If they did, what is to stop present full-paying subs members from reducing their subs to the level of the new category of membership? Would this mean yet another financial hit for the LP? But even more importantly, what rights will these new members have in policy formulation, the election of the leader and voting rights at party conference?
Ed was elected as leader through the Electoral College system where the votes cast in the final round of voting show that the weight of votes of 262 MPs and MEPs was equal to the votes of about 122,000 ordinary LP members and 200,000 affiliated trade union members. And even then to get on the ballot paper, candidates could only be nominated by MPs – and you had to have at least 33 of them nominating you. For that reason the favoured Left candidate, John McDonnell MP, could not even get on the ballot paper as he could only muster 16 nominations, all of which he passed to Dianne Abbott when he withdrew from the race.
To try and get support for the proposed changes, Ed is putting forward the idea of “One Member One Vote” the next time leadership elections are held. This is to be welcomed in terms of internal party democracy, as the present system showed that in the 2010 leadership elections, the vote of an MP was worth that of 466 ordinary LP members and 763 affiliated members. Yet this apparent move to more internal party democracy is counteracted by the fact that any nomination for the leader of the party would now have to be supported by 20% of MPs instead of the present 12.5%. The end result is the same. Whether you are an affiliated member or an ordinary member, you can only vote for a leader from a list that is controlled by the Parliamentary Labour Party. It seems that too much democracy is not good for us as we cannot be trusted to exercise it properly.
The Labour Party is seeking to involve more people in the internal life of the party by making organisational changes, especially in relation to the trade unions. In this they are supported by a variety of interested groups. We have that creature Peter Mandelson, who stated on December 22nd 2013 that “What it means is lifting the trade union grip from the party’s conference and its policy-making, from the membership of the national executive committee of the party, and from the trade union’s role in electing the leadership, the leader of the Labour party”.
We also have the bourgeois press, the mouthpiece of the capitalist class, coming out with similar sentiments, for they realise that as the crisis deepens there is only so much that the working class can take in terms of cuts. When the class moves into action, part of that process will be felt through the trade unions and then the LP. If the organic link is cut, that may reduce the influence of the industrial wing of the movement on the political wing, the LP. The bourgeoisie wants a LP along the lines that Tony Blair strove to create, a faithful supporter of the capitalist system much like the democrats in the USA.
There are also those fringe groups on the Left who call for the trade unions to break with Labour in the hope that the unions will then form a new mass workers party. History teaches that the working class will break with the party it created when it both no longer has any faith that that party represents its interests and when it also seeks out another alternative rather than abstaining. The results of the recent Manchester Wythenshawe by-election confirm this. Despite a reduced turnout of 23,961 compared to 40, 751 in 2010, and the LP vote falling from 17,987 to 13,261, as a percentage of the votes cast the LP vote went up from 44.1% to 55.3%.
The nature of capitalist society
The ranks of the LP will be heartened by the result; but the percentage turnout at 28.2%, a fall of 26.1% compared to 2010, will also be a cause for concern. What is there in Labour’s programme to enthuse voters to turn out and support the party?
Ed Miliband stated in his Hugo Young lecture on February 10th that, “Clearly the next Labour government will face massive fiscal challenges, including having to cut spending”. So all Ed can offer working class people is more of the same – cuts in living standards. Yet in the same speech he recognised that there were inequalities of wealth, income and power. However, as there are no policies to deal with wealth and income inequalities, he could only put forward some vague ideas about how service users in health and education could somehow gain a greater say in how these services were delivered.
Given that the rich and powerful own and control society is a myriad of ways, Ed chose to deal with secondary issues of how services are run rather than who owns and controls them. This is in line with Ed’s concept that he wants to see something that had never existed in the UK or in the world – a “responsible capitalism”. No matter what type of capitalism you wish for, responsible or irresponsible, the basis of it will be the private ownership of the means of production, production for profit and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
If there is no profit to be made in building homes, schools or hospitals, in creating jobs and providing decent living wages, in creating greater educational and health opportunities, then they will not happen so long as capitalism exists. That is why – in a Britain that is divided into classes, into the haves and have nots, into the rich minority that continues to receive huge salaries and bonuses and an ever increasing majority suffering cuts in living standards – Ed’s dream of a One Nation Britain will remain a dream.
The only road to a One Nation Britain is for wealth and the means of creating wealth to be socially owned for the benefit of all in society. That would lay the basis for the creation of a socialist society where class differences would begin to disappear.
If Ed is serious about involving more working class people in the life of the LP, in creating a LP that represents the interests of the vast majority of society and not the privileged few who support the Tory Party, then sooner or later he will have to realise that it is policies that address the real issues facing people that will enthuse and encourage them to take their destiny into their hands, not the internal reorganisation of the party.