- Category: Analysis
- Published on Sunday, 6 April 2014
- Written by Jules Alford
“If your son or daughter fancies becoming a Labour MP, forget it. They have more chance of cleaning in the Commons than being elected to it. That is what the row over Labour selection procedures is really about – who can play a part in our politics.” Len McCluskey, 2013
“Can I ever envisage a rules conference voting to disaffiliate from Labour? I can, I can, and that’s a challenge to Ed Miliband because I believe the Labour Party is at a crossroads, this is a watershed.” Len McCluskey, April 2014
It is a commonplace of political commentary that in countries such as Britain where representative democracy is established, that a ‘crisis of representation’ exists. Media pundits, social scientists, activists and even occasionally Westminster politicians are united in pointing to the compound epidemic of apathy, cynicism, disillusion, ennui and disengagement both with mainstream politics and its traditional organisational expression, the political parties of the left and right.
What were once mass parties are now hollowed out, emaciated, missing millions of members and reduced to a deracinated simulacrum of their former selves as membership, active participation and votes garnered continue to head south. Significantly, this process of political decomposition pre-dated the emergence of neoliberalism in the mid to late 1970s, though the final consolidation of the latter in the 1990s with the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ has powerfully reinforced a malign trend.
Crucially, the timorous retreat of the traditional left parties has produced a narrowing of ideological horizons while the axis of political discourse has shifted to the right, adding further to voter apathy and civic disengagement. As the two-party system continues to decompose, many commentators argue that popular politics has been transformed and shed its ‘tribal’ (read class) cast while gravitating towards the US model (the pioneer nation of ‘pure’ bourgeois politics if we forget about the Victorian 19th century of the Whigs and the Tories). Across Europe, politics has increasingly acquired a populist, presidential and plebiscitary nature – all ghostly symptoms of the alienation of the mass of citizens from politics. According to Hansard in 2013, a record low of 42% of people in Britain regard politics as important and many may well be surprised it is as great as that. Increasingly, older class solidarities are losing their hold, becoming more notional, more contingent, less of a spontaneous reflex and more a conscious, fierce badge of identity.
In the early 1950s Labour Party membership reached a highpoint of over 1 million party members. By the early 1970s it was estimated that membership had fallen below 300,000, though in reality reliable party records were no longer available. In The Decline of Working Class Politics (1971) Barry Hindess underlined the loss of Labour’s working class members at all levels of the party, as the social composition of the party was radically altered with the falling away of the numbers of manual workers. This was a rough and ready barometer of what Michael Kidron described as the “retreat of the reformist sea of faith” (Kidron 1970: 106-23). But precipitously declining party membership was by no means the exclusive fate of the Labour Party. In the 1950s membership of the Conservative and Unionist Party was even greater and stood at 3 million members. Today it is estimated that Tory membership has fallen below 100,000, having undergone a severe collapse since 2010. At some level there must be concern in Britain’s ruling class and state managers that the ‘natural party of government’, or rather the natural first choice for our rulers, has been compelled to form governments on the basis of ever more dubious electoral mandates, especially as the Celtic fringes chafe at the impact of untrammelled Tory power and undiluted neoliberal medicine.
Until recently of course, the two ‘major’ parties, by dint of Labour’s connection to the organised working class via the trade union link, appeared to offer Britain’s electorate a real, if tenuous class-based choice. The ‘neoliberal turn’ of the late 1970s when Labour was still in office, Thatcher’s ascendancy and the crushing defeats of the 1980s that halted labour’s forward march and sent it headlong, have all combined in a negative compulsion driving Labour to accept the new neoliberal dispensation.
More generally, Beverly Silver, in an important work on global labour, has critically examined the broader context of the crisis of organised labour in a comparative historical study that challenges the common sentiment that labour movements across the globe were being marginalised as political actors or even faced terminal decline as a result of the twin challenges of globalisation and neoliberalism. Among those aspects of globalisation that were specifically seen as undermining organised labour was the enhanced mobility capital had acquired that meant capital was able to ‘detour’ national labour movements more effectively, thus reducing their bargaining power. This aspect of globalisation also had an indirect effect on organised labour because capital mobility undermined state sovereignty and the capacity of the state to respect any ‘social compact’ with organised labour. Silver also notes the work of those social theorists who have focused on fundamental “process innovations” – or changes in capitalism’s labour and production processes that saw the standardised mass production typical of Fordism increasingly give way to “flexible accumulation” or post-Fordist production methods with the effect of disaggregating the working class.
Silver is highly critical of claims that “labour strengthening” have given way to “labour weakening” forms of material production and capitalist accumulation. For example, in relation to globalisation and capital mobility, Silver notes that, according to UNCTAD, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows in 1999 saw $276 billion in FDI go to the US compared to $226 billion for Latin America, Asia, Africa, Central and Eastern Europe and where capital had relocated it had created powerful working classes such as Brazil, South Africa and South Korea – and reformist workers parties emerged too in contradistinction to the pattern of development proposed by Lenin in discussing bourgeois workers’ parties (Silver 2003: 1-5).
But such critical views proposing the weakening of global labour evidently has implications for the ‘crisis of Labourism’ (and the ‘crisis of representation’ too) as the state’s adoption of neoliberalism in response to the coercive competitive pressures of globalisation, diminishes the scope of reform traditionally associated with social democracy and Labourism, impelling these parties to try to ‘emancipate’ themselves from organised labour on the basis the latter offers a social base that is too ‘narrow’ for a viable national electoral force able to form governments.
Interestingly, Silver cites the work of Ruth Berrins Collier, who notes that the working class generally, and organised labour in particular, was a key agent in spreading democracy where formerly authoritarian regimes existed. As democratisation spread globally, its effectiveness in ensuring social reform or underwriting independence, was diminished as the writ of supra-national institutions (IMF, World Bank) and international trade agreements grew (Collier 1999).
But some caution is required on a number of scores. Though Miliband scored some sort of ‘victory’ at the Special Conference on 1 March, the Labour Party remains, at least for now, that profoundly contradictory creature, a bourgeois workers’ party. What exactly Lenin meant by that neologism, Lenin’s inspiration for the idea in Engels’s remarks on the aristocracy of labour and the conservative elements of the TUC in the Victorian twilight, is a subject we return to below. That Special Conference sanctioned a transition to a new arrangement where trade union members are required to opt in as individuals to party membership rather than being automatically enrolled and therefore having to opt out as individuals if they did not wish to contribute financially to Labour – will take five years before it is put in place on the other side of the 2015 general election.
The question arises, what is Miliband trying to achieve? Does the Miliband circle wish to transform Labour into a classical bourgeois party like the Democratic Party in the US and thus realise the aspiration of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson in the 1990s and those on the right of Labour’s political command today? Would such a transformation amount to a historical regression as the idea of a working class, albeit debased party not entirely independent of the bourgeoisie suffered a setback? How significant was Labour’s embrace of neoliberalism in the last two decades and did it represent a break with Labour’s past?
More parochially from the standpoint of the native Leninist tradition, would Labour stop being a bourgeois workers’ party if Miliband’s overhaul of the organic link were to be consummated in five years? Or has it already done so? Is it the existence of the organic link that defines Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party in the Leninist tradition?
These are the vital questions addressed below.
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