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From: Labour Affairs: Editorials
Date: July, 0001
By: Editorial

Party Politics and State Power

In last month’s issue Labour Affairs argued that the British two-party system of representative parliamentary democracy was largely a theatre, giving the impression of serious political rivalry about substantial policies but artfully concealing underlying agreements between the parties on nearly all the important issues. Conventional party politics is an illusion of real choice. Phoney antagonisms are worked up to generate that illusion, e.g. parliamentary rhetoric and theatre, media commentary and stage battles on TV and radio ‘question time’ etc.

If a nominally left party should try to show dissent, and propose policies that depart from a very narrow consensus, then forces are mobilised to destroy the leadership of that initiative. The fall and cancelling of Jeremy Corbyn illustrates the point. As soon as a significant element of the Labour Party, mainly within the mass membership, opted for a mildly reformist social democratic programme and a different foreign policy (pro Palestinian, anti Nato), powerful forces within and outside the Party were mobilised to destroy him. These forces were primarily located within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the party bureaucratic apparatus. They were aided by the mass media, including ‘progressive’ papers like The Guardian, the BBC and agents of the Israeli state which were activated because Corbyn was not considered to be sufficiently compliant with Israeli interests in his foreign policy orientation. The episode is a good illustration both of the sham nature of representative parliamentary democracy and of the difficulty in making it less of a sham. Our starting point is that the Labour Party is incapable of doing this. It is run by elites who share the same background and political attitudes as the Tories and Liberals. They have no interest in promoting working class power and influence. Increasingly, this also applies to social democratic initiatives in local government. So North Tyne Labour mayor, Jamie Driscoll, who showed an interest in activist local politics to promote job creation, has been removed from the candidacy of the new expanded regional mayoralty in the North

East. So where does this leave the left?

One way of looking at the problem is for left-wing forces to focus primarily on capturing the state. The task is then first to establish a party that does represent an alternative and then to exercise significant power over the state. This is no mean task as the state has many facets, few of which are subject to electoral processes. If we think of the state as consisting of: parliament, executive and civil service, security services, armed forces, police, judiciary then the nature of the problem becomes clearer. A majority in the House of Commons will leave the state in the hands of interests opposed to a programme of change in favour of the working class. This would be a long term task, even if a social democratic, let alone a socialist party tried to do it. The chances of significant extra parliamentary disruption from establishment forces to restore the status quo would be very high and such a party would need to be prepared to deal with it.

This brings into focus civil society as an area of political contestation, meaning non-state institutions including businesses, trade unions, co-operative organisations and the non-state media as the main actors for our purposes. We should also not forget the presence of political parties within civil society. They have a role to play in local government, trade unions and community activity such as housing campaigns, as well as aspiring to control parliament. But as we have seen, Starmer is keen on crushing an independent spirit in the regions as well.

Capitalist interests have formidable forces deployed within civil society, including business and mass media: the latter themselves dominated by business interests which allow for joint planning of information wars (co-ordination between parliament and newspapers). Eamon Dyas wrote recently about the difficulties the left has traditionally faced in gaining a media presence and the outlook of journalists, including those who think of themselves as on the left makes it difficult for a working class view to be consistently presented. Too often seemingly left-wing publications pursue an identity or ‘human rights’ agenda rather than attending to working and living conditions amongst ordinary people or they accept the framework of economic policy which leads to problems for the working class in the first place, namely the ‘household budget’ view of the national economy. The working class’s interests are represented on a day to day basis by the trade union movement, which also has a broader strategic objective of influencing the Labour Party to adopt policies favourable to the working class and the unions. At the moment, the balance of advantage seems to lie with the Labour Party which offers little or nothing to the trade unions in return for the very considerable financing which they are still prepared to provide to the party. Trade union strength lies within the ability to exert influence within the workplace to advance an agenda of improving wages and conditions, avoiding redundancies, ensuring safe and healthy working conditions and making sure that companies have a good pension scheme. These are all objectives of the first importance and any union that neglects them is likely to diminish in strength and ultimately fail.

In last month’s editorial it was pointed out that British trade unions, by the end of the 1960s, had reached a position in which they were strong enough to affect the way in which capitalists conducted their businesses. They had not planned to get into this position and it happened almost unnoticed. Most, with few exceptions, did not know what to do with this power. For many businesses, ignoring trade unions and their members’ interests was not an option. Ernest Bevin had anticipated this situation and had a well thought out programme of

exploiting this strength without directly challenging the power of the state. For Bevin and his followers and successors, the most influential of whom was Jack Jones, a successor to Bevin as General Secretary of the TGWU, the union which Bevin had played a key role in founding, this was going to involve accepting that the trade unions were de facto a part of the British constitution and the obligations as well as the opportunities that went along with that status. The alternative position within the movement, championed by the Communist Party of Great Britain, associated unionists like Arthur Scargill and sections of the Labour Left, was to use the trade union movement as a vehicle of assault on the state, doing so by pressing economic demands that could not be met by employers including the state, which was still at that time a considerable owner of industries and utilities, with a view to rendering capitalism inoperable. Trade unionists were to be the cannon fodder for this assault on the state.

The second Wilson government’s (1966-1970) attempt to deal with this by placing legal constraints on trade unions failed and was superseded by the Donovan Commission’s report of 1968, which recommended a milder structure based on collective bargaining for solving industrial disputes. By 1972 militant trade unionism, led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), had succeeded in bringing the Tory government under Edward Heath to heel, inaugurating a more corporatist approach by the Tories (Heath was originally a precursor of Thatcher, but rapidly changed orientation). However, the Tories were again defeated by the NUM in 1973-74 and Heath went to the country on a ‘who governs Britain?’ platform and

Labour Affairs 2 No. 340 - July - August 2023

narrowly lost to Labour again under Harold Wilson. This time, a different approach to putting the trade union movement into the constitution was tried. The Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy of 1977 offered employee representation on boards of directors of firms with 2,000 and more employees on a ‘2x + y’ formula: x for employee representatives; x for employer representatives and y for other stakeholders to be decided by the two ‘x’ elements. Employers were not keen and the trade union movement was not united enough to fight for it, despite the efforts of trade unionists such as Jack Jones. A determined union movement would undoubtedly have seen the Bullock proposal put into law, but the moment passed.

Attempts at corporatist solutions to problems of wage-based inflation continued, but without worker representation on boards these succumbed to unions’ immediate demands in the context of high inflation and the public impression of a lack of direction and helplessness on the part of Callaghan’s Labour government (1976-1979) led to the election of a radical Tory administration under Thatcher in 1979. Bullock and enhanced union power were now off the table, but Thatcher proceeded cautiously, despite her great ambition to cut the unions down to size. However, the attempt of Arthur Scargill, Mick McGahey and the NUM leadership to use the miners as a means to destabilise Thatcher’s second government in 1984 led to a decisive defeat for the NUM, which emboldened Thatcher to proceed with privatisation of utilities and further legal restraints on industrial action. The decline of trade union power and membership and the ascendancy of the employers was now underway in earnest. This decline has now been going on for nearly

40 years since the miners’ strike of 1984 and no attempt by the trade unions to find a place in the governing structure of Britain, either through parliament or in the workplace has been made since the 1970s, despite the efforts of the outgoing General Secretary of the TUC Frances O’Grady.

Very little reflection has taken place within the trade union movement on the events between 1968 and 1984 with a view to learning from them. Essentially the unions remain a force of protest against employers’ ability to enforce their will in the workplace. Britain is a European outlier in absence of union representation on enterprise boards, employment protection is weak, employers have retreated en masse from any wish to train their staff and have enjoyed a free lunch of skilled workers from Europe to help them escape their responsibilities. Britain has a low wage, low skill economy with weak employment rights, poor training opportunities and restricted opportunities for remedial industrial action. Such impotence further weakens the power of trade unions. The Labour Party has largely accepted the situation that Thatcher created and has little or no interest in promoting trade union interests, except in some matters of detail. The effect on working class living

standards and quality of life has been negative. Low wages, insecure employment rights, declining pensions and absence of development opportunities all impact on working class experience. Low skill jobs and micromanagement too often mean boring and monotonous work with no incentive for employers to up their game. Low pay, low skill work makes individual workers dispensable and exacerbates job insecurity. Employees who are expensive to train and difficult to fire give employers an incentive to invest in them, not to mention creating jobs that are more worthwhile because more productive. This agenda is still largely off limits for trade union thinking. Unions are quite rightly concerned with wages and conditions, particularly at the current time, but the absence of a longer term strategy is concerning.

Currently we have a Labour Party that is Tory Team B and a union workplace strategy oriented around the notion of protest. ‘Management’s right to manage’ is not questioned. If the labour movement is not to be checkmated both in its approach to parliament and in its work in enterprises, some new thinking is required.