Athol Books Magazine Articles


All Articles
Articles By Author
Articles By Magazine
Articles By Subject
Full Text Search

Athol Books

Aubane Historical Society
The Heresiarch Website
Athol Books Online Sales
Athol Books Home Page
Archive Of Articles From Church & State
Archive Of Editorials From Church & State
Archive Of Articles From Irish Political Review
Archive Of Editorials From Irish Political Review
Belfast Historical & Educational Society
Athol Books Secure Online Sales

Other Sites

Irish Writer Desmond Fennell
The Bevin Society
David Morrison's Website

Subscribe Securely To
Athol Books Magazines

Church & State (Print) Church & State (Digital)
Irish Foreign Affairs (Print) Irish Foreign Affairs (Digital)
Irish Political Review (Print) Irish Political Review (Digital)
Labour & Trade Union Review (Print)
From: Labour Affairs: Editorials
Date: June, 0001
By: Editorial

Party Politics and the Labour Party

Party politics and the Labour Party
The Labour Party is the official opposition to the government. What exactly does this mean? How should socialists regard the Labour Party? Finding a satisfactory answer to these questions is not easy. To answer them we need to look at the kind of system (representative party political democracy) that the party system is embedded in. The British political parties evolved out of the civil war of the Seventeenth Century as two fluid but competing factions of the governing elites of the country. O ne of these was protective of the monarchy as the primary source of political power. The other supported the aristocratic oligarchy as the governing elite with a monarchy as a figurehead with limited powers. These parties were the Tories and the Whigs respectively. Although political alignments were never clear cut, and although there were Tory aristocrats and middle class Whigs, the basis of the political power of each was located in different positions within the ruling elites. Tories relied in particular on the lower aristocracy (gentry) and on those who felt oppressed by the aristocracy as the main basis for their support. During the early years of party politics, changes of government were not smooth and the outgoing administration was regarded as treasonous by the incoming one. The system took a long time to bed down as a form of peaceful transfer of power between competing factions.

These early parties were basically associations of clans (groupings of extended families) whose members populated both houses of parliament and exercised patronage over jobs and privileges nationally and locally. Until 1832 the proportion of the population with the vote was around 10% of adult males, nearly doubling after the Reform Act of that year. The Labour Party came to prominence when the electorate was enlarged in 1918 and included the working class male population. Liberals (formerly Whigs) who had represented working class constituencies gradually made way for Labour, especially in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Critically, they helped to ‘domesticate’ the Labour members into the ways of parliament and taught them what was acceptable behaviour and what the limits of political action could be. ‘Clubbability’ was enlisted as a way of making the new representatives feel part of the elite and thus distancing them from those whom they represented. Essentially the role of a parliamentary opposition is to slide into government without disruption and without disturbing the overall power structure of the society and the Labour Party was educated by the Liberal (formerly Whig) faction of the ruling elite to do just that. Labour learned this lesson well. At that time, both Liberals and Tories represented capitalist interests but had different views on social, national No. 339 - June 2023 and imperial questions and on how a capitalist economy should work.
Working class power though continued to develop through the trade union movement from the 1930s to the 1970s. Instead of parliament, civil society in the form of the working class organised in trade unions, co-op societies and other institutions and their industrial and voting strength became the motor of working class politics for a couple of decades. This movement was transformed into an effective working class legislative and executive power for the brief period 1945 – 51, building on working class hegemony in the economy during the Second World War. The TGWU under Ernest Bevin was the main motor of this advance. For a brief period it looked as if there was an alternative elite in the making, developed from the working class rather than capitalists and aristocratic remnants. Those days have long gone. Apart from a few trade unionists like Ernest Bevin, Walter Citrine, and later in the 1970s, Jack Jones and Clive Jenkins, British trade unions never really saw themselves as a potential governing class and were much happier sticking to the subordinate role of restricting the power of management, rather than taking over the enterprises in which they worked or even running insurance or vocational education structures on behalf of the working class. There are four main elements to the Labour Party. The trade unions and co-op societies that are affiliated and financially support it.
There is the mass individual membership. There is the central party administration and there is the Parliamentary Labour Party. Since the 1990s the Labour Party has gradually distanced itself from the trade unions and indeed from the traditional industrial working class, which itself shrank in number. It is no longer accurate to describe it as parliamentary representation of the trade union movement. The mass individual membership is no longer so clearly rooted in the traditional working class as it used to be. Many members belong to what Sahra Wagenknecht has called the ‘self-righteous’,1 that is mainly middle class people with relatively secure and well paid jobs who are more interested in identity and lifestyle politics than they are with furthering the material and political interests of the working class. There is a divide, often unspoken but real enough, between those interested in class and those interested in identity politics. This is reflected in Starmer’s contortions, for example stating that 99.9% of women do not have a penis.2 Such absurdities further alienate working class voters while they smooth the ruffled feathers of the highly influential university educated party activists. Turning to the party administration and the parliamentary party, we enter a world increasingly dominated by career politicians from a relatively narrow class background, increasingly detached from the people whom the party was founded to represent. A typical career trajectory for an aspiring Labour politician would closely resemble that of an aspiring Liberal or Tory. It would include higher education at an elite university, working in a think tank, then working as a political advisor to a senior politician before eventually landing a position as a parliamentary candidate or senior party apparatchik. As full-time politicians relatively detached from the trade unions and individual members Labour full-time politicians wield the real power within the party. Having a political elite need not be disastrous. Serious parties need talented and dedicated people able to devote a large part of their lives to politics. Effective working class politics would also need an effective elite of trade unionists, party officials and parliamentarians. But problems arise when the parliamentary party is seen as the only element of the party worthy of consideration and all its other elements are thought to be at its service, fit only for fundraising or envelope stuffing and canvassing at election times. Ruthless use of the rule book (or even ignoring it) can ensure that dissent is rooted out. The elite running the party identify more with the broader elite running the Tories and the major institutions of capitalist society than they do with the people they nominally work for and represent.

We are now approaching a situation where the two parties converge on social composition, attitude and policies. This is similar to the Tory - Whig divide of the Nineteenth Century. There is no real division on important political issues and complete unanimity on following an imperialist foreign policy. This brings us to a fundamental question that will require further debate is parliamentary democracy capable of containing substantial political differences between parties or is it a theatre set up to provide an appearance of real alternatives without actually doing so? The destruction of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn suggests the latter. A mild social democrat, he was portrayed as a threat to the well-being of the British Constitution and dark hints were dropped by obscure military figures that extra-constitutional means might be necessary to ensure that he did not bring the then

Labour Party programme to fruition. 3 If this is the case, then prospects for the advance of working class politics through the Labour Party are virtually non-existent. The Labour Party is an alternative ruling class party whose role is to provide a semblance of political dissent to the British public without the substance.

This analysis poses the uncomfortable question as to how substantial political change can take place within representative parliamentary democracy. This would be a problem for any party that sought to take the place of Labour, unless serious consideration is given as to how the constraints of the political system can be worked around.

1 sahra-wagenknecht-the-self-righteous/
2 https://www.spiked-online. com/2023/04/04/no-keir-starmer-womenstill-dont-have-penises/
3 There is also some evidence of two coup plots against Harold Wilson’s governments, one in 1968 and another in 1974. Wilson was a serious political reforming social democrat, enough to worry some elements of the military and security services and those in the political elite who feared that he might do something radical.