The Magpie: Can we get a political voice?

In a new column, The Magpie discusses working class political representation


The feeling that working class people in Britain have no effective political voice was everywhere even before Syriza won. It is shared by followers of Russell Brand; by those who back Labour out of fear of the Tories; and those who back smaller parties such as the Greens, Left Unity or TUSC.

The General Election may be months away, but everyone knows some form of pro-austerity government will be the result. We know it will back anti-union laws and attack civil rights. We know it will pander to the city and vilify those relying on welfare. We know it won’t stand up to anti-migrant racism and will continue warmongering, repression and Islamophobia.

The rich and powerful are mostly unelected. They don’t get their power from parliament so can’t be beaten by primarily parliamentary means. But as Syriza has shown, getting socialists elected can push working class interests into the political mainstream and challenge the pro-capitalist assumptions of the media.

Those who see the need for a political voice can be broadly split into two camps. Those who seek to “Reclaim Labour” and those who want to create a new party.

Reclaim Labour?

The “Reclaim Labour” camp has its heartlands in the unions. Support is strongest from those employed as union full time officers, and from the activists closest to them. Union conferences are heavily influenced by a layer of member activists who have been involved for a long time and who are released from their jobs all or most of the time for union activity. The support for Labour tails off rapidly lower down the union structures.

The most prominent advocate of Reclaiming Labour has been Unite’s Len McCluskey. He argued for members to join Labour, get involved and fight to get working class people and their supporters selected as Labour candidates. For a while, this did have some success. Quite a number of militant workplace activists (e.g. people involved in the sparks’ unofficial strikes) did join Labour. There was a particular focus on large workplaces, where members’ could discuss collectively the idea of joining and changing Labour. It seemed to many a credible strategy that if dozens of members joined Labour in one area they could beat New Labour. A good success in this strategy was the Falkirk constituency, where lots of Unite members from the Ineos Grangemouth oil refinery joined Labour. New Labour reacted by making wild allegations about vote rigging and creating the conditions for Ineos to victimise Unite convenors Stephen Deans and Mark Lyon.

Though Unite was cleared of any wrongdoing, Labour’s response to Unite’s recruitment success put the Reclaim Labour strategy into reverse. Stevie and Mark were well respected Unite activists both in Scotland and in the wider union (Mark was vice-chair of the Unite Executive Council). Far from recruiting to Labour, Unite members tore up their cards in disgust.

The undemocratic nature of the Labour Party, where the leader, MPs and the machine have disproportionate influence (including in leadership elections) and have historically been willing to drive people out of the party to maintain their power, presents a real problem for “Reclaiming Labour”.

Timescale is a real problem for Labour Reclaimers. They accept that the party won’t change direction without a change in the composition of the parliamentary party. The rate at which seats come up for selection is relatively modest, largely driven by deaths, retirements and scandals. Even if hundreds of thousands of workers joined Labour and got involved, it would still take many years to significantly shift the balance of the Labour Party. But in the meantime, Labour continues attacking its base, alienating working class people and the left. To Reclaim Labour, large numbers of people would have to join, be active and stay in for many years despite Labour’s watered down Tory policies.

Even for those who think there was something worth reclaiming, Reclaiming Labour is less a strategy than wishful thinking.

A new party?

Whatever the problems, the examples of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are inspiring. They reinforce the view that a real political alternative is most likely to come out of a mass movement in the streets and/or workplaces.

In Scotland the Scottish Left Project emerged from socialist involvement in the independence campaign and includes socialists scattered between Labour, SNP, Greens and elsewhere who are trying to create a left political force. The picture in England is less promising. The repeated failed attempts to reach and sustain the critical mass make it harder to win an argument for trying again, particularly outside the context of a mass movement.

The failure to create a left alternative to Labour makes it easier for Labour leaders to derail and undermine all kinds of struggles. Even in those unions not affiliated to Labour, much of their leaderships back Labour and prioritise getting Labour elected over winning by industrial or community campaigning. As election approaches, the fear of another Tory term and the idea that the only “realistic” alternative on offer is Labour drags down every attempt to argue for more than Labour is offering.

So what is possible now?

It is inconceivable that a credible new party will emerge this side of the General Election, but that doesn’t mean that we should just sit back. In fact some very important arguments are bubbling below the surface that need engaging with.

Back in April 2014, McCluskey argued:

“Can I ever envisage a rules conference voting to disaffiliate from Labour? I can, and that’s a challenge to Ed Miliband. Because I believe the Labour Party is at a cross roads. Labour has to demonstrate that it is our voice.”

“We are at a stage in politics where just bumbling along in the old ways is not going to happen any more. Unless Ed and the leadership demonstrate that they are on our side, then I can envisage a debate taking place if Labour lost the election next May.”

Many questioned how much of this was genuine, and how much was just putting pressure on Miliband. Either way, this statement broke new ground and fuelled discussion about alternatives to Labour. As the General Election approached, McCluskey sought to close this down. By the Unite Policy Conference in July 2014 McCluskey was arguing that this wasn’t the time to be debating funding for Labour. Since then he has reportedly praised Miliband’s “radical” programme!

Union funding for Labour normally rockets around election times, as the graph below, created using data from the Electoral Commission web site, shows.

Labour funding

Recent donations, such as the £1m and £1.5m donations agreed by the Unite Executive in December and January, don’t show up yet. The Observer reports that Labour are worrying that the surge in donations may not come, despite unions having millions in their political funds. While union leaders are desperate for a Labour government, having scuppered attempts to resist austerity industrially, they face increasing opposition from members whenever they hand over money to pro-austerity Labour.

After the election, whether in response to Labour failing to attract voters or in response to the crimes of a Miliband government, the debate is bound to reignite after the election – and not just in Unite. Two other factors make this a certainty – the Collins Review and Scotland.

In “response” to the Falkirk controversy they had manufactured, Labour initiated the Collins Review into Labour Party funding. It made recommendations that a special Labour conference adopted – with the support of the unions and despite opposition from labour left groups such as the Labour Representation Committee.

Union members vote every few years on whether their union should have a political fund. If they vote yes, each member still has the right to opt out of contributing to their political fund. In the past, unions decided through their rulebooks and democratic structures whether to affiliate to Labour – and if they did they often paid affiliation fees for their entire membership (even those who hadn’t contributed). Collins means this is being phased out, and by the end of 2019 unions will only be able to affiliate those members who have positively requested it.

A number of unions, including GMB and UNITE, responded by slashing their affiliations to Labour (though this doesn’t stop them making up the difference in donations).

The Collins changes will force unions to try to persuade members to opt in to Labour affiliation, which will intensify debate. By reducing how much they give through automatic affiliation fees, Collins will mean union leaders having to justify optional extra donations, which will spark criticism from union members. Collins is likely to lead to some unions debating or adopting rule changes over the next few years.

The union that Labour seem most committed to defending is not a trade union, but the United Kingdom. Labour allied with the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP against Scottish Independence – against the wishes of many Labour supporters. This produced a catastrophic collapse of Labour support in Scotland alongside the growth of the pro-independence left and rapid increases in membership of pro-independence parties. In choosing Jim Murphy as their new Scottish leader, Labour showed no desire to win back its base.

The Scottish situation, where unions can no longer claim that Labour has a monopoly of working class support, or that it represents working class interests better than other pro-capitalist parties, adds a new dimension to the crisis in the union-Labour link. It is written into the rulebooks of many unions that, throughout England, Scotland and Wales Labour is the only party that can be supported. Even many Labour loyalists recognise that this is almost impossible to defend in Scotland now. This means proposals for rule and policy changes are almost certain to be on the agenda for union conferences over the next few years.

So what?

It may not be possible for socialists to magic an alternative to Labour out of thin air, but even in England and Wales the arguments about a voice for working class people are going to escalate within the unions. What specific proposals make sense will vary from union to union. In the case of the biggest union, Unite, the deadline for rule change proposals is before the General Election. These are arguments we need to be engaging with now, ensuring discussion in workplaces and branches and that proposals are sent in to union conferences. These questions cannot be left to the most conservative pro-Labour layers at the top of the unions.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here