Labour – what are they good for?

Amy Gilligan asks what it means for people to support Labour today and what is happening to this support?

This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine


One of my earliest experiences of political activity was going canvassing for the Labour Party. I was, I should probably say, about four years old at the time and in the intervening 23 years have moved a long way to the left. In the early 1990s my parents were active Labour Party members – my dad was the press officer for the local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and our garden shed was full of Vote Labour signs. My parents, in common with many others, left Labour in 1994 when Blair became leader of the party and Clause 4 was abolished. When asked recently what he thought about the Labour Party, my dad described it as “continuing disappointment”.

The failure of Bennism in the 1980s, mass revulsion over the war in Iraq and a failure to offer opposition to austerity means that illusions that people might once have had in Labour have worn thin. Yet for millions they are the alternative to the Tories, despite the Green surge and rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Labour’s financial support in the unions remains relatively solid despite the savaging of Unite over the Falkirk selection row. Millions will be voting Labour with no illusions – so what is Labour good for, what is it that means people support them and what is happening to this support?

Why do people join Labour?

Although many people on the left can clearly articulate the reasons for not supporting Labour, either by being a member or voting for them, a huge proportion will vote Labour in May. The Labour Party is currently the largest political party in Britain, with around 190,000 members. Millions more will vote for them in May.

Membership numbers, which had declined while Labour were in office in the late 1990s and 2000s, experienced a large boost after the 2010 election. Figures for 2010 are almost 40,000 higher than those for 2009. In the days following the formation of the coalition government Labour claimed that people were joining at a rate of five per minute, and during Clegg and Cameron’s Rose Garden speech at a rate of 15 every second!

Many of those who joined following the 2010 general election cited disappointment in and betrayal by the Liberal Democrats for going into government with the Tories as a reason for joining Labour. Some joined wanting to shape the direction of Labour in the then-upcoming leadership election, even with the idea of trying to ‘reclaim Labour’ for the left. For others it was the realisation that we were going to be faced with five years of austerity and cuts, and the belief that supporting Labour might offer a way to oppose them, not seeing a viable electoral, or non-electoral, alternative elsewhere.

These reasons are not vastly different to those given by many people for joining the Labour Party for decades. Many join because they want a fairer society, and think that that the only real alternative to Labour is the Tories, who would be worse. This makes getting Labour into office important. This is not to say that most people today think if Ed Milliband was prime minister austerity would be reversed, perhaps marking a change from the past when people genuinely thought Michael Foot, for example, becoming prime minister might result in things being different.

John, Labour member in his 20s, describes himself as a “pragmatic idealist”:

In my mind, the core defining feature between Labour and others (i.e. others on the left or the liberals) is the Faustian pact at the heart of the New Labour movement. The argument follows that to effect democractic socialist change you need to get into office. This is something I struggle with a lot. Child benefits, Sure Start, more school spending, NHS spending all are examples of where being in power can effect change, and when lost we get austerity and conservatism. At the same time we too frequently give up important values at the core of the party – civil liberties to appear tough on crime, for example, which I find hard to stomach. So as a follower, I still follow but in a discontented manner – I feel, though, that we can’t always have things our own way.

Mark, also a current Labour Party member, one who describes himself as a “reformist anarcho-syndicalist”, shares some of these sentiments. In response to the idea that all the main political parties are the same he feels, “The gains Labour will bring are tiny, but they are the tiny difference that keeps some people from homelessness.”

The Labour Party does appear to recognise that its potential supporters are not happy with the current situation, asking in an email “Are you with us in our fight to kick out the Tories and restore a fairer government to Britain?”. The problem is it is not clear how they might go about doing this with promises to continue many of the Tories austerity measures.

Reclaiming Labour?

The idea that Labour was better in the past, and what is needed to return to this is for those on the left to join Labour and change it from the inside, can seem attractive. There are two problems with this notion.

Firstly, the image of a ‘Golden Age’ of Labour that we might return to isn’t one that stands up to much historical scrutiny. Although there are positives in Labour’s record, establishing the NHS being the one that most people point to, there are also many negatives that could be held against it. The same 1945-1951 government that established the NHS also helped set up NATO, sent troops to fight in the Korean War and ordered the building of British atomic weapons.

Further, while the structures in the Labour Party in the past were more open, meaning possibilities to influence the party from within were greater, over the last 20 years is the ability of ordinary members to shape Labour has lessened. Conference votes are no longer binding on the party, needing to be approved by the National Executive Committee (NEC) first. Therefore the actual opportunities to reclaim Labour or change it as an individual member are limited.

This was the problem that Clare found when she joined Labour after the last election:

You give them money and they send you a Christmas card. Sometimes they send you a ballot card to vote for leader. But there isn’t much choice. And it doesn’t happen much. If you actually want to have any power you have to put in a lot of time – as in years – and play a lot of politics. Really, you probably should be a third or fourth generation Labour activist with a parent who’s an MP.

And a friend pointed out people tried the whole ‘change Labour from inside’ stuff before. It was called entryism. How’d that work out?

She was right. So I left. I wasn’t about to give money to an organisation which I had almost nothing in common with and wasn’t about to listen to me. I’d rather put my resources elsewhere.

This is not to undermine the good work that is done by those on the left of the Labour Party, both by individual members and by members of parliament. On protests against cuts, the bedroom tax or Trident and in support of the NHS there will almost certainly be Labour Party members there.

MPs like John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are well known for playing valuable roles in movements against war and austerity, and despite Labour’s racist immigration policies there are MPs such as Diane Abbott who are willing to speak out against racism. Having left wing Labour MPs is a positive thing and can be useful, but there aren’t very many of them, and their influence on the wider direction of the party is limited.

Falling at Falkirk

Labour’s link with the trade unions is one thing that differentiates it from other parties, including those whose policies many on the left might have greater affinity to, like the Greens or, currently, the SNP. Formed as the political representation of the labour movement out of trade unions and socialist groups in the early 20th century, Labour still has a significant number of trade unions affiliated to it.

For Labour, this is a crucial source of funding – in the fourth quarter of 2014, 70% of its donations came from trade unions, with Unite, Unison and GMB all giving over £1m each, and it is likely that they will give even larger sums in the run-up to the elections. While the Labour Party benefits financially from this arrangement, the question of what the unions get in return for this is more complicated.

Those at the top of the unions, particularly full-time officials, are some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Labour. This means that at times industrial strategy is subordinate to the need to get Labour elected, and criticism of Labour policies or actions can be muted. For recent examples we can look to the short-lived Unison local government strikes against cuts and in defence of pensions being balanced against support for Labour lead local authorities . This is not just the case in unions affiliated to Labour, but happens in unions that aren’t, whose leadership is made up of loyal Labour members – the current strategies of both UCU and NUT, for example, seem to mainly to be geared towards the election.

There is some recognition from within the unions that Labour in its current form doesn’t do what it should for workers. In Unite, Len McCluskey has been a keen advocate of the reclaiming Labour strategy, arguing for members to join Labour, get involved and get working class people selected as Labour candidates.

The gap between ordinary members and Labour in affiliated unions was something Unite were trying to address with their reclaim Labour strategy. It is clear that this is a real issue: on paper there might be millions of workers who are affiliated to Labour, but in actuality this means very little for most. For example, one Unison member I spoke to in the North West reckons out of his union branch of 3,500 members, only 12 pay into the political fund, and all but two of those are already Labour Party members.

Unite’s strategy seemed to be working for a while, but then came Falkirk. First came some success – at the Grangemouth oil refinery significant numbers of Unite members joined Labour, and one of the convenors, Stephen Deans, became the Falkirk CLP secretary. The Labour Party’s reaction to this was to throw around allegations of vote rigging, leading to Ineos, the owners of Grangemouth, victimising both Stephen Deans and Mark Lyon, the other convenor at the refinery. Eventually Unite was cleared of any wrongdoing. However, the experiences of how the party machine acted around Falkirk meant many of the Unite members who had joined Labour were tearing up their party membership cards, rather than trying to ‘reclaim’ Labour.

In the wake of Falkirk, Labour initiated the Collins review, which proposed that by 2019 only union members who positively request it will be affiliated to Labour. Although this was supported by unions, several, including GMB and Unite, have responded by dramatically decreasing their funding to Labour, although they can make up the difference in donations.

In the run-up to the general election there has been some questioning of trade unions’ and trade unionists, support for Labour. Some trade unionists in Labour-affiliated unions are standing for the Greens. One candidate in the CWU, standing against shadow education minister Tristam Hunt, is asking for money to come from the union’s political fund to support his campaign. The president of the RMT, a union that split from Labour in 2004, is also standing for the Greens in Redcar, and the union has donated £7,000 to Caroline Lucas. There have also been some splits from Labour by leading Unite members in the run-up to the election: former EC members and Labour councillors Kevin Bennett and Kingsley Abrams are both now standing for TUSC.

These moves raise questions about the prospects for future relationships between trade unions and political parties. The outcome of the Collins review means that trade union leaders have to persuade members to opt into affiliating to Labour, and will have to justify extra donations. It might be that we see unions supporting a wider range of parties, which would be a historic shift. The effect this might have on parties like the Greens or the SNP will be interesting to see. There have been suggestions that Unite could break from Labour and play a role in setting up a new party. How this plays out in the face of a weak Labour government that unions might think needs support, or face more years of the Tories, remains to be seen.

Greens and Scotland

Labour is facing electoral challenges to their core vote. In England this is mainly from the Greens. It seems unlikely that the Greens will gain many, if any, more MPs in May, but what they have managed to do is fill some of the space that Labour has vacated on the left. Green Party membership has increased to 54,000, doubling in six months, and recent polls have them on about 6% of the national vote. Many of those on the left who in the past might have joined Labour now see the Greens as both a credible and more attractive option – the Greens, for the most part, aren’t implicated in austerity or wars.

Scotland is where Labour is facing its biggest crisis. In allying with the Tories, Lib Dems and UKIP against Scottish independence, and leading the no campaign in the referendum, Labour has succeeded in alienating many of its supporters. The SNP, in part by taking positions to the left of Labour on many issues – cuts and Trident replacement for example – has grown massively since the referendum, hoovering up much of Labour’s traditional base. It could see its number of Westminster MPs increase from 6 to 45. Labour on the other hand is seeing their share of the vote collapse. This has a certain irony about it when some on the left justified their support for the No campaign as the only way of maintaining Labour’s share of parliament. The election of Blairite Jim Murphy as leader of Scottish Labour doesn’t suggest Labour are really trying to win back their base.

What has happened to Scottish Labour has been termed ‘PASOKification’. PASOK is the equivalent of the Labour Party in Greece, but in the last Greek election it went from having 160 seats in Parliament to just 13. PASOK signed off on the bail-out conditions that deepened austerity in Greece, and as a consequence has seen its support haemorrage to Syriza. The experience of austerity in Scotland isn’t as harsh as that in Greece, and the SNP aren’t promising things as radical as Syriza did, but a similar shift from an established social democratic party to one that is positioning itself to the left does seem to be happening.


At the time of writing, polls have Labour just ahead of the Tories. They could well be the largest party in parliament come May, although what kind of government they would be able to form, and how stable it would be is uncertain. They may find themselves reliant on the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru in various ways. I think this could result in some compromises on the part of Labour – Nicola Sturgeon has said removal of Trident from the Clyde is a “red line” – but at the same time could, potentially, see other parties also having to compromise as well.

John thinks he’ll vote Labour “out of loyalty” and the “likelihood of unseating a Liberal” in his constituency, but at his core does “wonder what the greater vision is – what actually is a Labour administration?”. Mark isn’t sure if he’ll vote Labour or not. He wants “left-of-Labour parties to get as many votes as possible… but not at the expense of costing Labour seats. If I lived in a marginal, I’d vote Labour; otherwise, I’d vote further left.”

When even Labour Party members aren’t sure if they’re going to vote for them, Labour’s ability to win back support it has lost seems doubtful. They need to do more than say ‘well, at least we’re not quite as bad as the Tories’. To do so would probably mean an overhaul of its current policies and structures. I can’t see this happening outside a major shock like Unite, Unison and GMB all breaking away to form a new party. And while Unite and others doing this isn’t entirely impossible, it does seem improbable, and even if it did happen what’s to say that a new party wouldn’t hasten Labour’s decline?

In the short and medium term Labour probably isn’t going anywhere, but if austerity continues for another five years, without Labour opposing it, if people’s lives continue to get harder, many people who now back Labour will start to seek representation in unexpected forms. The experience across Europe shows a weakening of traditional reformist organisations is allowing for the growth of new formations and social movements to their left. In Britain the form this might take is still uncertain but, needless to say, will be created by the struggles we are yet to face.


  1. Lab are “good for” playing their part in privatising the NHS! PFI – the real killer – in under major but really grabbed by blair. 4x the PFI contracts under him. Then browns invites the privates (bankers) in via PFI then lies to the public about it. Meanwhile milburn, a key City privatiser, studies the Spannish model (he’s just returned by the way) whilst burnham played key roles in the ’06 and ’09 Health Act’s! Is that enough? (notice I’m given them all lower case for their names). Tell you what – want to hear it from one of the few outside of Gov who really bloodywell know? Youtube ‘Lucy reynolds talks to jill mountford’ “I really dont think this lot could have done what they have without the help that Labour gave them in those intervening years”! There’s the full version and a 26 min edit – both tell you what Lab did. As does, ‘SELL OFF – THE ABOLITION OF YOUR NHS’

  2. Disappointing that there is no discussion or mention of Left Unity in this article.

    It’s all very well sitting on the sidelines criticising Labour and talking about things like lessons of ‘PASOKification’ from far-flung Greece, but what is RS21’s alternative perspective for what socialists should be doing in Britain (if it has one)? What’s being presented is a very passive and propaganda-heavy approach to a major issue of revolutionary politics.


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