U.S. and World Politics

The Fate of the Labour Party

By John Blackburn

Independent organizations of the working class and oppressed people are always feared and vilified by the ruling capitalist class. So too with the British Labour Party. As franchise increased in the 19th century more and more working-class men (women had not yet achieved suffrage) were entitled to vote there arose the movement initially called the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) which sponsored trade unionists as Liberal candidates. The industrial struggles had led to the massive growth of the trade’s union organizations, the Independent Labour Party, the Scottish Labour Party, which had been founded in 1888, the Cooperative Movement and other radical groups which all began to demand an independent and socialist voice for the working class in Parliament. At its inception the Labour Party was a coalition of trades unions and political organizations committed to bringing socialism to Britain through Parliamentary reforms.

In the 1900 general election two LRC won its first seats when Keir Hardy for Merthyr Tydvil in Wales and Richard Bell in Derby were Labour’s first Members of Parliament (MP). In the next election in 1906 the Tories lost massively while LRC gained 29 seats and formally became the Labour Party in Parliament. Labour formed a short-lived alliance with the Liberals and was able to have considerable influence in passing pro-working-class legislation which included the repeal of the anti-union Taft Vale Act, the introduction of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, the first state Old Age Pension and free school meals. In the 1910 general election 42 LRC candidates won Parliamentary seats and were now a significant force in British politics eventually displacing the Liberals to the fringe as the mass of the working class now voted for its own party.

Since the beginning the Labour Party has had internal divisions and disputes which have been exploited by opponents of the movement.

World War I

The first major division in Parliament occurred with the onset of World War I in 1914 when the Independent Labour Party members lead by Ramsay MacDonald opposed the war while others lead by Arthur Henderson like many socialist leaders throughout Europe backed their national rulers and supported the war. Henderson was rewarded with a cabinet position in Lloyd-George’s government.

Before WWI there was no national Labour Party organization, but under Henderson’s leadership in 1917, a national organization of branches in Parliamentary constituencies with a national executive was established. The program drafted by the Fabian1, Sidney Webb which was most notable, was the commitment to socialism expressed in Clause IV of the constitution and printed on every member’s card:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

By the 1920s Labour Party membership had risen to over 200,000 and was seen as a real threat by the ruling class as the working class was abandoning the capitalist Liberal Party in favor of Labour with a program for socialism. One attempt to discredit the Labour Party was the “Zinoviev Letter,” a forgery published in the Daily Mail, on the eve of the 1924 general election purporting to be from the Comintern Leader and predicting that a Labour government would pave the way for a Bolshevik style revolution in Britain. Although proven to be a forgery it helped the Tories under Baldwin to secure the election.

It also prompted the first of a series of purges of left-wingers beginning with the expulsion of members of the Communist party in the early 1920s some of whom had been Labour candidates in the general election.

Massive Labour Party growth

Labour Party membership continued to grow eventually peaking at over million in the early 1950s. The highest achievements of Labour in government followed the 1945 general election when Labour lead by Clement Attlee won a massive majority of 145 in an unexpected landslide against Churchill’s Tories. This most radical of Labour governments ever created the National Health Service (NHS), nationalized the mines, the railways, and the steel industry. Utilities such as gas and electricity were taken into public ownership as was the nascent aviation industry. Grants and bursaries were made available that allowed working class and poor children to stay at school and even go to university.

Unfortunately, Labour left the control of all of these industries and services in the hands of those previously in charge, and who had no interest in making a success of a nationalized industry. This was demonstrated when the management of many of these industries cooperated in and facilitated their privatization years later.

Nor has Labour in government made any fundamental changes to the archaic procedures and practices of the British Parliament. Every Labour MP, in order to take their seat in Parliament, still has to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Business cannot commence until a gold scepter is brought into the chamber. The House of Lords which has legislative powers remains with seats inherited by landed aristocrats and 26 Church of England bishops who have speaking preference over all the others. The upper echelons of the armed forces, the civil service, the judiciary, and other public bodies still remain primarily in the hands of those educated in private schools and Oxbridge universities.

The Labour Party being committed to the Parliamentary road to socialism has the inherent contradiction between principles and winning elections. Since the time of Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership in the 1950s, winning elections has taken absolute precedence over the Party’s traditional program. However, when in power, Labour governments since Harold Wilson in the 1960s have put the interests of capitalism before that of the working class. The last great wave of strikes and industrial action occurred during 1970s when the Labour government of James Callahan was in power. The irony of this is that throughout, it is the working class that has financed the Labour Party directly and through trades unions’ political funds.

In spite of this the ruling class establishment stills fears and hates the Labour Party and has since the beginning tried to discredit and destroy it using every means. Since the beginning there have been infiltrators and informers working for the authorities inside the Party. The selection process has allowed unprincipled political careerists to get Parliamentary seats as Labour candidates.

Some of these include Oswald Moseley who later founded the British Union of Fascists; Robert Maxwell who would raid the Mirror Newspaper worker’s pension fund of £100s of millions to finance his lifestyle; Robert Kilroy-Silk, a founding member of the reactionary United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP).

Not forgetting the right wing “Gang of Four—Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams—all former Labour ministers who wanted like-minded members to split from Labour to create what became the short-lived the Social Democratic Party.

Labour Party war criminal

Above them all is Tony Blair, the war criminal. Under his leadership clause IV was removed from the Party’s constitution as was the red flag logo while a purge of left-wing members was pursued. There is no doubting that Blair’s overall aim was to destroy the historic Labour Party by converting it into a middle of the road bourgeois party “New Labour” whose only program was effectively “We are better at running capitalism than the Tories.”

Under Blair the privatization program that had begun under Thatcher in the ’80s accelerated. Publicly owned assets were mortgaged to financial interests who funded new capital projects. These “public private initiatives” (PPI) amounted to pawning public assets for decades while the details were kept secret from the public. When the banking crisis occurred in 2008 the priority of Blair and his chancellor Gordon Brown was to bail out the failed banks at the expense of social programs and, like any capitalist government, made the working class and the poor pay for it.

Blair paved the way for Starmer by filling the Labour Party bureaucracy with his followers but no leader since Gaitskell has been able to exclude all of the socialist members. Starmer has gone furthest by taking absolute control of the party machinery inside and out of parliament. He has behaved as no other leader would have dared and expelled his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn on the spurious charge of antisemitism. He dictates who can stand as a Labour candidate overriding wishes of the local party members. If a Labour government with Starmer as Prime Minister is returned at the next election, as is being predicted, he will have filled the benches with his chosen toadies and hacks who will ensure that his policies are implemented. His program for the current economic crisis is clear in a recent statement:

“But we won’t be able to spend our way out of their mess—it’s not as easy as that. There is no substitute for a robust private sector, creating wealth in every community.”

Thatcher herself could have uttered these words.

Former Labour cabinet minister, the late, Tony Benn once commented:

“If the Labour Party could be bullied or persuaded to denounce its Marxists, the media—having tasted blood—would demand next that it expelled all its socialists and reunited the remaining Labour Party with the Social Democratic Party to form a harmless alternative to the Conservatives, which could then be allowed to take office now and then when the Conservatives fell out of favor with the public. Thus, British capitalism, it is argued, will be made safe forever??”

In the absence of any principles, ideas, or program for a government, Starmer, who craves the power, has opted for a smear campaign against Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He is taking into the national political arena the same tactics—smears, lies and underhand behavior—that enabled him to take control of the Labour Party since he became an MP in 2015.

When senior Tory politicians are now saying they do not fear a Starmer government, then maybe the time has come for a new Labour Party leadership.

1 The Fabian Society is a British socialist organization whose purpose is to advance the principles of social democracy and democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow.