Sunday, 15 March 2015

What is Labour?

Michael Prior writes:

It is obvious that Britain is not Greece or Spain. Those hot-headed Latins can switch parties and entire political systems without a moment’s thought. But we have a calm and sensible system which accepts that what was good enough for our parents is good enough for us. And that means first-past-the-post gets the prize and coming second gets nothing. As Labour may soon find out in Scotland. Just what a Labour wipe-out in Scotland would mean in the rest of the country remains to be seen. But surely one consequence has to be a close examination of the system which has produced the most rigid political structure in Europe, one that has essentially remained unchanged for nearly a hundred years. This involves not just the electoral system which does look increasingly dysfunctional but also the political framework built around this system. The starting point for such an examination has to be the Labour Party and the complex history which has brought it to the current impasse.

A rigid first-past-the post (FPTP) system tends to produce an equally rigid two-party system which, loosely, correspond to progressive and conservative positions. The range of different views within these broad categories are represented by factional groupings within the two parties which jostle for influence in determining the policy of the party in various ways. However, the inexorable electoral logic of FPTP tends to perpetuate the two-party structure despite internal differences. Just how well this system has served Britain (it has never worked in Ireland) can be disputed but one thing is clear, the coming election is one in which it has broken down. There are two, rather distinct reasons for this. First, has been the rise of a specifically regional party whose position on the left/right spectrum tilts to the left but is less important than its regional allegiance. This is not quite a new phenomenon in U.K. terms but the political structure of Northern Ireland, the regional exception, has long since been detached from Britain though it may yet in tight votes come back into prominence. Second has been the rise in importance of issues which simply cannot be contained by factional disputation. EU membership and immigration have seen the rise of UKIP, primarily as an opponent of the Conservatives whilst concern over environmental issues has fuelled the rise of the Greens. (Discussion of the extent to which the Greens can be taken seriously as a political party rather than a pressure group must be deferred.)

These twin issues impact most heavily on Labour as the Conservatives have long vanished from Scotland. Wipe-out in Scotland and major Green inroads into some parts of its English vote could leave it faced with no electoral future at Westminster without a major restructuring of the British political system. None of this is certain. It could yet hang in with 30-something percentage of vote, a deal with the Scot Nats and a continuing grip on its northern citadels. But given the clear possibility of a potentially fatal blow, some assessment has to be made of this rather odd body, odd because its structure differs so sharply from the normal, continental form of a classic social-democratic mass party with a hierarchical structure built up from a national membership.
In February 1900, representatives of most of the socialist groups in Britain (the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society), met with trade union leaders at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, London. After a debate the 129 delegates decided to pass Hardie’s motion to establish "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour."  To make this possible the Conference established a Labour Representation Committee (LRC). This committee included two members from the Independent Labour Party, two from the Social Democratic Federation, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists, effectively equal representation for the political and labour wings. The wording “any party” is significant; these men were not themselves forming a new party nor is there any indication that they aspired to this.
The name Labour Party was in fact first adopted in 1906 by the group of 29 MPs who had won election under the auspices of the LRC essentially to describe themselves and those who had worked to elect them.  Its ‘object’ in 1910 was to ‘secure the election of Candidates to Parliament and organise and maintain a Parliamentary Labour party with its own whips and policy’ It was a ‘federation of national organizations’, a loose and ill- defined alliance rather than a coherent party with specific aims.

Nationally, the Labour Party only acquired individual membership in 1918, after extension of the national franchise to all adult males and some women, when something like the existing constitution was adopted. It was only after 1918 that the party began to contest nearly all seats and to systematically oppose the Liberals, the party which had been the main representative of the working class before 1914 and with whom the LRC had concluded electoral pacts to gain election. Its success was then meteoric. By 1924, it was able to form a government, albeit as a minority, and by the end of the decade, it had totally eclipsed the Liberals. This complex organisational rather than political process and its sudden rise to power has provided the Labour Party with unusual, though longstanding, features which still define its nature and politics.

First, as a federal organisation in which most democratic power is exerted by affiliated bodies whose own individual members have different relationships with their national body, it has only a limited role for individual members of the Party itself. A consequence of this has been a persistent inability of positions which commanded significant, often majority, support within the individual membership to determine party policy as expressed within party manifestos. It is noteworthy that the one affiliated body with specific political ambition controlled by individual membership, the ILP, split from the national LP in 1932 to begin a long decline.

Second, it has remained true to its original LRC roots in being primarily an electoral body dedicated to providing the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), a separately constituted body with its own rules and policy, with members and to electing local councillors. It has had a minimal role as a campaigning body or one with any ambition to the development of any left political culture outside Parliament. As a result, a wider political body of left campaigns and agencies has always existed outside the LP with overlapping membership and various levels of support but with no official relationship.

It is a provocative but essentially truthful comment that it has always been this loose gathering, a kind of political penumbra, which has provided the LP with the full characteristics of a political party rather than being just an electoral machine. The procedural basis of this has been the way in which affiliated bodies have memberships which contain both LP members (often a minority) and members of other political groups as well as those with no direct political affiliation. The classic example of this is the way in which Communists were always able to play an indirect part in forming Labour policy by their active participation in policy formation inside the unions to which they, as individuals, belonged.

Third, the trade unions have always had a crucial role inside the LP, though one which is now reduced, though not vestigial, usually one that is supportive of the leadership of the PLP and which provides much of the party’s money. Trade unions provide the parliamentary leadership with its compliant majority on the National Executive Committee, which nominally runs the LP, and also helps elect the national and Scottish leaders (thus Ed not David Miliband and Jim Murphy). They also provide substantial though diminishing amounts of dosh.

This historical role defined much of the party’s internal ethos. Supporting the Labour Party meant accepting not socialism or indeed any specific ideology but an intricate network of loyalties. This was essentially a trade-union code of behaviour; so were the political aims of the Labour Party, at least for much of its existence, essentially trade union ones. Within these limited terms the Labour Party has had reasonable success. If it is objected that it has not served the ‘true’ interests of the working-classes the answer is that it was never designed to do so. One of the abiding features of unions is solidarity, an unquestioning support of other members against external forces. This, translated into political terms, is essentially a kind of tribalism in which support for the party rather than support for some external political principle becomes the dominant feature of political calculation. The result is that a large number of LP activists continue to work to elect LP candidates even though they reject a good deal of Party policy and always have done. It is probable that this rigid but essentially fragile shell of support, which can break once a single crack appears in its carapace, is one important reason for the extraordinarily rapid collapse of the Scottish LP.

Fourth, the LP was never a socialist party though initially, it contained elements of support for a socialist political programme in its constitution and even now some of its elected MPs, though certainly not a majority, would define themselves as socialist and probably a majority of its membership still would. Historically, Labour has coped with the wide diversity of political belief in its ranks by a sometimes chaotic and often fractious internal coalition stretching from right to left. The left-wing of the Party, though normally the junior partner, had often been able to exert influence over both policy and leadership though this influence has declined drastically since the mid-1990s. Its last form, the archaically-named Labour Representation Committee, has only a few hundred members, a bare half-dozen affiliated M.P.s and has no influence of any kind. 

This odd, hybrid body might have been expected to undergo various kinds of political development into something like the continental pattern of a hierarchical membership-based party if it were not for its remarkable and, at the time, unexpected transformation into a party of potential government, a transformation which, even after the debacle of the defection of the then Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in 1931, continued without any serious challenge. Labour won only 7.0% and 6.4% of the votes cast at the two general elections of 1910. In 1923, on an extended franchise, its share was 30.7%, just ahead of the Liberals, who were damaged by the bitter feud between Lloyd George and Asquith, and it was able to form a minority government. It was only in 2010, that its share dipped down to this level, leaving aside the 1983 election when it faced with its first and, so far, only challenge resulting from in internal split. As a result this strange political formation has continued to dominate left politics in Britain down to the present day without significant alteration to its original form despite the contingent features of its first structure.

This then is the vessel which will set sail in May into the choppy waters of minority government. Although it still has a full set of sails and is manned by a crew of old salts who largely if reluctantly obey the orders of the captain, this disguises the fact that its sails are threadbare and its hull is worn paper thin.

Media political commentators still see the post-May situation in conventional terms of two, dominant competing parties even if the loss of Scotland wipes out much chance of an overall Labour majority. Labour will, it is blithely assumed, form some kind of alliance with the SNP which will enable it to form a convincing government. A moment’s thought suggests, however, that this is a very unlikely situation even in the short-term. There are a number of key issues which are red-lines both for the SNP and Labour. The most obvious of these is Trident renewal whilst others on austerity, Europe and immigration easily come to mind. The fact is that on most of these, Labour will find it much easier to obtain its majority with Tory votes than by compromising with the SNP. There will never be a formal Labour/Tory coalition but it remains quite possible that on key issues, Labour will continue in government for the statutory five years by relying on reaching compromises with the Conservatives. The logic of a first-past-the-post electoral system has always been that there will be two main parties, each covering the span of right-wing conservatism/left-wing progressiveness and containing internally most of the various emphases that such a broad definition encompasses. When these start to overlap and rely on mutual deals then the system begins to break.

The impact that such a situation will have on the English LP is difficult to predict but there are already some straws in the wind suggesting that in its northern heartlands, alternative structures are being considered. The Yorkshire First Party is standing in several constituencies mainly with ex-Labour members who see the national Labour Party as too centralised and London-based to represent the people of Yorkshire. A similar party has been set up in the north-east. Neither will win any seats but their appearance in previously solid Labour areas is significant.

A quite different but perhaps even more interesting development is that of DevoManc, that is the deal agreed between a consortium of 10 Greater Manchester councils and the Conservative government, to devolve control of large chunks of local expenditure, including most startlingly that on health, to the councils although the actual level of the budgets will remain under central control. Greater Manchester is the most important and powerful Labour machine in England. Manchester is the one major city never seriously threatened by the Liberal Democrats and without a single Tory councillor. The deal, brokered by the twin leaders of this machine, Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein, is remarkable for its breadth and also, given the politics of Manchester, the apparent fact that it was done directly with Cameron and did not involve the central party, who do not seem to like it very much. Certainly, the health service unions are spitting blood over it.

It is doubtful that Leese and Bernstein envisage the breakup of the English Labour Party. The fact is, however, that they are busy setting up a situation in which Greater Manchester will come to resemble Scotland in its power and which, given the bringing together of 10 councils, 8 of which are Labour, will make the regional Labour Party a significant power-broker whatever the complexion of Westminster.

Clearly, if Labour suffer a wipe-out in Scotland they will be vulnerable to challenge in England not to mention Wales. Plaid Cymru is now up to around 20% support there but Labour still remains way out in front. In England, only the Green Party shows any signs of acting as an alternative on the left but would need a massive injection of support to be anything other than an irritant to Labour, mostly acting as a conduit for disaffected Lib Dems. Labour now has an iron-bound constitution preventing any challenge from disaffected members. It would require the emergence of a trade-union leader of real stature rather than jokes like ‘Red’ Leonard McCluskey to provide a genuine challenge rather like that of the Jones/Scanlon leadership of the 1970s. Disaffiliation by unions would not provide any problem except financial. It is one of the oddities of the LP constitution that the number and, indeed, membership of affiliated bodies, trade unions and societies, could drop to single figures and still have the same dominant position in elections of leader and NEC.

It also has no need of any pool of potential candidates now that Westminster politics has now become the province of a self-serving group who have chosen politics as a career and, like Tony Blair, may have chosen Labour as their vehicle largely by chance. It is significant that out the 31 members of the current shadow cabinet, less than half have ever had a proper job outside politics having climbed up the ladder via advisers to M.P.s or in various lobbying groups. And that is counting solicitors as a proper job. The days of stalwarts like Prescott or Blunkett, who learnt their trade in trade unions or local authorities whilst holding down other jobs, are past.

And yet. The main result of the May election will be conformation of the growing contempt which much, perhaps most, of the electorate has for Westminster politicians. Under 20% of it, possibly even less, will have voted for the party which will claim the right to form a national government.  If Labour is that party it will do so on the basis of being essentially a regional organisation rather than a national one. It will proceed to act in a way which the majority of its membership will have reservations about. It would be difficult to describe a more unstable political scenario. It would be pleasant to envisage a future in which this was recognised by the leadership of the main parties and there was a consensus to push through the reforms necessary to reduce this instability. But this is not how either Labour of the Tories behave. There will be frenetic back-stairs manoeuvring in May, much making of deals and counting heads. But there exists neither leadership nor will to do anything than ramp up the already dismissive contempt with which most people view Westminster. Could Labour collapse in England as it has seemingly done in Scotland? Could the Green Party strike some kind of political alliance with the Scot Nats, Plaid Cymru and odd fragments of the English left such as Yorkshire First and the Trade Union and Socialist Alliance (aka Militant of yesteryear) to form some kind of emergent democratic left party to take its place?  Even writing such a sentence seems to provide its implicit answer. But something is going to change.