frontline 19.

Back on Track?

Roger Silverman looks at the recent RMT conference on the alternatives facing the left.

The RMT conference on labour representation was not yet a turning point in history. Nevertheless, it was a long-awaited first hint of a slow move towards a restoration of trade-union political representation in England and Wales.

The conference brought into focus the most important question facing socialists in Britain: why a century of political consciousness and organisation by labour has come to a sudden end; and why no section of the trade unions, which had created the Labour Party and made it the decisive power in British society, has so far made even a token gesture towards building a new workers’ party.


For one or two decades now, the working class internationally has found itself in effect disenfranchised. This is a situation unprecedented in all the developed countries apart from the USA, and in many less developed countries too, since the early history of the modern proletariat.

Why has so little happened so far to fill the vacuum? It is true that a decade or two is not long in the scale of history, and it is also true that, while there have been attacks on workers’ rights throughout this period, there have been no catastrophic shocks in most of these countries which might have precipitated political landslides. Nevertheless, there have been massive protest strikes in some countries, as well as unparalleled anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations; and yet there have been few moves to replace what were for a century mass labour, socialist and communist parties.


Firstly, there is a collapse of reformism as well as of a socialist consciousness.

The old cycle, whereby the workers’ struggle shifted from the industrial to the political front and vice versa as they sought a solution, seems to be frozen, certainly in Britain. The figure for days lost in strikes flatlines year after year at a historic low, while there is universal apathy about politics.

Writing in the Socialist Party’s theoretical journal Socialism Today, Bill Mullins exposes the failure of the so-called “awkward squad” of trade union leaders -- all of whom were elected on an anti-Blairite platform -- in a series of betrayals, from the closure of the Rover car plant to the sell-outs of the fire fighters and the Gate Gourmet airline workers. And yet he finishes with the sentence: “The awkward squad should act now and come out clearly for the strategy of building a new workers’ party. There is no other road in the medium and long term for working-class people in Britain.”

The veteran Labour cartoonist David Low used to represent the TUC as a carthorse. Isn’t Bill Mullins putting the cart before the horse? How can they create an alternative party when they don’t have an alternative policy? What programme could such a party have? What solutions would it put forward for workers facing cuts or redundancy? Was the betrayal of the Rover workers, for instance, simply a matter of old-fashioned corruption and cowardice, or was it at least largely also the effect of a lack of a socialist perspective?

Before the trade unions can generate any enthusiasm for setting up a new political party -- launching an overall political struggle to defend the interests of the working class as a whole -- they first have to show themselves ready to fight industrial battles on behalf of their own members. If they won’t fight for their members’ rights directly on the picket lines, how can they either summon up the political will to launch a workers’ party, or make a convincing appeal for support?

The obstacle in the path of a new workers’ party is the crisis of reformism. In the new epoch of globalised corporate dictatorship, neither trade union struggles nor national programmes have any meaning nowadays. Reformism and protectionism are obsolete. In a more immediate and practical sense than ever, every demand for defence of existing standards, for even minimal reforms or elementary democratic rights, leads directly to the need for international solidarity and a new society. And yet, not only do the trade union leaders shrink from those conclusions; there is no element in society straining towards them.


The SSP was born out of a long history of struggle and a record of at least limited victories. That gave it a foothold and a modest presence within the working class. Since then, the only country where a new left party has come into being and scored an even noticeable, let alone respectable, vote in recent parliamentary elections is Germany. What is different there? Peter Taaffe offers one explanation, in the same current issue of Socialism Today:

“The conditions for a new mass workers’ party exist as much in Britain - and for that matter in the rest of Europe - as in Germany, where the Left Party received 8% of the vote and 54 MPs in the last general election. The crucial difference is that a leading figure in Germany like Oskar Lafontaine stepped outside the increasingly discredited ex-social democracy and linked up with trade unionists and young people to create the Left Party electoral alliance. In Britain, leading figures who could play that role such as Tony Benn or trade union leaders like Tony Woodley instead use all their efforts to try to repair what is now the wreckage of a past workers’ party. It is left to Bob Crow and others to show a way forward.”

This seems a curiously unscientific explanation. It is surely not just a matter of chance that Germany is the only western European country where a new left party has emerged. Isn’t the left party in Germany a shadow of a phenomenon common to all the former Stalinist states? Throughout Eastern Europe, one wing of the former Communist Parties under a new name, led by that section of the deposed bureaucracy that had failed to become absorbed into the new ruling Mafia, has remained a significant political force, and in many cases formed governments. This is in circumstances of brutal attacks on workers’ rights and living standards. In the former East Germany, the former Communist Party retains a strong presence within a working class facing mass unemployment and discrimination.

In the reunified Germany, the existence of the former Stalinist party has provided a model and a focus for the disenfranchised left wing of the SPD, which though it was not ready to identify itself with it politically, was attracted towards it sufficiently to form an alliance with it.

Surely it is this, rather than the random whim of a Lafontaine or a Benn, which explains the difference between Britain and Germany. If half of Britain had been ruled for half a century by a party claiming socialist traditions and still retaining a strong political base, then it is likely that people like Benn, Woodley and Crow would have been emboldened to mobilise support and link forces with it. This does not detract from the importance of the new left party. If it takes root and grows, its example could become an inspiration to activists in other countries.

Broad Party

A new workers’ party would inevitably be broad and non-sectarian; a conglomeration of federated platforms, lobbies and campaigns. So was the Labour Party when it was formed a hundred years ago. But old-style social-democratic reformism has lost its appeal, no less than revolutionary socialism. Its failure is manifest and its day is gone. Capitalism is still for the moment seen to be functioning. The danger facing humanity presents itself as an apparent crisis of objective limits to natural resources: peak oil, global warming, etc.

Marx often quoted Hegel’s epigram: “All that is rational is real”. When revolutionary socialism was the obvious rational practical solution crying out to be adopted, no force on earth seemed capable of standing in its way. “Ideas become a material force when they grip the mind of the masses,” said Lenin. In his day socialist revolution was a material force, and reformism could be seen as an artificial and ultimately ineffective brake upon a force that could not be stopped. That is not yet so. It will take events to bring revolution back on to the agenda. Meanwhile, socialism remains for the moment the fad of the sectarian.

Working Class

Another explanation for the eclipse in labour traditions must be the change in the composition of the working class. We are familiar with the common metaphor about “the elephant in the room” -- the unpleasant or embarrassing reality that no one wants to face. What about the elephant that has left the room? The unpleasant reality that many left activists find it hard to acknowledge, or draw the necessary conclusions about, is that the productive industrial hard core of the proletariat has largely disappeared in the traditional metropolitan countries, and is now concentrated more and more in Latin America, Asia and China.

In Britain, there have been brief or token one-day strikes of firemen, railway workers, civil servants, teachers, etc. These are proletarians too, but it must count for something that there are not many workers left here who actually make anything. You can create trade unions and even parties composed largely of peripheral service workers, but it is that much harder to evoke the innate class consciousness and loyalties that were formed over decades of struggle in the vast concentrations of productive labour of the past. These layers of workers will have to learn all over again the lessons of the past in the course of the epoch of historic attacks and social polarisation that is only just beginning.

Meanwhile, in Latin America we see an entire sub-continent in revolt, and in East Asia and China the beginning of what will surely become a tidal wave of trade unionism which could transform the outlook worldwide. We in the old industrial countries have a crucial part to play in helping to show the way forward on the basis of decades of rich and bitter experience. But maybe it is in these countries of the new proletariat that we will find the birthplace of the future international. The old tripartite division of the world that shaped our global outlook throughout our political lives no longer exists. The old “metropolitan” countries are no longer necessarily the theatre of world history.