Monday 16 March 2015

Is Labour Doomed?

Tucked away in a barely-publicised corner of The Telegraph's web edition is this piece forecasting Labour's possible extinction. There isn't much to the article, the paper quotes Jon Cruddas (who else?) speculating about the possibility of Labour's death before moving on to attack Ed Miliband's pledge to introduce compulsory profit-sharing schemes.

Let's come back to Cruddas. In the context of a discussion about the situation in Greece and whether Labour might not exist a decade from now, he reportedly replied "There is no safe ground for any orthodox parties and the stakes could be high potentially. They could just disintegrate in real time. And I include in that the party that I represent." Unfortunately, I agree with Cruddas. The passing of the Labour Party is an outside possibility. The same is true of the Tories too. The difference is the Conservatives appear hell bent on hastening their own destruction, while there are very small signs Labour has glimpsed the precipice it's shuffling toward and is pondering whether to turn.

In the wake of Syriza's election victory, there was much excited chatter in left wing circles about the PASOKification of the Labour Party here. The argument goes that Pasok, as Greece's main working class party, had deep institutional links with the unions and a loyal voter base. It regularly formed governments on its own, the last being in 2009. Then when the economic crisis hit PASOK oversaw the ruinous austerity imposed on Greece, and in their turn were ruined as their support melted away and transferred more or less wholesale to Syriza. From commanding governments elected with 48% of the popular vote, in 2015 it just squeaked over the four-and-a-half per cent line. A commitment to austerity by Labour, so the argument goes, will see the same happen to it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating of the SNP, a nominally anti-austerity party, into Labour's Scottish strongholds.

This argument has a grain of truth buried in wishful thinking and nonsense. First, the guff. Britain in 2015 is not Greece. An Obvious point to make, but one that needs stating all the same. Austerity here has hammered the poorest and most vulnerable, but it has not been nor will it be - even if the Tories win - remotely comparable to what Greece has gone through. Effectively, a quarter of its economy has disappeared in the last five years. The reason PASOK has fallen and smashed like so many plates is because they oversaw austerity measures that walloped practically everyone who lives on a wage, a salary, draws social security support, and had a pension. Had the Tories and LibDems here implemented a programme as brutal, wide, and deep as this, the opinion polls wouldn't be level pegging right now. On that basis, and sorry to disappoint the Greens and 1917 reenactment committees, Labour's not about to do a PASOK any time soon.

The second nonsense is seeing the SNP surge as part of the PASOKification process. It isn't. The precipitating factor in Labour's collapse north of the border wasn't austerity but it stupidly and foolishly chumming about with Tories in the Better Together campaign. Had the party made a positive case for staying in the union, the damage might not have turned out that severe. But it didn't. Ed Balls lined up with George Osborne to spell out the dire consequences should Scottish voters support separation. It portrayed itself part of a bullying Westminster establishment, and is getting punished accordingly. But the causes go back decades. Crap MPs, shrinking memberships, zero campaigning activity, these are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

You know the story if you've followed this blog for a while. By the time Thatcher came to power the tectonics underpinning capital in Western Europe and North America were starting to slip. The spread of the microchip touched off the development of new information-based economies, and stimulated growing service-based industries. Consumerism was generating new sub cultures, new styles, new ways of living. Employers were reconfiguring workplaces to undermine the ever present potential for worker solidarity and, where possible, outsourcing jobs to the far east. None of these were natural forces that should have been accepted as facts of life,and what Thatcher did - by accident and design - was accelerate the development of these processes as a consequence of the Tory class war against the labour movement. The result was not just the liquidation of entire industries, but evaporating with them went ways of life, whole communities. The labour movement, the institutional expression of proletarian resistance and interest in its relationship with capital, was battered. Locked out - sometimes literally - by employers, defeated by a hostile government, and with shifts in economics and culture away from collectivism so its ranks started to wither.

New Labour was one possible response out of a number of approaches the party could have adopted. As the trade unions started losing strength, so the institutional and community supports that had nourished the party in the post-war era shriveled up. New Labour and Tony Blair were symptomatic of weakness, and they tried short circuiting the difficult task of rebuilding the party and movement by attempting to get business and others, including the LibDems, on board. This coalition worked for a while, albeit at a price that left Labour's roots a-shrivelling, until the crisis claim and blew apart. Gordon Brown avoided a depression, and British capital showed its gratitude by completely abandoning his government.

Meanwhile, in Scotland and various safe Labour seats across England and Wales local parties and the regional machinery carried on much as it always had. The myriad links between constituency organisations, workplace trade union branches, and the community grew ever more attenuated. And it suited many local party bosses fine. As members died or dropped off the rolls, all that was left was a brand and a hollowed out organisation ran by cliques of time servers that could nevertheless dispense largesse thanks to a loyal voter base that scarcely needed engaging with. Who else were they going to vote for? Labour parties became more distant, unwilling and incapable of addressing the problem of their malaise, and treated the communities they were set up to represent as voting fodder.

Belatedly, some sections of the party are slowly waking up to this. Say what you like about Jim Murphy, but he is one of the few leading party figures that works consistently all year round on bread and butter constituency campaigning. It's necessary, but not enough and again, despite his rather hawkish Blairism (hello there Henry Jackson Society), even he has been forced to turn Scottish Labour to the left while his hapless predecessor, a supposed left winger, spent her leadership lambasting the SNP from the right. Elsewhere, moribund CLPs in supposedly safe seats are stirring into life.

This is where the grain of truth our PASOKists speak of comes in. Labour can stop the rot. There is no reason why party membership and organisation should slide once the traditional general election uptick has dissipated. The old ways of doing things in the postwar period are gone and not coming back, but for as long as there are workers there will be the battle for workers rights, of the struggle for security, wages, and against encroachments on time outside of work. A new set of arrangements can be built, a new flow of recruits and influence can flow up from workplaces and our communities into the party. But only if it pursues policies that do not attack our constituency.

This might sound naive. After all, as another erratic Marxist I know the state isn't some neutral embodiment of the general will but an apparatus that supports, defends, and prosecutes the interests of capital. Anything capital has conceded, such as the NHS, has had to be imposed upon the state by powerful movements that straddle official and extra-parliamentary politics. Therefore it's silly to expect Labour to get into power and nationalise the top 100 monopolies, but as the legitimately-constituted government of the day it does have enough room to abandon the cuts agenda precisely because capital itself, and the bureaucrats that populate the state at all levels are also divided about its efficacy. A pro-business, pro-capital case against austerity can be made. Indeed, it's been explored here enough. It's not the case, as the far left have fooled themselves into thinking, that if Labour dispensed with the cuts that political support would mechanically follow. But by shutting down austerity and implementing policies that promote economic and therefore job security, building homes, cleaning up the precarity the Tories have deliberately inserted into social security, investing in education, and so on, new coalitions of worker interest can form around them. By pursuing this "sectional" strategy, the universal interest - that of the overwhelming majority of the population - is served and situation for positively resolving the crisis of the labour movement and Labour Party becomes much improved. Sticking with austerity-lite imperils all this.

Is Labour then doomed. Does PASOK hold up an image of the party's own future? I don't think it does. That fate, however, cannot be avoided by hoping it will go away. It has to be actively avoided, and that requires as many labour movement people as possible to get involved in their party now.


George Hallam said...

You make two interesting statements:

1. “A pro-business, pro-capital case against austerity can be made”.
Indeed it can. Cutting state expenditure isn’t going to revive the economy. However, there are strong reasons for thinking that increasing state, expenditure Keynesian-style won’t do the trick either (it didn’t work in Japan). Businesses are not going to invest while the prospects of turning a decent profit are so poor. The key to a genuine recovery is to increase profitability.

2. “for as long as there are workers there will be the battle for workers rights, of the struggle for security, wages, and against encroachments on time outside of work.”

True enough. But the Labour Party has never been very good at that. Furthermore, it would be difficult to combine defending workers rights, let alone their extension, with a pro-capital programme of increasing profitability.

It seems as though you have deceived yourself in thinking that the Labour Party can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

Anonymous said...

I think it simplistic to say that New Labour have collapsed in Scotland due to the better together campaign.

I actually think the reasons are beyond New labour's grasp. At heart they relate to a system that will inevitable deliver Tory governments periodically.

This was an accident waiting to happen.