Wednesday 29 June 2022

Lamentable Labourism

During his interview with Sophie Raworth on Sunday morning, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy attacked industrial action due by British Airways workers. With all the arrogance of an ignoramus, he declared that serious parties of government do not send its leading figures to picket lines. This after Keir Starmer issued his widely ignored instruction banning shadcab members from showing solidarity with striking workers. Today, he was forced to eat humble pie. Replying to a letter from a constituent, Lammy admitted his error, saying he did not realise BA workers had temporarily given up 10% of their pay to keep the company afloat and were taking action to have it restored. Even then Lammy couldn't say he was backing the workers, but his apology restores him to the studied silence he usually observes when it comes to industrial disputes.

As we've discussed recently, despite Labour being set up by the trade unions who provided the resources, the heft, and the organisational experience from the beginning the party has always had a less-than-straightforward approach to industrial relations. Leading figures from the party, even those who came from the labour movement, have had attitudes ranging from enthusiastic embrace to pragmatic support to outright hostility. None of this began with Tony Blair and New Labour. It was Alan Johnson of all people, on a Question Time many years ago in response to a leftwinger in the audience, who summed it up best. He said Labour was set up by the trade union movement as a national party. This was certainly true of the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald and first Labour chancellor, Philip Snowden, but what does this even mean? It suggests Labourism harbours a fundamental political weakness.

What Johnson said out loud was an implication that Marxists have always known, that there is a fundamental antagonism between the interests of the workers and the national interest. I.e. the collective interests of the ruling class, the state, and their system. Except in the Labourist imaginary the worker interest it's supposed to articulate and prosecute is sectional, special, and particular. It concedes that it's separate from the nation and is illegitimate compared to the universal interest the nation supposedly represents. In one way, the roots of this lie in the strict separation of economics and politics the labour movement organises around. The unions have the job of organising the workers, defending terms, conditions, wages, etc, and are accustomed to incremental change via negotiations and industrial skirmish. As fundamentally pragmatic organisations of workers who deal with the situation in the workplace as they find it, accepting this as the terrain of struggle is the immediate, and therefore sole purview. Labourism as a politics represents the moment when the labour movement realised its interests could only be furthered by combining their efforts in a political party, and therefore was a crucial advance in that sense - hence why Marx and Engels were keen for the British working class to form their own party and break with the Liberals. Labourism was the moment workers saw past the coal face and fixed their eyes on the horizon.

But you could also say Labourism recoiled from what it glimpsed there. Economic struggle, as per Lenin's critique of economism, was fixated on how much the wage should be, not its abolition. Conditions and working hours were about "fairness", not contesting the employer's right to run matters as they see fit. This "common sense" approach to class relations at the point of production carried through to politics. Parliament, royalty, the constitution, these were rules of the game to be accepted in exactly the same way as the reality of the workplace. Labourism in politics replicated the subordination of Labourism at work, and therefore it meant taking the bourgeois definition of permissible politics and what constituted the nation as read. Hence the craven conservatism, the social climbing, the presentation of respectability, the support for empire were features of Labourist political strategies and habits of trends within the party. All too often in the party's history, these were not means to an end but ends in themselves. Opposition to industrial struggle from this quarter is the self-loathing inherent to Labourism, of it being a distraction from the proper vote-winning business of the party, or a fear its electoral chances will be tainted by the crudities of chanting pickets and burning oil drums.

Lammy, despite his working class background, entered parliament after a brief legal career. There was no trade unionist record or familiarity with the labour movement as per so many of the intake during the Tony Blair years. And, in his damning Raworth interview this was shown up when he observed that "We're called Labour because we want to associate ourselves with working people", as if the name was a bit of marketing that had no more a relationship to the party than a disco has to a brand of crisps. And nor should we be surprised. As a careerist who puts an equals sign between the parties to an industrial dispute, or is only interested in workers' interests when they're nullified by a consumerists framing and inconvenienced by grounded flights, this very middle class, liberal stance on stoppages fits seamlessly into a tradition historically proven to be scared of its own shadow.

Image Credit


EnPassant said...

"Lammy, despite his working class background, entered parliament after a brief legal career."

Yup. Lotsa lawyers in politics. What are the sociological causes and implications of this, in your opinion?

Thanks for this blog, btw. I always find it interesting and enlightening to visit, whether or not I agree with what you have to say.

Jim Denham said...

Too little, too late, but worth noting:

David Lammy
Those of us in public life should admit our mistakes. That's why I'm apologising to all BA workers for getting it wrong on Sunday.

BA must restore the pay of their loyal workforce - and the gvt must sit down with employers and workers to address chronic low pay in aviation.
1:11 PM · Jun 29, 2022·Twitter Web App

Old Trot said...

Good post Phil. The mistaken belief of so many on the current (remaining) Labour Left that Labour has EVER been some sort of radically transformational socialist party illustrates yet again the unwillingness of so many Lefties to actually research the real history of their party from its very formation.

Even Labour’s “socialist” predecessor, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), rejected class struggle, stressing the common interest of bosses and workers. ILP leader Keir Hardie—hailed as the Labour Party’s founder—wrote that it was “a degradation of the socialist movement to drag it down to the level of a mere struggle for supremacy between two ­contending factions. We don’t want ‘class conscious’ ­socialists,” he said.

The trade union leaders of the TUC swung behind support for a Labour Party after a series of major defeats for strikes in the late 1890s. Hardie celebrated the “utter rout” of a strike of Scottish miners as “nevertheless a great victory for the Labour ­movement.” It had, he said, convinced many of the miners “to throw in their lot with the ILP.”

The ILP and union leaders founded the Labour Party in 1900. About a year later the ­government upheld a court ruling that outlawed ­picketing and forced unions to ­compensate bosses for strikes.

This, more than anything else, convinced union leaders to back the new party. As the TUC still says on its website today, “If the right to strike was ever to be preserved as an essential instrument of trade union policy, then the new principle embodied in the Taff Vale decision must be reversed by parliament.”

“If this was to be done, the trade unions must secure greater and more influential representation in parliament.” So the turn towards parliament marked a retreat from trade unionism and the idea that workers’ action could win.

In creating the Labour Party, the union leaders created a group of politicians for whom parliament came first. The Great Unrest of 1910-14 began ten years after Labour was founded. It saw strikes by three big battalions of the ­working class—the miners, the rail workers and the dockers, and mass demonstrations.

Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was disturbed. “If we had been consulted first of all we should have advised the men to begin with Parliamentary action, both on the floor of the House of Commons, and in Ministers’ ­private rooms,” he wrote.

“Whilst the heroics ­outside are being indulged in, Parliamentary action of a ­general character is being ­paralysed and prejudiced.” It was a similar story a few years later in 1919, amid a great wave of radicalisation in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Labour’s leaders were desperate to put a stop to it.

The year before, MacDonald had even despaired that a Tory government’s ­concession to a miners’ strike threat “increased the power and prestige” of people who thought action shouldn’t be confined to parliament.

During the strike itself, Labour conspired with union leaders to have it called off at the earliest opportunity. Then, once defeated, its leaders celebrated. As Labour MP Phillip Snowden said, “the lesson of the futility and foolishness of such a trial of strength.”

That appeal—justice through the ballot box—is how Labour usually manages to square its hostility to strikes with its claim to represent workers. It supports their ­struggles, but only to contain them within acceptable, parliamentary channels.

Today, with a PLP filled with declassee opportunist careerists like Lammy, to an extend never before seen, and that includes most of the misnamed 'Socialist Campaign Group' of MPs , NuLabour2 is NEVER going to be a vehicle for defence of working class interests.

Dialectician1 said...

"The mistaken belief of so many on the current (remaining) Labour Left that Labour has EVER been some sort of radically transformational socialist party illustrates yet again the unwillingness of so many Lefties to actually research the real history of their party from its very formation."

To continue........

Today, the Labour Party is happy to identify itself with the Jarrow Crusade’s sentimental narrative. Yet, in 1936, just as they disassociated themselves from the Battle of Cable Street, the national leadership unequivocally distanced themselves from this protest march - seeing it as closely resembling previous hunger marches, organised by the Communist Party.

Many local branches of the Labour Party, however, refused to snub the Jarrow marchers and provided them with encouragement, food and accommodation. But then again, the Jarrow marchers turned down a donation of £20 from a group of communist miners in Normanton, while at the same time accepting a much smaller donation from a local Conservative association!

Kamo said...

Lammy is a machine politician, and his specific base is commercialised race relations, he's a slicker, smarter version of Diane Abbott. But the problem with this type of politician is they struggle when they're not on their 'professional' territory where they've got their shtick down pat. Common garden industrial relations is not Lammy's territory, it's not Starmer's territory, in fact there won't be that many front line politicians from any of the main parties who actually know much about this from personal experience because their backgrounds will mainly be as wonks, lawyers and journos. At least the wonks will have an ideological position from their former careers, but that won't be the tacit understanding that comes from actually having experienced this stuff whilst doing a real job (btw a lot of senior trade union leaders fall into this category too; if they've spent the bulk of their career on 'union duties' as opposed to actually doing their nominal job).