Sunday 11 September 2022

Royalism and Labourism

The Labour Party officially greeted news of the Queen's demise as the constitutionalist outfit it is. Keir Starmer said nice words about the recently departed, and his Twitter feed given a sombre make over as a mark of respect. None of this is surprising. Rare have been the moments when the party has found itself troubled by republicanism. But what was a bit more of a shock for some comrades was the pulling of strike action. Commenting, General Secretary Mick Lynch said "RMT joins the whole nation in paying its respects to Queen Elizabeth. The planned railway strike action on 15 and 17 September is suspended." Similarly, the CWU called off postal strikes for this weekend. You might expect tributes to the monarchy from the Labour leadership, but demobilisation by two of the most militant unions in the land? How to explain?

The immediate reasons aren't too difficult to fathom: it's a question of PR and optics. Had strike action gone ahead, the hounds of hell would have got unleashed by the press with leading trade unionists subject to the bin emptying treatment and possibly getting set up for assaults by over enthusiastic royalists. Further, RMT action on the rail might have disrupted the transportation of the Queen's body from Balmoral to London. And there's the issue of the establishment using her death as a wedge between the strike leadership and more politically conservative workers going along with action. Then there are wider concerns. During the Summer, the RMT won the public relations war against the government. They've come to the conclusion this could be jeopardised if they are seen to be "disrespectful". The downside is it interferes with the momentum and tempo of the struggle, effectively introducing a cooling off period that might impact negatively on subsequent rounds of strikes. With republican sentiment a minority position even in the labour movement, our union leaderships had to weigh up the pros and cons and, unfortunately, I think they've made the right call in this instance. Class struggle, after all, doesn't mean putting your foot on the accelerator come what may.

As some observed on social media, the death of the Queen has found the British left more British than left. Or, at the very least, its mainstream mass institutions. And they have a point, but this is a challenge to be confronted and not a moment for Dave Spart posturing. If strike action is called off because mass fealty to the royal family might be offended, we have to understand not just how monarchism is produced and reproduced, but also how it is rarely challenged within the labour movement. I'd suggest there are two historically interrelated points to this, one of which has somewhat withered on the vine. One is the push for respectability, and the other is the labour movement's integration into mainstream society.

The contradictory and self-destructive history of Labourism is well known. The earliest trade unionism in this country was less characterised by revolutionary aspirations, and more by taking our (capitalist) society for granted but securing a recognised place and a "fair share" for workers within it. In the 19th century, as the labour movement grew it understood that this could be secured by industrial action and negotiations with political elites. The original alignment between unions and the old Liberal Party was based on the view of their being more amenable to offering concessions. The Labour Party came about when most trade union leaderships became convinced, thanks to long experience, that it was not and therefore required a party of its own. When the new party took the field and began playing the constitutional game, the dominant right wing tendency of Labourist politics shifted. From subordinating industrial struggle to not upsetting cosy relationships with Liberal MPs, it became one of making sure disputes and strikes played second fiddle to the Labour Party's political needs. And this was always defined in terms of not upsetting public opinion, which itself is an imagined assemblage of establishment/press/middle class opinion. What justifies this is the belief, seldom realised in practice, that Labour governments are the only means of achieving progressive ends and meeting the aspirations of workers available. It's not much of a leap from this to believing that industrial struggle and strikes are unnecessary and, for some, completely wrong.

This preoccupation leads to a politics of respect, which is not earned by establishing and defending the interests of a constituency, status group, or class, but through the practice of supplication and capitulation to established power. If Labourism is premised on sharing out the proceeds, it never questions how these are produced in the first place. Rather than a structural feature, exploitation is a moral outrage that can be tackled through legislation or organising "partnerships" with good employers. Likewise, the state is a capitalist state, but government and legislation shows we can abolish unfairness by the law and inequality through economic policy and public spending. If the focus on wages and conditions is the bread and butter of trade unionism, an economistically-defined welfarism and fairness is the province of Labourist politics. Issues of high politics are awkward because, unless they impinge on the province proper to Labourism, they aren't really much of a concern. Or rather, to establish the goals of Labourist politics respect demands its accommodation with the status quo. An understanding that is less resisted and more embraced as generations of Labour politicians and not a few general secretaries have availed themselves to the trappings of preferment - titles, gongs, sinecures in the Lords. Becoming respectable then sanctifies Labourism, its party, and its movement with official recognition and an acknowledged place at the table.

This is the politics of royalism in the labour movement, and one that reached its height in the post-war period. The partial integration of trade unions into governance was the highest honour British capitalism could bestow, and many a union reciprocated and became disciplinary agencies of (some might say over) the working class. But it's not just a top down affair. It afforded a sense of dignity and place in the national story. Far from having no country, Britain was a workers' country too and it was great because of their efforts. Millions of workers knew their position and value in a status hierarchy atop which sat the Queen. And, as distant as she was, Elizabeth II was their Queen, her party political neutrality a reflection of the state's class neutrality Labourism wanted to and forced itself to believe.

With the post-war period long passed, since 1979 the material wellspring of the labour movement's respectable, royalist politics has diminished. It was destroyed by Thatcher's brutal deindustrialisation (compare with Harold Wilson's). This liquidated the foundation of industrial unionism, and her authoritarian ruling class politics ejected trade unions from any role in governance. The chains of office were swapped for the chains of repressive legislation. Thereby the glue that held working class monarchism together came unstuck, renderings its foundations shaky and vulnerable to slippage. The second consequence of the Thatcher years was the multiplication of individuated governance. I.e. Neoliberalism. Through institutional design, backed by blanket messaging and socialisation the isolated but entrepreneurial individual became the de facto human condition, and the only subject institutions would respond to. If you don't engage on these terms, public agencies would either ignore you or sanction you. The atomised individual was the axis of creativity and hard work, the locus of choice and responsibility. With the neoliberal subject thrown onto its own resources, it stands to reason the highest authority is the self. I.e. You live and die by your choices, and only you - not a benevolent other - can make them. This can be experienced as insecurity, and help explain why millions cling to symbols of nationhood. Or it can count toward explaining irreverence and the crisis of legitimacy institutions of state are experiencing, including the monarchy.

Without the same relationships sustaining royalism in the labour movement, it now relies on the economics/politics split practised by the unions and the economism/high politics division in the Labour Party. Political education does not take place, so constitutional issues are left a free for all. But there still remains some incentives that support the monarchical given. Right wing trade unionism and its investment in how things are. And most of Labourism, ranging from the soft left to the right for whom republicanism is at odds with respectability and avoiding wedge issues that might get in the way of building a winning voter coalition. Plenty on the left capitulate to this, including self-described Trotskyist organisations, for whom high politics are distractions from the proper struggle against cuts and job losses. And there is a legacy of the postwar period, which casts a long shadow over trade union officialdom.

This means labour movement royalism is quite thin. And it's under pressure. Not just from neoliberal cultures emphasising hard graft and individual accomplishment, but from the experience of class itself. As recounted plenty of times, the contours of class have changed, as have the "rewards" of wage labour. With millions locked out of property acquisition, career prospects non-existence, precarity standard, and little space for freedom and dignity at work, the irreverence unwittingly stoked by Thatcher is building, and building, and building. It exploded once with the Jeremy Corbyn moment. It is sustaining the movements of our time, such as Black Lives Matter and Don't Pay UK. It's now feeding into mass mobilisation in workplaces, and it's going to carry on until the polarisation of politics ends in either a decisive victory for our people, or some new compromise that allows British capitalism to carry on, albeit with a new settlement.

Ultimately, royalism's persistence is a failure of our politics because the left as a whole does not take its politics seriously. Republicanism raises the question of how we are ruled, we absolutely have to talk about it, and the issue cannot be ducked by a workers' movement that wants to win, and win permanently.


Robert said...

There’s a point to having the symbolic head of state be someone other than the current political leader; the US is an embarrassing example of what happens when they’re the same person, and too many people project too much of their emotional lives onto the president. Britain and Japan have both benefited hugely from the emotional stability you get by dividing those roles.

Mind you Ireland has a directly elected president to preside over ceremonies and uphold the constitution with the prime minister a separate figure. So you could have a republic with the same benefits as constitutional monarchy.

That said what about the risk of President Boris?

Graham said...

Calling of the strikes is obviously good politics but cancelling the TUC ?

Cricket and rugby continues (you can trust the fans) but the the TUC cann't meet, even if it starts with whatever level display of grief and loyality the press requires.

Jim Denham said...

Most people would accept that the death of Elizabeth Windsor has posed some real difficulties for unions presently engaged in industrial disputes.

Should unions risk losing momentum by postponing action, or risk alienating public support (and, indeed, the support of at least some of their members) by continuing regardless?

It is a genuine dilemma and there’s nothing wrong with union leaders taking this seriously.

But the immediate reaction of the Communist Party of Britain’s mouthpiece, the Morning Star, was uncompromising. An editorial on Friday 9 September (ie the day after the royal demise) was headed “Calls for ‘national unity’ must not be allowed to disarm the working class” and contained the following:

"The death of Queen Elizabeth II will place huge pressure on workers and trade unions to park their industrial struggles in the name of national unity… Nobody will say that the Queen’s death means company bosses should drop their vicious attacks on workers’ rights as a mark of respect … Newspaper pundits won’t ask how the Tories have the effrontery to wage class war at such a time … they do not have time for a pause in the class struggle – a truce which would, as ever be observed by only one side … Propaganda about the nation coming together is just that. The Conservatives are not concerned with the ‘national interest’ but only the interests of their class: when we doff our caps we abandon the interests of our own".

This would have to have been written before several unions, including the RMT, announced they were calling off planned action.

The very next day, in the weekend edition dated 10-11 September, the Morning Star front page quoted Communist Party of Britain general secretary Robert Griffiths, thus:

"Millions of people face enormous challenges in the weeks and months ahead and the role of the Communist Party is to prepare for the battles ahead, not to indulge in infantile posturing or to attack trade unions in struggle for their tactical decisions".

By then, presumably, Alex Gordon (Communist Party of Britain Central Committee member and RMT president) had let it be known to the comrades that he didn’t want the Morning Star slagging off the RMT’s decision.

Anonymous said...

Boris as a defanged figure head wouldn't really bother me.

Blissex said...

«the issue cannot be ducked by a workers' movement that wants to win, and win *permanently*»
«Bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families»

On nearly the 50th anniversary of that there are two options:

* Give up on the goal of changing the system because "we are all thatcherites now" to aim for more crumbs off the table.

* Give up on the goal of negotiating hard to improve conditions under the current system to prepare "one last heave" to change the system.

Opportunism or adventurism? Krupskaya's husband had something to say about that.