Vote Labour sign. Photo: Evelyn Simak / Geograph / banner added to original / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Alex Snowdon dissects the root of Labour's failures as a party that's meant to represent working people

Alex Snowdon dissects the root of Labour's failures as a party that's meant to represent working people

The Labour Party has, for the last century, been a focus for working class people’s aspirations to improve society and achieve a fairer, more equal state of affairs for the great majority. It has also been - in office - a repeated source of disappointment and failure. 

Labour is very different to the Conservative Party. The Tories represent the interests of the ruling class. Labour, by contrast, gives at least a distorted reflection of working class interests and aspirations. As the name suggests, it was established to give a political voice to workers (and their families). 

The gradual extension of the franchise - so that by 1928 all women and men aged 21 or above could vote - ensured that elections became a key arena of working class struggle. Labour emerged as a political break from the Liberals, seeking to give an independent voice to the working class instead of tailing a ruling class party. It had close connections with the trade unions. 

Labour, however, has always balanced between representing working class people and the pressures of capitalist society and the nation state. This is a characteristic of reformist, or social democratic, parties internationally. There is a constant tension between class and nation. The ‘national interest’ in reality means reinforcing a status quo that benefits the rich and powerful. 

Labour has often promised much in opposition and delivered little in office. Once in government, it prioritises the needs of managing the British state and pursues the ‘national interest’. The pressures of British and international capitalism have been brought to bear on Labour governments when they have tried to deliver real reforms and challenge the power of capital. Almost always, Labour in office has caved in to such pressures: its right wing doing so with little reluctance, while the socialist minority is dragged along behind. 

At times of economic boom, like after the Second World War, Labour has had space to enact reforms and improvements like building social housing, creating the NHS and nationalising industries. Even at these times there has been a desire to avoid antagonising the capitalists. The reforming government of 1945, for example, limited the scope of nationalisation - the majority of industry remained in private hands - avoided anything resembling workers’ control and provided vast compensation to the previous private owners. 

At times of crisis for the system, Labour has been even weaker. In the late 1970s, Labour capitulated to demands from the International Monetary Fund to impose public spending cuts. Unemployment was allowed to rise. ‘Nation’ took precedence over class. In effect, the ruling class was protected while the working class was made to pay. 

In foreign policy, Labour has always propped up a cross-party consensus with the Tories. Since 1945 this has involved subordinating Britain to US imperialism. Tony Blair leading Britain into catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was appalling, but largely in keeping with Labour’s historic role in world affairs. The Washington consensus has dominated, including when Labour has been in opposition. Even during Jeremy Corbyn’s time as party leader, there was massive resistance to shifting foreign policy leftwards. 

Labour will continue to attract support from those who want to kick back against the Tories and alleviate the worst elements of neoliberal capitalism. It will also continue to be a source of bitter disappointment. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership inspired hope that Labour could become a more combative left-wing party, but Keir Starmer has clearly indicated that the Corbyn project is over. The Right is back in control. 

Socialists need a clear understanding of the limits of Labour and, equally, of the need for independent organising through extra-parliamentary movements. We also need radical socialist organisation that is rooted practically in the struggles that take place in workplaces and on the streets.

The Socialist Explainer series

Part One: What is socialism?
Part Two: Does human nature make socialism impossible?
Part Three: Can economic planning work?
Part Four: Does a biased media make change impossible?
Part Five: Why class matters
Part Six: Can socialism come through parliament?
Part Seven: Is a society without oppression possible?
Part Eight: What went wrong in Russia?
Part Nine: Is revolution possible in the twenty-first century?
Part Ten: What is Imperialism?
Part Eleven: Why does the Labour Party fail?

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