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The Labour Party and socialism

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
Tomáš Tengely-Evans looks at the shifting relationship between the Labour Party, the trade unions and socialism in the run-up to the general election
Issue 2450
Labour Party campaign poster
Labour Party campaign poster

The majority of working class people dread the idea that the Tories might win the general election. 

They know that it will lead to an attempt to finish off the NHS, years of more assaults on our living standards and a systematic offensive to take away everything workers have fought for and gained. But many do not see the Labour Party as a serious alternative. The last Labour government backed war and privatisation, while in opposition Labour has accepted austerity.

Of course it is not irrelevant who wins on 7 May. If the Tories win the election then every reactionary, racist and pro-capitalist throughout the land will rejoice. They will feel that bit more confident to attack us.

The bullying boss, the police chief and the judge will all be even surer that the politicians will back them up. If Labour wins it will boost many working class people’s confidence to have got rid of the Tories. 

Our attitude towards the Labour Party is based on its historic links to the organised working class in the trade unions. 

Labour’s links with the trade unions have been stretched to almost breaking point and workers’ loyalty to the party is wearing thin. 

What’s happened to Labour? Tony Blair and the New Labour project undoubtedly wanted to turn Labour into another “neoliberal” party without formal links to the unions. The Blairites failed, but they significantly frayed the party’s links with the unions and its working class base.


The Iraq war, exploding inequality and the submission to big business meant that many people felt Labour had ceased to be “their party”. But the unions still support and provide most of the funds for the party. Just last month Unite handed over £1 million with no strings attached.

However, Labour’s link with the working class does not boil down to union funding or the fact that many workers still vote for it. US unions are also the biggest donors to the Democratic Party and many of its leaders enjoy cosy relationships with its top politicians. 

Nor is it just about policies—the Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and the Green Party have far more left wing manifestos. 

Before the first Labour government was even formed, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that Labour was a “capitalist workers’ party”. “The Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party,” he said in 1920. “While made up of workers it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. 

“It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers.” 

The Labour Party was set up by Trades Union Congress (TUC) and socialists in a period of defeat. The great struggles that led to the new mass unions at the end of the 19th century had come to an end.

The trade union leaders realised the need for independent representation in parliament, instead of simply relying on the out-and-out capitalist Liberal Party. Many workers came to look to the Labour Party to deliver reforms as opposed to relying on their own strength. 

While a step forward for independent working class representation, it was never a socialist party that set out to abolish capitalism. The most fundamental contradiction within “Labourism” is that it articulated workers’ aspirations for a better world, but aimed to take the reins of the capitalist state. 


The apparent golden age of Labour after 1945 with the creation of the NHS and the welfare state was not a result of Labourism. It came from the ruling class’s fear of a radicalised workers’ movement after the Second World War. 

The Labour government presided over far-reaching reforms, but also defended the empire, attacked striking workers and went along with racist scapegoating. Such experiences (which have been repeated in even sharper forms under every Labour government) led to some workers breaking from Labour. 

But they also lead to internal conflicts between the unions, the Labour MPs, the individual members and the party bureaucrats. At some points (such as in the early 1980s) the party leaders have used the union leaders to defeat more left wing members in the constituencies.

More recently union influence has been steadily eroded—without real opposition from the unions. For instance, Ed Miliband moved to weaken the links with the unions in 2013—and despite much noise, the union leaders backed down after securing some concessions from the original plans.

The pressure on union leaders, including left wingers who’ve been critical of Ed Miliband, was to shut up and get behind the Labour leadership. When the Labour Party’s national policy forum voted last year against breaking with austerity, it included top union representatives from the likes of Unite. 

However, this isn’t just a one way street, with the unions loyally allowing Labour to stick two fingers up to them. Unite and the GMB union have explicitly tried to get working class union members selected as council and parliamentary candidates and shift party policies leftwards. Unison is slow to criticise the Labour Party, but was the union leading industrial action in the run-up to the general election. 

From the union bureaucracy’s perspective, the four-hour health walkouts last year were a serious effort to shape Labour’s agenda. 

Many ordinary trade unionists are frustrated and uninspired with Labour, but will still cast their vote for it. But loyalty is wearing thin and for many people a Labour vote is making less and less sense.

In Scotland there has been a qualitative shift in workers’ attitudes towards Labour, despite the links with the union bureaucracy remaining. Labour support has collapsed after it did the Tories’ dirty work in campaigning for a No vote during last year’s referendum campaign.

Opinion polls show workers are breaking from Labour in its former heartlands. In 2010 Labour won the Glasgow South West constituency by 19,863 votes to the SNP’s 5,192. Last week a poll showed the SNP 21 percent ahead.  

The SNP is ahead in polls in Gordon Brown’s former constituency. Workers in Scotland are abandoning Labour for what are seen as left alternatives. But this shift is being funnelled into the capitalist SNP party rather than a genuine left alternative. 


That’s why the main task for socialists is still building a working class left alternative. In Scotland the Labour Party is on the verge of suffering the  same rejection as happened in Greece to the Pasok party. In 2009 Pasok won the elections with 44 percent of the vote. This year it was nearly wiped out with just 4.7 percent of the vote. 

In England and Wales the crisis is not yet so deep. But it is no longer the case that workers who want change automatically look to Labour. There are a range of parties that left wing workers now support. 

Labour is still not an unashamedly bosses’ party like the Tories. And its links to the working class remain. On present trends Labour may, for all its betrayals and shortcomings, stagger into Number 10  after the election.

“Labourism” is not dead but it is under severe strain and we want to win workers away from those ideas and to the left. The danger is that unless there is a strong socialist alternative, workers revolted by Labour can be attracted by the populist racism of Ukip.  

That is what has happened in France where the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande was elected president in 2012 after five years of brutal right wing rule.

But far from breaking firmly from his predecessor, he continued with austerity and racist scapegoating. And the fascist National Front of Marine Le Pen has been the greatest beneficiary. 

We need an unashamedly socialist party to stand against Labour—and the SNP. The Socialist Workers Party is standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) to develop a stronger and broader left. 

It’s about positioning ourselves within the weakening of Labourism to try and break workers away from it—during the election and afterwards. The decline in support for Labour underlines the need for a united left alternative in England and Wales as well as in Scotland. 

It must have real roots and, unlike Labour, an orientation on workers’ struggles and fighting for socialism.

Read more

The Labour Party: A Marxist History

by Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, £5.00


Miliband’s balancing act: Labour and the unions

by Ian Taylor, Socialist Review 387,


Classical Marxism and the question of reformism

by Donny Gluckstein, in International Socialism 143,


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