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Why won’t the Labour Party back strikes?

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
As millions strike against vicious Tory attacks, many will be expecting the Labour Party—which is supposed to be the official opposition—to support their fightback.
Issue 2280

As millions strike against vicious Tory attacks, many will be expecting the Labour Party—which is supposed to be the official opposition—to support their fightback.

This, however, is an unlikely prospect. Labour leader Ed Miliband responded to the last major strike day on 30 June with a bizarre, robotic condemnation. “These strikes are wrong,” he told an interviewer—over and over again.

But while 30 June was based on unions not affiliated to Labour, the 30 November strikes involve Unite, Unison and the GMB—the three biggest Labour supporting unions.

They were responsible for Ed Miliband winning the Labour leadership over his Blairite brother David. They hoped he would back them in return.

Despite this, Labour’s shadow cabinet met on Tuesday last week and decided against supporting the strike. Instead it released yet another tedious statement blaming both sides—the unions and the Tories—for the dispute.

Many of those striking on 30 November will see this as a betrayal. That’s understandable. The Labour Party, as its very name shows, was set up by the unions to represent the working class in parliament.


The bulk of Labour’s support is still drawn from working class people, despite the party’s attempts to go “upmarket” under Tony Blair. Some 86 percent of Labour’s funding comes from trade unions. So why won’t Labour back unions when they strike?

Some people blame the continuing influence of the Blairite wing of the party. Certainly there is a right wing faction within Labour that is bitterly hostile to the unions. It wishes it could cut the party’s links to the working class entirely.

But a glance at history shows that Labour’s backsliding cannot just be blamed on the Blairites. The party’s leadership has never supported strikes. The idea of a golden age before New Labour is a myth.

Neil Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party in the 1980s. Far from offering support to the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984–85, he attacked the miners for organising mass pickets.

Go further back in history and the pattern remains the same. The 1945 Labour government headed by Clement Attlee is widely seen as the high point of the Labour tradition. Yet Attlee repeatedly used troops to break strikes by dockworkers and others.

Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour leader to become prime minister, told parliament that the 1926 General Strike had “nothing to do” with Labour. Instead he declared his support for a scab union.

So the bitter lesson is this. When Labour is in power, it attacks strikers in the name of the “national interest”. And when it is out of power, it attacks strikers for allegedly jeopardising its electoral prospects.

The Labour Party sees its ultimate purpose as using parliament and the state apparatus to deliver reforms for workers.

And that is where the problem lies. Everything it does is, in the final instance, subordinated to the goal of winning elections and then staying in government.


So Labour leaders in government bend over backwards to be “responsible” and a “safe pair of hands” that can be entrusted with running the system. And Labour leaders out of power are obsessed with appearing “fit for office” and tacking right to grub after middle class votes.

In practice, instead of the unions influencing parliament through Labour, the pressure comes the other way. Labour ends up acting as a means to dampen down working class militancy and undermine workers’ struggles.

This is all despite the fact that many of those striking on 30 November will be Labour supporters. And that thousands of Labour Party members and activists will throw themselves into building and supporting these strikes.

Moreover, many Labour councillors, MPs, local bodies and party groupings have formally declared their support for 30 November.

Revolutionaries should work alongside these Labour activists and organisations in fighting the Tories. We understand that the Tories are the main enemy—and that Labour’s rotten leadership does not speak for its whole membership.

But we mustn’t fall for the idea that we can “reclaim” Labour. The Labour tradition on strikes is a terrible one and always has been. And that is because of the fundamental flaws in the nature of the Labour project.

Labour’s vision is of reforms doled out by the system from above. Our job is to win workers to a different idea—that our power lies in collectively rising up against that system and taking direct control of society.

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