By Judith Orr
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The Labour debate

This article is over 12 years, 5 months old
Working class people are angry at Labour, but at the same time they are fearful of the prospect of a Tory government. Judith Orr responds to the arguments about Labour and the election
Issue 345

The debate we are having on the pages of Socialist Review about whether socialists should call for a vote for Labour where there isn’t a left alternative reflects a very real debate happening across the wider working class movement. After 13 years of Labour in government the bitterness against it among workers is intense.

Last month an episode of the BBC’s Question Time was filmed in Middlesbrough. The largely working class audience were up in arms about jobs and layoffs and the closure of the local Corus plant. The feeling of class anger in the studio was visceral. These are people who hate the Tories but feel they have been betrayed by the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

From its earliest days in government Tony Blair’s rebranded “New” Labour has shown itself willing to take the side of the rich and powerful over the needs of the most vulnerable in society. Just months after the 1997 landslide Labour attacked single parent benefits, and during its time in office has led us into more wars than the Tories did in 18 years. Inequality is greater today than it was when Labour came to power.

Across Europe social democratic parties are generally suffering decline. The main reason for this is their failure to deliver real reforms or implement the sort of policies their supporters expected of them.

This is true of Labour. There has been a historic slide in the Labour vote. As many as 13.5 million people voted Labour in the 1997 general election. This was down to 9.6 million in 2005. Its support has shrunk as it has deserted the needs of its traditional base. As a result thousands of loyal Labour Party members have long since ripped up their membership cards and many who have voted Labour their whole lives feel so betrayed that they won’t vote at all.

In 1951 the party had over a million members. By 1980 Labour’s general secretary admitted the real membership was only 285,000. It rose to 405,000 by 1997 but after a decade of Labour in government it had fallen to 176,891 – the lowest since the party was founded. Now figures suggest it might be as low as 120,000.

Alongside disillusioned ex-Labour supporters is a generation of young people who have known nothing but resistance to the neoliberal and imperialist polices of Blair and Brown.

Socialists have grappled with the question of what kind of party the Labour Party is since its inception. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 there was much debate among revolutionary socialists internationally about the nature of the Labour Party. Lenin’s analysis then was that Labour was a “capitalist workers’ party”. What he meant was that it was made up of working class people but once in office carried out policies which defended capitalism.

The question many socialists are asking today is, does Lenin’s analysis still hold? Blair boasted that he had fundamentally changed the Labour Party. Was he successful? Is Labour just another plain old “capitalist” party now?


The Labour Party was born in 1901 “out of the bowels of the TUC”, as Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein say in their history of the Labour Party. It came after a series of defeats for the working class movement and the desire for the trade union bureaucracy to have a voice in parliament. It was a step forward to have workers’ organisations taking part in political structures but it also represented a move away from collective struggles by rank and file workers.

Because of its roots in the bureaucracy its history is one of, at best, negotiating and compromising with the ruling class, at worst, openly collaborating and facilitating ruling class attacks on workers’ living standards. This has been true throughout the history of the party. Even in what is regarded as the golden era of Labour, the 1945 government, Labour backed imperialist war in Korea, sent the army in to break strikes and secretly introduced Britain’s first nuclear arms programme.

So does that mean that the last decade and a half have just been more of the same? No – it is undeniable that over the last 20 years the Labour Party has seen significant changes to its make up, policies and support. Socialists have been expelled, grassroots activists have been neutered and local roots in the working class have withered. The impact of Blairism has eroded some of Labour’s core ideas – but only so far.

The ceremonial removal of Clause Four from the party’s constitution in 1995 was a symbol of what was to come in Blair’s New Labour project. No longer was Labour committed to anything resembling egalitarian aspirations. Instead Peter Mandelson was happily boasting, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

The links with the trade unions still exist but have been weakened. Labour’s national conference has no pretence to be a forum for real debates and is merely a showcase for the leadership’s agenda.

But just as it would be foolish to ignore these changes, it would be dangerous to overplay them. There are some myths that need to be debunked. One is that people don’t vote Labour any more because of its record in power. But the fact is that 9.6 million people still did vote Labour at the last general election. Another myth is that Labour only really finds support among the middle class. This leads to the view that Labour has become so cut off from its working class base that it is now the equivalent of the Democrats in the US, where you effectively have two parties of the ruling class battling for votes.

The reality is that over the last 50 years the majority of working class voters, between 50 and 60 percent, consistently vote Labour. Just over 4 million trade unionists are affiliated to Labour – the unions remain the biggest source of funds for the party. Between 2004 and 2008 trade unions donated between £8 million and £12 million annually.

The nature of the voter base is the key to making a judgement on whether to call for a Labour vote. Working class people will vote for Labour in their millions because they still see it as a class vote. They have expectations that Labour still will, or at least ought to, represent their interest in a way that the Tories don’t even pretend to do. It’s not even about the policies Labour is promising; it is about the perception of its class allegiance. What is important is the sense of entitlement that workers have from a Labour government.

So when Labour MPs fiddle expenses, close nurseries and cut hospital wards, workers cry out, “How could they do this? A Labour government!” They talk of betrayal. When the Tories do it, there is no contradiction – no one has any illusions about the Tories having any commitment to challenging inequality or standing up for the vulnerable. There is no sense of betrayal because they are seen as representing the class enemy.

Karl Marx said that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. If that was simply the case, socialism would be impossible. But under capitalism workers’ own experiences force them to challenge some of those ideas. Reformism is a product of this contradiction.

Workers who feel they haven’t got the power to challenge the system themselves look to the possibility of change through reforms. For most people revolution does not seem possible, or even desirable, most of the time and therefore the fact that you can vote for someone who will work to ameliorate your situation makes perfect sense.

In Britain the Labour Party is the organised expression of these ideas. It has existed for over a century ensuring the ideas of reformism have become deeply entrenched. Even at the height of struggles reformism has a grip and even when there is not an established party like Labour in existence reformist parties can emerge as the natural political home for workers, something that happened in Portugal after their revolution in 1974.


Are we conning people by engaging with elections if we think that the only way to win socialism is through making a revolution?

Elections are a huge political arena that dominate the media, popular culture and everyday debates at work across society. The next general election is already shaping debates on everything from the crisis to immigration. It is a myth that people are so disillusioned with official politics that most won’t vote. In fact the majority of the population do vote in general elections. The turnout for the 2005 general election at 61.1 percent was up on the turnout in 2001 of 59.4 percent.

Elections are not simply a bourgeois conspiracy to hoodwink workers. The right to vote and elect representatives was only won after bitter struggles by workers. The ruling class fought hard to limit the vote, only conceding it first to rich men, then all men, through to limited numbers of women until full suffrage was finally won in 1928.

Socialists will have to engage in electoral fights right up to and through a revolution. The Bolsheviks stood in the Duma elections in the run-up to the October Revolution in 1917. Why? Because the consciousness of workers is uneven.

Even during a revolution, which is not an isolated event but a process of social upheaval over a period of months or years, not every worker will be won to transforming society through a new government of workers’ councils, for example. Many will be wary and look to established political leaders. So revolutionaries must contest and challenge those leaders and their ideas on every front, including electorally.

This is not an argument to campaign or canvass for Labour. Socialists are not in the business of attempting to dampen people’s anger and bitterness against Labour. Instead we have been central to building resistance to Labour’s warmongering, its assault on the basic tenants of the welfare state, its attacks on migrant workers and encouragement of Islamophobia. We believe we have to be part of building a left alternative to Labour.

That is why the Socialist Workers Party has joined the newly formed Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Tusc) to stand with other activists in around 50 seats across the country (see overleaf). If it was possible we’d like to be standing in hundreds of seats, but unfortunately the reality is we are not in a position to do that right now. So that leaves some 600 or so seats unchallenged by Tusc (although some of these will be challenged by other left of Labour forces which we should support). We would effectively be abstaining from these debates if we didn’t take sides.

Instead by supporting a vote for Labour where there is no left alternative we want to relate to the huge section of the working class who, despite everything, will see voting Labour as a class vote.

To sit in a canteen, staff room or office and say there’s no difference between the Tories and Labour cuts you off from some of the best people around you. You will look like you are some sect on the fringe.

In our everyday work we acknowledge that Labour voters are different to those who vote Tory. Who are the people who will be most likely to sign petitions to support strikes or anti-racist campaigns? Or who might buy Socialist Worker or Socialist Review? Would you go to the Tory voters first?

This goes to the heart of the argument. Arguing for a Labour vote when there’s no left alternative is not about winning more votes for Labour or selling Labour to workers. It is about recognising that despite the sell-outs, attacks and reality of Labour in power there is still a significant difference in terms of who votes Labour.

The nearer the election, the more the pressure to side with Labour will grow. Many workers who now say they will never vote Labour again may shift to a grudging vote when the prospect of a Tory victory looms. We want to relate to these people alongside those who resolutely abstain. They are both our audiences.

Morning after

The day after the election, if the Tories win, the right will feel emboldened to go on the offensive. The critical point in this debate is about what increases workers’ confidence about the possibility of change and resistance, and that means supporting a vote for Labour rather than standing aloof from the debate which will be raging right up to the election.

One effect of the prospect of a Tory victory is that more possibilities of working with Labour supporters to organise resistance are opening up. Having a sectarian attitude towards such Labour activists will weaken our side.

We want Labour MPs to work with us and speak on platforms, whether in Unite Against Fascism or defending a local hospital. We should take every opportunity to unite with the widest possible layer of activists to resist the onslaught of attacks which are certain to intensify, whichever government is in power. The only debate between the Tories and Labour at the moment is whether there will be cuts now or cuts later.

So alongside slogans about the election we will have to make one message loud and clear – whoever wins will be committed to attacking working class living standards, so whoever wins we’ll have to organise to fight.

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