Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Making themselves comfortable

The new establishment – via Katy Clark’s ‘democracy review’ – is trying to turn Labour into Podemos or Syriza, writes The Progressive

They came to Farringdon Road from across the working-class districts of London: Stepney, Hammersmith, Battersea, Walthamstow, Pimlico and Islington. And from the industrial cities: Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. They were men, aside from the delegates from the Fawcett Association. They smoked pipes and cigars, wore tweeds, waistcoats, hats, beards and moustaches, like a convention of hipsters.

The Municipal Employees’ Association sent a delegate, representing 750 workers in local government. The rest of the trade unions represented workers in the private sector. The big industrial unions were there – the miners, weavers, spinners, and iron and steel workers. But the majority of unions were small, new, and represented the granularity of Victorian capitalism. Bakers and confectioners, bookbinders, cigar makers, dockers, French polishers, house decorators, matchmakers, musicians, railway workers, tailors, upholsterers, and waiters. 129 delegates represented 568,177 workers; the vast majority of the toiling masses, especially the many millions employed in domestic service, not to mention the middle-class professions like clerks, journalists, nurses or teachers, had no-one in the Memorial Hall to speak for them.

They were not the old men of later portraits or black and white photographs. Ramsay MacDonald was just 34. Pete Curren from the gas workers was 40. Richard Bell from the railwaymen was 41. The Fabians’ delegate Edward Pease was 43. Even Keir Hardie was only 44 when the Labour party was founded in February 1900. Hardie moved the motion to form a distinct Labour group in parliament, with its own whips, policies and candidates in elections. This only happened after the trendy middle class Marxists of the Social Democratic Federation tried to make the new party support the concept of ‘class war’. This was soundly defeated. Thus the Labour party was founded as a federation of trade unions, with smaller affiliates such as the Fabian Society, designed to stand candidates and form governments, using democratic means to effect change, and overtly rejecting Marxist insurrectionism, anarchism and any other leftist nonsense. This became enshrined in clause one of our party constitution, so beloved by democratic socialists ever since.

The second day of the founding conference was dominated by debates, not about high principle, but about the structure of committees and relative weights of votes at conference, and Labour has been having that conversation ever since. Which brings us to the current review of party structures by Jeremy Corbyn’s appointee Katy Clark.

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This is a moment of maximum peril for the Labour party. The new establishment within Labour has little regard for our traditions and history. Leading Corbynite Christine Shawcroft has called for an end to the trade union link, for example. Other Corbynites have denounced Clement Attlee as a sell-out. This is a generation influenced more by the student protests in 1968 than the postwar government of 1945.

Their guides are Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and Ralph Miliband. They believe in the ‘long march through the institutions’, in German student revolutionary Rudi Dutschke’s phrase, to subvert existing bodies to their revolution. They control the leader’s office and the big unions. They have won control of the National Executive Committee. They are currently making themselves comfortable in newfound roles of the general secretaryship and within the party staff organisation. Next they hope to dominate the conference. They have their sights on the affiliates such as Labour Students, LGBT Labour and the Labour party Irish society. The ultimate prize is the parliamentary Labour party – a body they want to turn into delegates not representatives, with fewer Heidi Alexanders and more Chris Williamsons.

This is the true purpose of the Clark ‘democracy review’ – the decisive takeover of the institutions of the Labour movement, driving out moderates and their supposedly ineffective attachment to parliamentarianism. They are gunning for the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic place on the NEC by making it elected by a postal ballot by self-defined BAME members. How this is will be protected from data fraud and abuse is not clear. They want to have council leaders directly selected by party members, not the elected councillors. Again, this opens up the probability of abuse, coupled with the possibility of a council leader being elected by armchair activists, but with no support whatsoever within their own Labour group. This is a recipe for chaos, and corruption.
They want to ‘bring the NEC closer to the members’. So why not have regional spaces elected by the party’s regional bodies? These could be subject to quotas or twinned to ensure a gender balance. But no, they want a ‘winners takes all’ Momentum slate where people vote ‘the line’, and decent trade unionists, Labour councillors and activists are driven to the margins.

Jon Lansman has argued in his short time on the NEC that Labour leave its international alliances and join the European populist movements Podemos and Syriza – a very different type of political coalition. This is what they want to build at home: a swirling mass, orchestrated and led by middle-class elites, engaged through protests and rallies, and indifferent, or hostile, to traditional forms of political discourse and representative democracy. In 1900, the Labour Representation Committee believed in Labour representation. For 118 years that view has prevailed, and done the country rather well in the 1940s, 1960s and after 1997. If the Labour party is to become some kind of ‘new’ Labour, no longer a federation of trade unions, members of parliament and constituency Labour parties, and if a century of progress is to be halted, it should not be allowed to happen by subterfuge and stealth.


The Progressive is a Progress columnist



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