Posts Tagged ‘‘A Short History of the Labour Party’’

Who Really Hijacked the Labour Party?

July 16, 2016

A friend of mine told me yesterday that there had been a lot of ranting on the Labour party forums by the Blairites about how Corbyn and his supporters had ‘hijacked’ the Labour party. Unfortunately, I can believe this. Mike over at Vox Political put up a piece a little while ago, about John Spellar’s rant against the Corbynites on British television. Spellar is the most right-wing of right-wing Labour, and had angrily denounced them as ‘Trots’, ‘Communists’ and the like. Just as Chunky Mark reported in his latest rant against the Coup that Corbyn’s supporters had been denounced, not only as ‘Trots’, but also as ‘rabble dogs’.

My friend was so incensed at the accusation that Corbyn and his supporters had ‘hijacked’ the Labour party, that he posted a piece stating that the real hijack occurred in 1992, when Tony Blair removed Clause 4 from the party’s constitution. This was the clause drafted by Sidney Webb, one of the leaders of the Fabian Society, in the list of ‘party objects’ incorporated into the 1917 constitution. It committed the party

To secure for the producers by hand and brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service. (Henry Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party (Basingstoke: MacMillan Press 1985) 43-44.

Blair had also threatened to cut ties with the trade unions if they opposed his plans to reform the rather convoluted voting patterns in the party. But the trade unions had been an integral part of the Labour party since the ‘Lib-Labs’ – the trade unionists elected as members of the Liberal party to parliament in the late 19th century. The Labour party was founded in a conference in the Memorial Hall near Ludgate Circus, on 27th and 28th February 1900, in which the Trades Union Congress, the co-operative societies and various Socialist parties, such as the Independent Labour Party, united to plan for the representation of labour in parliament. (Pelling, 6-7).

Blair’s attempt to curtail the power of the unions, his rejection of the Socialist basis on the Labour party, and his continuation of the Thatcherite project to destroy the welfare state effectively transformed the Labour party from a party of the Left to that of the Right. Right-wing critics rightly sneered at it for being a pale-blue imitation of the Tories.

In some ways, the rejection of Clause 4 was nothing new. Tony Crosland, the Labour ideologue, who formulated the party’s programme for much of the 1960s and ’70s, was firmly against the extension of nationalisation, arguing against it in his books The Future of Socialism of 1956, and The Conservative Enemy of 1962. Hugh Gaitskell, the right-wing leader of the Labour party also tried to remove Clause 4 for the constitution. Crosland wanted to play down nationalisation, as it had proved a barrier to Labour extending its support beyond the manual working class, and attracting new groups of supporters. After the euphoria of their 1945 election victory, the party had been shocked when they lost the 1951 election. When I was growing up in the 1980s, I can remember various people telling me that they wouldn’t vote for Labour ‘because Labour wanted to nationalise everything.’ In practice, the party didn’t. It had a mandate in the 1945 election for nationalising the gas, electricity, steel, coal and transport industries. He notes that there was a rejection of sweeping nationalisation at the Labour party’s Annual Conference, and that even the left-wing members of the party declared that they were reaching the end of the natural monopolies to be nationalised, and so did not recommend any further extension of state ownership to industry, in their pamphlet, Keeping Left. (Crosland, The Future of Socialism, 323-4).

Crosland, for all his rejection of blanket nationalisation, nevertheless still believed a case could be made out for some. He also argued that there were other ways of achieving the Socialist object of providing for greater social equality that the extension of state ownership. He wanted strong, oppositional trade unions, high wages for a prosperous working class, a solid welfare state, the incorporation of the private schools into the state education system to make them accept greater numbers of pupils from ordinary, non-monied backgrounds, and the increased taxation of the rich.

Blair, Brown and New Labour have done the exact opposite. They passed laws against the welfare state and the ability of the trade unions to strike and defend workers’ rights. They picked up and revamped the academisation of state education, that had begun with Thatcher. They shifted the tax burden away from the rich. The result has been that the working class has become poorer and marginalised. Social mobility had effectively ceased before the Tories took power in the 2010 election.

Whatever the Blairites may sputter about standing up for Labour ‘values’, it is they who have done the most over the past quarter century to destroy the very basis of the party they support.

Apart from Clause 4, Sidney Webb also produced a policy statement, Labour and the New Social Order, published in June 1918, which became the basis of the party’s policy for the next 50 years. This contained four points:

1) The National Minimum. This comprised a minimum working wage, full employment, a minimum standard of working conditions and a maximum 48 hour working week.

2) The democratic control of industry. Nationalisation, and some form of worker’s control.

3) The Revolution in National Finance. Subsidize social services through the heavy taxation of large incomes, and a capital levy to pay off the cost of the First World War.

4) The Surplus for the Common Good. The balance of the nation’s wealth should be set aside and used for expanding opportunities for education and culture. (Pelling: 44-5).

All these policies are still very relevant today. Including taxing the rich to pay off war debts. It is the poor, who have suffered cuts to their services in order to service the debt created by Blair’s, Brown’s and Cameron’s wars in the Middle East. We need more of them, and to end the Blairite tendency of New Labour.

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The Osborne Judgment and Tory Opposition to Trade Union Funding of the Labour Party

March 6, 2016

The modern Labour party was formed from a late-19th century and early 20th century alliance of the trade unions and early Socialist societies in order to raise the importance of working class issues in parliament. This was in opposition to the Tories, who represented the interests of the Anglican aristocracy, and the Liberals, who represented the Nonconformist middle classes. Corporately, the trade unions that fund the Labour party and the campaigns of individual MPs, are part of the Labour party.

And the Conservatives hate that with a passion and have been trying to drive a wedge between the two ever since. One of the means they have used to try to do so is through legislation intended to outlaw trade union funds going to the Labour party, if the individual members of the trade union contributing are not Labour party supporters. They were loudly advocating this in the 1980s, and they’re doing the same now under Cameron.

The tactic’s over a century old, and is nearly as old as the Labour party itself. It was first used in a ruling by the House of Lords in 1909 in what became known as ‘the Osborne Judgment’. Osborne was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, who objected to part of his union levy going to the Labour party. He therefore sought an injunction against the union, which was granted by the courts and upheld by the House of Lords when the union appealed. The Lords ruled that it was illegal, as there was no mention of political action as part of the objectives and functions of trade unions in the Trade Union Act of 1876. Pelling, in his ‘Short History of the Labour Party’, notes the devastating effect this had:

The decision crippled the party financially, and various attempts made by the unions to continue their support for the Labour Party on a voluntary basis collapsed in the face of the apathy of their members. The party with the support of the T.U.C. determined to secure legislation to reverse the decision. In the meantime, it had to fight the two general elections of 1910, and in both its dependence upon the Liberals was very obvious. In the January election, not a single member was returned against official Liberal opposition; the same was true of the December election except for two mining seats. (p. 24).

The judgment was fortunately eventually reversed, but the Tories have been trying to do the same ever since. This is the background for Cameron’s latest attack on the trade unions and their funding of the Labour party, and it too must go.

Gun Rights, the Second Amendment and Early 20th Century Preparations for Revolution in Britain

March 6, 2016

One of the major issues that concerns the Republicans, and particularly the extreme right-wing of that party, is gun rights. They point to the Second Amendment in the Constitution guaranteeing American citizens the right to bear arms, which they view as one of the key democratic freedoms in America. They see it as the article in the Constitution that enables Americans to fight back against a tyrannical government. Hence the hysterical rage amongst the NRA and people like the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, at the mere mention of gun legislation. This is always greeted with cries of ‘They’re coming for our guns!’ and the defiant snarl that they’ll only be able to take the weapon, ‘from my cold, dead hand’.

I’ve also seen a quotation from George Orwell trotted out to support gun rights. I can’t remember the exact quotation, but it’s something like the household gun on the wall being the mark of the free worker. Now Orwell’s quote could be a remark on many things. In the 19th century the poaching laws introduced by the wealthy farmers during the Napoleonic Wars were bitterly resented, because many agricultural workers believed they had the right to poach rabbits on their employer’s land as part of the perks of the job. And this became more important as the economic situation deteriorated and poverty and starvation more common.

It was also an attitude shared by the Social Democratic Federation, an early British Socialist party, which was one of the organisations that formed the Labour party. The SDF was Marxist, although its founder, Hyndeman, had fallen out with Marx himself as he had not credited Marx with the party’s programme. Pelling in his ‘Short History of the Labour Party’ notes that in period running up to the First World War and the debate about rearmament, several members of the SDF, most notably Will Thorne, believed

in a form of conscription known as ‘the citizen army’, which was based on the idea that a revolution could best be effected when all members of the working class had some training in the use of arms. (p. 29).

Now I’ve no doubt that the idea of radical, working-class Marxists bearing arms ready to start the revolution is something that scares the right witless. Gun rights are all right for right-wing Whites, but when Blacks and the radical Left get them, it’s a major threat to decent American society. The Young Turks and Secular Talk have pointed out that the authorities in America suddenly became interested in limiting access to guns after the Black Panthers started walking around with them. The Panthers had read the Constitution, and found that nowhere in it did it say that only Whites could carry firearms. And so even before they started shooting people the American government got very alarmed, and started passing laws to limit gun ownership.

Back in the 1990s parts of the Survivalist movement grew so concerned about what they saw as the new Communist threat and the imminent collapse of society, that they started forming informal ‘militias’. Somehow I doubt very much that the same people, who formed and joined these, would be comfortable knowing that their opponents on the radical left back in the very beginning of the 20th century, shared their ideas and desire to acquire firearms training to overthrow a tyrannical government. The only difference being that it was a right-wing, economically conservative government that they viewed as oppressive. I can’t see them being terribly enthusiastic about that little episode of British history at all.

Lansbury, Snowden, the Webbs and the Origin of the Welfare State

March 6, 2016

A few weeks ago I had a debate on here with a commenter, who took issue with my statement that Nye Bevan set up the NHS. He pointed out that the modern welfare state had its origins in the Beveridge Report of 1942. This is indeed true, but the ultimate origins of the NHS go even further back. Henry Pelling, in his A short History of the Labour Party, points out that when Lloyd George introduced his Insurance Act of 1910, which gave some sickness, unemployment and old age benefits to some workers, his plan to base it on insurance contributions was criticised by George Lansbury, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and Philip Snowden in the Labour Party. Pelling writes

On the other hand, Snowden and the Webbs, together with Lansbury who had served with Mrs Webb on the Poor Law Commission were united in opposition to this view. Their aim was a National Health Service undertaking preventative measure for the benefit of the whole community. (p. 27).

There is much more to be said about this issue, and about medicine and hospital provision before the establishment of the NHS under Bevan. Nevertheless, the Labour Party was certainly one of the organisations demanding it. The Socialist Medical Association developed the idea of a National Health Service, and it became Labour Party policy in the 1930s.