Since its formation, the Labour Party has been the mass party of the organised working class. It continues to enjoy the electoral support of large sections of workers.
But its politics and ideology have been those of social democracy, seeking to manage and reform capitalism in response to the immediate temporary interests of the labour movement, rather than abolish it in the fundamental interests of the working class and humanity as a whole.
The Labour Party has never fundamentally challenged the ruling class. At best, it has only reflected and represented the ‘trade union consciousness’ of the working class in political life. The reformist outlook that dominates Labour confines the party to an exclusively parliamentary role within the capitalist system. It sees its campaigning work almost entirely in terms of participation in elections and carries out little or no socialist education.
Yet the Labour Party in Britain is different from social-democratic parties in other countries in one crucial respect. It was formed as a federal party with mass trade union affiliations.
The unique structure and composition of the Labour Party has ensured the continuation of a significant socialist trend within it. These socialists have at times won major advances in the battle of ideas within and beyond the party. They have supported policies for democratic public ownership, progressive taxation, capital controls, trade union rights and nuclear disarmament that challenge monopoly capital in the interests of working people.
But the Labour Party left is not a cohesive and united force. The predominance of the social-democratic trend over the socialist trend in the Labour Party leadership, especially in Parliament, has helped ensure that Labour governments have only ever reformed capitalism, not abolished it.
The New Labour faction, which seized control of the party in the mid-1990s, represented the emergence of a new trend from within social democracy. Adapting to and then championing neoliberal policies and imperialist ‘globalisation’, it broke from social democracy to openly represent monopoly capital in the emerging new phase of imperialism. In its drive to turn the Labour Party into a wholehearted ‘party for business’, it brought the corrupting interests of monopoly capital into important aspects of party and government activity.
To ensure the Labour Party’s acquiescence in its own political and ideological transformation, a series of measures were adopted by agreement with misguided trade union leaders to dismantle democratic processes within the party. The resulting centralisation challenged the Labour’s Party’s federal character, concentrating power in the hands of a small clique at the top. The rights and participation of affiliated organisations were severely restricted at every level of the party.
Whether the trade unions and the socialist and social-democratic trends will be sufficiently strong, resolute and united to take back control of the Labour Party from New Labour can only be assessed in the course of a determined struggle to do so.
The working class and peoples of Britain need a mass political party, based on the labour movement, that can win general elections, form a government and implement substantial reforms in their interests.
For as long as many of the biggest trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, the potential exists to wage a broad-based fight to reclaim the party for the labour movement and left-wing policies. Certainly, this is the most direct route to ensuring the continued existence of a mass party of labour in Britain, and is an objective that every non-sectarian socialist and communist should support, whether from within the Labour Party or from without.
But decisive progress in this direction requires the unions themselves to fight both inside and outside the Labour Party for policies that will challenge state-monopoly capitalism in Britain. Moreover, support will need to be won at every level of the trade unions and the whole labour movement for an alternative economic and political strategy (AEPS) to that being pursued by the British ruling class. This would provide the most favourable conditions in which to resolve the crisis of working class electoral representation. Here, too, the Communist Party and the daily socialist Morning Star newspaper have an important contribution to make to the struggle within the labour movement.
Only after a determined fight can the big trade unions make a realistic assessment of whether the Labour Party can be reclaimed. They will have to decide whether to persevere or, together with their political allies, to re-establish a mass party of labour that will represent the interests of the working class and the people generally.
For as long as little or no progress is made in the direction of reclaiming or re-establishing such a party, other left-wing and class-struggle trends are likely to emerge that are not organisationally or politically related to the Labour Party. It is likely that they will seek to participate in the political and electoral arena.
The Communist Party’s role is to work with all left trends that have a real, sustained base in the labour movement, urging them to unite around policies and in actions which raise the combativeness, confidence and political consciousness of the working class. This would lay the basis for their convergence in a reclaimed or re-established mass party of labour, one federally organised to permit the affiliation of socialist and communist parties and committed to the fight for socialism.
Socialist and progressive forces, left parliamentary and assembly representatives in the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and other organisations also have an important part to play in the battles for reforms, for peace and for more fundamental social change. But they do not resolve the crisis of labour movement political representation. Neither do sectarian or ultra-left initiatives which have no significant base in the working class and which misrepresent themselves as the alternative or the solution to the fight for a mass party of labour.