US and World Politics

Demise of the Labour Party and the Future for United Kingdom Socialism

By Susan Roberts

Recent elections in the UK have resulted in a seismic shift in the political landscape with the Labour Party being completely decimated: losing over 50 seats, many in places that had voted Labour for generations. The significance of this defeat, particularly regarding the party’s long-term prospects, is currently being hotly debated. With the Tories under Boris Johnson having an 80 seat majority in parliament and being entitled to effectively rule without opposition for the next five years, there is speculation about whether the Labour Party will ever recover and, indeed, whether it still has a place in British politics, having been so roundly abandoned by the very class it is supposed to represent.

The referendum on European Union (EU) membership, which was held in June 2016 and saw the “leave” side triumph, was a special factor in the demise of UK Socialism under Labour. However, it was the Labour Party’s reaction to the referendum result rather than the “leave” vote itself which has proved so destructive. What the question of continued membership of the EU brought into focus were the social, political and economic priorities of the British people. When they were asked what was most important, the British public powerfully responded by putting politics first: they chose democracy over technocracy. Since for many Brits the EU is seen as an anti-democratic, corporate institution, run by technocrats and supported by self-serving politicians.

This was a response large swathes of the political establishment, the entire middle ground in fact, could not understand and refused to accept. The result has been a three-year impasse in parliament, with a minority Tory government being unable to put into effect the will of the British people. The essential problem has been a predominantly “remain” parliament—made up of “remain”-backing MPs from all parties—unwilling to enact the legislation required for leaving the EU.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that all political parties, the media, and most economic “experts” campaigned strongly for “remain,” the result came as quite a shock. That and the ensuing parliamentary gridlock led to a degree of political fragmentation within the “remain” camp. As a number of “remain”-voting MPs simply refused to accept the new status quo. This led to a number of party defections and the formation of entirely new cross-party allegiances, which not only insisted that they represented a new vision of politics, but that they embodied higher moral values. Without exception, these unelected new alliances for “remain,” which were united in their determination to set aside the referendum result, were easily recognizable as expressions of self-aggrandizement, and were wiped out at the last election.

Working class punishing the Labour Party

It was also a time of extreme vitriol. As much as parliamentarians were abused by angry members of the public—primarily “leave” voters frustrated at what they regarded as parliament’s “blocking tactics,” parliamentarians were not slow to sling mud on “leave” voters, characterizing them as ignorant and ill-informed and accusing them of bigotry and racism. The large majority bestowed on Johnson in the recent election was no doubt motivated by a strong desire to eradicate this injurious stalemate and install a government capable of delivering on the referendum result. But it was also motivated by a desire on the part of the working class to punish the Labour Party for its betrayal.

A robust opposition is an essential part of any democratic system, and in that respect, the decimation of the Labour Party is manifestly a loss in absolute terms. Whether it is also a particular loss so far as the working class is concerned depends on whether it is still an authentically representative party. The fact that the Labour leadership prevaricated and stalled on the EU question is perhaps the clearest indication of the difficulties they faced in terms of their support base. They simply couldn’t decide whether they were “leave” or “remain.”

Having its roots in working class communities that had been decimated by de-industrialization in the 1990s and had suffered under the strict neo-liberal rules of EU membership—neutering the Trade Unions and destroying workers’ rights—the Labour Leadership was well-acquainted with the demands of the “leave” side. And, prior to the 2016 referendum, both Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell were aligned to that view. However, the difficulty Corbyn faced was that the surge in support for the Labour Party that his “leftist” leadership attracted—membership had tipped over 500,000 by 2017, making it the largest Socialist party in Europe—was largely drawn, not from the Euro-sceptic working class but from the avidly pro-EU metropolitan class. And these new members comprised the majority of the party’s grass-root activists. In the end, the party swung in favor of the metropolitan elite and campaigned to remain in the EU. That decision probably cost them some working class votes but wouldn’t have been fatal. The death knell came later, when the lack of decisive leadership in respecting the referendum result emboldened disgruntled “remainers” within the party, who began to look for ways to overturn the vote. When the leadership caved into their demands to campaign for a second referendum, this led to justifiable outrage in those parts of the country the Labour Party had forgotten about. It was this that lost Labour the 2019 election. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Does the Labour Party represent the working class?

At this juncture, the most important question to ask, it seems to me, is whether the present Labour Party is an authentic left-wing political organization representing the interests of the working class. If it has become something else, what or whose political agenda is it serving? And it isn’t possible to answer that question without an appreciation of the case for Lexit: the left-wing argument for leaving the EU. The reason being that Lexit represents the political interests of the working class, and is, after all, what they themselves voted for. The case for Lexit is overwhelming; it is a powerful argument against global capitalism, and for that reason was never discussed or even alluded to by any of the main political parties. Unfortunately, many Labour MPs, rather than debating the case for “leave,” deemed it more politically expedient to label the Lexit-voting working class ignorant and racist. And it is from this shamefully low position that the Labour Party is now struggling to climb back.

The case for Lexit had been powerfully made by British trade unionist’s decades before the 2016 referendum. Many saw through the fašade of “Social Partnership” the EU began promoting in the 1980s in a crude attempt to sweeten the pill of unregulated capitalism.

As the late Bob Crow, Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) General Secretary, pointed out in 2012, “The ‘Social Europe’ agenda has been used over many years to justify trade union support for a vicious right-wing corporate project known as the European Union. [It] was always a smoke screen to fool the organized working class that we had something in common with big business. We didn’t then and we don’t today when unelected EU institutions, directly representing Europe’s biggest banks, are removing elected governments and imposing mass unemployment, social dumping and unending austerity everywhere.”

Ever since the UK’s entry into the EU in 1975, trade unions had been arguing against the neo-liberal straitjacket imposed by EU membership. What those who stood on the front-line defending workers’ rights could see was that through the practice of “Social Dumping” private corporations were bringing workers from low-wage countries into higher wage economies to undercut local, collectively-agreed wages in order to accrue higher profits.

The strikes that broke out to protest this practice, insisting that all workers be paid the same wages, were declared illegal by the European Court of Justice in a series of legal challenges. What was thereby established in cases, such as International Transport Workers Federation v. Viking [2007]; Laval v. Swedish Building Workers Union [2008]; and Ruffert v. State of Lower Saxony [2008], which involved workers and trade unions from all over Europe, was that corporate entitlement to profit overrode long-fought workers’ rights. As RMT President, Alex Gordon, pointed out in 2011, what was enshrined in the EU constitution and enforced by the European Court regarding the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor “represents the most fundamental attack on trade union rights and democracy in general since the end of World War Two.”

Since no Leftist party, (other than the tiny Communist Party) was advocating “leave,” it isn’t surprising that issues such as “Social Dumping” and the undercutting of wages were never revealed to the electorate. What is surprising is that pro-remain Labour Party activists should attempt to sell the EU’s corporately managed “free flow of labor” as an expression of international socialism. An error which surely points to a deep confusion over the nature of globalization itself.

The commodification of labor

For the free movement of labor enshrined in the EU constitution is, quite literally, the stuff of globalization: it’s the commodification of labor.

There is little interest in the rights of individual workers, since the constitutions’ primary concern is with labor as a resource or cost. This is the liquefication of human flesh, poured from one market to another and settling at the lowest points in order to yield the highest profit. This is how wages get dragged down in a race to the bottom. Such commodified labor has nothing to do with internationalism which is a cross-national expression of solidarity between workers, co-operatives and trade unions, and was established by self-organized labor.

The Labour Party’s dogged insistence that continued membership of the EU was essential for protecting workers’ rights wasn’t very persuasive in the referendum campaign. But it surely would have proved even less persuasive if the UK media had shown the electorate just how the EU was “protecting” the rights of workers in France.

Providing a poignant backdrop to the “remain” camp’s “workers’ rights” mantra were violent images of the French riot police beating up workers lawfully protesting against “Socialist” President Hollande’s new labor laws. The violence on the streets of France has continued to this day—as has the news blackout in the UK—with workers now protesting against President Macron’s plans to privatize the pensions and extend the retirement age. The result has been an extensive general strike, with Paris virtually closed down. Lamentably, not a single Labour MP has commented publicly on the scandal of the EU’s destruction of workers’ rights or expressed any solidarity with or even concern for the plight of French workers. So much for international socialism.

Since the Labour Party did not support the decision of the working class to vote “leave” but chose to perpetuate the EU’s “Social Partnership” fašade instead, it is questionable whether it remains a party committed to working class interests. Does it still have anything to offer the people it claims to represent other than handouts? A glance at its bland, give-away 2019 manifesto provides a negative answer, and clearly reveals the fundamental challenges faced by a Labour Party that has chosen to get into bed with capitalism. It simply can’t get out again without effecting radical change. And it can’t do that because it has, by that very accommodation, normalized the draconian economic policies, it was created to confront. It has simply made itself irrelevant, offering amelioration but nothing structurally different.

All this was foreseen by the left-wing of the Party back in the ’70s, when the then parliamentary Labour Party declared the working class “irresponsible” for trying to force structural change and aligned itself with big business instead.

Tony Benn, the Labour Party’s most vocal left-wing critic in those days, Corbyn’s mentor and a vociferous campaigner against EU membership, thought the “handouts” view of politics elitist and incompatible with radical government. He was right, people want to be empowered not patronized. However, this paternalistic, managerial stance sits well with the middle classes that currently dominate the Labour Party membership. Such largesse reinforces society’s stratification, usefully relieving the bourgeoisie of the stress of managing class boundaries. It also reassures them that nothing is going to be radically different.

In short, Labour has become a party that symbolizes identity interests but no longer represents class politics. It is now something of a brand: a logo appropriated by the “woke” middle classes seeking to embellish their leftist credentials. If only the working class had stayed quiet, the pretense could have continued for years.

Since so many members of the current Labour Party appear to enjoy the cachet of a Marxist label, whilst denigrating the working class and being terrified of radical change, it seems appropriate to defer to Marx on the topic of self-alienation. For, whilst both classes share the same objective, alienating reality, Marx saw that it is through the realizations of the working class that society is restored to a human level of existence.

As an assessment of UK politics in the age of global capitalism, he seems spot on: “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.”

—January 2020