From the October 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Labour Party meets in conference this year in a condition of customary agony. To begin with, they are displaying serious symptoms of frustration caused by their being in a position which they find acutely unenjoyable—in opposition. This position is guaranteed to cause them to experience extremely painful bouts of dispute and self-questioning—not, of course about anything other than finding the quickest way back into power. Their political backsides do not rest easily on the opposition benches and too long spent there is liable to give them the Parliamentary equivalent of bedsores.
One symptom the Labour Party are, again, suffering is the constitutional crisis which has been simmering for so long. The standing of their leader James Callaghan is in jeopardy—he, after all, committed the cardinal sin of leading his party to defeat in a general election and an energetic group inspired by Tony Benn is pushing for organisational reforms aimed at persuading the working class in this country that a future Labour government will do something other than administer the capitalist system of society.
Whatever decisions the Labour leadership and the delegates take, they will have their thoughts fixed firmly on the next general election and their hopes about deceiving the working class into voting for a Labour administration of capitalism rather than a Conservative one. But working class problems, which those parties are elected on promises to solve, are caused not by which party is in office but by the capitalist system of society. Labour administration of capitalism is no better for workers than the Tory variety. Capitalism has its own priority profit which it imposes on any government, as experience of Labour governments has proved time and time again.
There must be very few members of the Labour Party who think it stands for socialism, even as a very, very “ultimate object”. The only people to take this view seem to be the Tories! Let us assure them: they have nothing to fear from Labour. The Labour Party is openly and obviously committed to capitalism, both in theory and in practice.
Those who say that workers should support the Labour Party come up with two basic arguments: that the Labour Party is the political organisation of the working class, the political arm of the Trade Union Movement, and that the Labour Party has a better reform programme on such subjects as health and education than the Tory party.
It is true that Labour (like the Tories) has the support of millions of workers but that does not make it a working class party. The standard for judging this should rather be: does Labour further the interests of the working class—and to this question the answer is, they do not. As long as capitalism lasts it is our interest as workers to exert what pressure we can to get the most out of it, to increase our share of the wealth we alone have produced. But in this class struggle Labour governments have always been definitely on the other side: trying to reduce what goes to the workers in the interests of the capitalists of Britain.
Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the Labour Party was that it was the political arm of the Trade Union Movement, that it was an instrument workers could use to protect their interests within capitalism. But who dares to put forward this argument now? It is true that many unions are still affiliated to the Labour Party—but much of the money Labour gets from the unions is gathered under false pretences through the contracting-out swindle. Indeed, instead of the union link with Labour being of use to the unions, it has been the other way round: Labour governments have ruthlessly and cynically exploited the link in order to get union leaders to betray their members by supporting a policy of wage restraint.
So, Labour is not a socialist party, nor a working class party, nor a trade union party. Is it, then, at least a social reform party? In the sense that the need for reforms is built into capitalism and any pro-capitalist party must be a reform party—even the Tories—then Labour is, yes, a social reform party. Labour governments have brought in various reform measures, but capitalism has later forced them to attack their own previous reforms. For example, in 1965 they abolished prescription charges. In 1968 they brought them back at a higher rate. They also ended free milk in secondary schools, which was a long-standing Labour reform demand dating from the 1900s. These are just some examples of how those who seek to govern capitalism have to do so on its terms—thus confirming that human priorities cannot be imposed on capitalism, since capitalism is motivated by production for profit.
Before there can be a solution of the many problems of capitalism, the framework for those solutions must exist — and that means the common ownership of the means of production and distribution. But that will not be an issue at Labour’s conference, in 1980 or in any other year. The delegates will spend — will waste — their time discussing footling and ineffective adjustments to a social system which must result in the exploitation and degradation of the majority of its people. They will give their support, as Labour has done consistently during all its history, to the society which cannot work in the interests of its people. They will go home satisfied, perhaps even inspired to continue their work for the continuation of capitalism
And capitalism, with its massive burden of human misery, will go on.