Labour’s Parliamentary Malfunction


At the Durham Miners’ Rally Len McLusky said the Labour leadership has ‘become adrift from ordinary people and has failed to offer an alternative to austerity’. Bob Crow echoed this, characterising Miliband’s reforms as an attempt to ‘hack away at the last remaining shreds of influence held by those who created the party’.

The union leaders say Labour is constrained because, in order to achieve middle class votes, its leadership are willing to erode its commitment and connections to working people. The price is labour solidarity, the key to an effective social and political movement.

Bob Crow’s solution is a new party; but Labour is, in spite of everything, the party of working people, with the people, history, infrastructure and above all loyalty to win power and use it successfully. The problems of Labour, and some solutions to the drift of the party, are related to its focus on winning at Westminster.

First, the Westminster obsession is contrary to the extra-parliamentary traditions and potential of the party. Winning at Westminster is a primary function, but it should not stifle the party’s other aims – to fight in whatever way is most opportune to win power for working people and improve their lives. Parliamentarism’s defendants glorify the history of Labour at Westminster, often ignoring the significant progress of the labour movement through non-parliamentary channels. Ralph Miliband wrote in Parliamentary Socialism: “Leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system.”

Second, UK General Elections force parties to appeal to middle class voters, at odds with the Labour Party’s role of speaking for the working class. If there is an exclusive focus on Westminster then there is no part of the Party that is uncorrupted by the need to play to the middle classes. Westminster casts a charm over the political aims of the Labour Party, and leads the party away from its principles and from those it represents.

Third, the institutions of Westminster have never developed as a wieldy instrument of the working classes. The radical aim of Labour is to make government and parliament into instruments of the commons, but the conservative parliamentary and government system at Westminster are subsuming the Labour Party.

To make Labour the party of working people we should change our relationship with Westminster and reassess our political opportunities. We might investigate how we can use councils or regional democracy more effectively; we might look to industrial or institutional democracy. We should also be looking, at this time, to the political circumstances of Scotland, and the potential future of Scottish Labour. The Labour Party in Scotland has long been a party of home rule or subsidiarity, taking power away from Westminster to whatever level is most suitable, especially within nations. Independence is the opportunity to bring a fuller set of powers from Westminster to Scotland, and many in Scottish Labour are compelled to support it.

Some argue for independence on the basis of achieving social justice in Scotland. There is quiet discussion of how the powers of independence could be used to bring democracy into workplaces, to weave employment rights into the Scottish economic system, to strengthen the welfare and social insurance system, to extend access to childcare and to incorporate trades unions and other representative groups into Scottish government.

Labour members also realise the opportunity of independence in taking a better course for the Party in Scotland, partly because they despair at the London leadership’s direction, partly because successive governments in Westminster seem to take one step forward then two steps back. They also object to the distancing of Labour from the trade unions, and would prefer to control their own trade union structures.

Yet while many in Scottish Labour believe that labour values, and the Labour Party in Scotland, can flourish after independence, they rightly worry that solidarity and attachment to the wider movement make these insufficient reasons to back independence. In light of these worries, we should consider Scottish independence in terms of solidarity and the labour movement as a whole.

Labour members who back independence are accused of being content to ‘walk away from our English comrades’. This argument arises from the same sentiment that makes us stick by a leadership that acts solely in the interests of the Party at Westminster rather than in the interests of the labour movement. It is the type of Labourism, focussed on winning parliamentary power, that has dogged the British Labour movement for decades. And this type of solidarity is corrupt, reliant on a system of politics that has for so long failed to work for our movement, and halts our ability to use power at different levels to achieve justice for working people and society. To say that labour solidarity will wilt with independence is almost to claim that the movement rests on Westminster for unity – which is what the leadership would like us to believe.

Labour should fight to forward its aims and objectives at whatever level or in whatever system it thinks it will be most effective. It is tied to a movement, and a Party, not to any one political system. Scottish Labour has links with separate Scottish trades unions as well as the independent Scottish Trades Union Congress, it has its own particular history and institutions, and a set of principles that suit the political and social context of Scotland. So if the Scottish Party reckons it can achieve more with full powers of independence, and can build on its different priorities and stronger union links to work for a socially just Scotland, then it should take the opportunity to do so.

And even forgetting how labour values can flourish in an independent Scotland, Scottish constitutional change will enable the Labour Party as a whole to develop its political objectives and methods. An altered parliamentary and political system in the rest of the UK might just be the key to revitalising the party in England, and reconnecting the labour movement to the Party at the most effective levels.

Our unity will not be based on one shared goal of winning at Westminster; it will be based on shared principles and solidarity that will persist through collective cross-border organisation, rather than an unhelpful apparatus that happens to be Britain’s structure of central governance. The unity of the labour movement should be a common endeavour to fight as a party and movement wherever we can for working people.

Cailean Gallagher
Amy Westwell
National Collective

Both Cailean and Amy are members of the Labour Party.

This article was originally published on Mair nor a roch wind.