Labour parties

Steve Painter and Rose McCann spainter at optushome.com.au
Fri Sep 20 20:00:28 MDT 2002


Phil Ferguson wrote:

>>So, my argument tends to be that the contradiction between a capitalist
programme and a working class social composition and base was resolved when
Labour parties began administering capitalism.>>

Rogernomics, an unusually virulent strain of neo-liberalism, administered by
Labour government Finance Minister Roger Douglas, did severe and probably
permanent damage to the NZ Labour Party.

This was probably possible because NZ's mainly agricultural economy was
permanently depressed. At the time it was probably the Portugal or Ireland
of the South Pacific -- one of the poorer advanced capitalist countries.
After Cuba, it was probably the old-car capital of the world. Workers had
cars, but many of them were rust-buckets from the 1950s. This was because
foreign exchange was chronically short and imports severely limited.

Rogernomics promised a miracle cure, and within a very short time destroyed
most of the old welfare state apparatus and along with it much of the
traditional Labour Party. The attack on unionism was so ferocious that most
of the unions disaffiliated and the Alliance arose to fill the gap filled by
the traditional Labour Party.

Alerted and sobered by this, the Australian trade union movement allowed
much less freedom to the Labor Party governments of Bob Hawke and Paul
Keating, even when neo-liberalism was in its first flush. That's not to deny
that the Hawke-Keating Accord with the trade unions seriously weakened the
union movement.

The problem with Phil's analysis is that it doesn't tell us what to do about
the fact that most of the working class still votes Labour, even in NZ,
where Labour has been most gutted by its betrayals of working-class
interests.

All the leftie feel-good stuff about how rotten Labour is gets us nowhere if
it leads to no tactical conclusions other than exposure and denunciation by
tiny groups of Marxists. That hasn't worked for the past 80 years or so, and
there's little sign of it working now. Even the Scottish Socialist Party is
not seriously challenging Labour's hegemony over working class votes.

Even in NZ it's not at all clear that the working class is finished with the
Labour Party, and it's even less the case in Australia and Britain. This is
reflected in phenomena such as the rise of the "awkward brigade" of militant
trade union officials in Britain over the past couple of years (for more,
see http://www.redpepper.org.uk/tradeunion-leaders.pdf ) and the development
of militant leaderships in some Victorian and WA unions in Australia.

The main leaders of the awkward brigade are mostly Labour Party members,
with one or two Socialist Alliance supporters. The political outlook is
similar in the new militant leaderships in Australia. Most of the leaders of
this current are in the Labor Party, or at least recognise that the forums
of the Labor Party can't be ignored, if only for defensive reasons.

In immediate terms, the awkward brigade and others in the British Labour
Party are causing difficulties for Blair in his support for Bush's Iraq war
drive. This is not a small question. If war is to be avoided, the position
of Britain as Bush's only reliable imperialist ally of importance (on this I
agree with Labor leader Simon Crean, if Britain is the bulldog among US
allies, Australia is the lapdog).

So the "middle-class yuppies" etc, in the British unions and Labour Party
(in combination with independent antiwar movements, of course) may yet prove
vital in stopping war in the Gulf -- one of the major objectives of the most
powerful sector of world capitalism. That's still being played out, and one
of the important battles is being fought inside the Labour Party.

Theories about the labour parties are useless if they're not a guide to
practice, and practice would seem to dictate at the moment that Marxists
should support the antiwar wing of the Labour Party. It certainly looks like
contradictions between working-class support and capitalist policies are
still being played out in the British Labour Party.

Incidentally, Phil, what is your definition of working class and middle
class? I thought those who relied on selling their labour power to make a
living were the working class. You seem to have some refinement on this
definition that excludes quite a lot of people in this category.

Steve Painter


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