Why won't Labour back strikes?

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Many people have been rightly outraged that Labour leader Ed Miliband has refused to back the public sector strike that is set to rock the government at the end of this month. But, argues Amy Leather, it is mistake to think that Labour has ever consistently supported strike action

Cries of shame greeted Labour leader Ed Miliband as he spoke at the TUC conference in September. Despite his declaration of pride in the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party, he went out of his way to denounce the strike planned for 30 November when millions of workers will take on the Tories.

Not only in his view are the strikes a mistake but such industrial action is always a sign of failure. Instead he favoured "meaningful negotiation to prevent confrontation". His words had a familiar ring having already condemned the coordinated strikes in June and having been "appalled" at the possibility of strikes during the royal wedding.

A couple of weeks later at Labour's own conference, although Ed himself was quiet on the subject, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis responded when he made it clear that "millions of public service workers and our union will expect the support of their party and its leadership…they look to Labour now, more than ever, to support them, to speak up for them. They will never forgive us if we let them down and neither will their union."

A little more solidarity

It's not a surprise that union leaders were probably expecting a little more solidarity from Ed Miliband. After all, he only became Labour leader due to their members' votes and campaigning support of key unions such as Unite, Unison and the GMB. Indeed, in their biography of Ed Miliband, Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre suggest that it was Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former head of Unison, who helped secure Ed his safe parliamentary seat in Doncaster in the first place.

There was a shortlived euphoria for those on the left of the Labour Party after the election of a leader dubbed "Red Ed" by the media. Ed Miliband did seem keen to put a distance between himself and some of the worst aspects of New Labour, such as the Iraq war. "We've got our party back" declared one trade union delegate as he watched the new leader's victory speech. This feeling was initially shared by many party members, but the reality of the last year has hardly been a return to what many would describe as "old Labour". Miliband has been very clear that the Labour Party would also make cuts and is committed to halving the budget deficit, while he has even praised aspects of Thatcherism such as the disastrous policy of selling off council houses.

Yet it has still come as a shock to many preparing to strike that a party funded by trade unions, purporting to represent working class interests, is refusing to back their action. Of course, no one would have expected to see Tony Blair on a picket line but the assumption is that before "New Labour" the party would have backed such action. But has there ever been a time when the Labour Party unequivocally supported strikes?

The Labour Party was created by the trade union bureaucracy. As Ernest Bevin, the powerful leader of the TGWU (a forerunner of today's Unite union) from 1922 to 1945 put it, Labour "grew out of the bowels of the TUC". Established in 1900, originally as the Labour Representation Committee, it sought to do exactly that - to represent trade union interests in parliament. Without the trade unions the Labour Party would not exist and that continues to this day. Between the 2005 and 2010 general elections trade unions donated over £47 million to Labour. Since the last general election, as rich backers and corporate donors have abandoned Labour, this financial dependency has further increased, with over 80 percent of the donations to Labour now coming from the unions.

The Great Unrest

Labour's first electoral breakthrough came in 1906 when 29 Labour MPs were elected, increasing to 42 in 1910. How would these new parliamentarians react to extraparliamentary activity such as strikes and protests? A first glimpse of what would become a pattern could be seen with the outbreak of the "Great Unrest", a period of increasing working class militancy between 1910 and 1914. Hundreds of mostly unofficial strikes broke out, with the number of strike days quadrupling. Trade union membership doubled. There were national strikes of miners, dockers and railwaymen. The state responded brutally. Four strikers were shot dead, but nevertheless significant victories were won as workers fought back.

Yet the reaction of the Labour Party was to do absolutely nothing to develop mass militancy. On the contrary, Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was more concerned that "whilst the heroics outside are being indulged in, parliamentary action of a general character is being paralysed and prejudiced", while the May 1912 issue of the Independent Labour Party's Socialist Review described the supporters of direct action as "mentally defective".

Not only did Labour's leaders condemn the strikers during this period but in 1911 Arthur Henderson, the party's leader between 1908 and 1910, together with other senior Labour MPs, proposed a parliamentary bill to make strikes illegal without 30 days notice.

When Labour entered government office for the first time in 1924 it used anti-union legislation to declare states of emergency aimed at the docks and London tram strikes. Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, angrily insisted that "strikes for increased wages…not only are not socialism, but may mislead the spirit and the policy of socialism".

By the time of the 1926 General Strike the Labour Party was back in opposition. However, this didn't stop them actively trying to sell it out. Sidney Webb, a key figure in the Labour-supporting Fabian movement, wrote secretly to George Bernard Shaw the day after the strike was called off without any concessions, to assure him that Labour had never supported the strike: "You must understand that the Labour party and its parliamentary leaders or representatives had nothing to do with it". Many of the Labour MPs were delighted at the massive defeat for the working class. MacDonald considered the strike to be "one of the most lamentable adventures in crowd self-leadership of our labour history" but its defeat made it "a glowing point in the history of British Labour".

Conceivably such attitudes could be attributed to terrible leadership up until this point. After all MacDonald was a complete right winger who deserted the Labour Party in 1931 to form a national government with the Tories.

In contrast the post-war Labour administration of 1945-51, headed by Clement Attlee, had a number of known left wingers in the cabinet. It also had the advantage of a large parliamentary majority. Responsible for many progressive social reforms such as the NHS and the introduction of the welfare state, it is this government that many on the left of the Labour Party today cite as an example of what can be achieved through parliamentary means.

However, the party leadership, with complete agreement from those on the left such as Nye Bevan and Stafford Cripps, did not change its attitude towards strikes. Striking dockers, gas workers, miners and lorry drivers were denounced, spied upon and prosecuted. Two states of emergency were proclaimed against them and two more narrowly averted. As one historian later noted, "On 18 different occasions between 1945 and 1951 the government sent troops, sometimes 20,000 of them, across picket lines to take over strikers' jobs." By 1948 "strike breaking had become almost second nature to the cabinet".

Wilson's witch-hunt
It was a habit that was to continue throughout the post-war period. Harold Wilson's Labour government of 1964-70 resorted to anti-communist witch-hunting to defeat the seafarers in 1966 which he described as "a strike against the state, against the community" by a "tightly knit group of politically motivated men". He introduced a state of emergency and tried to pass legislation to ban unofficial strikes.

Labour was returned to office in 1974, after strikes by miners brought down the Tory administration. Yet despite radical talk in opposition the new government encouraged scabbing. Again, in spite of the presence of left wingers such as Tony Benn and Michael Foot in the Labour cabinet, the government used the army against the Glasgow dustmen in 1975 and again in 1977-8 against the firefighters strike.

During the miners' strike of 1984-5 the Labour Party was again in opposition. Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, enraged many by failing to offer full support for the strike. He lined up with the Tory press by repeatedly calling for a ballot. This was despite a delegate conference of the miners' union sanctioning the strike and the obvious fact that a ballot would have disastrously paralysed the dispute. Kinnock also repeatedly denounced the pickets for "intimidation" and "violence".

It is clear there was no golden age when Labour gave its full and wholehearted support to strikes. This cannot be explained away by bad or right wing leadership. Denouncing strikers and engaging in strike breaking is a persistent feature throughout Labour's history.

Labour supporters striking

However, it is important to note that since its formation many thousands, even millions, of Labour Party members, supporters and voters have not only offered practical solidarity to those in dispute but have often been at the forefront of action themselves. But this was despite Labour's official position, not because of it.

So the question is raised time and again of why? How has a situation developed where we have a political party funded mainly by contributions from trade union members, to which millions of working class people look to provide some change, but which when in government acts to break strikes and seeks to undermine militancy?

To understand this we have to look at the contradiction at the very heart of the Labour Party, one that has been there since its very inception. The Labour Party was indeed born out of the trade unions. However, this took place after a period which had seen an increase in militancy and union organisation but also defeats for workers.

The 1880s witnessed an explosion in struggle, as workers once thought of as "unorganisable" took direct action. The "New Unions" were built out of mass action like the London dock strike of 1889, the matchgirls' strike of 1888 and action by the gas workers in 1889 and 1890. However, this heroic period was shortlived as the ruling class fought back with lockouts and mass scabbing to break the weakest groups.

The leaders of the "New Unions" had rightly drawn the lesson that workers needed political as opposed to purely economic action. However, it is possible to draw either revolutionary or reformist conclusions from this insight. In 1898 the socialist newspaper the Labour Leader commented on what it termed the "failure" of a dispute by concluding that "it would be more in accordance with…common sense if the battle was transferred from the poverty stricken homes of the workers to the floor of the House of Commons".

Defeats not only shook workers' confidence in their own strength and ability to organise, but also increased the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is worth noting that the formation of the Labour Party took place at the same time as a massive expansion in the number of full-time union officials. In 1850 there were no full-time officials, but by 1920 there were 3,000 to 4,000.

The Taff Vale legal ruling in 1901, which not only outlawed picketing but also compelled unions to refund their employers every penny lost during a strike, shook this new trade union bureaucracy profoundly. In 1902 one trade union leader declared that "menaced on every hand in workshop, court of law, and press, trade unionism has no refuge except the ballot box and Labour Representation".

Therefore although workers' struggles had built up working class organisation, defeats pushed it into bureaucratic channels. The conclusion for many, especially in the trade union bureaucracy, was the need for representation in the House of Commons, and that meant putting electoral considerations first.

This strategy - that change is possible through winning elections and thus capturing the existing state machine - is shared by all those in the Labour party, whether they profess to be on the left or right, "New" or "old" Labour.

Some of those who originally proposed the idea of a Labour Party had imagined that it would "do more than bring out Labour candidates...it will give assistance to the worker in all trade disputes and crises." However, as a parliamentary party, winning elections is the primary goal. This has always been the main focus of activity rather than supporting "extraparliamentary" workers' struggles. It also means that the party needs to win as many votes as possible. The aim of trying to develop a broad appeal has always influenced Labour's leaders, even if taken to new lengths by Blair and New Labour.

Fundamental contradiction

But this strategy also contains a fundamental contradiction for the Labour Party. Attempting to represent working class interests through parliament tries to combine two opposing concepts - class and nation. The idea of a national interest is central to ruling class ideology. It rests on the denial that capitalism is a fundamentally class-divided society, where there is a clash of interest between the employers who own and control big business and those forced to work for one or other of the capitalist corporations.

By trying to channel working class aspirations for change through the institutions of the national state, such as parliament, the Labour Party runs up against this contradiction time and again. This is because the state is not neutral. It is not independent of class interests, somehow able to arbitrate between workers and bosses. Instead the state is the most concentrated form of the power of the employing class. It evolved to defend their interests and so inevitably will be used against workers.

Strikes bring this into sharp relief. A strike, by its very nature, is a class conflict. Large-scale workers' struggles tend to develop into a battle against the state with the use of anti-union legislation, high court injunctions with the police and troops all used to try and prevent or break strikes.

So Labour, as an organisation committed to using the state to transform society, is forced to choose between parliament and the "extraparliamentary struggle". And inevitably Labour leaders have always taken the side of parliament. JH Thomas, the railwaymen's union leader and a Labour frontbencher, expressed this very directly during the 1926 General Strike when he declared, "In a challenge to the constitution, god help us unless the government won."

None of this means that the Labour Party is simply the same as the Tory Party, or even the Liberal Democrats. Labour's organic links with the trade unions, through the role that the bureaucracy plays in the party, may have been stretched over the last decade or so, but they definitely still remain. These links mean that arguments in the wider working class movement are often echoed within the party.

There remains a difference in how people see Labour. This has always been the case. Although Ramsay MacDonald had rejoiced at the defeat of the General Strike, only a few days before he had spoken at a conference of union executives to launch the strike, declaring, "We will be by the miners' side." This speech would never have been made by a Tory. And although the TUC was forced to withdraw an invite to Cameron to speak at its conference last year after protests, those same unions wanted to hear Ed Miliband speak at their conference.

Despite 13 years of New Labour betrayals, over 8.5 million people still voted Labour at the last general election, many of them driven by a gut class hatred of Cameron and his millionaire Bullingdon Club cronies. Since then some 65,000 people have joined the Labour Party, most in the mistaken hope that it will provide some kind of bulwark against the Tories. Many of these recent recruits to Labour will be voting to strike on 30 November, along with thousands of other Labour members and supporters, regardless of the advice of Ed Miliband.

Heart of Marxism

The heart of Marxism is the concept of working class self-emancipation. Strikes, especially those involving millions, can help increase workers' confidence in their own ability to change society rather than relying on parliamentary representatives to act for them.

The task for socialists is to work with those who still look to Labour but at the same time are being drawn into activity by the reality of the Tory cuts and in the process clashing with the arguments put forward by the Labour leadership. We have to win as many as possible to a politics that reinforces, rather than undermines, working class militancy.