The Labour Party “lost touch” with the working class… in 1914

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“The Labour party has lost touch with the working class”. This is the lament from those on the left who are desperate for Labour to regain credibility as a party that could seriously contend for government office, following a series of humiliating electoral defeats, the latest being the by-election in Hartlepool, the first time Labour has lost this seat since it was created as a constituency in 1974.

From the right, however, this is not a lament, but a gloating proclamation of victory. The Conservative Party, we are told, is now the party of the working people of Britain. The Conservatives alone are the ones giving voice to the real concerns of the “left behind”, the “white working class”, or just “hardworking ordinary people”. The Tories’ election success in the last two years has to a large extent been based on their ability to win over large numbers of working class voters who in the past have been solidly Labour: the so-called Red Wall[1].

There’s no doubt that Labour, along with many other social democratic parties in Europe (France, Spain, Italy, etc) has been increasingly pushed to the edge of the electoral field. This has notably been the case since the rise of populism in many countries – whether organised in specifically populist parties like Rassemblement National in France, La Liga in Italy, Vox in Spain, UKIP in Britain, or through the traditional parties borrowing the slogans and attitudes of the populists, as with the Tories in Britain or the Republicans in the US. Today it’s the populists who make the loudest noise in denouncing the “established elites” in political life, combining right wing memes (immigration, crime, anti-“woke” stances on issues like race and gender) with a kind of neo-Keynesianism which is not afraid to spend big on the welfare of the “national community”. This is exemplified by the huge sums doled out by the Tory government on the furlough schemes during the lock-down and on backing research into and production of Covid-19 vaccines.

The capacity of the populists to present themselves as the true representatives of the working class is symbolic of the loss of class identity over the last few decades, a key element in the increasing difficulty of the working class to fight for its own interests in the face of a crisis-ridden system. We have written about this problem at greater length elsewhere[2], but very briefly we can say that this loss of class identity is the result both of enormous ideological campaigns (especially those around the so-called “collapse of communism” after 1989) and material changes in the organisation of global production. These elements have combined to reinforce the idea that the working class has either disappeared or is limited to those who work in traditional industries, while those who work for a wage in many of the new sectors (communication, services, etc), especially in the big cities, are labelled as essentially “middle class”. The real unity of interests between these different parts of the working class is hidden behind a smokescreen of false choices, typified by the campaigns around Brexit, which pitted the “urban elites” who tended to be pro-EU and the Red Wall voters who bought into Johnson’s slogan “get Brexit done”.

Labour’s fudge over Brexit, which Corbyn expressed in the most caricatured manner [3] expressed the inability of the party to appeal to these different sectors of the working class, in general becoming increasingly identified with the falsely named urban elite or middle class.

For opinion writers in left newspapers like The Guardian, the key question therefore is how to find policies that can attract both Labour’s new clientele and its errant former supporters. They tend to be critical of Starmer’s negative approach of harping on about Tory failures over the pandemic or about the “same old Tory sleaze” over scandals like David Cameron’s informal lobbying of government ministers, and the saga about who paid for the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s flat in Downing Street. They want Labour to come up with positive policies that combine a green economy and job-creation without ditching “progressive” cultural and social attitudes, while recognising sadly that the Tories, for the moment, are making the running in promises about “levelling up” and overcoming the grotesque social inequalities laid bare by the pandemic and the lockdowns. 

Election defeats for the Labour Party are not defeats for the working class

Contrary to those who want to find a winning formula for Labour, whether back to Blair, back to Corbyn, or forward with some new alchemical concoction, we think that the question has to be posed in completely different terms. If being “in touch” with the working class means that you are actually one of its organised expressions, then the Labour Party “lost touch” with the working class when it transformed itself into a fully functioning cog in the machinery of capitalism.

In the second half of the 19th century, genuine socialists (we, like Marx, prefer the term communists) worked to build large workers’ parties, which, along with the trade unions, were part of the process through which the working class established itself as a distinct social force inside capitalism. A force which could fight for reforms within an expanding capitalist system, and at the same time develop the perspective of a socialist society that would begin a whole new stage in human history. But precisely because capitalism was in its period of triumphant expansion and ascent, inside the workers’ parties (such as the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and the organisations that would eventually come together in the Labour Party in the first years of the 20th century) there was a growing divide between those who understood that this new society would become not only a possibility but a vital necessity, and those who thought that capitalism could go on forever, improving the lot of the workers and perhaps even, bit by bit, transform itself into socialism. In fact, when the Labour Party was formed, there was no mention of socialism in its programme: “the movement is everything, the goal nothing”, as Eduard Bernstein, the leading spokesman for the reformists in the SPD, put it. Unlike other social democratic parties, the Labour Party never even defended the goal, the “maximum programme” of socialist revolution.

This crucial debate was settled by the events of 1914. The carnage of the imperialist war demonstrated that the choice facing humanity was not between reform or revolution, but between revolution or barbarism. Capitalism, entering its epoch of decadence, would become an increasing threat to the very survival of humanity. And the Russian revolution of 1917, followed by revolutionary movements in other countries, confirmed that the only way that capitalism’s drive towards destruction could be halted was through proletarian revolution: the destruction of the bourgeois state by the international power of the workers’ councils.

Confronted with this epochal change, the Labour Party – together with the majorities in the other social democratic parties and the trade unions – made its choice. Faced with the imperialist war, Labour capitulated to patriotism and played its role as “recruiting sergeant” for the slaughter. And faced with the threat of revolution after 1917 – which also had its echo in Britain – the watchword was: man the barricades, but on the side of the capitalist state. Faced with widespread sympathy for the Russian revolution, and some very militant workers’ struggles, such as the strike on “Red Clydeside” in 1919, the Labour Party adopted demagogic slogans which aimed to absorb or derail the revolutionary aspirations growing within the working class. The famous “Clause Four”, calling for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, was adopted in 1918 and was evidence of Labour’s fake conversion to socialism, in reality a commitment to state capitalism as the last rampart of capitalist social relations.

Within a few years, in 1924, the Labour Party confirmed that it had been fully integrated into the capitalist system by assuming the reins of government, as predicted in 1920 by Sylvia Pankhurst: “The British Labour Party, like the social patriotic organisations of other countries, will in the natural development of society, inevitably come into power. It is for the Communists to build up the forces that will overthrow the social patriots, and in this country we must not delay or falter in that work”[4]. And she added, reflecting her opposition to the views of Lenin and the leadership of the Communist International, “we must not dissipate our energy in adding to the strength of the Labour party; its rise to power is inevitable. We must concentrate on making a Communist movement that will vanquish it”. In sum, against the idea - still propagated by Trotskyists and other leftists today, that we can enter the Labour Party in order to transform it from the inside, or at least win over a substantial minority of it to the revolution – history has demonstrated that you cannot change the nature of a party which has gone over to the enemy class. You can only work for a class movement which will recognise the need to destroy it as an essential component of the capitalist state.

In government or in opposition, a party of capital

Subsequent events have further reinforced this conclusion. The defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 opened the door to the second world imperialist war. And again, the Labour Party displayed its recruiting sergeant’s stripes, above all with its ideology of a “people’s war against fascism” (echoed by the Stalinist “Communist” Parties and the majority of the Trotskyists). At the end of the war, in order to defuse any possibility of a revival of the proletarian discontent that had followed the 1914-18 massacre, it was the Labour Party that again came to power to implement the state capitalist measures aimed at keeping the working class on board with the existing system – above all, the introduction of the NHS in 1948.

Again, in the years after 1968, faced with a new economic crisis and a new wave of workers’ struggles, the Labour Party fitted in very nicely with the bourgeoisie’s political responses to the proletarian danger: first the strategy of offering the workers the bright prospect of returning the left to power; then, obliged to deal with workers’ anger against the attacks on their conditions launched by the governing Labour Party (as in the Winter of Discontent in 1979), in a kind of division of roles between Thatcher’s Tories – with the right in power implementing brutal attacks on jobs, and the Labour power in opposition presenting a purely bourgeois political alternative. The strategies changed, but the aim of keeping the class struggle under control remained.

Since 1989, we have been going through a long phase of retreat in the class struggle, a period of growing social fragmentation in which the divisions within the ruling class have grown increasingly brutal and chaotic. In this context, Labour’s role for the bourgeoisie has become increasingly mixed up and confused. Its primary role is no longer that of derailing rising workers’ struggles, and it has got more and more caught up in the internal divisions of the ruling class, as we can see from the scars inflicted on it by the Brexit fiasco.

It’s quite possible that in a future resurgence of the class struggle, there will be a new impetus to present Labour as a real workers’ party, as a force for socialism, but whatever policies it adopts, whether “Starmerite” respectability or “Corbynite” radicalism, it will not change the class nature of the Labour Party. The working class will have to break with the capitalist Labour Party in a fully conscious way, not on the bourgeois terrain of elections, but by fighting for its own demands and its own political perspective: the perspective of the destruction of the state and the transformation of society from the bottom to the top.

Amos 16 May 2021



[1] Although as the low turn-out (42.7%) in the Hartlepool election suggests, this is to a considerable extent the result of workers abandoning Labour, or even abandoning the vote, rather than voting Tory

[4] The Workers’ Dreadnought, February 21, 1920


Labour Party election losses