Internecine conflict between the different factions of the Tory party continues, whether fighting over covid, economic growth, or sending refugees to Rwanda. The populism embraced by parts of the party will not be discarded, an expression of the loss of control by the British bourgeoisie of its political apparatus. The ruling class is worried about the state of the Conservative Party, which was once such a reliable element in British capitalism’s political apparatus. This is not just a ‘Tory crisis’, it's an impasse that is part of a much deeper, global political crisis of the ruling class, which will continue regardless of who wins the next general election.
It’s in this context that the Labour Party is trying to present itself as a responsible team able to manage British capitalism effectively. On finances it’s very cautious on making expensive promises, saying it would not “turn on the spending taps”. On refugees and asylum seekers, Starmer says that immigration and small boat crossings are"matters of serious public concern" and Labour would “bring order to the border”. With British imperialism’s support for Ukraine and Israel, Starmer has lined Labour up with the Tories, and guaranteed that there will be no cuts in military spending. At the beginning of 2023, after Sunak announced his five goals (the “peoples’ priorities”), Starmer responded with five “missions”: there were no contradictions between the two lists. When Starmer defended Thatcher as a leader who brought about"meaningful change", it was ironic, as, whatever Labour promises in its election manifesto, no actual change of any significance is envisaged.
For some on the left, whether inside or out of the Labour Party, this is a massive betrayal orchestrated by Starmer. This of course implies that everything was fine under Corbyn, an equally devout supporter of state capitalism. Some Trotskyists seem, superficially, to have more thoroughgoing critiques. The Socialist Workers Party says “the problem isn’t just one leader. It’s a condemnation of a whole method that is centred on parliament. The answer is not the long slog inside Labour but a total break from it. For those left in Labour, it’d be right to conclude that it’s time to look elsewhere for change.” (Socialist Worker 4/12/23). Yet, for decades the SWP called for a vote for Labour, and, as an example of its method, in its analysis of the 2017 election, said that Corbyn had offered a “progressive and internationalist” alternative, who had campaigned on a“left wing anti-austerity manifesto” (International Socialism 155). Examples of this so-called “internationalism” can be found in Corbyn’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah in wars in the Middle East, or support by the SWP for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Other Trotskyists see Labour’s ‘betrayal’ in the advent of Blair’s New Labour, or the expulsion of the Militant tendency in the 1990s. In reality the transformation of social democratic parties took place more than a century ago.
When Social Democracy went over to the side of capital
Before the First World War, in the Congresses of the Second International, the Socialist Parties proposed the international solidarity of the working class against the drive to war by imperialism, right up to the Manifesto of the Basel Congress of 1912. But, when war broke out in 1914, most of the Socialist/Social Democratic parties rushed to the support of their ruling classes, joined in recruitment for the imperialist massacre, and took their places in capitalist governments. This betrayal of the working class marked the end of social democracy as a political current of the working class, but the confirmation of its utility for the bourgeoisie. This was not just in time of war, but as much in times of workers’ resurgence: the example of the role of the SPD in crushing the German revolution immediately comes to mind. The Labour party in Britain was no exception to this trend. From the Cabinet table to the unions on the shop floor, Labour and the unions have played an essential role for the bourgeoisie. It was precisely because of its continuing role in contact with the working class that it was able to tell how workers responded to the policies of the bourgeoisie, and to sell and manage capitalism with a more radical language than the Liberals or Conservatives.
This functioning of the Labour Party as an integral part of the political apparatus of the state has continued in both government and opposition. In coalition during the Second World War, in government after 1945, reorganising public services, enforcing austerity, trying to pursue the needs of British imperialism, or, during the 1950s, a time of a brief economic stability, preparing for future crises, Labour played a number of roles for British capitalism. This applied during the governments of Wilson/Callaghan or Blair/Brown, or in periods of opposition where it provided illusions of future alternatives and reinforced its relations with the unions.
The parliamentary procession of changing governments is not just a matter of teams automatically taking their turn in Downing Street. While the Tories have been wracked by inter-factional conflict, a clear expression of the divisions worsened by decomposition, Labour has also shown itself not to be immune to serious divisions. After the removal of Corbyn, Starmer has done his best to secure his position and bring ‘responsible’ positions to the fore. This has not been a bloodless matter; MPs like Corbyn and Diane Abbott have remained members of the Labour Party, but have lost the parliamentary whip. Alongside existing divisions, like the row over antisemitism in the Labour Party, the response of Starmer to the war between Israel and Hamas has shown that Labour is far from a united party. Councillors have resigned from the party; frontbenchers have also resigned from the shadow cabinet so that they can express their opposition to Starmer’s policy; MPs have voted for a ceasefire in the conflict in the Middle East (against official policy) and there’s a continuing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the direction that Starmer is taking the party. On economic policy there’s unhappiness with the prospects of the purse strings not being loosened, and with the perceived slackening of commitment to previous ‘green’ promises.
False Labour ‘alternatives’
The divisions within the Labour Party, like those of the Tories, show the political difficulties the bourgeoisie has in a period of growing decomposition. But the bourgeoisie isn’t only concerned with the economic crisis and the accumulation of capital, not only preoccupied with ongoing imperialist conflict, and the preparation for future wars: it also has to deal with the struggles of the working class, and specifically the break with the previous period of passivity, starting with the struggles that began in Britain in the summer of 2022. This presents Labour with a number of problems. On one hand, they can criticise the Tory government’s economic policies, and its responses to a period of strikes and protests, but they also have to appear to be offering something different. Labour’s quest for a reputation for fiscal responsibility doesn’t offer anything to a militant working class.This is a further source of divisions within the Labour Party, between those who want to pose as the workers’ friend, and those who want to balance the books.
Labour is not alone in trying to undermine the class struggle by providing false alternatives to the working class. While there are limitations to what Labour can present, the unions and the leftists can give reasons to support Labour as a ‘lesser evil’, or even to pose supposedly radical alternatives. Union leaders like Mick Lynch, Mick Whelan, and Sharon Graham have already said that it’s not a matter of relying on Labour to fight against the Tories’ recent ‘anti-union’ legislation (the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023), it might be necessary to break the law. But whether giving reasons to support Labour, or reasons to get lost in the defence of unions, or, like some leftists, campaigning for various alternative political causes or parties, the unions and leftists still function as an important part of the political system of the bourgeoisie, as institutions functioning against the immediate and historic struggles of the working class.