Labour’s organic crisis

Issue: 106
Posted: 5 April 05

Charlie Kimber

Only a fool would attempt to make some comments about the health and future of the Labour Party just a few weeks before a general election provides a very useful snapshot of its popularity and makes the task much easier. So here goes.

What nobody can deny is that Labour faces a crisis on many fronts. Its membership is in virtual freefall. Its popular support is shrinking. Its hold on the trade unions is challenged in historically unprecedented ways. Its claim to stand for mainstream social democratic values is shattered. And I believe that this is happening in a way that is much more profoundly significant than has happened in previous periods when a Labour government has attacked its own supporters.

Two factors are very important here. The first is the war on Iraq. The government’s unflinching support for conspiracy to murder alongside Bush has destroyed any hope Blair might have had to be remembered as a ‘pretty straight guy’ 1 It has alienated millions of Labour voters and caused tens or hundreds of thousands of Labour members to walk away from the party. Blair’s crucial role in the war will haunt him to his grave.

The second key factor is the appearance of alternatives to Labour from the left. It is stupid to make too precise a prediction about how Labour will do at the next election; it is even more dangerous to attempt to predict the performance of Respect or the Scottish Socialist Party or others. The British election system, a century of Labour voting, the massive imbalance of media coverage and other factors make it very difficult for small parties to establish themselves electorally. But they will certainly mount the most serious radical challenge that Labour has faced at a general election for decades.

This is extremely important in analysing Labour’s decline. For as long as there is no credible force to the left, people who hate the war, who are revolted by the anti-immigrant tirades of the main parties, and who believe in public services not private profit will face invidious choices. They can grudgingly vote Labour because they sometimes sound less bloodcurdling than the Tories, vote for the opportunist Lib Dems, or not vote at all. Many have followed these roads before, and many will next time. None in the end really threaten Blair. But if there is an alternative to the left it becomes a material factor in the break-up of Labour’s support.

People who are still firmly wedded to Labour can sense the crisis. So Mark Seddon, a member of the party’s national executive committee, wrote recently:

Half of Labour’s membership has simply disappeared, given up, retired to their armchairs or thrown their energies into other campaigns as the great moving right show of the last decade gathered pace… Active participation in Labour politics is withering on the vine. In many ‘traditional’ Labour seats, it is not unusual to find that membership hovers around the 200 mark. It is also older as well as being less active and less political. Party branches have merged, or are frequently inquorate; the local trade union links are often atrophied. If the checks and balances, the democratic structures and the hard- fought debates and votes at conferences have been hollowed out, it follows that a Labour prime minister can take Britain into an illegal war and not fear the consequences. It also follows that the same prime minister can tell the Times, as he did on 5 November 2004, that ‘the US neo-conservatives are not a world away from the progressive left’, secure in the knowledge that the only response will be a shrugging of shoulders and a shuffling of feet. New Labour’s command of the political void is so total, the opposition, from right and left, so feeble, that all of us are becoming helpless spectators.2

Strong stuff indeed, and it could be replicated in a thousand voices from top to bottom of the party. And a deeper look shows just how much Labour is in trouble.

Labour members

Membership was 265,000 when Tony Blair became leader in 1994. He said he wanted to produce a mass membership party with up to 1 million members. The early signs seemed positive and by 1997 membership had reached 407,000. This increase of over 140,000 occurred at the same time as Blair drove the party rightwards. He dumped Clause 4, the party’s commitment to social ownership, declared that the class war was over and introduced the first of many waves of constitutional reforms designed to reduce the collective input of trade unionists and constituency parties in the formation of policy. This has led to a myth that the people who joined during this period were cappuccino-sipping, Tuscany-holidaying, Islington-dwelling Blair clones…or worse. Blair certainly celebrated the 40 percent increase between 1994 and 1997 as evidence of the ‘newness’ of the party and the sharp separation from ‘Old Labour’. In 1995 he chose the News Corporation leadership conference on Hayman Island in the Pacific Ocean to announce:

We have increased our individual membership by over 120,000. By the next election over one half of our members will have joined since the 1992 election. It is literally a new party.3

In fact, as an authoritative study by Patrick Seyd and Paul Whitleley4 makes clear, the members who had joined after Blair became leader were in many respects more ‘classically Labour’ than those who had previously made up the party. They were younger (average 48 compared to 54!), blacker (6 percent non-white compared to 3 percent) and more likely to be manual workers (17 percent compared to 13 percent).5

Their views were also more ‘Old Labour’ than many would have expected: ‘Throughout the 1990s members remained attached to certain basic social democratic principles centring on issues of redistribution, public service and equality’.6 However, ‘At the same time they had a strong interest in winning elections, given the experience of nearly 20 years of Conservative dominance. This meant that the members were willing to support modernisation in the interests of electoral success’.7

People joined Labour not so much as a positive affirmation of Blair but as a reflection of a deep desire to dump the Tories. If this picture is correct, we would expect Labour’s membership to expand up until the moment that victory was achieved—and then for the numbers to slump. This is almost exactly what happened. Blair’s dream of a mass membership party foundered on the rock of his electoral success.

Once New Labour actually achieved office and started implementing its programme, members began to leave almost immediately. The election day champagne bottles had only just been put in the bin when some people began hurling their Labour membership cards in with them. By 1998 the figure was 399,000, in 2001 it was 311,000, and it had fallen to 280,000 in 2002.8 Since then people have been leaving in large numbers, with Labour losing 33,000 members during 2003 alone.

At the end of July 2004 the party’s accounts, released by the Electoral Commission, revealed that membership was at its lowest since records began. They showed there were 214,952 individuals registered as members at the end of 2003. This was the smallest figure since Labour started compiling individual membership statistics in 1928.

There was worse to come. Hard on the heels of the Electoral Commission’s revelations, the party’s national executive committee was told that membership had dipped further—to 208,000. But when those who had let their membership lapse for the past six months were discounted as well (as the party’s rules said they should be), the figure stood at 190,000, a drop of 25,000 in six months. Some of the biggest drops have been in Labour’s inner-city heartlands. Party membership was far more likely to have remained stable in semi-rural seats such as Wrekin in Shropshire.9

New Labour has been systematically kicking away the props of mainstream social democratic politics—council housing, comprehensive education, opposition to further inroads for private medicine and so on. Of course Labour was appalling on all these issues in the past. But the declared mission was different and there was not the same zeal for capitalist policy. That explains why figures like Roy Hattersley, Frank Dobson and Peter Kilfoyle find themselves clashing so often with the party’s leaders.

The classic Labour response to such disastrous falls in membership is to say that it has happened before and, in those cases, the party has recovered. Certainly the party has been in trouble before. In particular membership dropped drastically during the earlier Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79. Fred Lindop, in a detailed study of a local Labour Party in south London, gives a revealing glimpse of how previous Labour betrayals gutted the party of activists:

From the mid-1950s, the Greenwich Labour Party went into a long term decline in membership and levels of activity. Membership declined by over 75 percent between 1954 and the mid-1980s.The records show an almost continuous concern with the inactivity of wards and other party organisations, interspersed with very brief periods of resurgent confidence (early-mid 1960s, early 1970s). The decline was clearly part of a national trend… Reports in the late 1960s and early 1970s constantly refer to the Labour Party being ‘remote in recent years from the people it should represent’. The catastrophic collapse of membership between 1965 and 1970 was identified as a direct consequence of the unpopularity of the Wilson government’s economic policies (though the secretary in February 1968 attributed much of this to ‘the fact that the electorate in general and party members are not aware of the positive achievements of the Labour government’).10

Overall disillusion with the 1964-70 Labour government meant that nominal membership dropped from 817,000 (1965) to 680,000 (1970). Assessments of Labour membership in the 1960s and 1970s, which look much better than today, should be treated with caution. In particular, the rule between 1963 and 1980 that each constituency had to register at least 1,000 members, even if it had far fewer, caused vast over-counting: ‘The method of counting members hid the scale of the decay. But when a more honest system was adopted in 1981, the supposed membership of 666,000 was shown to be only 348,000’.11 Steven Fielding notes:

Analysing a situation she thought ‘deplorable’, in 1965 Labour’s national agent believed parties claiming 1,000 only had about 250 members. On that basis membership that year was inflated by about one-third, a distortion that only increased with time.12

But there are powerful factors which underscore the particular depth of the present crisis. The decline from the 908,000 members of 1950 to the 190,000 today has not been seamless. But it means Labour now begins from a very low base. The second point is that probably the only way Labour could recover members would be to lose an election. If, as everyone expects, Labour wins again and implements the ‘unremittingly New Labour’ policies that Blair promises, then the decline is likely to deepen. And there are wider processes in the working class which are contributing to a structural crisis.

Labour votes

Labour has been lucky in the collapse of its traditional enemy, the Conservative Party. This has enabled Blair to rack up massive parliamentary majorities on many fewer votes than you might expect. In 1992 John Major’s Tory victory was based on 14 million votes across Britain. Blair’s landslide in 1997 rested on fewer votes, 13.5 million. By 2001 the Labour vote was down to 10.7 million. This is fewer than the 11.5 million won by Neil Kinnock when he lost to Major in 1992. (Indeed it is perilously close to the 10 million achieved by Neil Kinnock in the crushing electoral defeat of 1987.) It is worth watching at the next election to see if Labour exceeds the 1987 figure or slips towards the 8.5 million who voted for Michael Foot’s Labour in 1983—when a further 7.8 million voted for the SDP- Liberal alliance. It was the humiliatingly low 1983 vote that was used as the excuse for the whole New Labour project.

Labour’s huge majorities survive because, even though 20 percent fewer people voted Labour in 2001 than in 1997, the vote of the main opposition parties also fell. The Conservatives continued to lose votes. Some 1.3 million fewer people voted Tory in 2001 than their catastrophic return in 1997, and 5.7 million fewer than in 1992. The Tories’ divisions over Europe have torn the party apart (and continue to do so). As for the Lib Dems, half a million fewer people voted for them in 2001 than had done in 1997, and 1.2 million less than in 1992. In fact, the Lib Dems’ share of the electorate fell from nearly 12 percent in 1997 to less than 11 percent in 2001. As Susan Watkins writes:

In 2001 fewer than one voter in four (24 percent of the total electorate) actually marked a cross for Blair’s government, while turnout fell from a (then) record low of 71 percent in 1997 to a mere 59 percent in 2001. Unrepresented in parliament are the 2.8 million Labour abstentions in Britain’s former industrial heartlands—the metropolitan conurbations of Tyne and Wear, Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands, Clydeside and South Wales. It was the hard-core Labour vote that stayed at home: whites in the old colliery districts, Asians in the Lancashire inner cities, under-25s in particular. Turnout fell below 44 percent in the blighted constituencies round the Tyneside shipyards, the bleak Glaswegian council estates and the semi- derelict terraces of Salford and central Leeds; below 35 percent in the ruined zones of Liverpool’s docklands. Measured in terms of working class disenfranchisement, the Americanisation of British politics has accelerated dramatically under New Labour, to abstention levels worthy of the US itself.13

It would be no surprise if the 2005 election saw a continuation in all these trends—low turnout, an historically low Labour vote, but still a comfortable majority for Blair because the Tories remain confined to their core voters and the Lib Dems make little headway. This should not be allowed to obscure the deep disenchantment with New Labour.

Trade union base withering

One factor demonstrates most clearly that the crisis of New Labour is deep- seated and organic, not some passing fad—the splintering of the party’s trade union base. For almost a century it has been automatic for unions that wished to have a political voice to affiliate to Labour. It has hardly been questioned, even at times of deep anger with the party. Now that has changed.

At 12 noon on 7 February 2004 the RMT rail and maritime union, which had helped to found the Labour Party, was expelled because it refused to back down in the face of an ultimatum from the leadership. RMT members had voted to allow their union branches to affiliate to parties other than Labour. The party decided this had to be crushed in case the example spread—and so the RMT was thrown out. Labour was now overtly in alliance with Bush’s warmongers, in confrontation with its trade union base.

In June 2004 the FBU firefighters’ union passed a motion saying, ‘The aims and objectives of the Labour Party no longer reflect those of the Fire Brigades Union. Therefore, this Conference demands that the FBU disaffiliates from the Labour Party nationally.’ The vote, against the strong recommendation of the union’s leaders, reflected total frustration and fury at the government’s bitter assault on the union during its national strike. But it also represented something more. There have been many occasions when Labour governments have attacked groups of workers—think of the 18 times the ‘golden age’ government of 1945 used troops to break strikes, the slanders against the seafarers’ strike in 1966, the confrontations of the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79.

None of these led to widespread calls for disaffiliation or branch support for other parties. But in 2004 the atmosphere created by the Iraq war—and the resistance to it—came together with anger at betrayal on the industrial front and against Labour’s policies on privatisation, pay and other issues.

The RMT and FBU may have gone (or been pushed) further than any other unions. But they are part of a continuum. In the CWU post and telecom workers’ union the leadership first had to propose cutting funds to the party and then accepted a conference motion which said that the union would break from the party if postal privatisation went ahead. These manoeuvres were necessary to head off powerful pressures to democratise the union’s political fund or even disaffiliate from Labour. The GMB has cut its funding to Labour by £4 million over five years. The only reason that the PCS civil service workers’ union is not discussing cutting money or disaffiliating from Labour in the wake of the mass job cuts is because it is not affiliated in the first place!

The damage to Labour is not primarily financial—although that matters. At least in the short term it is possible for the party to pay its bills by attracting the silken cheques of the very rich. Major donations in 2004 included £2.5 million from Lord Sainsbury, the billionaire trade minister, £1 million from Sir Christopher Ondaatje, the retired businessman, £200,000 from Sir David Garrard, the property magnate, and £50,000 from Patrick Stewart, the actor.14

But the rich don’t go on the knocker at election time, they don’t persuade their friends at work or in the housing estate or in the pub to vote Labour. They don’t act as ‘ambassadors in the community’ in the way that almost 1 million members did 50 years ago.

If Labour continues to lose its base in the unions it will damage the party far more than its present leaders may believe. But it will also open a new era where the questions about trade unions, politics and Labour— which seemed decisively settled 80 years ago—will once more be opened. And attempts to ‘reclaim’ Labour by and for them have been singularly ineffective. The ‘reclaimers’ argument itself has become increasingly desperate as Blair has continued regardless. First the left rested its hopes on an influx of new members who would throw out the right and reinstall the policies pre1994. When that didn’t happen it was claimed the trade union members would force their delegates and representatives to shift Labour policy left- wards. And then it became a matter of hoping that a group of left union leaders would do it from above. It hasn’t happened. Instead the great bulk of union leaders have allowed Blair to get away without having a proper debate on Iraq at the last two conferences, and have extracted only the most meagre promises in return for their continuing support.

Conclusion

Senior ministers are afraid that Labour may be mirroring the Conservatives in the 1990s, when there was a sudden deterioration in grassroots activism and membership. Whatever activity one focuses on, participation has been declining over the past ten years. The extent of the commitment of the average member is increasingly merely one of paying a yearly subscription and occasionally donating money to the party when asked to do so. In an organisational and political sense the fate of the Conservative Party is an object lesson for Labour. The Conservatives lost their grassroots party organisation in the long years of the Thatcher incumbency. This neglect went beyond the point of recovery, so that after the 1997 election defeat they were unable to rebuild it.

That will not happen overnight with Labour. Blairism has shallow roots, Labourism has deep roots. In 1993 I wrote an article on a similar theme to this one, partly to argue that Labour was in decline, partly to insist that it could win the next election! I wrote:

Labour can win the next election, although the haemorrhage of membership and the distancing from the unions will make it more difficult. But even if Labour does win it won’t be a party committed to workers’ interests and it won’t hesitate to turn on its own supporters once in government. Moreover there are more important considerations for revolutionaries than the prospects of Labour’s electoral success. Whatever has happened at the polls, Labour remains the party that the overwhelming majority of advanced workers define as ‘their’ party. Reformist consciousness—the idea that the only way to change society is a little at a time through the mechanism of the existing state—remains strong. As long as capitalism exists this reformist consciousness will exist. Even large scale struggle has the effect of strengthening reformist ideas as well as revolutionary ones. Reformist notions can (and must) be overcome only when workers feel their own power and are given an alternative political leadership that is well enough rooted in the class to provide a viable alternative. Building such an alternative means both analysing Labour’s failures and putting forward a different model.15

And that is essentially true today. Indeed the task is even more urgent because British politics is opening up and there is a danger of a growth of right wing forces if the left does not seize the time. At the European elections in June 2004 less than half the electorate voted for Labour and the Tories combined (Conservatives 26.7 percent, Labour 22.6 percent). The field is open in a way it has not been for a long time.

It is important to restate that the existence of a left alternative is a crucial factor in the future development of Labour. Seyd and Whiteley write:

Capitalist society generates inequality, and if left unchecked this becomes severe inequality… Traditionally the losers in this process in the United Kingdom have looked to the Labour Party for protection, with polices such as the redistribution of income, support for the legal right to organise effective trade unions and the provision of high-quality public services free at the point of use. If the party looks very closely after the interests of the winners in the capitalist lottery, and favours low taxes, little or no redistribution, attacks on trade union rights and poorly funded or nonexistent public services, then it will rapidly lose its traditional supporters. Quite rationally they will look elsewhere for a party to represent their interests.16

In Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party we have to meet the challenge posed by the crisis of Labour.

NOTES

1. Blair’s own description of himself, On the Record, BBC2, 16 November 1997.

2: Mark Seddon, The Guardian, 29 November 2004.

3: P Seyd and P Whiteley, New Labour’s Grass Roots: The Transformation of the Labour Party Membership (Palgrave, 2002), p40.

4: As above.

5: As above, pp41-42.

6: As above, p168.

7: As above.

8: There are many technical arguments about exactly how many members the Labour Party has at any particular time. Much of the confusion is caused by whether you count as members people who have long ceased paying their subscriptions. These figures, taken from the BBC website, give a good picture of the trend even if they are not absolutely correct.

9: The Guardian, 27 July 2004.

10: F Lindop, Greenwich Labour Party 1920-87 /R97567.pdf

11: P Seyd and P Whiteley, Labour’s Grass Roots (Oxford, 1992), p16.

12: S Fielding, The Penny Farthing Machine Revisited: Labour Party Members and Participation in the 1950s and 1960s

13: S Watkins, ‘A Weightless Hegemony’, in New Left Review 25 (Jan-Feb 2004).

14: The Guardian, 27 July 2004.

15: C Kimber, ‘The Labour Party in Decline’, International Socialism 67 (Winter 1993).

16: P Seyd and P Whiteley (2002), as above, pp181-182.