The Labour Part at its Conference this week is likely to be taken up – apart from all of the back slapping – with a lot of talk about what they will do if they win the next election, like Ed Miliband's announcement on breaking up the banks. Even in this regard, however, its clear that on the things that really matter to ordinary workers – like whether the Liberal-Tory pay freeze, and cuts will continue – Labour has indicated it will say very little. Their argument is that they do not know what conditions they will face after two more years of the Liberal-Tories destruction of the economy. But, in relation to what they will do to try to prevent that on going destruction, here and now, beyond simply appearing on TV shows to declaim it, we are likely to hear nothing from Labour's leaders, and probably little if anything more from the Trade Union leaders either. It will be a big mistake.
The recorded history of the 1980's shows Michael Foot as being one of Labour's least successful leaders. Unfavourable comparisons of other leaders like Gordon Brown are often set against the yardstick of Foot's leadership. In fact, it is a case of history always being written by the victors. In 1981, when Thatcher had just begun the plan of attack, set out in the Ridley Plan, to provoke confrontations with the weakest unions, and had also begun to set in place the Hayeckian Plan for constricting the money supply to force employers to also confront the unions, Michael Foot, as leader of the Labour Party took his place at the head of several huge marches in Britain's major cities to oppose the Tory attacks. It put him miles to the Left of “Red Ed”. He also gave his support to the “People's March For Jobs”, as 1980's unemployment surged to 3 million, just as it is once again doing today under another Tory Government.
What was the effect? Foot's standing in the opinion polls rose, and in 1981, Labour stood at 51% in the opinion polls, way ahead of Thatcher, and in fact, 9% ahead of the 42% that Labour stands at today. Had a general Election been held during 1981, or indeed any time up to the outbreak of the Falklands War, Labour would have secured a landslide under Foot's leadership.
The mistake that Foot made is the same mistake that Labour is making today. The Falklands War gave Thatcher and the Tories an unforeseen boost. Labour responded by seeking to moderate its stance, and focus on winning the next election, rather than defeating the Tories in the present. That meant clamping down on those in the party, who did want to fight the Tories in the here and now. In turn that meant that rather than focussing its attention on fighting the Tories and providing workers who were suffering under them with immediate solutions, Labour focussed on an internal feud, and on merely an electoral strategy geared towards an election in 1983 or 1984. The consequence was that with only individual groups of workers, like the steel workers, and the miners, and a number of Local Councils, fighting an uncoordinated struggle against the Tories, sometimes even in the face of hostility from Labour leaders, the Tories continued to increase in strength as they increasingly appeared to be winners.
The situation was not helped by the nature of the left within the Labour Party itself. It was seriously divided. On the one hand there was the essentially Stalinist Left, fellow travellers of the CP, around Tribune. It was part of a larger “soft-left” of essentially left reformists, whose focus itself was on electoralism. Then there was the “hard left” made up of assorted trotskyist groups, and the left reformists of the Militant Tendency. Yet, at a time when workers were under increasing attack, it was only the hard left that put up any kind of continued resistance, whilst this Left as a whole united around, and put considerable resources into issues that were of more concern to the middle class radicals than they were to ordinary workers.
For example, in 1983, I was a Stoke City Councillor. I had been elected on a platform of “No Cuts, No Rent or Rate Rises”; a policy I stuck to to the end, when I resigned over the issue, having been previously expelled from the Labour Group for doing so. The Council had 57 labour Councillors, and 3 Tories. It could vote through anything it wanted. I well remember a meeting in 1983, where the Council, having told the people of Stoke for months before that it did not have the money to repair the roads, or their Council houses, proposed to spend several thousand pounds erecting “Nuclear Free Zones” signs. It was not that I objected to the signs, I was an activist in CND and Labour CND. But, I did point out that as an ordinary worker I would find it hard to understand how a Council that could not find the money to do the necessary repairs to my house, and was doing nothing to fight the Tory policies that brought that about, could find the money to erect such signs, just as it had recently found the money to refurbish the leather benches in the Council Chamber and Committee Rooms!
But, the Left could unite around such tokenistic policies, whilst providing no answers, no leadership for the mass of workers on the very issues that most serious affected them. Labour went into the 1983 General Election on a similar basis. The leadership had pulled back from its enthusiastic support for workers struggles of 1981. On the other hand the Manifesto was proposing Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament, and so on, which seemed a million miles away from the real concerns of millions of workers. Rather than do the necessary work of providing leadership, and more importantly providing practical answers for workers immediate problems, Labour sank back into electoralism. But even to win elections, you first have to convince voters that you mean what you say, and that you have answers to their problems, that you are prepared to fight and so on. Unless, of course, that is you are prepared to wait 18 years until the other lot become so despised that anyone could win against them.
The same is true today. If labour thinks that it can sit back and count on the current unpopularity of the Liberal-Tories carrying them through, if they think they can just get away with talking vaguely about things they might do if they win the next election, and so on, they will lose. Unless, the European and US politicians really screw up – which is possible – and create a serious economic crisis, the current cyclical slow down is likely to end next year, which will ease pressure on the Eurozone debt crisis etc. The UK economy, given the incompetence of the current Government, and given its continued commitment to austerity, is not likely to be booming, but by 2015, it could at least again be growing, and that has a significant impact on voters attitudes. But, even if that is not the case, it is not in Labour's interest to allow current Government policies to further damage the economy, because that will make their own job worse in 2015.
Labour recently announced its policy with the unfortunate name “pre-distribution”. But, if they are serious about it – the idea being that rather than being reliant on the State for income support, workers should be paid a Living Wage, we should encourage the development of high value industries that pay high wages, we should ensure that workers are able to obtain the necessary skill and education to fill such high value jobs – then why not do something about it here and now. Why can't Labour openly join with the Trades Unions in an activist campaign for a Living Wage, including where necessary taking industrial action to achieve it. In Germany and in the US, there has been a history of Trades Unions picking a company in a particular industry, and then targetting it for a campaign to win pay rises, and better conditions, which when won, can then be fought for in other firms in the industry. In the 19th century, the Potters Union did the same thing, paying the wages of workers from the particular firm for as long as was necessary to win the struggle.
The TUC could organise such a co-ordinated campaign today, and labour's leaders if they are serious about “pre-distribution” should support it. But, as Marx pointed out, such “pre-distribution”, no more than “redistribution” cannot work as a solution for long under Capitalism, because capital will always have the whip hand. Only if workers own the means of production themselves can they prevent that. Labour and the TUC should organise a campaign along with the various Co-operative organisations to bring together all forms of Co-operative into a single Federation, with an active goal of spreading workers ownership and control throughout the economy. That would be the best response to the Tories proposals for privatising the NHS and other services. Such a powerful single Co-operative organisation could ensure that where hospitals or other services are to be privatised, including under the Tories dishonest proposals to turn them into Co-ops, the workers could take them over themselves, and the necessary support could be provided to them, building up a sizeable bulwark of workers ownership and control within the economy that could be used to fight the Liberal-Tories attacks, and to provide workers in general with a practical, efficient and immediate solution to their problems.
The same is true within the communities. In November, the first elections for Police Commissioners will take place. Labour will focus on trying to attack the Liberal-Tories for their cuts to police budgets and numbers. But, the experience of all the demonstrations against the cuts, against Tuition Fees, our experience from Grunwicks, from the Miners Strike and a myriad other struggles shows that the Police as an organisation of the State, is no friend of the working class. Its main function is to protect the property of Capital, and of the rich. It is a million miles away from what needs to be done to protect the lives and property of ordinary workers on estates up and down the country. Labour should commit itself not only to ensuring that police budgets are diverted to those tasks, but to a far more thorough democratisation of policing than the periodic election of Commissioners entails.
For example, they should campaign for Community Police to be employed by, and under the immediate democratic control of the local community they serve. Labour should campaign from the branches upwards for the merging of Tenants and Residents Associations with Neighbourhood Watch Committees, that would be capable of carrying out this function. Indeed, just as Jury Service is seen as a civic duty, and as military service is seen as such in time of war, so policing should be seen as a civic duty of every able bodied adult. Labour should campaign for the setting up of local policing units, as an extension of the current system of Special Constables, to which everyone should have to give time, paid for by their employer, in order that their local community can be policed by, and in the interests of the local community.
Ordinary LP members can engage in these activities as individuals or on a more organised basis through the LP and TU branches, Trades Councils, CLP's and so on. But, such a campaign would be massively advanced if the Labour and Trade Union leaders themselves committed themselves to it. Doing so, and building a grass roots opposition to the Liberal-Tories here and now, is the most effective way in which Labour can build the support it needs to defeat the Tories at the next election.