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Will a Labour government help us achieve socialism?

Labour has only ‘trade union consciousness’ – but if a left-wing generation of the party were supported by a mass movement and the unions, socialism might be advanced, argues the MARX MEMORIAL LBRARY

WILL a Labour government help us achieve socialism? The short answer is “perhaps” or, more accurately “we’re unlikely to get socialism without one.”

Our parliamentary institutions, which were secured through struggle and sacrifice, can have a potentially vital role in the advance to socialism.

In 1881, half a century before women secured the vote, Engels declared that in England, where the working class “forms the immense majority of the people” they should “use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order.” Whether this could lead peacefully to socialism would depend on the response of the ruling class to policies which threatened its power.

Engels’s analysis derived from his experience of the defeats of the revolutionary movements of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 which, inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, had followed an insurrectionist model based on a belief “that the great decisive struggle had broken out [that] could only end with the final victory of the proletariat.” But, he declared: “History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong.”

The earlier revolutions had succeeded merely in replacing one minority ruling class with another ruling class elite; the proletarian elements had been defeated — by force.

At the same time though they had also accelerated the transition to a parliamentary democracy. Engels declared that contesting elections — national and local — meant that “the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion. We, the ‘revolutionaries,’ the ‘rebels—‘ we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolt.”

For Engels, parliamentary elections were neither the only nor the decisive form of struggle for socialism. But in the specific conditions of a parliamentary system they were nevertheless critical.

From its formation in the early years of last century, the Labour Party has been the mass party of the organised working class in Britain. Despite major changes in the structure of capitalism, it continues to enjoy the electoral support of large sections of workers. But unlike its European predecessors, its politics and ideology have sought to manage and reform capitalism in response to the immediate temporary interests of the labour movement, rather than abolish it in the fundamental interests of the working class and humanity as a whole.

The Labour Party has never fundamentally challenged the ruling class. At best, it has only reflected and represented the “trade union consciousness” of the working class — “labourism,” seeking to protect and defend the interests of labour in relation to the capitalist system, as opposed to socialism which seeks to change the system itself. A reformist outlook dominates Labour and — until recently — has confined the party to an exclusively parliamentary role within the capitalist system. At national and sometimes at local level, it saw its public work primarily in terms of contesting elections and carried out little or no socialist education or campaigning.

And the Labour Party in Britain is different from left and socialist parties in other countries in one crucial respect. It was formed as a federal party with a mass trade union affiliated base. This, together with the activities and example of Labour activists, has ensured the continuation of a significant socialist trend within it.

Socialists have at times won major advances in the battle of ideas within and beyond the party. They have supported policies for democratic public ownership, progressive taxation, capital controls, trade union rights and nuclear disarmament that challenge monopoly capital in the interests of working people.

Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system has enabled the Labour Party to demonstrate the benefits of socialist policies when it is in power and has condemned it to failure and rejection by the electorate when it does not do so.

The Labour Party left is not a cohesive and united force. Historically, reformism, compromise and collaboration have triumphed over socialist principles in the Labour Party leadership, especially in the Westminster Parliament so that Labour governments have only tried to reform capitalism, not to abolish it.

New Labour seized control of the party in the mid-1990s, representing the triumph of a new managerialism backed by sections of big business. Adapting to and then championing neoliberal policies and imperialist “globalisation,” it began openly to represent monopoly capital in an emerging new phase of imperialism. In an attempt to turn the Labour Party into a wholehearted “party for business” it brought the corrupting interests of privilege and power into important aspects of party and government activity.

To ensure the party’s acquiescence in this political and ideological transformation, a series of measures were adopted by agreement with misguided trade union leaders to retreat from a commitment to socialism (symbolised by the abolition of Clause 4) and to dismantle democratic processes within the party. The resulting centralisation challenged the Labour’s Party’s federal character, concentrating power in the hands of a small clique at the top. The rights and participation of affiliated organisations were severely restricted at every level of the party.

However, in opening the Labour leadership ballot to all individual members and affiliated and registered supporters, in order to further weaken the collective voice of the trades unions, the right wing miscalculated. An influx of new members rejuvenated the party and the combined forces of the extra-parliamentary mass movements, the trade unions and the Labour left then propelled left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn to leadership in 2015 and 2016. As a recent article in the Star declared: “The big success of Corbynism has been spontaneously building a strikingly new kind of politics, combining grassroots and online campaigning.”

As argued in a previous answer, a parliamentary majority, of itself, will not be sufficient to achieve socialism. We should never forget that whenever the “democratic process” has proved a challenge to ruling-class power, that class (domestic or external) has always sought to undermine it in any way they can — including force. That’s happening today from Ukraine to Venezuela. And in Britain in 2019 (the bicentenary of the state-sponsored massacre of Peterloo) it continues to do so and the threat of force remains very real.

It remains to be seen whether the socialist and social-democratic trends are strong enough together with trade union support to develop the Labour Party as a mass, socialist party of labour in Britain. For as long as many of the biggest trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, the potential exists to wage a broad-based fight to secure the party for the labour movement and left-wing policies. Trade union support will be critical to the success of a Labour government in power.

And to the degree that the Labour Party is able to develop beyond its electoral focus to engage with and champion progressive social movements and form alliances outside Parliament through action on equality, on the environment, on education, health and social welfare, it could once again become a truly mass party capable of achieving fundamental social, economic and political change.


  • This Wednesday February 20 a panel discussion at the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School will feature Mick Costello and Professors Mary Davis and John Kelly on the 1974-79 Labour government and working-class mobilisation.
  • The MML’s four session course on Trade Unions, Class and Power, starts on Tuesday February 19 with an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the trade union movement in Britain today. There are still some places left on this and on the accompanying on-line course which has just started. More details on these and other events on


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