The Collapse of the Labour Right

The Collapse of the Labour Right

In calling out Jon Lansman and Momentum publicly for the temerity of, you know, organising, Tom Watson has made a fool of himself. Worse than that, in attacking a mooted alliance between Momentum and Unite he has gone so far as to suggest there is something improper about unions seeking to maximise their influence in the Labour Party. It’s only a hop, skip and a jump away from questioning the legitimacy of trade unions acting politically at all, and that’s a very dangerous game. Understandably, Len McCluskey has replied in his inimitable style and the war of words continue via social media, while spilling out continually into Unite’s own bad-tempered general secretary election, and potentially damaging Labour’s own council and mayoral campaigns.

Tom Watson is frequently attacked by Corbyn supporters as disingenuous and hypocritical because, let’s make no bones about it, his criticisms of them often are. From the Brownist machinations against His Blairness, to the minor skirmishes with Progress during the Miliband years, and now in the era of Corbynism, Tom has acquired and assiduously cultivated a cloak-and-dagger reputation. He is the fixer to end all fixers, the puppet master that has the party bureaucracy dancing along with his manipulations. While he is responsible and accountable for his actions, Tom is a product and heir to a tradition that has long cast a shadow over the Labour Party, and one coming to its end. I am talking about the old Labour trade union right.

Packing meetings, nobbling selections, stitching up internal elections, blocking and suppressing opponents, elevating bad faith to the status of performance art – all lovingly narrated in Uncle John Golding’s The Hammer of the Left – are, or were the old right’s stock-in-trade. I say were because while the culture of shenanigans is very much part of the party’s make up, it is increasingly getting more difficult to pull off. There are three reasons for this. First, there is much greater visibility than previously. Cases of egregious bad behaviour, especially in these factionally charged times, can get publicity. And lots of it. That damages the party politically, and this behaviour impinges on the second factor: the membership. Typically dismissed as keyboard warriors who’ve never seen doorsteps outside Google Images, in reality the massive 2015-16 intake are no more or less active than the majority of “old” party card holders. They turn up at meetings. They turn up and campaign. Abuses of democracy and process can serve to mobilise and strengthen their determination to stick with the leader and his programme (after all, that is the basis of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal). In effect, the membership, which remains majority Jez, make the discharge of bureaucratic chicanery more difficult and more expensive, politically, for those who indulge it.

And the last point is the virtual disappearance of the trade union right. The fixers of old had one foot in the PLP and the party machinery, and another in the trade unions. While workplace organisation was much stronger and consequently more militant than present before 1979, its concomitant was a quiescent bureaucracy uninterested in rocking the boat too much in the wider party. While nostalgics write of the transmission belt unions provided from the works’ canteen to Westminster’s terrace, worker MPs, with some exceptions, packed bureaucratic habits of thought alongside their underwear and Sunday best as they made their journey to Parliament. Likewise trade union officialdom reinforced exactly the same sensibility as they engaged in party structures. Keep things on an even keel, anything for a quiet life. The unions wouldn’t intervene too overtly or too consistently in “high politics” provided Labour delivered the policies and in return they were expected to pacify and discipline their memberships at the party’s behest. The relationship gave trade union leaders and senior officials direct access to ministers and Number 10, and an input into policy, but led to combustible politics as the 1975-79 Labour government shows. Upon Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994, the relationship became increasingly one-sided as the years wore on. The unions were still expected to rein in industrial action, and in return, well, the Tories will be kept out.

This was an unsustainable situation. Readers may recall from the period of the late 90s on how unions slowly but surely turned left. General secretaries preaching the virtues of “partnership” and cooperation were replaced one-by-one by a clutch of officials collectively dubbed the awkward squad. Politically speaking, they were all well within the envelope of big tent trade unionism but to greater and lesser degrees they took more uncompromising stances with regard to members’ interests. This firmed up even further after Brown’s defeat and the dawning of the Tory/LibDem coalition. First, most affiliated unions organised (haphazardly, it has to be said) for Ed Miliband and were for the most part later forced by active members into stumping for Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, trade union officialdom has almost been entirely replaced by a layer or organisers who were lay members during the New Labour years and, in some cases, would have participated in disputes Blair and Brown oversaw. This is particularly the case with the Communication Workers’ Union and the monomaniacal attempts by a Labour government to soften Royal Mail up for privatisation. The overall result is a shift in trade union bureaucracies and powerful lay committees to range from the soft left to Corbynism in political composition. Only USDAW and wee Community remain largely unaffected.

You can see where this leads. When it comes to affiliated trade union input into Labour, basically the material base for a union-backed Labour right has withered away. Because Blairism, as a variant of liberalism believed its own Third Way waffle and failed to understand the labour movement. It simultaneously set about undermining the electoral coalition it built in the country, while negligently and blindly destroying its own allies on the trade union right in the party. While unions are not monoliths, they are not disposed to be the guarantor of machine politics any longer, especially as it tries and stymies their influence. And so the material base for that has largely shrunk to party positions – lay and staff – elected office, and whatever can me mustered via Labour First, Progress, and the affiliated societies. In this context, more trade union participation represents a threat. Hence the overt hostility shown Len McCluskey, who has long promised more Unite input into the party, is far from an irrational dislike.

Once placed in this context, the anonymous briefings to the press, the moaning at PLP meetings, the compliance unit and its doings, the studied refusal to fight the leadership politically, the bizarre criticisms levelled at Momentum as a Corbyn proxy and Unite, and the utterly counter-productive behaviour makes sense. They are, effectively, the last gasps of a gravely weakened tradition lacking a discernible way of coming back. If they want to retake the Labour Party and become relevant again, a massive rethink is needed. But for as long as they’re unwilling to even understand why there are where they are (apart from one brave and largely unacknowledged exception), they’re stuck. If not doomed.


  1. Bill

    We must be clear our objective is to take the party over by entirely democratic means. Remove those that impede the leadership and membership. Sack Watson. Put up working class candidates end corruption and place the blame for where Labour is in the polls and tge steady decline of the Labour Vote on the antics of Watson and Co.


    Phil’s article, whilst celebrating the demise of the Tom Watson, or Alan Johnson, type of old , trade union-based Right Winger – totally fails to see that the entire Blair/Brown/Mandelson, Progress organised 30 year agenda was precisely to replace this old type of guaranteed supporter of the (Butskellite era , mixed economy) capitalist status quo with a radically new type of guaranteed supporter of the newer, now neoliberal, post “Thatcher revolution” shrink/privatise the state, status quo. This new PLP Right was created via the parachuted in middle class careerist Oxbridge types. These new Right wingers (often claiming to be “centre ground”) in the main never went near a trades union, but went straight from Oxbridge, to a Labour Party research job, or a charity role, or a role in the European Parliament gravy train to a safe Labour seat – then a ministerial post. And many of them are of course the scions of the Labour Party “aristocracy”. A brief look at Stephen Kinnock’s effortless rise to Parliament via his family connections gives a good flavour of the new PLP majority Right and Centre.

    Unlike the old , trade union-based Right, who at least usually had some grounding in Labour Movement values , and weren’t hostile to the idea of state led planning, or nationalisation, the new PLP neoliberal, firmly middle class, career politician majority are entirely bought in to the neoliberal agenda – and the toxic idea that “Parliamentary politics” is just a necessary stage in ones career – building up corrupt “favours” with ones Big Business backers, ready for that cushy post Parliamentary payoff ,via a sinecure board position , or newspaper column, or a host of other payback gifts.

    The reason Phil BC isn’t interested in examining this new, careerist Labour Right cancer in the Party, which will fight against any Left radical agenda in our Party to the death (of our Party) , is possibly because he is exactly of this career wannabe Labour politician type himself ! A supporter of Yvette Cooper in 2015, assistant to Tristram Hunt, and supporter and worker for the ghastly right winger Gareth Snell. And now distinctly doing a bit of “Leftish posing” in his recent posts to fit in with the current Corbynite Labour membership Zeitgeist. A useful pose to adopt when considering future hustings when applying to be a Labour candidate, when Corbynites will increasingly be in the majority in the selections.

    There is no basis for optimism that the old style Tom Watson Right Winger are dying out – the PLP is still entirely packed out with an even MORE pernicious type of even more corrupt, pro neoliberal capitalism, type of MP. Until , or unless, the Labour Left get to grips with this “enemy within”, and in the Party Machine itself, the Labour Party cannot adopt the radical Left policy agenda it needs to win back mass working class support.

    Richard MacKinnon

    PBC and the rest of the regular Labour commentators on this site are I think too close to wood to see the trees.
    Most comments and articles are an honest attempt at trying to make sense of Labour’s present predicament. But the problem is, this is done through old left/right divisions or factions. Terminology such as Blairism, Brownism, Corbynism, does not help. It sounds like playground taunts, which it is. There is too much entrenchment and animosity.
    The stakes could not be higher. The Tory opposition and impartial commentators look on in disbelief.
    Another pointless distraction with Left leaning arguments is the constant use of right/left measurement. Please note, there is no way to measure politics by a right left meter. At this point in time the meter is pointing to Theresa May, and an unchallengeable Tory government on a crusade to Brexit . There is no opposition.
    Now that may sound as if it is a far to the right position on this non existant right/left meter but I can assure you I can make a case where the present Tory government is middle of the road liberal and to the left of where some Tory MPS want to be.
    Back to Labour. If Labour really want to look credible again they need to first of all get their own house in order.
    The first thing that needs to be done is to clear out the stable. That means rid itself of the toxicity of for example trade union bosses that think they hold power within The Party. They don’t. hey run a union. OK Labour are addicted to the funding but Labour cannot be seen to be held to ransom by scary figures from the last century. Therefore McCluskey has to be made an example of. Public humiliation and expulsion. Let him go off and further humiliate himself. He is one figure that is better out of the tent.
    Next – The factions. Momentum proscribe. It is a cancer on the body Labour.
    Next – all the other silly factions, BAME, Women’s equality groups, Diversity. Gender equality. Friends of Palestine. Friends of Israel. All that stuff. Sweep it all away. If a rule change is needed, do it. Labour are experts on rule changes. All those factions are destroying Labour from within.

    That is enough for just now. But I have tons of other good ideas and I would be happy to discuss it, although as with every good consultant I don’t come cheap.


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