Constitutional reform will not save Labour

Robert Maisey

The United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution is little more than a tangle of precedents designed to maintain the stability of the state. And yet, despite this, Labour has always been a deeply constitutional organisation. As a working-class party, Labour’s unwavering commitment to constitutional politics has therefore embroiled it in a state of permanent contradiction.

Unique among European workers’ parties, Labour has no revolutionary tradition to speak of, even in its distant past. The party has occasionally felt the call of insurgent politics – notably in the 1920s, when it supported joint Labour-Communist candidatures and defied unfair taxation regimes at the level of local government (‘Poplarism’). But these were always brief moments of excess rather than the rule. Before forming the Labour Party proper, British trade unions began sending representatives to parliament on Liberal Party tickets, and there is a fair case to be made that Labour has never fundamentally broken with the traditions of liberalism.

The political arm of the working class

Labour’s constitutionalism, including its commitment to monarchy, has long been upheld by both the majority of its parliamentarians and its powerful trade union officialdom who, by the 20th century, came to be more or less begrudgingly accepted members of the establishment. These Labour elites proclaimed their loyalty to legality and the continuity of the established state. They did this partly to maintain their newfound social rank, but also in order to marginalise the radical wing of their own movement. However, the new labour aristocracy clearly understood their power derived from the strength of their class – from the organised workers that conferred them economic leverage against capitalist elites.

Winston Churchill did not invite Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the mighty Transport and General Workers Union, into his wartime cabinet out of respect for the lower orders, but in acknowledgement that he could not prosecute the war without the full support of the working class. Men like Bevin, a former docker himself, understood that his place in the corridors of power was underwritten by the millions of dockers who could bring Britain to a standstill on his word. A loyal servant of the establishment, maybe, but not one that could be safely dismissed or defied.

In the post-war era, Labour’s membership of the establishment was institutionalised by the formal inclusion of the trade unions in the national economic architecture. This was achieved through national and sectoral collective bargaining, large public monopolies, and the development of a corporate relationship between unions, employers and the state. Although the relationship was far from frictionless, in the decades following the Second World War, capital and labour worked in partnership to reconstruct and modernise the country. Labour governments enabled far-reaching redistribution of wealth and sweeping nationalisations of industry in accordance with the interests of the organised workers that sustained the party. Despite its genuine commitment to liberal institutions, Labour’s moderates were careful not to lose sight of the working-class organisation on which its existence depended.

The Labour left, on the other hand, was always more inclined towards a more radical perspective. The influence of Marxism meant that the left saw democratic competition for power within the capitalist state as a means of moving beyond it. Parliamentary socialists from Ellen Wilkinson to Ralph Miliband have conceptualised the capture of state power as only the first step towards enacting reforms so fundamental that they would amount to a revolutionary transformation of society in practice, albeit without the need for a violent upheaval. 

If the old Labour right drew their strength from a relatively conservative aristocracy of highly skilled industrial workers and trade union officials, the New Left that emerged in the 1960s looked for support from the militant sections of the trade union rank and file. Large sections of the working class, notably those sectors where women and minority ethnic workers were well represented, regularly expressed discontent at the limits of the postwar welfare state and the legitimacy it conferred to a still deeply unequal society. What united both left and right, Ernie Bevan and ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, within the so-called broad church of the Labour Party, was their shared understanding that organised labor was the basis for their ability to participate in, or challenge, the constitutional order.

No more class war?

By the mid-20th century, political liberalism itself was undergoing something of a revival. With the doctrinaire laissez faire of Friedrich Hayek largely discredited by the experience of the 1930s, political philosophers like John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas were beginning to rethink liberal democracy from the left. Taking for granted the relatively egalitarian economic settlement of the post-war era, they began to construct institutional models that assumed economic consensus between classes. The old ideas about the ability of the working class to leverage their position within the economic apparatus were abandoned in favour of a more classical approach to democracy, centred on debate and deliberation within political institutions.

The problem was that the central theory behind Rawlsian liberalism – that political democracy would be the guarantor of a redistributive state – was as wrong in the 1960s as it was in the 1930s. As the economic crisis of the early 1970s set in, the proto-Thatcherite forces of the new right emerged in opposition to the organised working class, and Labour governments found themselves unable to mediate a zero-sum game between organised labour and globalising capital.

Following its 1979 general election defeat, a long and embittered conflict broke out within the Labour Party about whether to pursue an escalation of the class war initiated by Margaret Thatcher or to reform itself entirely, into a party of left liberalism pursuing economic justice by institutional rather than economic struggle. The result, of course, was Blairism and the ‘Third Way’. Although figures like Tony Benn are often portrayed as dinosaurs of which New Labour divested itself, it just as firmly abandoned the tradition of Ernie Bevin alongside them. From now on, the party of workers would be managed by human rights lawyers, for the working class perhaps, but certainly not by the working class themselves. The great liberal tradition that Labour absorbed and eventually usurped at the start of the 20th century was back – and it wanted revenge.

The liberal fix

As the historian Eric Hobsbawm identified all the way back in 1981, fundamental changes to the world economy in the 1970s – in particular the distribution of the proletariat on a global scale – had diminished the centrality of organised labour in Britain within key sectors of production. With supply chains distributed across the world, and with many companies actively seeking to outsource production to states with lower wages and higher levels of control of their population, organised labour’s fundamental instrument of power – the strike – was fatally disarmed. The threat of strike action is much less intimidating to the capitalist class if they actually want their employees to stop working. What globalisation achieved for some groups of workers, automation and new legal restrictions on trade unions did for the rest. 

The Labour Party was, of course, created by the trade unions to defend their economic and political rights in parliament, dedicated to creating progressive legislation. But with the diminishing centrality of organised labour, both as a share of the workforce and in its leverage over key areas of production, the Labour Party moved further and further towards the institutional liberalism offered by the European Union. Because Labour could no longer ensure the continuation of its power by means of its own strength, it increasingly placed its faith in legal means alone, particularly the supra-national set of rules and restrictions embodied in the European Union’s “social market” framework.

Unable to defend itself from the ravages of globalisation and Thatcherism, organised labour outsourced its own self-defence. The more diminished the ability of trade unions to affect political change, the more they relied on legislative largesse to protect themselves and their members. But the protections and regulations enshrined in national and international law could only ever partially replace the immediate benefits offered by robust trade union bargaining. Such progressive legislation as was created by either New Labour or the European Union helped to mitigate the decline in the relative position of the worker against their employers, but did not reverse it.  

Although it may be hard to believe today, even the minimum wage was opposed by a significant section of the trade union movement as the thin end of a constitutional wedge that would diminish labour’s ability to bargain for itself. One of the highest wage economies in Europe is Norway, which remains outside of the EU and has no legal minimum wage in place. The high standards of living enjoyed by the average Norwegian are guaranteed by the national collective bargaining structures of their trade unions – and the strategic public ownership of natural resources. The electoral success of so-called “Nordic” social democracy is not the result of a more enlightened electorate, but a function of the stake that organised labour has maintained within the economy of those countries.

The EU won’t save us

Unfortunately, the outsourcing of working-class self-defence to unaccountable, supra-national constitutional law has proven a failed strategy. Not only do working-class people (quite rightly) view this arrangement as contradictory to the democratic traditions of Britain’s own constitutional system, but it has also left the working class bereft of the ability to defend itself should the working time directive or minimum wage somehow fail to deliver adequate protection from rapacious employers or harsh economic winds. 

The damage this has done to the Labour Party itself is immeasurable. The Labour Party has alienated itself from the essence of its own ability to govern – the overwhelming support of the most economically significant sections of the working class, which has begun to view the Labour Party as a failed institution. Little wonder that when, in 2016, Labour begged workers to once again place their faith in the visibly failing institutions of the European Union, a crisis of legitimacy between party and class, which had been brewing since the days of New Labour, began to accelerate. Worse, when Labour appeared to reject the decision of the electorate in the years that followed, the crisis became a catastrophe. Too many ‘leftists’ preferred to line up with international capital and its city banker outriders, implicitly or explicitly condemning a working class they believed to be on the wrong side of history.

For very similar reasons to why the European Union will not rescue Labour, appeals to our own constitutional system will be similarly ineffective. The constitutional arrangements of the British state exist to preserve an established order from which organised labour has been expelled. If Labour once forced itself into that establishment through the bold advance of trade union power, it has long since receded from it. We cannot sue Boris Johnson out of government, any more than Scottish Labour can recapture its old hegemony by defending the integrity of the UK against Scottish independence.

Proportional representation won’t save us either

The lesson here is that, without a base of power rooted in organised workers themselves, there is no constitutional “fix” for Labour’s trauma. Changes to the electoral system, for example the introduction of proportional representation, may have much to recommend them in theory, but in practice will only reproduce a different configuration of the existing relations of power. Advocates of electoral reform in Britain should take careful note of the situation in Germany, Italy and France, where a more proportional system has actually accelerated the demise of the traditional social democratic parties. 

While more proportional systems have allowed radical populist movements to break through more easily, they have mostly suffered the same fate as the surge of young people who backed Jeremy Corbyn from 2015. The new social movements have injected the vitality and optimism of youth into the political mainstream, only to be conspired against and crushed by an alliance of their enemies in the old social democratic and traditional conservative establishments.

If the end goal of PR is to destroy the Labour Party, and unleash some of the radical forces currently constrained by it, then a new electoral system based on proportional representation might just have that effect. But if the goal is to re-establish the ability of the Labour Party to govern in and of itself, PR is a dead end.

The various campaigns for electoral reform can therefore be understood as just another manifestation of the liberal fix that an earlier generation of reformers hoped to find in the European Union. It is borne of a vain hope that if the rules of the game can be made fairer, Labour might have a better shot at winning power. 

The difficult truth is that there is no route to genuinely progressive government that circumvents its fundamental power base among organised workers. Constitutional reform in absence of an economically assertive labour movement is simply a matter of rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

The progressive alliance won’t save us

If there is any hope for progress, it lies where it has always lain – in the collective power of ordinary working-class people to shape their own destiny. We all recognise the travesty of unaccountable, globalised power in the 21st century. We all know that 71% of the world’s emissions are produced by just 100 firms, and we all agree that something must be done about it, but there can be no legal appeal, because they are the law. Until we have the collective strength to take that power away from them, then we are doomed, and we are very far from having that strength. The attempts by Corbyn’s party to make these kinds of arguments was a shot in the arm for progressive politics in this country, and it explains why Labour members in the post-Corbyn years have been desperately organising around his platform, not the man himself.

It might be argued, not unjustly, that there is no reason to choose between a battle for constitutional reform and rebuilding the strength of organised labour. In fact, there is every chance that if labour’s forward march could be restarted, constitutional reform may well follow as a natural consequence of the rebalancing of political and economic power this would entail. However, considering the present condition of working-class organisation, another Europe is not possible, and neither is a so-called a progressive alliance. Great Britain is already in possession of an uneasy coalition of different social forces working together on a common basic programme: it is called the Labour Party and it is falling apart at the seams. Affixing even greater numbers of hostile ideological forces from the green and liberal fringes will accelerate rather than arrest the ongoing disintegration of Britain’s only working-class party.  

It could also reasonably be argued that democratic reform might help to coalesce new political alliances around a genuine progressive movement for change. But any political platform based on a shared set of “values” rather than a shared economic interest risks turning the actually existing working class into a problematic minority partner in a coalition of do-gooders. We have already seen the dangers of this kind of liberal condescension, handing the Conservatives endless opportunities to ideologically consolidate their grip on previously Labour voting strongholds with a heady brew of right-wing culture war and strategically targeted public spending.  

It is a comforting illusion of political activists to imagine new and better constitutional orders based on justice and democracy. From that imaginary world, they take a short step towards convincing themselves that their political energy is best spent campaigning for new, fairer, political institutions. Instead of building castles in the sky, Labour must look to the ground beneath its feet, and see how precious little of it there is left. Organised labour must reconstruct itself in order to re-establish a functional Labour Party, and the Labour Party must respond to those efforts with a reassertion of its core function: representing the collective interest of all those who work.

The cold hard truth is that only power can speak to power. There is no moral argument that will convince the hostile institutions of capitalism to suddenly respect the democratic aspirations of the political left. Only once the left regains its power in the economic sphere by the hand of organised labour will it be heard, and not a moment before.

Until then, the EU will not save us. The courts will not save us. PR will not save us. Only we can save us. The cause of labour is the hope of the world.

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