Labour parties and their ‘left’ oppositions

British Labour shadow cabinet member indicates the bottom line of Labour parties. Alexander lost his seat to the Scottish National Party in the 2015 British general election
British Labour shadow cabinet member indicates the bottom line of Labour parties worldwide. (The public disagreed – Alexander lost his seat to the Scottish National Party in the 2015 British general election.)

by Phil Duncan

This week we’ve run two articles which fit into this general category. The one earlier today dealt with the Australian Labor Party, which has a long tradition of left factions, and was written by Louise O’Shea, one of the leaders of Socialist Alternative, the largest Marxist current across the ditch. The one on August 19 dealt with veteran left-wing British Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn’s run for the post of party leader and was written by independent British Marxist blogger Tony Norfield.

Corbyn is a left social-democrat in the tradition of Tony Benn. His leadership campaign seems to hooked into a sentiment for social change among a layer of young people and a section of the working class, as well as a chunk of Labour Party members who seem to have felt disenfranchised by several decades of economic right-wing leadership of that party. Tony’s article made several key points:

Louise wrote frankly in Red Flag about the so-called left faction in the Australian Labor Party and its political (and, indeed, moral) bankruptcy. On every key question it has long since failed to present any serious challenge to the dominant faction and its right-wing economic policies and also its policies towards refugees and asylum seekers. It might be mentioned here that Julia Gillard was actually a product of the left faction in the ALP and the personification of what happens these days when someone with such a ‘left’ background when their aim is to become party leader and premier. Principles, even innocuous social-democratic ones, become subordinated firstly to personal ambition (and ego) and then to the requirements of managing the capitalist system. On top of these, Gillard, like Tony Abbott, threw in the additional right-wing idiosyncrasy of opposition to same-sex marriage rights, even though the big bulk of the Australian electorate actually supports marriage equality.

One of the points Louise made was that even when the right had lost its usual majority of conference delegates, the left never pressed home its advantage: indeed, leading leftists not only capitulated politically to the right, but lied about their capitulation, pretending the party now had some good left-wing policies on issues like immigrant rights. When she noted that the left could have pressed home its strong delegate position and got better policies adopted, I think it’s important to clarify that this is only true in a technical, arithmetic sense. In other words while they may have had the numbers to do so, the key point is that, in reality, they could not because that’s not their role in the ALP.

No matter what they do, stick with the anti-worker Labour Party!

And here we come to the crux of the matter: the function of Jeremy Corbyn and his campaign in Britain and the function of the ALP ‘lefts’. While there is some difference – I think Corbyn is genuine in his left social democracy whereas the ALP lefts are just a bunch of chancers and fakers – it is the similarity that is more important.

Just as the ALP fake lefts have stayed in the ALP all through the abominations inflicted on the working class across the ditch by the ALP, not to mention its imperialist foreign policy, so Corbyn is a Labour-loyalist. The LP leadership backed Thatcher in crushing the miners in 1985-86. Corbyn supported the miners but stayed in the British Labour Party. The LP leadership backed Thatcher in trying to smash the republican resistance in Ireland – Corbyn opposed British repression in the north of Ireland, but stayed in the Labour Party. The LP leadership opposed the movement against the poll tax – Corbyn supported it, but stayed in the LP.

When Labour got back into power, it began a process of commodification of the state sector. Corbyn opposed this – but stayed in the LP. Labour led Britain into war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Corbyn opposed these interventions – but stayed in the LP.

The message that Corbyn’s history sends is that no matter what the British Labour Party leadership does – in opposition or in power – you should be in this rotten party. So his function in practice is to corral leftists on behalf of the Labour Party, a party which is, always was and always will be, dedicated to the management of British capitalism at home and British imperialist interests abroad.

How Labour lefts helped British imperialism

One of the things that a lot of leftists see as positive about Corbyn is his record on Ireland. Corbyn, before he was a Labour MP, supported the 1981 Irish hunger strikers. When he became a Labour MP Corbyn, in opposition to the Kinnock leadership of the party, maintained friendly relations with Sinn Fein and, in particular, with the central leadership around Gerry Adams. (Adams was, at the same time, the dominant figure on the IRA Army Council.) Corbyn played a crucial role in building and maintaining links between elements of the ‘left’ in the Labour Party and the leadership of militant Irish republicanism. But there was always only one way this relationship could go – namely, finding friends in the Labour Party apparatus in Britain could only ever serve to draw the republican leadership away from revolutionary opposition to the British state and into the machinery of that state. After all, if it was good enough for Corbyn, it was good enough for leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Moreover, the relationship between SF/IRA leaders and elements of the British Labour Party created mechanisms for the transmission of British left-Labour ideas into the far more radical Irish Republican Movement, across a whole spectrum of issues. When I joined Sinn Fein in 1986, the Republican Movement identified as a revolutionary socialist movement whose goal was an all-Ireland Socialist Republic. And the fact that they were serious about this was clear from the way they fought British imperialism for decades and also championed struggles by Irish workers against their own Irish bosses. The growing connections with elements of the British Labour Party, facilitated by folks like Jeremy Corbyn, was an important element in shifting the republican leaders rightwards, towards left social-democratic economics and politics. (And, of course, they have since evolved further and further to the right, into becoming essentially a bourgeois-nationalist movement.)

As Sean Kearns noted, in a comment beneath the Tony Norfield article, the current Corbyn campaign has a positive and negative aspect. On the positive side we have seen a lot of young people and workers being encouraged into political activity because they finally feel there is a politician of principle putting himself forward. The negative aspect is that it is done within the context of a party that will never be other than an alternative capitalist management team. To the extent that Corbyn is able to draw a chunk of politicising young people and energised workers into the Labour Party – and that is what his campaign is doing – his chief contribution is not to radical progressive politics but to the system. It is drawing potential left-radicals into the black hole of British Labourism, which will suck the energy out of them, incorporate some of them into the system and make of them hollow cynical opportunist hacks, while demoralising those that recoil from that option. The enthusiasm, energy and potential of thousands will be wasted in a hopeless project – the attempt to make the British Labour Party anything other than what it is.

Now we come to this country and whether the ignominy of the ALP fake-left or the emergence of new layers around a veteran left social-democrat in the British LP have any relevance here.

The New Zealand case: Labour without a left

Well, there is one notable difference between the NZ Labour Party and the British and Australian ones. The LP here has historically been a much more homogeneous party of capitalist managers. It has never had left factions, let alone of any note or importance, with the possible exception of a loose left for a couple of years at the height of the fourth Labour government, as they commodified as much of the old state sector as they could in just two terms in office. Some of the commodified state sector they privatised; other elements they converted into state-owned capitalist enterprises – the SOEs (the ‘Rogernomics’ creations that are so beloved of so much of the NZ left).

As Roger Douglas and his cohorts surged on full steam ahead, a significant opposition emerged within the NZLP for the first time ever in its history. However, this opposition was headed by a former businessman, Jim Anderton, and wasn’t very radical. It wasn’t even left social-democratic so much as Old Labour. It fondly recalled the Kirk-Rowling third Labour government, for instance. But that was government that actually began what the fourth Labour government took to its necessary and logical conclusion. (For the third Labour government’s record, see here.) The Anderton-led opposition was widely supported in the ranks, among a chunk of lower union officials and by at least a dozen MPs.

When the Anderton faction left the LP in 1989 and set up a new party, none of the ‘left’ MPs followed Anderton out. Every single one of the others turned out to be total fakers, most particularly Helen Clark. (Clark already had her eye on becoming the country’s first female prime minister and wasn’t going to let a little thing like Old Labour principles get in her way.) Because a lot of activists from the once new social movements and many people who had been chewed up by the various ‘Marxist’ groups joined with the Anderton faction in founding a new party, the NewLabour Party, it adopted a much more radical programme than Anderton’s own politics. (As he often – and perfectly honestly – put it, “I didn’t leave the Labour Party; the Labour Party left me.”)

Subsequently the NLP led the way in the formation of the Alliance, bringing themselves, the Greens, the Liberals, the Democrats and Mana Motuhake together. In the last first-post-the-post election, in 1993, the Alliance won 18.8% of the vote, took Auckland Central off Labour and Anderton continued to hold his own seat, the first person to leave Labour and hold their seat. For the next few years, the Alliance polled even better in public opinion polls and Anderton was miles ahead of Labour’s new leader, Clark, in the preferred prime minister stakes.

By 1996, however, the Alliance was very much dominated by parliamentary concerns, much of its left-wing had left or been driven out, and the Greens departed. Its vote dropped to just over 10% in the first MMP election that year and then in 1999 to 7.8%. Anderton and his chief lieutenants, such as Matt McCarten and Laila Harre, led the party into a disastrous coalition with Labour. Clark led the coalition government into the invasion of Afghanistan, much of the already-reduced ranks of the Alliance rebelled and the party split, with Anderton choosing to stay in government with Labour and setting up a new, much smaller party. The rest of the Alliance was wiped out electorally in 2002, as few people saw any reason to vote for it after the wreckage of its coalition with Labour. Eventually Anderton led his Progressive Party back into Labour, and several of his main successors in the leadership of the remnants of the Alliance, first party president Jill Ovens and then Unite Union leader Matt McCarten, rejoined the anti-worker Labour Party.

Labour without an activist and union base

The departure of the Anderton-led faction from Labour in 1989 did perform one useful historic service, however. It gutted the Labour Party of activists. And although the likes of Anderton and McCarten eventually returned, at different times, to Labour, this wretched party of capitalist management has never recovered from the split of 1989. Its membership remains very small and the number of actual party activists, in the sense of the term in Old Labour days, is tiny.

At one point, only three unions remained affiliated to Labour, none of them left unions. The collapse of the Alliance has meant a couple of other unions, albeit tiny ones, have returned to the Labour fold – the Maritime Union (wharfies and seafarers) and the Rail and Martime Transport (RMT) union. But Labour has never regained the extent of affiliations it once had.

Today, there is no identifiable left of any note within the Labour Party, although there are a few individuals within it who identify as left and even as anti-capitalist. The few individual members who are the exceptions to the rule have therefore trapped themselves in the NZLP; neither the Labour Party nor any significant elements of it are interested in anti-capitalist ideas. Just as Labour has a few differences on how to manage the system of exploitation and oppression – capitalism – so a tiny handful of people within Labour have some small differences with the party leadership on how best to manage the existing order.

No function for left factions

Moreover, Labour parties these days find ‘left’ factions of much less use than in the past. For instance, the left were often among the most enthusiastic dogs bodies for these parties – they were ardent stamp lickers, leafleters, and posterers. They raised funds for Labour through bake sales, pub lotteries and general collections. They campaigned vigorously for Labour at election time, handing out the official party material and keeping quiet about their more left views. These days Labour parties are mainly funded by the state and campaign largely through the media. The campaigns are also increasingly presidential. They simply don’t need the loyal footsoldiers that the left used to provide for all the kinds of work that was once essential to keep the show on the road.

The other chief function function of the old left factions in social-democratic parties was to channel discontent into these parties where it could be damned up, let off a bit of steam and end up demoralised and destroyed. Even on those occasions that lefts managed to get Labour conferences to pass ‘radical’ motions, the motions never became government policy. In fact, the passage of a few left motions at party conferences was essential to the whole process of death by incorporation. No-one but the really very gullible party leftists ever believed that the passage of such motions was any real step forward. The ruling class, moreover, always knew that a bit of indulgence was necessary to incorporate the left and kill off the potential of any more serious threat to the system.

These days there are no big radical social movements in countries like Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The working class – and this is especially the case in this country – is so docile these days that it doesn’t have to be pacified and managed by the left elements (or the right elements) of social democracy through being drawn into Labourist dead-ends.

So the two main functions of Labour left factions are now largely historically obsolete. Labour parties don’t need lefts; they’re an add-on that doesn’t have anything to deliver. Moreover, because left factions have in almost all cases put loyalty to the Labour parties above any sort of loyalty to the interests of the working class, the ‘lefts’ have evolved further and further rightwards as the parties themselves have become more and more blatantly outright capitalist parties.

The long since house-trained, utterly respectable and harmless left within the Labour parties continue on, however. In the Australian situation the left factions seem to continue to exist mainly because they provide some kind of useful networking for careerists and because people of similar mind like to hang out together (ie they meet a kind of psychological need for participants). In Britain the left outside the Labour Party is, and always has been, proportionately far larger than the non-Labour left in New Zealand, so the Labour lefts’ function of drawing activists into the death star is not entirely obsolete.

For a real left

In New Zealand, Labour leader Andrew Little has some ideas to offer the ruling class on how better to run the system than John Key and a few folks such as some of those around The Standard have some suggestions for Little on how better to run the same system. What is ruled out of discussion, by both the ‘right’ and the soft, fake ‘left’ in Labour in New Zealand, is any challenge to the system itself.

We don’t need a left opposition in Labour parties, we need a left opposition to Labour parties.

Not endless attempts to rejuvenate a party that stands for the interests of our exploiters. Not the endless placing of ridiculous demands on Labour. Not choosing sides in ridiculous leadership contests between ridiculous people like David Shearer, David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Andrew Little, all of whose desires to be prime minister are every bit as much vanity projects as John Key’s prime ministership is.

What is needed to protect and advance workers’ interests is not ideas about how to more effectively run capitalism, but ideas about how to destroy it and create a new system. And that means we need a new political movement – a movement of, for and by workers – to fight unequivocally for the interests of workers and struggling humanity globally. To fight for a system in which the people who do the work and create the wealth, the working class as a class, rule.

Further reading:
Anti-working class to its core: the third Labour government
Income and wealth inequality unchanged by last Labour government
The truth about Labour: a bosses’ party


  1. The number one platform point of Labour Party Marxists is: “The central aim of Labour Party Marxists is to transform the Labour Party into an instrument for working class advance and international socialism.”

    Are they for real?

    The British LP is one of the two main management teams of British Imperialism Ltd, and has been ever since McDonald formed the first Labour regime in Britain in the 1920s.

    After almost 100 years, some Marxists in Britain seriously believe in the possibility of transforming the Labour Party into “an instrument for working class advance and international socialism.”

    Moreover, Trotskyists have been doing entry work in the British Labour Party with that goal since the 1930s. Eighty years on, with the fruits of that strategy being about zero, the maintenance of that strategy is now simply mechanistic dogma.

    Far from being ‘sensible’, it’s just plain flakey now. . .


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