LABOUR PARTY From ‘working class’ to ‘middle class’ Party?

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The Socialist Workers Organisation now says the Labour Party has no roots in working class and that the ‘Workers’ Charter’ is the start of a new workers party. This ignores the many workers in unions who still have direct or indirect links to the Labour Party. It turns its back on these workers. It tells them not to vote for ‘middle class’ people. We say instead, "these people in the Labour Party and the CTU leadership are not ‘middle class’ but ‘working class traitors’. If you don’t believe us, vote them into power and demand that they do what you want and learn from their betrayals".

The Socialist Workers Organisation idea that the Labour Party is now a 'social liberal' party only confuses and fudges the question of the class character of the Party. The fundamental question is: has the class character of the Labour Party changed? It was formed in 1916 as a bourgeois-workers party, i.e. with a bourgeois program and working class base represented by its organic links to the unions. Has the class composition of the Labour Party shifted to the ‘new middle class’?

“Increasingly, NZ Labour is a party not of unions or of business, but of lawyers, administrators, ‘creatives’ and others from the new middle class. The party¹s new rulers support social reforms dear to their heart, but embrace neo-liberal economics which kicks the working class in the guts. This fusion of social reforms and neo-liberal economics gives us a label for NZ Labour today: social-liberal.”

There is no question that Labour has embraced neo-liberalism in the form of Blairism – a rightwing social democracy that accepts the rule of the market. But does this shift in its program to the right need to be explained by a ‘new middle class’ takeover?

According to the SWO: “Today's Labour Party is dominated by lawyers, administrators, academics, professionals, artists, designers, researchers and others from the new middle class. They play an important role in late capitalism's information technology and global production. The new middle class aren't direct exploiters of workers, nor do they have a boss breathing down their neck all day. They form a layer between capital and labour, often mediating between these two main classes.”

So this ‘new middle class’ is the modern version of the ‘old middle class’ of self employed people. Only now instead of shopkeepers and farmers they are professionals, lawyers etc. They are not ‘exploited’ by capital, nor do they ‘exploit’ labour. They are a ‘layer’ of small business people between capital and labour’. Yet for every self-employed lawyer, farmer or business person in the leadership of the Labour Party, there are ten who are not self-employed. They are not ‘new middle class’ but drawn from the salaried professions – teachers, lawyers, public servants, union officials etc. The scientific Marxist term for these workers is the labour aristocracy. They still sell their labour for a higher wage or salary and are more privileged than ordinary wage workers, but that does not make them ‘middle class’.

The fact that the Labour Party and its CTU partners are led mainly by ‘professionals’ i.e. ex-teachers, ex-lawyers, ex-union organisers etc. does not make them ‘middle class’. It means the leadership of the party and the CTU is in the hands of the hands of the labor bureaucracy a layer of functionaries that has emerged out of the labor aristocracy. Just as it’s always been.

Long history of Class Collaboration

This is not new. From the beginning the Labour Party bourgeois program (i.e. defence of private property) was administered by the labour bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has its origins in the labour movement but is promoted into parliament. The best known Labour leaders were unionists or professionals. Their function was always to collaborate with the employers to contain the workers movement to the legal channels of bourgeois parliament.

Hence Labour's class collaborationist character was determined from the start by its adherence to a bourgeois program and defence of capitalism, combined with its organised labour composition and working class support.

Those who argue that Labour has changed its allegiance to the capitalists are ignorant of Labour’s historic pro-capitalist program. Those that argue that Labour has lost, abandoned, or replaced etc its working class base are naïve about the class collaborationist role that Labour continues to play. In reality class character of the Labour Party is unchanged as is the labour bureaucracy that leads it. What has changed however, are the conditions of the world market and the conditions which dictate what policies the capitalists want Labour to impose on the working class.

There are three stages of Labour’s evolution that have nothing to do with its class composition and everything to do with the dictates of capitalist rule. First, from 1916 to its election in 1935, was the task of diverting the militants into parliament; second, from 1935 to 1984 was the task of massive state regulation and protection of the economy from direct foreign competition; third, from 1984 to the present, was the task of de-regulating and opening up the economy to global market forces.

Labour bribed the workers into the welfare state

The Labour Party was founded by the labour bureaucracy to coopt the labour movement from the general strikes and class warfare of the period 1908-1913 into parliament where the 'socialisation' of the means of production, distribution and exchange would be legislated rather than expropriated. It was necessary to offer a very radical sounding program to con workers away from the Red Fed and its independent breakaway unionism, despite serious defeats, and back into the arms of the ‘class neutral’ state and its Arbitration Court.

By the time it was elected in 1935, Labour had the loyalty of mainstream organised labour, as well as landless and poor farmers, and a group of national capitalists like James Fletcher. Even the CPNZ in its popular front period after 1935 joined Labour. Labour got away with this class collaboration as so long as it could deliver 'reforms' that allowed workers to materially share in the wealth of NZ capitalism.

This was possible under the form of economic nationalism where NZ capitalists were protected from having to compete on the world market allowing workers to share in the prosperity that resulted. Labour could pass off this economic nationalism as class compromise and class peace. But in reality it was the protection of the NZ capitalist class that was behind these reforms, not the demands of workers. This was proven by the anti-worker attacks of the period up to 1951. The workers were no less exploited under protection and paid for their social welfare out of their own surplus labour.

The reality was that these social conditions could not outlive the crisis of NZ capitalism once the protected companies got too big for the local economy. To grow they had to compete openly on the world market and the protected economy had to be deregulated. So as the economic conditions changed NZ capitalists had to switch from protection to international competition. These demands of the capitalist class (BRT etc) completely determined Labour's every move.

From the mid 30s to the 1970s workers saw Labour as their party because they shared in rising prosperity. They still thought this during the 1970s years of mounting crisis. Muldoon refused to face this reality for ten years from 1975 to 1984. Ironically he was trying to be King Canute turning back the tide of neo-liberalism. He borrowed and hoped and ran up the debt. The NZ economy was rapidly heading for bankruptcy.

Rogernomics was no mistake

When Labour was elected in 1984 its new program, Rogernomics, was determined by its fundamental class loyalty to NZ capitalists and their property, not any loyalty to its working class supporters.

The long term loyalty of workers was severely strained during this period. Yet Labour's role as a Bourgeois-workers party did not change. While the abstention of workers saw Labour lose in 1990, by 1993 it had almost regained its lost support. The reason? New Labour was going nowhere except back into Labour and National had launched a direct massive attack on the working class in the form of benefit cuts, ECA etc

In the 1990s workers continued to vote for Labour. However, after MMP workers split voting saw NZ First draw on Maori and workers votes, and due to Winston's opportunism, National stayed in office but as a lame duck government that could not advance its more market program significantly.

Labour's re-election in 1999 reinforced its organised Labour support by reforming Labour law to re-empower the unions as 'social partners', and a range of minor social reforms. Its brand of of neo-liberalism is a blend of British Blairism and European social democracy, which tries to reintroduce the state as an active player in the market pushing the strategy of 'public private partnerships'.

Does this mean its class collaborationist character had changed? No it continues to operate in the same old way sucking workers into a modified version of neo-liberalism on the claim that this is good for workers.

How to break from labour

So the question persists: if Labour is still seen to represent workers and claims to be able to deliver a class 'partnership' (most clearly expressed in the CTU strategy of productivity sharing) along with a national culture and national identity, doesn’t it still operate crucially as a class collaborationist party diverting the big majority of workers away from independent class politics into parliament?

The answer has to be yes. And until the militant left has won considerably more support to form a mass workers party that fights mainly outside parliament to overthrow capitalism, then it is necessary to base our tactics to break workers from Labour's class collaboration on this understanding.

One tactic is to fight at every dispute for rank and file control of the dispute to expose and replace the labour bureaucrats and the Labourite 'partnership' strategy. Calling for rank and file discussion and voting on dis-affiliation to the Labour Party is part of this.

Another tactic, like Radical Youth pickets, is to attack Labour's 'worker party' pretences on issues like youth rates etc. While Labour is in office it should be attacked unmercifully for its class collaboration.

Third, always behind these tactics is the need to build support for a mass workers party with a revolutionary socialist program. But until this gets support, most politically active unionists will continue to vote Labour as the party that gives them something back. No amount of talk about Labour and National being the same will convince these workers to vote for a Party that cannot be in a Labour-led government.

That's why come election time refusing to bloc with these workers in a united front to put Labour in office to once more expose its fundamental class collaboration and prove in practice that workers cannot put faith in this party, or the CTU leadership that is the main prop of the Labour Party, is sectarian in the true sense of the word i.e. putting narrow party interests ahead of the workers’ class interests.

From Class Struggle 69 Oct/Nov 2006

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