Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Behind the Shawcroft Row: The Labour Party as Social Movement and Political Trade Unionism.

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The Labour Party as Social Movement and Political Trade Unionism.

In one of his lesser-known works, L’Éternité par les astres (1872) the 19th century socialist insurrectionist Louis-Auguste Blanqui announced that there were millions of stars and worlds like our own. In each of them lived our personal doppelgänger. Those who have reflected on this discovery would deduce that our alter egos would each have minor differences, slightly different points of our view, that would end in distinct narratives about our existence.

Recent events in the Labour Party have brought similar differences about what has happened during a number of events, from goings-on at the National Policy Forum, to the National Executive Committee (NEC). The same meeting the same people, but very different takes on what took place.

The most recent, and, politically, the most important, is the latest NEC meeting. Christine Shawcroft’s dissatisfaction with a decision to submit allegations of anti-semitism to further disciplinary procedure has tumbled over into disagreement about the role of trade union representatives on Labour’s ruling body. She is reported to have expressed the view, amongst other things, that union delegates are unreliable allies of the left. Shawcroft suggested on social media that the Labour-union link should be re-examined. Those hostile to her intervention, and no doubt Momentum, in which the long-standing NEC member is a leading figure, have claimed that she called for a break with the organised working class. Since then everybody has united on keeping the union link (Labour unites behind trade union affiliation).

The row in the wake of these comments takes place against the backdrop of a contest for Labour’s General Secretary. This, a post, unlike, in other European parties (such as the French Parti Socialiste’s similar sounding position) has organisational and not directly political responsibility. The Secretary is appointed by the Party’s upper structure and is therefore, in principle, not an issue that involves the wider membership. But the different candidates, above all Jon Lansman, on the NEC but best known as a founder of Momentum, and Jennie Formby  from the union UNITE, have increasingly been seen in a political light. It is known that Lansman was not happy with a union ‘shoe in’ into the position. What is clear now is that UNITE’s leadership is unhappy with any questioning of their political weight in the party. These, and other issues about the candidacies, have been echoed amongst those Labour activists interested in the future direction of the party.

Momentum: Labour as social movement.

It should be clear that while there are no real differences about the primary need to campaign to get a Labour government elected, and to work out policies to achieve this, the dispute could be seen in the light of some important differences. For some Momentum is not just a pressure group to build support for Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn. It is, grandly, a project designed for Labour to gain a “collective transformative” capacity. It may be seen, as Hilary Wainwright put it “having a creative capacity and transformative power” “distinct from (not opposed to) electoral politics”. As such as, “a party as a means of experimenting and prefiguring in the represent” “the relations we envisage in the future”. Less inclined to an extra-terrestrial discovery to rival Blanqui’s, Momentum is seen “grassroots politics” with activists, many of them youthful, pouring energy and enthusiasm into Labour’s campaigns. In this capacity – that is a means to help bolder the party’s capacity to root change in the wider society, – the group is highly welcome. (1)

Momentum’s own difficulties include an ‘on-line’ democracy that critics allege does not function, conferences and decision-making process which resemble the centralised aspect of the equally ‘social media’ and Web hub based La France insoumise (LFI) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In its defence it could be said that Momentum is not LFI, out to ‘federate the people’ by means of a virtual political party, but has become an auxiliary of one with the goal of helping Labour get elected. It has avoided becoming embroiled in the worst aspects of left in fighting and sectarian recruitment politics. Momentum, unless one reads Shawcroft’s NEC intervention in the most hostile possible way, has shown no inclination to indulge the – ultra-minority – strain of Judophobia that has become an issue in left politics.

These positive achievements do not prevent another set of concerns at the place of such a body in drawing up lists in local Labour Parties with the sole aim of getting approved candidates elected to internal positions and councillor selections. In some case, Haringey stands out, this is part of a justified and broader effort to change very wong council policies. But in others this polarising practice, right up to clashes over the most minor positions, many complain, overrides debate of policy issues.

Political Trade Unionism.

What has also come to light is that the trade unions have a distinct idea about their role in the Labour Party. The TUC and affiliated unions have always seen the party as a means to get legislation passed in their favour, most recently by some who give priority to restoring collective bargaining in negotiations. Apart from these classical demands some, above all UNITE, have their own ideas about “political unions”.

Andrew Murray, a key figure in Len McClusky’s circle, and a consultant to Jeremy Corbyn, argued in 2014, for rebuilding the left around the People’s Assembly. This national campaign against austerity, Murray noted, drew the unions, ant-cuts activists and left-wingers from Labour and a variety of small left parties, with the objective of creating “rooted movements for change” “re-establishing the basis for mass socialist politics”. Behind this, based on the working class movement, was a strategy to “reclaim Labour” for the left – a prospect Murray saw – in 2014 – that could be thwarted by the “Blairite undead”. (2)

Murray may have his own eccentric ideas about ‘anti-imperialism’, and the positive side of the Soviet past. But, Labour has been largely (not entirely) been wrenched from the Blair/Brown legacy. In this the importance of initiatives such as the People’s Assembly stands out. It was one of the factors that prepared the ground for Corbyn’s election. The alternative strategy, which his article thoroughly took to pieces, of various left electoral challenges, from Left Unity, to the (continuing) Trades Union and Socialist Alliance (TUSC) faded into oblivion.

The problem now is whether the trade union movement, dedicated to achieving goals through electoral power, can sustain a relation with those who see ‘Labour as a social movement’. This is not a just a matter of ‘control’, which unions do not have over Momentum. A central policy issue equally divides the left. Some still see the future in terms of a “People’s Brexit’. Some decades later, on another planet, Tony Benn’s call for “genuine national sovereignty” – is proposed by the Morning Star, and, in a souped up form, by the ‘revolutionary’ remnants of the People’s Assembly reduced to the mouthpiece of the groupuscule Counterfire (The why and what of a People’s Brexit). But it is unlikely that inside the party, in Momentum or anywhere else, apart from the far from dynamic minority of ‘patriotic Labour’ is attracted to this prospect. Many remain strongly opposed to Leave. A few respond to the demand for a new referendum. The compromise over the Customs Union is a stop-gap a more detailed set of policies on Europe remains to be settled.

The differences between Labour-as-a-social-movement and Political Trade Unionism are far from irresolvable. Those, like this writer, who rejoined Labour, are intensely conscious that for Labour to be elected compromises and a great deal of respect is due for those activists, councillors and MPs who have kept membership over the years. Their concerns focus on issues such as the funding for local government, housing, welfare reform and …Europe. It would be better if disputes took place over policy, in a collaborative fashion, and not over jostling for internal positions in the party.


(1) Radicalising the party-movement relationship: from Ralph Miliband to Jeremy Corbyn and beyond. Hilary Wainwright. Socialist Register. 2017. Merlin Press. Beyond the Boundary, Momentum’s role in the #GE2017 Campaign, Puru Miah. Chartist. 277. July/August 2017.

(2) Left Unity or Class Unity? Working class politics in Britain. Andrew Murray. Socialist Register 2014. Merlin Press.

(3) On this aspect of Tony Benn’s politics see: Chapter 6 A Party with Socialists in it. A History of the Labour Left. Simon Hannah. Pluto Press. 2018


13 Responses

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  1. Excellent piece, both descriptively and analytically. I will reblog at Shiraz Socialist (Second Run).

    Jim Denham

    March 8, 2018 at 3:13 pm

  2. Thanks Jim.

    If you want to see just how deluded some of Lansman’s opponents are look no further than Labour Party Marxist,

    ” Will the pacifist Corbyn stick to his guns (excuse the pun) as prime minister and forthrightly condemn Israel aggression?

    That would put the pro-imperialist right in the Parliamentary Labour Party under immense pressure from the Zionist lobby. This is, after all, why the whole ‘anti-Semitism’ scandal was created in the first place. Discredit Corbyn’s anti-war and pro-Palestine stance. Force him to ‘man up’ and come out in support of US interests. And that includes unconditional support for Israel to do whatever it has to do to ‘defend itself’. (We note Prince William is the first member of his family to make an official visit to Israel, as well as Lebanon and “the occupied Palestinian territories”.)

    In this context, Jon Lansman’s participation in the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt in the Labour Party is very, very important. He has said of Ken Livingstone, “It’s time he left politics altogether”; thinks that “there should be no place for George Galloway in the Labour Party” (and called on his employers to sack him); and when Jackie Walker was suspended from Labour on trumped-up charges of anti-Semitism, he quickly removed her as vice-chair of Momentum. He wants to be seen as a safe pair of hands, when it comes to Israel.”


    Andrew Coates

    March 8, 2018 at 5:39 pm

  3. …and they say left-wing labour activists are out of touch with the streets!

    Steven Johnston

    March 8, 2018 at 10:55 pm

  4. Looks like I’m barred then.

    Dave Roberts

    March 9, 2018 at 8:10 am

  5. But no. Where have all my posts from the last few days gone then?

    Dave Roberts

    March 9, 2018 at 8:10 am

  6. The only comments I removed were not in your name, and were in support of Britain First so I have no idea.

    Andrew Coates

    March 9, 2018 at 12:35 pm

  7. Just out of interest, why did you remove the Britain First comments?

    Steven Johnston

    March 9, 2018 at 1:50 pm

  8. Because this Blog has a no-platform for racists on this Blog policy.

    Racists have plenty of their own platforms already.

    Meanwhile in the world that matters:

    Andrew Coates

    March 9, 2018 at 5:06 pm

  9. The Labour party has never been racist?

    Steven Johnston

    March 9, 2018 at 11:44 pm

  10. Never mind removing bleedin’ blog posts. The only way to tackle racism is a root and branch clear out the the bleedin’ Labour Party.

    Alf Garnett

    March 10, 2018 at 2:54 am

  11. Louis Blanqui, the famous insurrectionist ? I didn’t know he was interested in what we now call Cosmology.

    but then, that’s something that interests me too, so I looked to see if there was a English translation (your link gives the French language post)

    There is one I haven’t had time to read it yet. but from a skim it is fascinating if totally wrong – but then it was written from the basis of scientific and astronomical knowledge of 1872. I guess anyone looking back at current work from 146 yes into our future will be amused at some of our speculations


    David Walsh

    March 10, 2018 at 12:30 pm

  12. He was perhaps an inspiration for Posadas!

    Andrew Coates

    March 10, 2018 at 1:27 pm

  13. Andrew Coates

    March 11, 2018 at 4:54 pm

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