Let’s Turn Labour Back to Industry

Labour’s election defeat reflected problems of messaging and strategy, but also a much deeper lack of organizational roots. Faced with a huge Tory majority, Labour MPs should use their platform to help rebuild our movement at its historic source — the workplace itself.

Southern Rail union members hand out flyers as they take part in a strike against their company's working practices on September 7, 2016 in London, England. (Carl Court / Getty Images)

As pundits pick over Labour’s election defeat, it seems at least some in the party have realized — far too late — what kind of people they were meant to stand up for. The collapse of the so-called red wall of postindustrial Labour strongholds across the north of England has brought this lack of representation into a sharp and terrible focus. Faced with the scale of this historic loss, there can be no question of winning these seats back with a simple change of leadership and a glossy rebrand.

These were Labour seats not only on identitarian grounds, but because they were once sites of class organization, built around workplaces where unions’ industrial strength showed workers the power of collective political action. As Aditya Chakrabortty recently wrote, the culture of Labourism was not only electoral, but nurtured by a huge infrastructure of assertive shop stewards, elected representatives in their own right who provided the organic link between the shop floor and corridors of power.

We have to recognize how much this culture has been undermined, not just in the 2019 election but over the course of decades. Even where unionized industries still exist today, such as in the shipyards of Barrow-in-Furness, many workers were convinced that they were despised by a distant and metropolitan Labour Party. When the Tory candidate wrote to each and every worker with the lie that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to decommission the yards, many of them believed it, despite receiving multiple letters to the contrary from their own trade union. “Even the union rep isn’t voting Labour” was a pattern repeated up and down the country.

Now that the Tories have essentially demolished Labour’s first line of defense — the cultural disgust felt at voting anyone but Labour — they are now explicitly taking aim at the final bastions of our collective strength. Indeed, the proposed ban on rail strikes is a direct attack on one of organized workers’ last effective points of strength today and is intended to have the same impact as Margaret Thatcher’s confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s. But this isn’t the only problem we face.

Missing Radicalism

Indeed, the difficulty in finding a political response is heightened by challenges internal to the industrial terrain itself — the loss of the sense of power and possibility that characterized the labor movement at its height in the 1970s.

We can see this even when it comes to discussions of job losses. Tragically, it is today almost taken for given that those still employed in defense industries like in Barrow (or even civil industries like nuclear power) would naturally reject the radicalism offered by the contemporary Labour Party.

Rather than feeling a direct sense of ownership over the workers’ party — the same Labour Party that was swept to power in 1945 by millions of industrial workers and demobilized soldiers — many of these workers feel despised and threatened by it. However, there is no reason why this has to be the case.

Indeed, there was a time when these workers far outstripped the parliamentary wing of their movement for radicalism. In the 1970s workers in industries connected to defense like Lucas Aerospace and Vickers (whose engineering arm is now part of BAE in Barrow) created detailed alternative plans for repurposing their own industries in the interests of peacetime production, with greater workers’ control and democracy.

Most of the industries that underwrote this world of labor are now long gone. Today, their political afterlife — the residual sense of class power, pride, or at least identity — is now finally over, too. And the dissipation of this class politics began long before 2019 or even the recent financial crisis. Where these industries haven’t been wiped out utterly, privatization and outsourcing have been used to fragment and frustrate workers’ ability to find a political voice through industrial organization.

This is a process that Boris Johnson’s government is sure to entrench, including through new anti-union laws building on those advanced by Thatcher and kept in place by Tony Blair. Indeed, where the will to organize does exist, this government will make every attempt to snuff it out for good.

We see this when we look at the unions resisting the politically motivated destruction of their industries, such as the RMT (rail workers) and CWU (postal staff). Where the CWU was recently subjected to a high court injunction, blocking strike action, the Tories have announced plans to force rail workers to cross their own picket lines and provide a “minimum service” under threat of sequestration of union funds. It is clear that Johnson’s party will do everything to drown the remaining islands of working-class power.

Using Our Platform

But what does this mean for what’s left of the Parliamentary Labour Party? Now enjoying a thumping majority, Boris Johnson’s Tories will run Britain how they wish, and there will be no meaningful way to block them in the House of Commons itself. Yes, select committees can and do provide necessary scrutiny; but we should drop any delusion that some clever amendment or thrilling performance in Prime Minister’s Questions will have any meaning outside a bubble of nerds transfixed by Westminster politics.

It is not enough, either, for MPs to adopt a more “working-class” attitude by emphasizing their regional accents in front of the camera or genuflecting in the direction of small-town conservatism. Rather, the task is to turn to the modern workplace and become agents for reviving the world of labor that we have lost. This has been done before, in worse circumstances, and must be done again. As the relaunched Tribune pointed out in its first issue last year: “it wouldn’t take long to explain a zero-hour contract to a day laborer working on the docks a century ago.”

Such an industrial turn does not mean losing focus on contesting and winning elections — quite the opposite. Rather, it is a question of winning back a base in society. For its part, the Tory Party has its main political constituency in big business and private property — granting it a built-in electoral advantage. The wholesale privatization of council housing stock has created a nation with millions of indebted homeowners, most of whom feel a powerful stake in — and in many cases depend upon — the stability and growth of asset prices within a market economy. Labour cannot defeat this with reflexive anti-capitalism alone. Rather, it must reestablish its own political base among an industrially and politically confident working class, as it works to make the long climb back up toward electoral triumph.

In seeking to overcome this situation, the industrial and electoral struggle for power should be codependent — and as a party of government, Labour must not only tax and spend but redistribute power to working-class people. This is why questions of democratic ownership in the economy are so important and why the last Labour government, for all the good it did for people, failed to leave behind it the foundations of the next.

In any case, the 2008 crisis has killed off working-class voters’ confidence in any program that promises only to buy them off with wealth redistributed from an over-financialized economy centered on the City of London. Not only did the last Labour government sow the seeds for the crisis we now face in our heartlands, but no one is willing to swallow the same promises again — even if it was possible to make them.

In this vein, Labour activists and MPs would do a great service by doubling down on the need for transformative economic policies that address the balance of power between public and corporate, between democratic control and control by private finance.

Yet the key, here, is precisely to enhance the sovereignty and agency of the working class — and not to explain why they are wrong or stupid for wishing to have their voice heard. In this sense, MPs from a trade-union and working-class background are best able to combine an unapologetic radicalism with an authentically working-class voice. Such is what Charlotte Nichols — one of the distressingly tiny new intake of Labour MPs — has done since the moment she was elected.

Rebuilt Power

If there is even the faintest glimmer of hope, it is that for many young people a new “world of labor” is emerging. The vague progressivism of the last decade — expressed in demonstrations, occupations, and discussions about the merits of green politics — have been replaced by the urgent realization that the cause of labor is the only hope for the world.

Young workers, clustered in urban centers, are facing a mounting cost-of-living crisis, set against the background of an apocalyptic climate emergency, and are turning to the Labour Party in their millions. They are beginning to develop a sense of ownership of the party that has nurtured their political coming of age over the last five years. A sense of ownership which, in some small way, mirrors the ownership that industrial workers in small-town trades clubs must once have felt.

Although the electoral map of Britain is now a dispiriting sea of blue, nearly all of Britain’s great cities, its productive centers, are firmly red. This is not nearly enough to overcome the challenges we face, but it does present an opportunity. The energy these young people have heroically invested in getting Labour MPs and councilors elected must now be directed toward the even more daunting task of getting workplace reps elected and recognized in their own places of employment, despite an economy legally and ideologically rigged against such activity.

Even if we are able to take these steps, the question of whether it is even possible to extend such an approach to the now Tory-voting towns of deindustrialized Britain remains. Does the current activist base of the party connect their support for Corbynism with the need for more industrial democracy? Do they even feel able to organize in their workplaces, rather than just in Constituency Labour Parties and Momentum meetings in their free time? Is the demand for a better world linked to a wish for the more democratic, politicized workplace that comes with a strong trade-union presence?

If these challenges seem daunting within our remaining metropolitan heartlands, this problem is magnified tenfold in the Amazon warehouses and call centers that now sprawl across the very areas where once mines were delved and steel was smelted.

Yet this battle does indeed need fighting. There is no hope of blocking the onslaught about to be unleashed by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in Parliament — and, as things stand, little chance of dislodging them at the next general election in five years’ time either. The tide must be turned at the point of production, at the place where capital meets labor, on the shop floor of every workplace in Britain.

Only when wage earners in every town across this country have a real and meaningful direct line between themselves and the highest offices of the Labour Party in Westminster can we begin to build a new red wall — one that will stand for a hundred years to come.