Keep the link - why the working class matters to Labour
THE CURRENT DEMOCRACY Review in the Labour Party is now approaching its final consultation phase. This phase includes the relationship within the party of the affiliated trade unions.
The trade unions’ role in decision- and policy-making in the party does not fit within a one member one vote (OMOV) model. The unions have their own democratic structures through which they input collectively to the party. This federal structure (affiliates and individual members) is currently reflected at national, regional and local level. The development of more trade union links at local and regional level would extend the democracy of the party into working class communities and politically empower them. Labour’s link with the affiliated trade unions keeps it grounded in the struggles against inequality and injustice in workplaces and in society.
The neo-liberal economic consensus of the last four decades has been accompanied by a hegemonic belief in the power of individualism. Now, as that consensus is breaking, we need a labour movement collectivism renewed for the 21st century. Capitalist production across the globe is becoming more and more interdependent and the industrial working class is now a higher percentage of the world’s population than ever before. Yet some left commentators, notably Paul Mason, have argued that the working class is living through “a moment of sublation” with “networked individuals” being the new agents of change rather than the traditional proletariat.
The belief that the digital revolution has changed the nature and centrality of work as the defining activity of capitalism, with the corollary that there is a knowledge-based route out of capitalist exploitation, is a myth that needs challenging. The economic development of the fourth industrial revolution is, of course, changing aspects of the nature of class relations and our idea of collectivism, as all previous industrial revolutions have. But class solidarity is needed more than ever, and that solidarity is still focused on the exploitation, and resistance to that exploitation, at the workplace.
Changes in technology, and the new forms of work that result, have actually sharpened aspects of the class struggle, for example with the proletarianisation of the professions. All of us who sell our labour are working longer and harder for less.
There is greater stress and insecurity at work both among the new ‘precariat’ and in more conventional sectors of the economy. The development of the digital economy and the use of digital platforms have added to work intensification and have massively increased productivity pressures. The so-called ‘crisis’ in skill, autonomy and status that the expansion of the service sectors of the economy and new work processes bring is actually a remaking of the working class, not its end.
The experience of workers in the McDonald’s and Picturehouse disputes show that service sector workers can fight back on central issues of pay and terms and conditions. What we need is political trade unionism that can deliver in 2018 in the new expanding areas of the economy. The trade union movement has to show to young workers that it pays to be organised and fight back industrially, and the Labour Party has to show that it recognises the importance of organised labour for social and economic change.
In the Democracy Review therefore, we must maintain the trade unions’ collective involvement in the party, and the principles of delegate democracy and accountability. At annual conference, and at regional and equality conferences, the party’s federal nature should be retained. Collective trade union affiliation to local CLPs should be renewed and reinvigorated, retaining the right to send delegates, motions and nominations. Local trade unionists should be encouraged to be involved in the governance of local parties, including local campaigning forums. We must also defend the right for affiliates to nominate candidates for local government, Parliament and other bodies. At the national level of party governance we should improve the trade union representation on the NEC and other national bodies. It is on this basis - the central importance of the political representation of the organised working class for socialism - that we should base any future changes in the structures of the Labour Party.