Many radicals support the Labour Party because they think it is the party of the ‘working class’ and that, by supporting it, they are placing themselves on the side of the ‘people’. Definitional problems abound regarding the exact identity of the said ‘workers’. Definitions range from all those who have to sell their ‘labour’ power to those who labour at certain kinds of work, traditionally defined as those of a more manual nature (ones in factories and mines now being a small percentage of the workforce in countries such as the UK, though far more common in, say, China).
Yet social position does not convey, ipso facto, any special kind of merit. The links between working occupation and political consciousness are complex and contingent, with all sorts of other variables at work, such as personality, family history, individual life experiences, neighbourhood, regionality, educational attainment, gender, sexuality, age, race, religion and other value systems.
Not surprisingly, all big struggles in history have tended to run across, not along, social classifications of an economic nature. Brothers have often been on different sides of the ‘barricades’, as have parents and their offspring. Commonly, those leading the fight oppression and exploitation have come from outside the ranks of the oppressed and exploited, not least the famous four of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin was, if anything, actually more ‘proletarian’.
The leader of the famous ‘slave revolt on Haiti in the years of the French Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, had worked as a slave driver and seems to have had slaves himself on a plantation he rented. But that does not detract from his great achievements. As has been all too common, the revolt itself was marred by internal conflict, i that case between ‘blacks’ and ‘mulattos’.
The Labour Party was largely shaped by trade union bureaucrats seeking legislative changes in combination with radical intellectuals, key ones being from the less than revolutionary Fabian Society. Support from horny-handed toilers for Labour was often patchy (something well caught in Robert Tressell’s famous novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’). Much of its success came from postwar desires for a break from a status quo deemed to be responsible for pre-war mass unemployment and poverty. The ‘Establishment’ was also held responsible for wartime blundering.
Labour only adopted that name in 1906. It adopted the famous / infamous ‘Class 4’ on nationalisation in 1918. There is, however, nothing inherently desirable about state ownership per se. It has been used by very different kinds of regimes for different reasons and with different forms. Thus it was the Liberal government of 1869 nationalised the private telegraph companies to create the Post Office. Many ‘right-wing’ parties in Eastern Europe after 1945 supported land nationalisation, for example, while politicians as varied as Bismarck and Churchill supported state ownership of the railways.
Sidney Webb, the main author of ‘Clause 4’, was an enthusiastic backer of the Stalinist dictatorship. Later, he and his wife called it a ‘new civilisation’ (see also their ‘The Truth About Soviet Russia’). This nationalised economy in fact slaughtered directly or worked to death millions of working class people, by far its main victims. This catastrophic ‘breaking of eggs’ didn’t even produce a good omelette since the economy was grossly inefficient too.
Labour eventually ditched Clause 4 in 1995, though a previous leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had tried unsuccessfully to amend it in the early 60s. Current leader Jeremy Corbyn has long defended ‘Clause 4’, though, at present, he avoids the issue by saying that he simply wants more discussion.
But one thing is now clear. However defined, working class support for Labour is fast haemorrhaging.:
What needs to go, however, is politics that is or claims to be based on the support of this or that (real or mythical) class or any other ‘identity’ group. Instead, we desperately need to build a politics for the sustainable common good, uniting people whatever their identities or immediate circumstances.