Mass labour parties in the English-speaking world


Their organisational and structural relationship to the trade unions and the working class in the context of the debate about the early Comintern and the united front

Bob Gould

In a recent post Richard Fidler agrees with Nick Fredman, saying: “well put”.

This really is the central point of this very interesting discussion on labour parties. While the ALP is “bourgeois”, the revolutionary left must adopt a united front stance toward it, engage its militants in debate as well as common activity where possible. This we would not think of doing in regard to a “classic” bourgeois party such as the Liberals (Australia) or National Party (New Zealand). That is because the ALP is a bourgeois party of a peculiar type: it operates specifically within the workers movement (as well as in Parliament), through its special links with the trade unions and the broader labour movement. Our overriding objective in all of this is to build the Marxist current, just as in the unions we work to build the class-struggle current.

Richard Fidler, in this paragraph, manages to express a number of complex issues easily and clearly. I agree with his formulation of the question in this classical framework. It is useful when attempting to use this classical framework in current strategic discussions to actually do a concrete overview of the labour party organisations in the English-speaking world, as they exist now.

What follows is my description of the organisational aspect of this current reality. My broad analysis of the sociology of these organisations is still brewing in the teapot and will be ready soon.

This week’s events in Britain have demonstrated that the rather substantial shift to the left in trade union elections has almost immediately led to a shift to the left in the British Labour Party. This was expressed in the unusual circumstance historically that a large part of the union bloc vote, which for the most of the British Labour Party’s history has been the bastion of the right, was a left-wing force at this conference, defeating Blair in a careful way over privatisation and delivering about half the trade union bloc vote to a resolution opposing the immediate plans for war in Iraq by British and US imperialism.

When considering the immediate relationship of forces and the set-up in trade-union-based labour parties, it’s convenient to break them into three groups: England and Wales together, Scotland and Ireland together, Australia, New Zealand and Canada separately. My information about Canada is very sketchy so I will not comment on it, hoping that someone like Richard Fidler who knows more about the Canadian set-up, will contribute a description of the Canadian labour party, the New Democratic Party.

Phil Ferguson’s and Juriaan Bendien’s description of the current state of the New Zealand Labour Party is probably reasonably accurate. The reactionary laboratory for right-wing policies made of New Zealand by the Roger Douglas right-wing Labour government produced a massive split in the Labour Party in which almost all the active members left to form the New Labour Party, and then the Alliance, and most unions disaffiliated, which coincided with a dramatic drop in trade union density and power under the new, reactionary labour laws.

A new electoral system with a proportional representation element, MMP, gave scope for new political formations on the left to blossom electorally, and the Alliance at its height got more than 10 seats and the Greens also got a large vote and a significant number of seats.

At the organisational level, the New Zealand Labour Party is clearly the conservative, middle-class rump that Bendien and Ferguson describe, with few members and no left at all. Nevertheless, in the recent elections the New Zealand Labour Party recaptured the traditional Labour vote almost to the old levels, at 41 per cent, and the Alliance and the Greens got between them about 10 per cent.

Phil Ferguson’s sociology of the Labour vote, implying that it had essentially a non-working-class character is open to serious dispute. It’s quite clear that the Labour vote was much higher in the Maori seats and in the urban seats where Maoris, Pacific Islanders and the industrial working class live, etc. It appears from the distance of Australia that the Greens tended to get their votes more from tertiary educated new social layer people, and the Alliance vote had a similar character.

On the other extreme, the Nationals and other conservative parties got their vote mainly in rural areas, or more wealthy urban areas. Phil Ferguson can flood out as much squid-like ink as he likes about the sociology of the Labour Party in New Zealand. He’s generally right about the sociology of the Labour Party there, but the sociology of the Labour vote is a different story.

If he continues to assert that the Labour vote doesn’t have a generally working class, Maori, Island and oppressed character, I challenge him to do the kind of limited, empirical explanation that I’ve done for NSW, attempting to correlate the pattern of the vote in the last election with available New Zealand statistical office information about income, occupation, ethnicity and even religion in each electorate. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do that, at least in an approximate way, and it’s only possible to make sweeping statements about the class character of voting patterns if you do that kind of exercise.

Scotland and Ireland

Scotland and Ireland are both a bit different to England and Wales. The electoral systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish republic all have a powerful proportional representation element. In fact, in the Irish republic and in the Regional Assembly in Northern Ireland, there is only proportional representation.

In the Irish republic, the Labour Party is historically a weak formation electorally although it has considerable involvement with the trade unions, and there is also a strong republican tradition. The main bourgeois republican party, Fianna Fail, competes with Labour for an electorate with a similar class composition, and there’s also a certain tradition of Sinn Fein and Stalinist Workers’ Party candidates doing well in elections.

The electoral system provides for multiple TDs from electorates. So a Labour candidate or even a Sinn Fein or left candidate has some chance of election. This is the electoral and social context in which the Militant group, through diligent mass work, has elected a TD in Dublin.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is an almost total electoral obstacle to any socialists who run against it independently, and it gets about 20 per cent of the vote, while the slightly more conservative SDLP gets about 20 per cent — the other half of the Catholic nationalist vote in the province.

Scotland is a different situation again, with some features in common with Ireland, but some differences. It has a very old independent socialist electoral tradition. The red Clydeside for many years was represented by Independent Labour Party (ILP) members in the British parliament, sometimes in the British Labour Party and sometimes outside it, and one of the only two Communist members of parliament in Britain, Willie Gallagher, was re-elected several times in the mining district of Fife.

When devolution took place recently in Scotland, the new Scottish assembly was constituted on the basis of proportional representation, and the aggressive and effective agitation of the Scottish Socialist Party, led by the charismatic Tommy Sheridan, was located in an old Scottish electoral tradition and facilitated by the proportional representation arrangements in the new assembly.

It’s worth saying of the situation in Scotland that electorally it is the most radical part of the UK. No Tories were elected in the national election in which Blair came to power, and in the last British election only one Tory was elected. Despite the breakaway of the Scottish Socialist Party from Labour and its relatively rapid growth in the electorate, Labour is still very strong in Scotland and several Labour MPs in the British parliament are solidly on the left of British politics, particularly George Galloway and Tom Dalyell, who are in the forefront of the battle against the Blair-Bush war drive.

Despite the necessity of competing with the Labourites electorally, the Scottish Socialist Party would be wise to conduct a united front strategy towards the Labourites in the way that the old ILP in Scotland sometimes, although not always, did.

England and Wales

In England and Wales there was a period of leftist upsurge in the BLP in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was followed by Labour electoral defeats that produced the long-lived reactionary Thatcher Tory government.

From the late 1980s onward there was a dramatic shift to the right, culminating in Blair’s coup and the right-wing policies the Blair government in the 1990s took over wholesale from the Thatcher government. These policies were not resisted by the trade union leaderships, and there was a mass exodus of leftists from the British Labour Party.

Blair’s Bonapartist style and political methods recruited masses of conservative, middle-class members to a Labour Party with a lower standard of membership than in the past. The constituency parties, which had been mainly on the left for the previous 30 or 40 years (although not always — they weren’t in the immediate postwar years) shifted back to the right, to the point that at this week’s British Labour Party conference only 30 per cent of delegates from the constituency parties voted for the left motions.

The long years of privatisation and attacks on working-class interests, however, have produced their first expression in a dramatic swing to the left in British trade unions, and the emergence of the so-called Awkward Squad in recent years has been a bit of an earthquake in British politics.

In particular, the defeat of Sir Kenneth Jackson in the Amalgamated Engineers and Electricians Union (which has a leftist tradition that had been obliterated in the last 40 years of right-wing leadership, but has now come back with a vengeance). The union bloc vote, although reduced and modified by Blair, still exists, and it is still the biggest voting force in the British Labour Party structure.

In these conditions, despite the propaganda of some leftists in favour of the unions pulling out of the Labour Party, there is a stronger gravitational pull on the unions in their new, leftist mood to exert their political power in the traditional way through the Labour Party. The critical votes at the current Labour Party conference are a bit of a defining moment in this process.

The British Labour left is now clearly back in the political field, backed — as it was to some extent in the early 1980s — by the massive power of the big unions and their votes at Labour Party conferences.

While it’s always problematic how far even leftist trade union bureaucracies will go in colliding with Labour governments, nevertheless the conditions exist for a political and social collision of a very substantial sort.

It will be very difficult to prevent the rapid rise of a new left in the British Labour Party in current conditions, despite the temporary dominance of Blairite go-getters in two-thirds of the constituency parties. Marxists and socialist of various stripes, including some former Labour Party members, have made a creditable effort to construct an independent electoral formation, the Socialist Alliance, but it has been quite unsuccessful electorally and it is only likely to go down in the future, not up.

No doubt the people and groups in it will persist for a while in this independent electoral activity, and good luck to them, but even for those who choose to conduct their electoral activities outside the Labour Party, it’s important to point out that the militants in the Socialist Alliance ought to conduct a serious united front tactic towards the left in the British Labour Party, which will now re-emerge as a significant political force.

This is made particularly concrete by the mass movement emerging in Britain against Blair’s war. The massive opposition at the TUC and Labour Party conferences is clearly a major obstacle to Blair and the presence of many leftist Labour trade union leaders and 50 or 60 Labour politicians as major figures in the antiwar agitation makes such a united front vital if the war plans of British imperialism are to be defeated.

Lenin in 1920

The documents of the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 are an extraordinary goldmine of material on labour parties in the English-speaking countries. Following is an extract from one of Lenin speeches to the congress, on July 23, which is available at The full speech should be read to put this extract in context.

“I will now deal with some of Comrade McLaine’s arguments concerning the question of the British Labour Party. We must say frankly that the Party of Communists can join the Labour Party only on condition that it preserves full freedom of criticism and is able to conduct its own policy. This is of supreme importance. When, in this connection Comrade Serrati speaks of class collaboration, I affirm that this will not be class collaboration. When the Italian comrades tolerate, in their party, opportunists like Turati and Co, ie, bourgeois elements, that is indeed class collaboration. In this instance, however, with regard to the British Labour Party, it is simply a matter of collaboration between the advanced minority of the British workers and their vast majority.

Members of the Labour Party are all members of trade unions. It has a very unusual structure, to be found in no other country. It is an organisation that embraces four million workers out of the six or seven million organised in trade unions. They are not asked to state what their political opinions are. Let Comrade Serrati prove to me that anyone there will prevent us from exercising our right of criticism. Only by proving that, will you prove Comrade McLaine wrong.

The British Socialist Party can quite freely call Henderson a traitor and yet remain in the Labour Party. Here we have collaboration between the vanguard of the working class and the rearguard, the backward workers. This collaboration is so important to the entire movement that we categorically insist on the British Communists serving as a link between the party, that is, the minority of the working class, and the rest of the workers. If the minority is unable to lead the masses and establish close links with them, then it is not a party, and is worthless in general, even if it calls itself a party or the National Shop Stewards’ Committee.”

The important thing is that the basic structural features that Lenin describes here, and considers of great importance when considering tactics, are still the structural features of the British Labour Party today.


The structure of the Australian Labor Party and the internal set-up in it are different again from Britain, Ireland or Scotland.

Australia is a federation of six states and two territories. It has the only compulsory voting system in the English-speaking world, combined with a continuous program by the Australian Electoral Office to enrol all citizens by regular visits to all known residential addresses, which electoral structure generally ensures a 95 per cent vote in elections.

Practically, state and territory government are as important as the federal government because of the great distances between states and capital cities. The state electoral systems combine individual electorates in the lower house with preferential voting, with a proportional representation voting system in most state upper houses.

In the federal arena there is a lower house of individual electorates and preferential voting, and a senate elected on a state basis, with a proportional representation voting system for each state.

The Australian Labor Party structure reflects Australia geographically, with elements that are quite favourable from a socialist point of view. The long years of the right-wing Labor government produced a demobilisation of the Labor Party rather than a mass exodus of the left. The majority of individual Labor Party members are still loosely on the left, although extremely quiescent after many years of misleadership by the opportunist leaders of the ALP left.

The structure of the Labor Party is still favourable to progressive interests. After a series of complex factional struggles 30 years ago, the structures in each state and the federal structure, were established as 60 per cent unions, 40 per cent branches combined with an entrenched internal ALP electoral system of proportional representation between party factions in inner-party elections. This structure is very advantageous to political agitation that has any kind of trade union base, and if there is some kind of upsurge in society.

The Blairisation of the Labor Party structurally has so far not taken place. Only now is there a serious move to even marginally weaken trade union structural influence in the ALP, although there is constant pressure from the ruling class to drive unions out of the party.

The federal ALP rules revision conference this weekend in Canberra will bring a powerful move by the parliamentary leadership, supported by a bloc of the most opportunist section of the left and some of the right to reduce trade union influence from 60 per cent to 50 per cent. This move will be strenuously opposed by an opposing bloc of right and left unions defending the existing 60 per cent trade union influence. The outcome is by no means certain, but even if parliamentary leader Simon Crean and left parliamentarians Anthony Albanese and Kim Carr succeed in reducing the union influence from 60 to 50 per cent, this is still very far from the complete removal of trade union influence advocated by the Australian bourgeoisie.

Labor for Refugees

The spearhead for the revival of a serious left in the ALP has been the rapid emergence of a vocal and energetic Labor for Refugees movement in all states, with thousands of supporters. (I have been involved in this movement since its inception last December.)

It has been able to pass motions through five state and territory ALP conferences demanding the end of mandatory detention of refugees. A striking feature of this movement has been its cross-factional character, straddling the traditional left and right factional structures in the ALP. In each state there has been substantial participation by the lower ranks of many trade unions, right and left, with the tacit support of many major leaders of these unions.

The push to have the refugee policy discussed at the rules conference has been given vigorous support by John Robertson, the new secretary of the Labor Council of NSW, (who is emerging as a figure a bit like Sweeney in the US AFL-CIO). The leadership of the Labor Council, the peak trade union body in the state, is traditionally part of the right-wing machine in the ALP. The paradoxical situation in NSW is that on both the question of refugees and the 60:40 structural question, the new Labor Council leadership — the body with most clout in the traditional right faction — is to the left of the leadership of the left faction, which is a rather confusing situation.

The ALP and Bush’s war

Crean and the federal ALP leadership have equivocated on the war plans of Bush, Blair and Howard. They say they oppose any war without UN approval, and they say they will reconsider if there is UN approval.

A number of Labor MPs and a number of unions have asserted their opposition to this war in any circumstances, and a number of these unionists and Labor MPs have lent their support to the mobilising coalition against the war.

In particular, Meredith Burgman, the president of the Upper House in NSW, a fairly forthright member of the left faction, has been very vocal in opposition to the war, and has stepped forward as one of the main figures willing to participate in organising the necessary broad coalition against the war.

It follows from the above summary outline of the structural features of Laborism in Australia and the current situation, that a strategic united front towards all the forces in the ALP, both trade union and parliamentary, willing to take a stand on the important matters of refugees and the impending imperialist war, is just basic common sense from a Marxist point of view.

On Scots and Welsh Labour

October 9, 2002

DOC really knows how to hurt me. He challenges me on two counts — by far the worst in my book, being that my account is Anglo-centric. Secondly, he challenges me for being factually incorrect. Both those charges hurt me greatly, particularly as, on reflection, I have to partly plead guilty.

Firstly, on the factual incorrectness, I would plead that my guilt is only partial. I have always understood that the electoral system in the Irish Republic, and now in the Northern Ireland Assembly, had a significant proportional representation aspect, in the sense that in multi-member constituencies the optional transfer of surplus votes to other parties had much the same effect as a straight-out PR ballot. But the way DOC explains it, this may not be the exact case.

In these sorts of questions, there is no substitute for accuracy and detail, and I’d really appreciate it if DOC would explain exactly how the electoral system works in the Irish Republic and the six counties, and compare them, if possible, with a straight PR system. That would be very useful to me and I would incorporate it in further analysis, which I will try to make more specific. I also have an underlying feeling that it might be useful to others in this discussion, some of whom seem to me to not take differences in electoral systems — and electoral systems themselves — with the seriousness that they warrant.

On the more serious charge that there was an Anglo-centric aspect to my analysis of England and Wales, I have to very reluctantly plead guilty. On consideration, grouping England and Wales together is quite wrong. Clearly, it’s necessary to group Wales with Scotland and Ireland, because of both the current nature of the political set-up in the devolved Welsh assembly and because of the historic national question in the United Kingdom (so-called).

The validity of the charge of Anglo-centrism particularly hurts me because I ‘ve had a long association with support for republicanism in Ireland and I’ve been involved in agitation on the question as far back as Bloody Sunday in the early 1970s.

In 1981 a small but energetic socialist group of which I was one of the leaders managed to combine with our activities in the Australian labour movement in unions, the ALP, etc, an energetic agitation in support of the Maze Prison hunger strikers, at the height of which we organised a three-week, 24-hour continuous picket of the British high commission at Sydney’s Circular Quay. This event involved many Irish migrants to Australia and a number of labour movement activists.

That year we also conducted a rather fierce agitation at the June conference of the NSW ALP in solidarity with the struggle in Northern Ireland, which much embarrassed the Catholic right in the NSW ALP, many of whose members privately indicated agreement with us but publicly resisted our battle to get the conference to call for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. For all those reason a valid complaint against an Anglo-centric aspect of my analysis hurts me deeply and I will correct it forthwith.

Examining how I arrived at this Anglo-centric deviation is a bit educational for me, personally. I have always previously, probably through a lack of sufficient attention to detail, tended to place Plaid Cymrhu in the same bag as the Scottish National Party, as an essentially non-socialist grouping. You and Ed George present me, rather forcefully — and Ed George in a way that I think is generally useful, supplementing his analysis with real statistical evidence — with further evidence about Plaid Cymrhu’s significant socialist aspect, of which I wasn’t previously aware. I’m always willing to learn in these matters. I’d like you and Ed George to improve my education about Plaid Cymrhu.

A bit like Alan Thornett, as quoted by Ed George, I didn’t take sufficiently seriously the aspect of Plaid Cymrhu emerging as a kind of socialist alternative to Labour, which is why I quite mistakenly proceeded as I did.

I don’t withdraw any of the general thrust of my analysis in regard to Australia, England, Scotland or Ireland, however, except to say you misunderstood my point about Sinn Fein being an obstacle to small socialist groups in Northern Ireland. In my world there is no doubt that Sinn Fein is a mass, reformist, socialist, nationalist grouping and if I was indigenous to Northern Ireland there would be no question that I would operate as a Marxist in Sinn Fein.

I have absolutely no problem with the necessary military aspect of the nationalist and socialist struggle from time to time in Ireland. I’m in total solidarity with Sinn Fein against the current machinations of the British state. I’m sure the Sinn Fein comrades who’ve been lifted are not guilty, and anyway if some republicans were gathering intelligence in the British state apparatus I’d regard that as an entirely legitimate activity, although I’m sure the specific changes being made now are a British state frame-up.

If I was indigenous to Northern Ireland I’d argue that small socialist groups like People’s Democracy and the IRSP should join Sinn Fein. If I was in Sinn Fein, I would argue for a tactical united front strategy towards the SDLP. I would work as hard as possible to increase the SF vote and minimised the SDLP vote, and if — as you assert in slightly colourful way — there will be a holocaust of the SDLP vote to Sinn Fein in the coming Stormont elections, I would regard that as an entirely good thing. Nevertheless I would still argue for a tactical united front of the republican, nationalist, proletarian community in Northern Ireland.

In the Irish Republic, it seems to me the tactical problems for socialists are a bit more complex. Sinn Fein, while it has a strong basis in the always present and extremely durable republican tradition, is only one grouping among the four that I consider significant.

The Irish Labour Party, while dominated by a reactionary bureaucracy, still has significant links with the working class and trade unions. Sinn Fein is also an important nationalist and socialist organisation with some base in the working class and some support in rural areas. The Socialist Party is also important, with one TD, and despite its treacherous, Stalinist aspect, the Workers Party is also significant (personally, I wouldn’t touch the Workers Party with a bargepole, but it can’t be ignored).

Whichever group I decided to work in, if I was indigenous in the Irish Republic, I would still call for a tactical united front of all those four currents. That’s how I see class politics in Ireland.

Concerning Sinn Fein, if I was in it, I would campaign in a non-sectarian way as a Marxist. One of the political problems in any Catholic country, such as Ireland, where religious belief has a real grip on the masses, is the tactical task presented to serious Marxists by this sociological, cultural and religious fact.

I have always regarded James Connolly’s pedagogic approach to this question as an excellent guide. In his 1910 pamphlet Labour, Nationality and Religion, a discussion of the Lenten Discourses against Socialism delivered by the Jesuit priest, Father Kane. Connolly, despite his private religious scepticism, addressed the question publicly and pedagogically as a Catholic trying to reconcile the tenets of the church with his basic socialist and Marxist convictions. This very effective polemic has always seemed to me an admirable way to address the religious question.

I don’t regard the strong presence of Catholic cultural influences in Sinn Fein as any reason for not participating in it and the republican movement.

But there are obviously some serious sticking points for a modern secular Marxist like myself, of Irish Catholic background who still has some cultural identity with the Catholic community.

In Sinn Fein I would try hard to carve out space for the defence of divorce, abortion rights, etc, even though they conflict with the tenets of the Catholic church. The degree to which I’d raise those questions would be a tactical decision within Sinn Fein, but nevertheless I’d fight for the space to raise those demands in Sinn Fein and in the country at large, particularly in the current context, in which the younger section of the population is in wholesale revolt against neanderthal practices and beliefs in relation to divorce and abortion.

I understand that these questions are complex and visceral in a country like Ireland and I would not raise them in a stupid, propagandistic way, but nevertheless they are inevitably present both in workers’ organisations and in society at large and Marxists in and out of Sinn Fein ought to be on the side of the secular, modern angels on these questions. Of course, my pontifications about these religious and cultural matters obviously suffer from my distance from Ireland and I’m quite open to any corrections of emphasis on these matters that comrades who have to operate in the cultural environment in Ireland might want to make. Such a discussion might be educational for all of us on this list, which is a way of having serious internationalist discussions without too much Cominternist pomposity.

It ought to be possible to express opinions on many matters from a geographical distance without too much self-important over-confidence that one can always get it totally right. That’s a function of internationalist discussion.

One final, reasonably important theoretical point: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all still present major aspects where a focus on the role of British imperialism has major importance, but it seems to me that factor has diminished in the Irish republic. While the republic suffered mightily over the past 500 years from British imperialism, it now has the major characteristics of a rather internationalised and Europeanised modern capitalist state and the tasks now are the more or less normal working-class and socialist agitation in a modern capitalist state.

Again, this is a theoretical approximation tossed in from another country some distance away for the purpose of discussion between comrades in different countries and situations.

I’m grateful to comrades Ed and DOC for correcting me in relation to Wales and I tremble in fear that we may have opened up a new line of serious discussion on Marxmail that may drive our genial sorcerer, Louis, and my patient editorial mate, Steve, slowly round the bend.

A response on Ireland

October 9, 2002

In response to DOC, thanks for the comment and the clarification about the electoral system in Ireland. The system you describe is, broadly speaking, one of the two systems that we describe as proportional representation in Australia.

The element that is common between the Irish system and the Australian PR systems is the when striking a quota it is the number to be elected plus one, with eliminations from the lowest number of votes up, including the surpluses from elected candidates in the same way, with the persons elected being either the last ones standing or the last standing with a majority.

That’s one of the systems understood in Australia to be proportional representation. It’s the system that prevails in the Australian Senate, and in the NSW, WA and SA upper houses. There are some variations. WA is divided into regions, in NSW the vote is all-in for the whole state, but both systems are regarded as PR.

Tasmania also uses a PR system called Hare Clark. It’s extremely complicated and I won’t even try to explain it, but take my word, it’s also a PR system. I wasn’t as guilty as you initially persuaded me I was in relation to the electoral systems. The difference is one of semantics.

Discussion, Discussion, Discussion, Discussion, Discussion, Discussion



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