The Purpose of Labour

Credit: May Day Badge Appeal

As another of its leaders leaves the stage of Irish history, the Labour Party faces another period of deep introspection. The shock leadership change a few weeks ago has focused minds not only on the next leader, but on the party’s purpose, identity, and future. In a changed political arena, what direction should Labour go to regain its lost strength?

In the wake of this, newspaper columnists have given their thoughts on the current crisis facing Labour. Fergus Finlay and others rightly have rightly described this crisis as ‘existential’. Others have pointed to the stagnation in polling and the crowded nature of left-wing politics today. We have been reminded of Frank Cluskey’s quip that saving the world would be easier than saving Labour. The unavoidable reality is that Labour faces a monumental identity crisis. The question must be asked, what is the Labour Party for?

Ambiguity and Platitudes

Those who have been influential party members for decades generally describe Labour’s purpose as ‘egalitarianism’, ‘fairness’, or ‘equality’. More histrionically, they might also describe it as ‘putting the country first’ or ‘doing what’s right, not what’s popular’ — in reference either to championing liberalism during conservative times or implementing austerity in the face of protest, implicitly equating the two. Overall, this cohort sees the party as the embodiment of all the social progress Ireland has seen in the last few decades.

To the party’s detractors on the left, Labour’s purpose is simply to manage capitalism in a more ethical manner but ultimately keeping entrenched power in place. Its role is as the acceptable face of the centre-left, the liberal wing of the Irish Establishment. With its shift from emphasising economic issues to socially liberal ones, Labour gives Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil governments a thin progressive sheen while it implements anti-worker policies. To this group, the ‘progress’ Labour talks about just doesn’t cut it.

Both views are equally prevalent, but both are equally wrong. While they seem like polar opposites, the root cause of both is the same: Labour’s purpose is obscured. With the abandonment of explicit socialist language during the ‘Third Way’ era of the 1990s, many parties substituted terms like ‘public ownership’ or ‘industrial democracy’ for vague words such as ‘justice’, ‘fairness’, or ‘equality’.

The problem with these platitudes is not that they are wrong — it’s that no self-respecting person or party would ever consciously reject them. Labour may retort by saying “ah but they don’t really believe in them, we do!” But once we get into that territory, we’re forced to consider what these words specifically mean for Labour. Which brings us back to our ultimate question: what is Labour’s purpose?

Labour vs Capital

The need for a labour party was originally born out of the realities of our economic system. Under capitalism, a small number of private individuals own society’s productive wealth — capital — which happens to be produced by those who perform productive work — labour. Although labour creates capital, workers don’t own or control it, and the enterprises they work for are governed without their voices being heard. On top of this, the owner class — capitalists — have vast resources of influence not only over the economy but over politics and society generally. In this way, private tyrannies exist at the heart of all liberal democracies in the form of corporations.

It was this that created the trade union movement so that workers could have a stronger collective voice. It forced strike action for better conditions and welfare. And it eventually led the trade union movement to establish labour parties that would represent the needs of workers in parliament. Because if the labour movement was to achieve its aims, it needed to have its hands on the levers of state power. In Britain, this began with Keir Hardie and the Labour Representation Committee, leading to the Labour Party of today; in Ireland, the Irish Trades Union Congress established our Labour Party in 1912 with James Connolly as its first leader.

In stupidly simple terms, the purpose of any ‘labour party’ is to be a party of organised labour, a party of the working class. The Irish translation of the party’s title describes it slightly better — Páirtí an Lucht Oibre, the ‘party of working people’. Workers need a party of their own for the simple reason that their needs are different to those of owners, whose interests are already served by the established parties.

In 1918, the British Labour Party conference adopted its original Clause IV outlining the party’s aims:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

The very same year, the Irish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party (then a single organisation) adopted these aims at its national conference:

“To win for the workers of Ireland, collectively, the ownership and control of the whole produce of their labour…

To secure the democratic management and control of all industries and services by the whole body of workers, manual and mental, engaged therein…

To obtain for all adults … irrespective of sex, race or religious belief, equality of political and social rights and opportunities…

To promote the organization of the working class industrially, socially, and politically, e.g.: in Trade Unions, in Co-operative Societies (both of producers and consumers) and in a Political Labour Party.”

Labour Today

In a post-industrial economy, with fewer blue-collar manufacturing workers and more service industry employees, it might be questioned how relevant this old-style socialist language is in 2022. But it’s not the type of work the worker carries out that matters, much less the colour of their clothes — what matters is the fact that they are a worker. The recent treatment of workers in Debenhams and P&O Ferries show us that as much as capitalism has changed since the time Labour was founded, the foundational elements have not.

The basic relationship between employer and employee remains. The employee’s precarious position remains. The immense power of the employer in the workplace and wider society remains. If anything, things have deteriorated on these fronts. Trade union membership has collapsed and as a result, job security has become rarer. Real wages have stagnated across the West and the welfare state has retreated. When coupled with the ongoing crises in housing and the cost of living, the reality of our situation becomes clear — a party of organised labour is as desperately needed now as it was 100 years ago.

Such a party would be based around a specific kind of platform. It would include state-provided universal basic services — healthcare, housing, education, childcare, transport — available to all. It should also mean policies which expand democracy in the workplace and economy. These include collective bargaining rights for trade unions and ending the employer veto that currently exists in Irish law, as well as worker co-determination and facilitating worker co-operative development.

Labour and Liberalism

In analysis of Labour’s current predicament, more than a few journalists have highlighted a supposed division in the party between ‘traditional’ trade unionists on the one hand and ‘urban liberals’ on the other. A crude outline of the story goes like this: Labour’s focus shifted from prioritising unions and workers’ rights to the ‘liberal agenda’ as the relevance of socialism declined. The party chose to focus on law reform and the role of the church in society as less attention was paid to advancing the cause of the worker. It’s also been suggested that since the old working class base has left Labour for others, liberalism holds the keys to recovery.

This view is inaccurate for many reasons. One is that many of the liberal policies the party adopted and implemented had a class dimension to them (and still do). Another is that those within the ‘traditional’ union wing of the party are just as strongly in favour of liberalising social policies as those in the ‘liberal’ wing. Today all parts of Labour are unambiguously committed to advancing women’s rights, minority rights, LGBTQ+ rights, disability rights, and eradicating social disadvantage generally.

However, there is a hidden truth within this view. While the party is united in its support for social liberalisation, there is a faction for whom this is the height of its ambition. What this misses is a grounded understanding of how our economic system works. As civil rights campaigners from Martin Luther King Jr on have argued, the system as it works today can accommodate equal legal rights for set groups, but it cannot accommodate the demands of the labour movement. Such an accommodation, the full empowerment of workers, would mean the end of capitalism.

The other problem with setting social liberalism as the cornerstone of Labour’s identity is that increasingly today, this does not distinguish Labour in any meaningful way from others. Perhaps it did in years gone by, but as Labour is eager to remind people, Ireland has changed. While work on changing social attitudes is still needed, it’s no longer enough to make this aspect of Labour’s platform the party’s unique selling point.

None of this should be taken as implying that Labour should withdraw from fighting on social justice issues such as the gender pay gap, trans rights, or disability rights. Rather, as most reasonable people understand, fighting for full equality in these areas should force us to tackle the underlying root of these problems: capitalism, domination, disadvantage. What Labour should abandon is its legal-liberal attitude which tells it that all of these problems can be solved through law reform and sensible legislation; they won’t. Not every social problem is the result of a defective law.

An example of this was in Labour’s last manifesto. In it, the party committed to:

“require businesses and public agencies with 50 or more employees to publish their gender pay gap in their annual reports, as well as the remuneration of top executives and the gender breakdown of company directors.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this idea; it’s undoubtedly necessary. The problem is that this was the extent of the party’s corporate governance proposals. Why not require all businesses with more than a certain number of employees to reserve a portion of their boards for worker representatives? After all, if the structures of an enterprise are exploitative of workers and don’t give them a voice, what difference does it make if the director is a woman?

Labour’s Future

A feeling among some Labour members in the midst of this crisis is that the party’s recovery may not be secured until Sinn Féin gets into government. Since much of Labour’s traditional base is with that party, the only way it will return is if a SF government turns out to be far less transformative than is promised. But in that event, this working class base will not automatically return to Labour — it will go to whichever party is articulating their needs most strongly. And the only way Labour will benefit from this is by reorienting itself to its traditional purpose as the party of workers.

Most Labour people understand the danger of a left party decaying into nothing more than a socialist debating society; the older among them have seen this happen to other parties time and again. But in reality, this isn’t the danger for Labour. The real danger is that the party becomes a kind of liberal think tank, issuing respectable, measured policy documents for whichever Dublin barrister or academic happens to find it interesting. No doubt such an organisation would be very nice, but transform Ireland for the better it would not.

In order for Labour to recapture the imagination of the public, it has to become much more radical in its ambitions for the country. It shouldn’t simply be about law reform or extending legal rights. It should be about transforming our economy and society in a more democratic, worker-focused way. It has to recapture its original purpose — to stand as the undisputed parliamentary voice of working people and to free them from exploitation once and for all.

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Seán Rainford

Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.