2007 - 2021

Labour’s Organic Crisis

Scottish Labour Party leader named

The resignation of Johann Lamont from Scottish Labour leadership raises plenty of important questions about the state of the Labour party. Since some of the most important have yet to be properly scrutinised, it might be worth addressing one point before we move on to this article’s main subject.

It is simply unacceptable that the Labour party, the supposed parliamentary wing of the Trade Union movement, can have its leader deposed in this way – out of nowhere, without any democratic procedure or process. Lamont’s resignation was apparently prompted by the ouster of Scottish general secretary Ian Price, himself dispatched by a ‘chat’ in London HQ.

And yet this is the individual whom the Labour party thought best placed to lead the nation just a few days ago. Forget for a moment the disrespect toward the Scottish electorate as a whole. What about, in particular, the Scottish working class? What about the Labour movement? Is this ‘our leadership’ – and do the Labour party even care if voters and unions even see them as a leadership anymore?

This demands a deeper question about the Labour Party, at least in Scotland. Is this a normal crisis?

The Labour Party has of course survived many acute bust-ups – the National Government of Ramsay McDonald and the white-hot factionalism of the ‘wilderness years’ come to mind. Both of these schismatic eras were more boisterous than our present, and comparitavley tepid spate of frustrated arguments in Scottish Labour.

But perhaps heat and tempo are poor registers of political crisis. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci made a distinction between conjunctural crises and organic crises.

A conjunctural crisis is one which is essentially contingent and directly related to present and particular circumstances. This can be a deep crisis, but one that does not nessesarily alter the fundamental relations between social forces. An organic crisis on the other hand is one which uproots these relationships entirley and leaves them open to complete transformation. The former may be calamitous and despite the longer term ramifacations, the later may seem relatively subdued.

Gramsci developed these concepts to understand the decomposition of class societies, but we can borrow them for an analysis of the Labour Party and its present crisis. The intellectually serious left has, for recent decades, based its orientation upon Labour on divergent understandings of whether its crisis is conjunctural or organic.

Key to understanding Labour’s rightward shift is the disorientation of progressive social forces in Britain since the late 1970’s. If Labour’s crisis is only conjuctural then the party despite its critical state, manages to retain the genetic features of active Social Democracy. Thus its own ideological trajectory reflects the mood and the intellectual and organisational capacity of its real roots in the labour and progressive movements. It follows then, that when the working class finally recovers its feet Labour will be drawn back to the left.

If however the crisis is organic, Labour has unmoored completely from its traditional social base, either because this base has been destroyed or because erstwhile relations between party and class have fundamentally upended, or by some combination of the two. Under these circumstances no general movement toward the left in society can recover Labour as a party representing the interests of working people. It would be possible to imagine, for instance, an aggressive unionisation of the private sector driving Labour away from the trade union movement rather than towards it leading to ‘PASOKification’ (the development of a permanent split between party leadership and its own activists and electoral base).

The attuned will realise we don’t need to travel all the way to Greece to observe this phenomenon. What else has just happened in Scotland? Society has radicalised, not least among Labour’s traditional base, and as a result Labour is launched deeper into crisis. Thepresent Labour crisis is not stand alone, it is apiece with the long trajectory of the party’s decline . Labour does not lurch between crises; the crisis is organic to the party.

Running alongside this is the long term crisis of the labour movement itself. The privatisation process means that just 6% of workers who work for private companies are members of a trade union. Zero hours contracts have undermined the capacity to organise. The precarious nature of modern work makes collective action more difficult. Low wage economies mean that workers are more likely to be concerned abut loosing their job, and less confident about taking action. The public sector, where unions are stronger, is being decimated. Big business is in a supremely powerful situation UK wide, and at a European level TTIP is set to further entrench corporate domination in our lives.

It is likely to get much worse. The decades long attack on trade union rights is now being augmented with the consolidation of state power in terms of surveillance and attacks on human rights. While an entire generation must fight to survive on terrible wages in monotonous jobs, the services which we rely on are also being taken into private ownership. All of this is the logical outcome of the system, and it is why so many of us voted Yes, to give us at least the chance to break with it.

How can we resolve this crisis successfully? This is the question that the socialist left in Scotland must seek to answer if we are to defend what’s left of our social security system, and present an overall challenge to neoliberalism. This answer is not, it is our contention, with the SNP. To understand the resolution to this organic crisis of both organised labour and the labour party, we require yet to go to a third destination, besides Greece and Scotland.

When Ireland broke from British rule, the conditions of its separation were sour indeed. The division of the island left the Republic prey to nationalist forces that were to subdue the radical force of the Irish revolution. The split republican movement, represented by Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael sparred over the best way to represent the Irish national cause.

In a possible future Scotland, Labour and the SNP join in a permanent battle of the civic nationalisms; one British, one Scottish. In this permanent fore-grounding of national antagonisms more vital issues of social justice can be lost. These the very issues that propelled the vibrancy and scale of the independence movement during the referendum process.

This is especially possible should the next leader of Labour in Scotland attack the SNP from the right, in which case the SNP, especially if it believes the left flank is secure, will draw to the centre. In the extreme centre, politics degenerates into a faction fight where parties boast their technocratic abilities and discard ideological content. It should be noted here that this scenario has only been made possible by the No vote – it took the marginal vindication of unionism to introduce this toxin into Scottish politics. A Yes vote would have changed everything, which is why we campaigned so hard for it.

The solution to the Labour crisis lies with the historic political awakening which has taken plance combined with the collective organisation of working people detremined to develop a politics that meets their interests. The major challenge facing socialists, trade unionists and progressives is to generate a force that genuinely replaces the Labour party, but not just as part of a short lived campaign which seeks to exploit its latest crisis. Rather, Scotland requires a ‘Third Estate’, a form of permanent working class representation to replace Labourism in the receding years of its organic crisis.


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  1. I’m wondering if all these “new crisis” stories are more of a school of red herrings! to take our minds and thoughts away from the “Lost paedophile papers” cynical yes but we are dealing with the most cynical of people in politicians.

  2. florian albert says:

    The logic of Jonathan Shafi’s article – ‘society has radicalized’ – is that there is widespread support for a political party to the left of Labour and the SNP.
    In these circumstances, why are the various radical organizations (RI C, Common Weal etc) shying away from moving things forward by creating a political party to achieve this ?

    1. Christopher Keller says:

      Common Weal’s Robin McAlpine addressed this directly in a speech made post referendum in Dundee. As a political think tank their plan is to put forward a policy manifesto to the SNP once all the new membership can vote. If accepted by the membership this manifesto would essentially change the form of the current SNP into the very sort of party you are describing. I hope this was helpful. You can find his speech on youtube I’m sure.

      1. florian albert says:

        That is interesting. So, Common Weal’s plan is to wait and see what sort of party the SNP is in the wake of an influx of new members.
        This will be done in the hope that the party moves from being a right of centre party economically to being a radical left wing one.
        Since the SNP is – at present – an extremely disciplined and electorally successful party, I doubt it will transform itself in the way Robin McAlpine hopes.
        It is worth remembering that in the last elections held across Scotland, in May 2014, the left wing vote amounted to 8.1%, fewer than UKIP’s 10.5%

      2. tartanfever says:

        My impression, Common Weal are raising funding to employ political writers and thinkers and to pay for a full time lobbyist in Holyrood. At present they have produced a number of very good papers on various topics which are all available free from their website.

        Florian, they are not attempting to change the SNP, Common Weal are a non-party organisation, but they have produced policy papers which chime with certain Green agenda’s as well as SNP ideas and the further left.

  3. Jim Bennett says:

    Jonathan, a really good article (marred by a bit clunky language).

    Your last paragraph gets right to the nub of the issue: “The major challenge facing socialists, trade unionists and progressives is to generate a force that genuinely replaces the Labour Party”.

    What does this actually mean? Is it a reinstatement of the original aims that set up the Scottish Socialist Party, a genuine widely based left organisation? Or, is it an organisation which could have membership across the SSP, Greens and SNP in order to pull these organisations in a fundamentally common left agenda? Or some other method?

    The example of Commonweal is an indicator of how the latter could function. But the former would be beset by a “Ah’m no’ gettin’ involved in anything he’s involved wi’!” approach which dominates sections of the sectarian left.

    How is this replacement of the Labour Party by the left actually to be done?

  4. James Munro says:

    I was very much looking forward to your “third estate” being created upon Scottish Independence and although I am in complete agreement with this article I feel the creation of a serious left wing political entity in Scotland will only be possible upon Independence or Home Rule, until then it could be a dangerous distraction.
    We must remain patient and strive to gain substantial powers as a minimum or full independence, without this any move to the left will be decimated by our majority right wing press.

    1. Michael McCourt says:

      Well said…..!!!!

  5. Well how did UKIP start? Let’s just do it and see what happens, might get a nice surprise

    1. Cyril Matvech says:

      UKIP was born from the supernova crash of National Front being proscribed a Nazi party. The BBC (& other ultra-right leaning media) had fun promoting the new entity as a real alternative to the British National Party. The growth of the UKIP Party is an intentional consequence of media flexing its persuasion muscle.

      I am inclined to concur with an earlier thoughtful reply which suggests seeking a Yes Alliance to first garner Scottish Home-rule then seek to set out party boundaries either post independence or as (many NO voters fantasised) part of a brand new Union of equals.

      1. You are absolutely correct, but I am thoughtful just impatient. I’ve been waiting for this all my life. Why is it all taking soooo long. I can’t believe why everyone is ponderously stumbling around like headless chickens. There has to be a system in place……….we nearly won !

  6. Mark Harper says:

    One of the best conclusions I’ve read recently is that if we had voted Yes then Labour would have retained support and vied for a place in the new Scotland. As we have voted No, the consolation is that Scottish Labour is being exposed totally as the farcical London branch office that it is and the party is now eating itself from within. It’s a pure joy to witness.

    1. Nigel says:

      Coulndnt have put it better myself Mark!

  7. Ali says:

    “Labour and the SNP join in a permanent battle of the civic nationalisms” – which would be to posit that Labour is, or could be, more than the decaying stump it is now. Labour sees itself as the archenemy of the SNP, so one has to assume this piece, or at least this sentence, is written somewhat sympathetically to that. In reality it is a stumbling corpse whose ex members are filling SNP meetings around the country.

  8. Willie Fleming says:

    An excellent analysis bar, as has been mentioned, some jarring vocabulary. However the meaning and intent is clear and as such is difficult to quibble with.
    We live in the real world and GE2015 will be on us shortly. So shortly that there is no time to organise what so many of us want, a new party of the left.
    So the message MUST be and can only be:

    Vote SNP and only SNP at the GE2015.

    Nosepegs will be provided but this is the ONLY practical way in which we can move forward.

    Holyrood 2106 will be another story and the dynamics of that election will of course depend on how the situation at Westminster has developed. I will see no contradiction in voting SNP at GE2015 and Green/SSP (I still can’t choose) for Holyrood2016. Our cause HAS to be bigger than party labels for the next few months.
    Remeber that with its membership tripled in the past month, the SNP you will see in 2015 is not the SNP you have known. The SNP itself does not know who it really is until the party conference and arguably will still be coming to terms with this for a good while afterwards.

    For those old enough to remember, way back in the 1970s the SNP had a slogan, “Lend us your vote” This slogan is never more appropriate. We have one job to do together, let us do it and then those who wish to return to their comfortable places to argue the finer points of the dialectic can do so if they wish.
    Those who would argue against this proposition must be asked

    “Whose side are you REALLY on?”

    “Are you happier to indulge in factionalism or do you want results?”

    Me? I want to remain a member of the greatest mass movement the people of Scotland (and arguably the people of all these islands) have ever seen, united in fighting AND WINNING ( not just whining) for social justice. Now what we actually call this movement afterwards and who leads it is up for debate – and thats fine. The key word there is “afterwards”.

    And for those who would mention “Corporation Tax”, a wee look at Gordon Brown’s attitude to Corporation Tax may bring a moment’s pause. Souter and his money is irrelevant (and it was his money not his ideas that the SNP was interested in) now there are 80,000 members paying a minimum of £12/year and in many cases considerably more.

    Hold your nose if you must, but the only logical action for those on the left is unequivocal support for the SNP at least until after GE2015.

    In practical terms, there simply is no time to establish yet another party of the left before the milestone that matters, GE21015.

    1. Hector says:

      Minor point but if it was only Soutar’s money that the SNP was interested in then how did he manage to get onto the panels of 2 of the TV debates during the campaign, I’d argue it certainly wasn’t for his debating skills. On the other hand folk like Fox, Canavan, McAlpine were kept a long way away

      1. tartanfever says:

        Hector, firstly you have to demonstrate that Souter was put forward by the SNP or the Yes campaign for debates rather than being invited directly by the broadcaster.

        Your making a huge assumption about the SNP here.

    2. tartanfever says:

      Willie, further to your comments on Corporation Tax ( a club oft used to try and beat the SNP about the head) you have to remember what the plan was with general taxation which is ignored by all the mainstream media.

      An independent Scotland was to set up a simplified tax system (as opposed to the clunking beast currently in place through the UK, full off holes and repairs like a worn out road.) That simplified tax system would have seen proper taxes being collected from big business, and even with a reduction in Corp. tax, a new robust system would have brought in more to the kitty.

      Estimates are that through our broken UK tax system, uncollected business taxes amount to @ £30bn a year.

      It’s worth remembering the failure of the current UK system with the SNP plans for a simplified regime that would be far more effective, lest costly to run and even with a cut in Corp. tax, could actually bring in more revenue.

      1. Michael McCourt says:

        Well said Willie Fleming, like yourself I believe first and foremost… INDEPENDENCE..

  9. This might be the solution.’The International Court Of Justice – unilateral declarations of Independence are not illegal!

  10. david agnew says:

    Blair shifted the party to the right in the hope of occupying the centre ground. He felt secure because he felt the left flank was secure. After all, who could the left vote for? But this triangulation of a right wing vote was to have consequences, as explored in this excellent article by lallands peat worrier – http://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/warning-unsupervised-triangulation-kills.html.

    Remember this was the party who took us into war in Iraq based on very dodgy evidence. They took advantage of the war on terror to push ID cards. They escalated into Afghanistan. It was they who adopted light touch regulation of the banks, bailed them out with tax payers money, made the tax payer the one who would get hit by the bill through austerity. They were the party who gave ATOS it’s first contract, introduced the bed room tax and workfare. In their last dying days, Brown had done away with the 10p rate, and explored ways to access dormant bank accounts for spare cash. They did all this & more, secure in the knowledge that the left had no alternative to voting for them.

    The crisis infecting scottish labour is that for so long, it has dined heavily on anti-tory sentiment that it never felt it had to work for the vote. However it was dragged along to the right by UK labour. More so now as Miliband is constantly shifting the party to outflank UKIP as well as the coalition government. This rightwards shift made the SNP, who are a centre right party, look positively Left wing. Suddenly, there was an alternative, and to date Scottish labour seems unable to reposition itself. Largely because of the pressures to conform to the accepted approach by the London party. The constant dithering over Bedroom tax and workfare are classic examples of this.

    Invoking the ghosts of gramsci is not going to purge the labour party in Scotland, anymore than calling on the shades of Hardie or Bevan could halt its rightwards drift. The party is populated by far too many talentless individuals who have gotten lazy and frankly quite stupid after years of chanting “only a vote for labour keeps the tories out” – The trouble is the party has been associated with them once to often and is beginning to look and sound tory.

    If there is a new left out there – it isn’t labour who will deliver it.

    1. muttley79 says:

      How are the SNP a centre right party?

      1. David Agnew says:

        They have been for since their creation, small c conservative, capital N nationalist. Traditionalists but also pro business. Don’t make the mistake of comparing them to the neo cons in westminster. But don’t forget their roots are far more centralist. That said however, from where they stand now they are far more “left wing” than labour is at the moment. That has enabled them to be a broad church party in terms of alignment.

      2. muttley79 says:

        That is garbage. The SNP have been social democratic since the late 1960s. They are not a right wing party. All political parties are broad churches.

  11. Labour was shifted to the right long before BLIAR took over. British troops were (wrongly) sent into the north of Ireland in 1969 by a British Labour government.

    1. muttley79 says:

      That was because Loyalists were setting Catholic districts in Belfast on fire.

      1. And look what happened – they sent in troops who were essentially Loyalist and made a bad situation worse.

      2. muttley79 says:

        The British government had no choice at the time. However, the difficulty came as time wore on. and the welcome from Catholic areas was always going to be for only a short period of time. The IRA split after they failed to defend Catholic areas properly from attack. Once the Provos got established then there was bound to be problems between them and the British army. I would say that circumstances conspired against the UK government, they were dammed if they did not send in troops, and damned if they did in the long term.

      3. Northern Ireland in the late sixties was like much of Western Europe at the time, a space where the issue of civil liberties was being forced into the political arena. Glasgow was a microcosm of the problems in Northern Ireland where certain jobs and certain work places were decided on sectarian lines. It was the peaceful attempts and demonstrations which took place to right these wrongs in Northern Ireland which escalated in the face of Northern Irish Protestant resistance, and Ulster Unionists who were scared of losing their privileged positions and control over the Five Counties.

        The Northern Irish Catholics at first saw the British Troops as peace keepers but the actions of the Protestant Special B Police and the soldiers inability to prevent the vindictive violence of this ‘police unit’ towards Catholics, meant the threatened and defenseless Catholic Communities were turned by the PIRA. The rest is the sad history of the Five Counties up until the Peace Agreement brokered by Mow Mowlam who was then sidelined as T Blair sought all the glory for himself.

        In 1969 Labour were still recognisably a socialist party – the out of control Unions destroyed popular support for socialism in the 1970’s so by the end of that decade people saw Thatcher as necessary to get the UK back on its feet. Little did they know what they were unleashing on the UK.

  12. Why does it matter where the SNP stand. Their politics are good enough for me, though I do prefer the SGP. The SNP and Alex Salmond did something unbelievable and if they continue to deliver as they have done so far…….we have nothing to lose.


  13. Geisabrek says:

    Labour should just now divide into the forward thinking side who support independence and could be the new Scottish Socialists after independence and those who genuinely want to stay with the union and we won’t really need to be bothered with them any more, all win if you ask me!

  14. Alistair Davidson says:

    I get the impression that parts of RIC have accepted a finality in the No vote unlike most other cohorts in the Yes campaign and are now searching for meaning. What makes RIC radical is its inherent flexible framework, humane anarchy and lack of stifling structure, it is different dynamic and diverse. Independence is still the best chance we have for real change and a fairer more just and prosperous Scotland. We should not take our eye off the ball or Westminster, we must continue to stand in solidarity. The nascent ambitions for new Scottish socialist and radical offerings will be as indistinguishable from each other as with the Tories, Red Tories and the rest. The most important reality in our current situation is that a week is a long time in politics. Don’t start fighting for market share imitating the conventional parties and splitting the left , and, don’t give up on independence just yet.

    1. tartanfever says:

      So the ‘left’ has to stick together ?

      And yet you describe your allies as having ‘stifling structures’.

      That’ll work.

  15. Alistair Davidson says:

    I get the impression that parts of RIC have accepted a finality in the No vote unlike most other cohorts in the Yes campaign and are now searching for meaning. What makes RIC radical is its inherent flexible framework, humane anarchy and lack of stifling structure, it is different dynamic and diverse. Independence is still the best chance we have for real change and a fairer more just and prosperous Scotland. Don’t start fighting for market share imitating the conventional parties and splitting the left , and, don’t give up on independence just yet.

  16. Andrew Ginty says:

    Sorry but this sounds like the kind of Trotskyist nonsense that bored my pants off as a student in the 1970s. The indieref is over for a generation – so what next?
    Having few ethinic and social roots in my homeland, I’ve always been sceptical of nationalism – and see little difference between much (NOT ALL) of the rhetoric spouted by YES and UKIP (with differing targets). The opposite of Scottish Nationalism is not necessarily “British” Nationalism, but a rejection of the Nation as a valid social and political grouping. Given that all of my anticedants came from the far side of multiple national borders, my perspective is much more to see what is in common between people across fences than what differentiates us. The referendum has been a distraction from a serious assult on the poor, weak and disabled in society, and that needs to be a focus in the near and medium future.
    So back to the point – a strong opposition is a neccesary requirement for a functioning democracy, so be careful what you wish for … feel free to flame away, folks – I have a thick skin.

    1. Willie Fleming says:

      Yes indeed – remind me what the “internationalists” of the left have delivered for the working-class of these parts- whether they describe themselves as Scottish or not?
      And if you think the indyref is over for a generation, then you are obviously talking a generation of fruitflies.
      A “strong opposition is a neccesary requirement for a functioning democracy” – agreed. Tell me how effective an opposition Labour have made in eithe rHolyrood or Westminster.
      You say you have a thick skin – I think you are just a troublemaker looking for a flamewar to subvert the discussion.
      Your tactics are noted and hence you will be best ignored. That will hurt you more than anything.

    2. John L says:

      I completely agree that we need a strong opposition to the SNP. It just cannot be Labour, especially not Labour led by Jim Murphy.

      The SNP can only be attacked successfully from the left. I’m assuming from the content of your post that you are a supporter of, or at least sympathetic to, Labour. Read back what you have written. This is why Labour is in so much trouble – all you have done is bash ‘nationalism’, you haven’t told me why Labour or any other party is better for Scotland. ‘a hates them SNPs!’ is not a policy agenda.

      Incidentally neither is ‘a hates them trotiyites!’. Just think, Labour were a party of government once….

  17. schmaved says:

    Interesting article marred not only by some jarring language but also a myriad of spelling mistakes, please proof read more carefully next time. It does all of us no favours as a progressive left wing collective if articles worth sharing are full of glaring mistakes.

  18. Highland girl says:

    Personally I would like to see a new Scottish trade union emerge which genuinely will represent and campaign for the interests of the Scottish working people. I’ve just cancelled my membership of the GMB like many YES supporters, I was disgusted by their stance over the referendum and displayed in their publications since. So how about a new Scottish trade union which will support Scottish independence and could be building up a left vision for Scotland ?

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