Book: Britain’s Perfidious Labour party by Harpal Brar

An essential history for every sincere worker who wishes to make sense of the political landscape in Britain and find an effective way forward.

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Introduction by Ranjeet Brar to Harpal Brar’s text

It remains an article of faith to many British workers, and much of the British left, that the Labour party is the mass party of the working class. The Labour party was founded by the British trade union movement, and it is widely believed that the Labour party brought us the National Health Service and the welfare state. These two statements – one a half truth, the other a fabrication – are generally considered enough to carry the argument.

And yet it is increasingly hard to overlook the fact that with every passing year, particularly since the mid-1970s, British society is becoming ever more inequitable and unjust. Economic crisis, war, unemployment, poverty, destitution, environmental degradation, physical and mental disease, worsening state education for the mass of the working class, the disintegration of our once highly-prized health service, the prevalence of degenerate culture, drugs and street crime – a deep malaise is afflicting Britain, just as surely as it afflicts the wider world.

It is the malaise of capitalism. Of individualism. Of inequality and want, at precisely the moment when the means to alleviate suffering and eliminate want are superabundant, owing to the vast productivity of human labour employing modern technology, and a previously undreamt-of power (hugely enhanced by the latest innovations in microchip technology) to gather, analyse and share vast amounts of scientific, technical and administrative data.

A polarised nation and a polarised world

Britain in 2023 has a ruling elite, composed of financiers and businessmen, comprising far less than one percent of the population, who have so enriched themselves that they own more than the poorest 80 percent of the population.

Just 25,000 landowners – typically scions of the aristocracy who have interlocked their wealth with corporations – own more than half of Britain’s land. By contrast, the combined landholding of all private homeowners occupies less than 5 percent of Britain’s land.

In the decade and a half of austerity since the 2008 economic crisis, capital has been further concentrated and the living standards of the working population have fallen precipitously. Housing and rental costs have gone up with stock market speculation even as productive employment and wages have fallen, precipitating a housing crisis that is set to grow as more and more people default on rental and mortgage payments.

Current estimates show that five million workers in Britain are destitute, with incomes sinking further and further below subsistence level as a result of inflation caused by money-printing, mammoth energy price-hikes, supply chain disruption caused by Covid-19, imperialism’s proxy war of aggression in Ukraine, and the blowback from sanctions imposed on Russia (and elsewhere).

The Marmot review, ten years on from its initial report that sounded the alarm on widening health inequalities, actually found in February 2020 that the life expectancy of the British working class is falling, particularly in the economically depressed north – despite Britain still being the ‘sixth-richest’ nation on earth. And that was before the economic depression of 2020 had struck the global stock-market and caused a 20 to 30 percent contraction of the global economy during the year of the coronavirus pandemic.

We live in a world in which a tiny handful of rich individuals, already multibillionaires, are close to becoming trillionaires; this tiny clique of six or seven multibillionaires has more wealth than the poorest half of humanity – than three and a half billion people combined.

Labour’s role in the struggle between workers and capitalists

We cannot overlook the fact that the Labour party, in government and in opposition, has played a significant part in shaping this state of affairs. Rather than simply asserting that ‘the election of a Labour government under pressure from the left’ is an answer to all social ills, as is the custom of many, this slim volume aims to assess the real history of the formation of Labour party and its true role.

We shall briefly examine the people and the class forces that brought it into being, the struggles it faced and, most importantly, the role that its leadership consistently played in the crucible of class struggle that was the 20th century.

It should not be forgotten that the Labour party was formed and cut its teeth in a period of fierce class struggle and interimperialist conflict. The twentieth century witnessed the unparalleled horrors of two world wars – wars that caused the deaths of one hundred million workers – waged over the question of the primacy of the great powers and their right to exploit the workers and resources of all countries.

The first world war brought on its heels the victorious October Revolution in Russia, in which the workers of a major imperialist nation, covering fully one-sixth of the world’s territory, for the first time took political power and economic wealth into their own hands in order to forge their own destiny, abolishing exploitation and fratricidal strife, and replacing them with a new socialist economic and political order. In so doing, they set a mighty example that further fomented class struggle and the battle for workers’ rights and workers’ power in all nations.

The October Revolution ended the first world war, but that terrible interimperialist conflict also precipitated the fall of the social formations that had determined human destiny in the preceding centuries. It brought about the immediate collapse of four great empires – the tsars of Russia, the Ottoman sultanate of Turkey and the middle east, the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg monarchy and the Prusso-German Hohenzollern dynasty. These empires fell to revolution, their social fabric crumbling amidst their defeats in battle; but the white heat of conflict also precipitated the international rise of the revolutionary working class and national-liberation movements that would see, at least in their old form, the end of the British and the French empires.

The construction of Soviet socialism posed a mortal challenge to the capitalist order, with the rise of the socialist world and the growing influence of the Third International (the communist international, or Comintern). The Chinese Revolution and the Indian independence movement threatened the old world order, in particular the material interest of the British empire.

The major imperialist powers saw their salvation from communism in the rise of Hitlerite fascism, which they aided and abetted in every possible way, hoping to turn Germany against their principal adversary – the revolutionary Soviet Union. The Spanish civil war was the stage rehearsal for World War Two, and the British working class was among many that sent volunteers to join the International Brigades, confronting the fascists of General Francisco Franco, while the Crown (the British monarchy) and significant sections of the British and US ruling classes sided with Nazism. We examine the attitude of the Labour party to those struggles.

When the second world war ended with the heroic victory of the USSR and China over fascism, in temporary military ‘alliance’ with Anglo-American imperialism, the Soviet Union, its Communist party and its leadership’s prestige throughout the globe was immense, and a new wave of socialist governments were brought into being across central and eastern Europe, followed shortly by the epic victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949.

The cold war

Notwithstanding the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union, the USA and Britain – a victory for Soviet diplomacy, the herculean courage and energy of the Soviet working people, and the military strength and valour of the Red Army, rather than any change of heart on the part of the predatory British and US ruling classes – the most intense hostility was fostered in postwar USA, Britain and the capitalist world they led to ‘the Russians’. This was a reinforcing and continuation of the vehement anticommunist struggle that was waged by the British and US ruling classes throughout the 20th century.

Former prime minister Winston Churchill’s 1946 ‘iron curtain’ speech (a term he quietly pilfered from Joseph Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda) was delivered to an audience in Fulton, Missouri, while on a tour of the USA, and signalled the transition to the cold war. This was nothing other than a heightening of the class struggle, in national form, and drawn along the demarcation lines at the closing of military operations of the second world war.

Nato, in the creation of which Britain’s Labour party, under the leadership of Clement Attlee, played a leading role, was formed as an aggressive imperialist alliance, initially set up with the mission of opposing the socialist countries (the liberated working class). It was also, as has now become clear to all since the demise of the USSR, to act as an alliance of the imperialist brigands against all independent nations.

In the face of the stubborn, prolonged and earnestly fought social and political challenge to the old exploitative order, and while social unrest and industrial conflict was also raging in Britain, where did the Labour party leadership take its stand in this herculean conflict? In fact, the actions of the Labour party’s leaders and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) general council during the 1926 general strike had already revealed the trajectory and set the course for the later development of Britain’s labour movement for the following century.

In this pamphlet, we examine these key historical facts and draw conclusions accordingly.

Thatcherite neoliberalism

Margaret Thatcher’s government was installed by Britain’s rulers to enact a policy of deindustrialisation in favour of the unbridled dominance of the banking and financial service sectors. This fundamentally changed Britain, mirroring similar reforms in the USA under the regime of Ronald Reagan. Swathes of manufacturing jobs evaporated across the country. Or, more precisely, capital was exported. Britain radically downsized its manufacturing base, embracing its role as an international banker, living by ‘clipping coupons’, making superprofits from exploiting ultra-low wage workers overseas. [1]

While a privileged section of British workers were given considerable crumbs from the table during this looting and plundering process, the majority were largely excluded from the robber-barons’ feast. Moreover, having lost their productive roles, increasing numbers were cast unwittingly into a degrading and parasitic life. As the great mines, mills and factories of Britain were abandoned, as the country’s steel foundries and shipbuilding yards were dismantled, many working-class communities and social institutions were also destroyed.

Life on the dole was, for millions, quite literally a scrapheap of unemployment, [2] without hope of self-improvement and with no prospect of making a meaningful contribution to society. There was widespread anger with capitalism. And this conflict came to a head during the great miners’ strike of 1984-5, heroically led by National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leader Arthur Scargill.

Yet that righteous anger of the working class, channelled and directed by the Labour party, was transformed into anger only with ‘the Tories’ – with Margaret Thatcher, with her successor John Major, with Rupert Murdoch’s ‘lying press’ and with the Tory party’s ‘18 years rule’. [3] The breaking of the unions that followed the miners’ strike facilitated the introduction of widespread ‘flexible’ working and zero-hour contracts in poorly-paid service sector jobs, bringing with them the further erosion of working-class living standards.

A shot in the arm to the ailing international capitalist order was given by the collapse of the Soviet Union, [4] which in turn created conditions for a renaissance of classical Anglo-American imperialism; the ability of city financiers to intensify their economic exploitation both of the less developed oppressed countries and of the former Soviet nations. Far from receiving the promised ‘peace dividend’, workers in the west found that military spending skyrocketed.

Today, the USA alone spends $850bn a year on armaments, and the world has suffered a fresh wave of adventurist and genocidal colonial invasions, [5] launched under US president George H Bush’s slogan of a ‘New World Order’ to enforce Anglo-American imperialism’s economic primacy.

‘National’ wealth increased, but it was drawn primarily from the profits of the financiers in the City of London, at the expense of the further impoverishment of the formerly colonised peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and was concentrated in ever fewer hands.

The majority of Britain’s ‘left’ outside Labour during this period was typified by the Trotskyite Socialist Workers party (SWP), which greeted the defeat of the rabid reactionary Neil Kinnock (Labour party) by John Major (Conservative party) in the 1992 general election as a national calamity. This was the same Trotskyite SWP that had greeted the fall of the Soviet Union, and the trail of rabid reaction that this fall set in tow, as a victory for ‘real socialism’. [6]

The Labour governments of Blair and Brown

So when Blair’s Labour party won the 1997 election, more than a few workers hoped that his words ‘A new day has dawned, has it not?’ would mean a change of course for their lives. A warning note should have sounded in their minds when Labour’s first act of government was to hand control of Britain’s macroeconomic policy directly to the capitalists, in the form of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. But without a leadership to point out the meaning of such lofty economic abstractions, of course, it did not.

Many – but not all – Labour voters now remember the premiership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown with a sense of anger, disappointment and shame. Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell were masters of platitude, soundbite and the well-shot propaganda film. Who else could address a conference of angry trade unionists, dash all their hopes, yet sufficiently diffuse their anger to receive a standing ovation?

‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime!’ … ‘Education, education, education!’ So much empty rhetoric. Not without reason did Thatcher claim Blair to be her greatest success. Over three terms, it became abundantly clear that Labour under Blair was not a break with, but rather a consolidation of neoliberal politics and monopoly-capitalist economics.

Perhaps Tony Blair will be remembered above all – more even than for the monumental corruption and avarice that have seen him amass a personal wealth since leaving office running into hundreds of millions of pounds – for the genocidal and clearly unjustified and unjustifiable wars that the Labour party waged against small nations.

Most memorably and devastatingly, there was the war against Iraq, waged on the pretexts of Iraq being a threat to Britain owing to its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), of ‘self-defence’, and of defending ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ – particularly of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs (attacks on whom were historical, and had in fact been abetted by the British and US governments, and assiduously ignored by the corporate imperialist press). The human rights of the half-million Iraqi children murdered by ‘allied’ sanctions were not considered newsworthy. [7] It was abundantly clear to all that the real issue at the centre of that conflict was the Anglo-American monopoly capitalists’ desire to loot the colossal oil wealth of Iraq and the entire middle east.

Many were uncomfortable with Blair’s close relationship to the USA Republican party during this period, whose leaders George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice et al were certainly the most hawkish of right-wing Republicans; the representatives of US imperialism red in tooth and claw.

Perhaps they also remember Blair’s wars on Yugoslavia, on Afghanistan, on Sierra Leone. The Labour party stood firmly at the helm of the Nato war chariot, as the most powerful economic and military bloc the world had ever assembled, firing precision-guided missiles from the safety of battleships tens of miles away from the inhabitants’ coastline, or dropping them from planes flying three miles above their defenceless victims, or from impregnable helicopter gunships, hovering out of sight, miles from the theatre of operations. Those wars in turn gave rise to protracted occupations and facilitated the unbridled looting of natural and financial resources, with devastating consequences for the conquered and subject peoples.

Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks website brought the vivid and ugly realities of those wars for oil to a public that had been relentlessly bombarded with pro-war pro-imperialist propaganda, from dawn till dusk. And we have seen the chagrin of our ruling class in its vindictive persecution of this journalism, which is in glaring contrast with the benign treatment by imperialist media of Tony Blair’s Labour’s egregious war crimes.

Inciting war and genocide on totally false claims was defined by the post-WW2 Nuremberg tribunals as the highest international crime, although no reader of the British mainstream media would never guess it. Far from being prosecuted or punished – or even ostracised – for his role in these horrific crimes, Blair was actually appointed middle east ‘peace envoy’ by the ‘quartet’ 8 supposedly overseeing the Palestinian peace process.

Privatisation, bank bailouts and austerity

Nor should we forget that Labour during those years was the advocate and chief architect of the major escalation of privatisation of the NHS, as well as in schools, prisons, libraries and other branches of the state, through its favourite vehicles of public-private partnerships (PPP) and private finance initiatives (PFI).

The NHS, for example, having been starved of running and capital costs and its premises run down, was the recipient of £12bn of investment from private capital, for the purpose of building new hospital premises. In return for this largesse, the service will be bled of £92bn in repayment costs, at the end of which it will not own the hospital premises but will be liable to eviction or to further extortion.

Prime minister Gordon Brown is now almost a forgotten footnote in Labour party history, but we should not forget his celebration of the British empire – conveniently overlooking, of course, its parasitic essence, the systematic bleeding of its subject nations, punctuated by famines and massacres and underpinned by a fiercely racist ideology. Not to mention the praises he sang to the supremacy of the capitalist ‘free market’ – deliberately blind to the inequality and exploitation this spreads nationally and globally, and apparently contradicted by his rapid moves during the 2008 economic crisis to proclaim Britain’s bankrupt financiers to be ‘too big to fail’.

Far from letting the market take its natural victims – the monopolists themselves – Gordon Brown bailed out the bankers by transferring their debt to the British state. Brown pushed through a gift of £500bn, in coordination with the European Central Bank and the USA Federal Reserve, from the poorest workers in Britain to the most wealthy oligarchy on the planet – all made under the supervision of the last Labour party government, the price for which we have paid with 15 years of harsh austerity.

And yet, with the fall of these Labour administrations, much of the left was quick to return to the formula that ‘we need to get the Tories out and elect a Labour government’. Blair was simply an aberration, they said. Some even try and offset the negatives against what they still perceive to be the ‘benefits’ of a Labour government.

A few point to the institution of the minimum wage – overlooking the fact that the Labour government had set the minimum wage at a level so low that wages for a majority of workers were dragged down as a result of its institution (which, far from setting a ‘minimum’ simply became the ‘new normal’). As a result, business was well satisfied that its profits would not be challenged.

The Corbyn project

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader in 2015 seemed a heaven-sent opportunity for these Labour supporters, long neglected and ignored since the Blair-Brown premiership, to ‘reclaim’ Labour for the working class, and to reassert the party’s supposed ‘founding socialist principles’.

To those who held on to the fervent and cherished desire to see a more just and equitable society, won by the simple expedient of casting a vote at an election to the Mother of Parliaments in Westminster, the unfolding of the Corbyn project came as a bitter blow. But the seeds of defeat were there for all to see from the outset of that ill-fated movement. We have dealt with them at length in another pamphlet and do not intend to dwell on them again here.

It is 25 years since the contents of this short pamphlet were first published, initially written as a series of articles giving a comprehensive history of the formation, rise and deeds in office of the British Labour party. Those articles appeared in Lalkar, the publication of the Indian Workers Association (GB), and were written by Harpal Brar. We include his original preface, written on the eve of Blair’s election victory, which is as hard-hitting and relevant upon rereading as it was at the time of publication, particularly in the light of our experience of that Labour government.

If the Tory party has been and remains the most overt agent of the governance of Britain’s billionaire ruling class, it will be seen from the following pages that the Labour party has played the part of a most ‘loyal parliamentary opposition’ with strict decorum. In all matters, domestic and international, the interests of British imperialism have come first – and the interests of the most privileged section of the British workers have been assumed to be synonymous with the interests of British imperialism. The demands of the mass of relatively impoverished British workers have been placed a poor third, while the interests of the international proletariat have been firmly trodden underfoot at every turn.

It is of crucial importance to return to the Labour party’s early history precisely because it continues to be presented by fake leftists and perceived by a considerable mass through a hazy fog of ignorance, propaganda and historical revisionism. The nostalgic myth of a ‘golden age’, in which the Labour party was truly socialist – an age to which we can and should by some means return – is painfully persistent.

This view has many promoters, both within and without the Labour party. From Trotskyites and revisionist communists to bourgeois academia and journalism, many can be found to promote the legend of Labour’s socialist past – all of which is ultimately aimed at holding back the development of a truly socialist movement that might challenge the material interests and unquestioned political supremacy of British capitalism.

In view of the global economic depression and the political crisis that faces Britain’s working class, many of whose poorer and more disenfranchised members have been steadily turning away from the Labour party for decades, it is particularly urgent for British socialists to revisit the history of the Labour party’s formation and learn the necessary lessons.

As we look to the future and strive to build a genuinely socialist working-class party in Britain, a party that must be guided by the highest theoretical principles of scientific socialism, we need to fully understand our past in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes and perpetuating the British proletariat’s prolonged period of servitude and dependence.



[1] The phrase ‘clipping coupons’ was memorably coined by VI Lenin in his seminal work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). He used it to emphasise how ever-wider sections of the population in imperialist countries are no longer engaged in any productive activity, but live parasitically on a cut of the wealth that is produced by workers in other parts of the world and exported back to the global centres of imperialist finance capital.

[2] By January 1982, more than twelve percent (one in eight) of the workforce was unemployed, a level that had not been seen for fifty years. In northern Ireland, the unemployment rate was twenty percent (one in five).

[3] Never mind that the Tory party has a two hundred-year and the British bourgeoisie it serves a four-hundred year history of oppressing the working people of Britain and elsewhere.

[4] For more on the causes of the collapse and counter-revolution in the USSR, see H Brar, Perestroika, the Complete Collapse of Revisionism, 1992. See also CPGB-ML pamphlet by H Brar, Revisionism and the Demise of the USSR, 2011.

[5] In particular, the USA launched wars against Iraq (1991, 2003), Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Syria (2011), Libya (2011), Yemen (2011), Ukraine (2014, escalated in 2022). ‘Smaller’ (ie, involving fewer troops) wars have been waged against Somalia (1992, 2007), Bosnia and other Yugoslav states (1992 onwards) and Haiti (1994 onwards). Many more ‘military operations’ have been carried out in Latin America, Asia and Africa under the guise of the endless ‘war on terror’ and ‘war on drugs’.

[6] Having so placed all their hopes in Labour, and failing to comprehend the real reasons for the defeats suffered by the working class during this period, a deep mood of defeat and pessimism set in amongst the self-identifying ‘left’ comprised of Trotskyites, revisionists and various other left-Labour hangers-on. This in turn led to a deepening of their opportunism; a further turn away from the recognition that the working class is the agent of social change.

[7] US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, questioned about the deaths of Iraqi children as a result of sanctions that prevented Iraq accessing food and medicines, became infamous for this sickening interchange with interviewer Lesley Stahl on the primetime US TV show 60 Minutes:

Stahl: ‘We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?’
Albright: ‘I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.’