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The Norwegian Model

Gregor Gall

RECENT times have been deeply depressing for socialists in the Labour Party. Neither John McDonnell nor a left challenger to Wendy Alexander could get on the ballot papers to force a contest for the leadership of the British and Scottish Labour parties.

Then, Gordon Brown announced proposals to strip the right of constituency parties and affiliated unions to put forward contemporary motions to annual conference, which was accepted by the unions and constituency parties this week. Brown also continues to give roles to non-Labour Party members and invited Margaret Thatcher back to Downing Street in his search for the "middle ground consensus."

The number of unions that unashamedly and unequivocally backed Brown for leader was notable, as was the idea that the contest for the deputy leadership would have any great bearing on the direction of Labour under him.

This means that, at Labour's apex, the personnel and doctrine continue to be a staunch mixture of bleeding heart neoliberals and Christian Democrats.

So, the idea of reclaiming the Labour Party away from the "new" Labourites for social democracy and socialism looks a very and increasingly distant prospect.

If Labour was to be reclaimed, what would be reclaimed? It would not be like taking over the barracks to get hold of the soldiers and ammunition. Currently, constituency Labour Parties are in a poor state of health.

If the grass-roots organisation was recaptured, this would not mean that the Parliamentary Labour Party, national executive or party apparatchiks would be too.

Of course, that does necessarily mean that reclaiming Labour is a historically doomed project. Future times may change the configuration and make a hopeless cause look a hopeful one. But it does nonetheless mean that the time is very far from being the right one at the moment.

And so the dilemma remains. On the one hand, Labour is still, in part, the party of the unions and still, in part, has the loyalty of working people. On the other hand, being inside the tent brings socialists and the unions no closer to having substantive influence over the party leadership and the party in government.

Which is why it seems strange that the call of Communist Party of Britain general secretary Robert Griffiths in the Morning Star for a discussion on the concept of a party of labour seems to have been met by an eerie silence until he then returned to the issue again recently.

To put the case for a party of labour, from what Griffiths wrote, does not necessarily mean putting the case for the Labour Party. Indeed, he wrote back in June that "it may even be possible to hammer out an electoral strategy for the left which respects different affiliations and perspectives, while minimising sectarian disunity."

He flagged up the idea of the Labour Representation Committee playing a wider role in which non-Labour affiliated unions could be active.

This would extend the existing involvement of non-LRC affiliates like the FBU and RMT to maybe include the PCS and UCU unions. The GMB might also play a role given its threat to disaffiliate.

In his later articles, Griffiths went on to state that the issue was not just about reclaiming Labour as a party of labour but also about re-establishing a party of labour.

All this brings me to the example of what has been taking place recently in Norway in the fight against government and market neoliberalism.

In 1999, the Campaign for the Welfare State was established by six national public-sector unions and joined by nine others from the private sector and an array of other civic pressure group organisations shortly afterwards.

This then led to a broader alliance, the Popular Movement for Public Services, in 2002 and a coalition between different parties of the left, including the Norwegian Labour Party, at the behest and force of the union movement

And this bore fruit in the form of the new centre-left government in 2005 adopting much of the policy advocated by the coalitions. A similar situation pertained in a number of municipal authorities.

Now, the political configuration of the centre and left in Britain is different, for there is far more political diversity on the left in Norway.

And, despite much change, social democratic values are more ingrained among the populace there. Nonetheless, the Norwegian activists took several initiatives which are relevant to Britain.

The first was that they did not just seek to influence the Labour Party from within. Rather, they influenced Labour from the outside. The second was that they used the unions with their social weight as means to organise an effective alliance within civil society against right-wing forces.

These two points came together in a new political alliance that involved itself in a fusion of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political processes.

Although the Norwegian alliance was not a party of labour - that is, of the unions - it does shed some light on what the left should consider doing when faced with the seemingly immovable obstacle of a right-wing Labour government which maintains the hard-nosed Thatcherite principle of "there is no alternative" to the market.

Such a Norwegian-style development in Britain would see the left unions, particularly those not affiliated to Labour, creating a centre of attraction and pole of opposition that had the following characteristics.

First, this would not be merely an alliance of general secretaries or lay activists. It would genuinely extend down into the union memberships. Second, it would extend outwards from the unions into the communities in which their members. And, third, it would put forward a political position of not just what it was against, but also what it was for, without unconditionally and uncritically supporting the public sector of the past.

In other words, it would say that popular participation, rather than centralised Civil Service or quango control, would determine how and why our public services are run.

So, the bottom line is that the socialist left has options, but only if it cares to exercise its imagination.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire Centre for Research in Employment Studies.

This article was published in the Morning Star, 27 September 2007.