Labour Party Does Not Stand for Workers

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The 2023 elections throw up the question; what type of party do the working class and other exploited people need to liberate themselves and build a better society in Nigeria today? There is no essential difference between APC and PDP. They both represent the same oppressive class of oppressors who have gotten stupendously wealthy by making the working people poorer.

The working people have to kick them out of power to enjoy nutritious and adequate food, decent housing, quality health and education, and genuine freedom. But which type of party can lead the classes of the oppressed in this struggle for their liberation?

Since the Labour Party was formed by trade unions, which are the primary economic organizations of workers, can it provide such political leadership? While noting that Peter Obi does not represent the working class, could his drawing a mass base into the party help to breathe emancipatory life into it, irrespective of how the Obi candidacy itself fares?

A few groups on the left have spoken for or against there being a tremendous presence of workers in LP or not. Those who are neck-deep in the party argue that workers are joining the party in large numbers. A few others, try to buttress their utopian socialist campaign with the argument that there are no workers in the party.

But, apart from their lazy analyzes, which have no iota of either empirical reference or theoretical grounding, they miss the point. While the proportion of workers in the “Obidient” movement and the LP can be questioned, we can hardly gainsay the obvious fact that there are workers in LP.

There are also workers in APC, PDP, etc. But none of these stands for the working class. The questions we should be asking are; does the Labour Party (now) stand for the worker class?

Why has it not stood up for workers in its two decades of existence, despite tireless efforts from several quarters that came to naught? Is there any empirical or theoretical basis to think that it could stand for workers? Is it accidental that LP has been an orphanage for failed bourgeois politicians and is now a springboard for the surge of “Obidience” or is there a structurally reformist essence to this attempt at building a capitalist workers’ party?

We engage with these and related questions in an “LP, working people and the struggle for liberation” series of analyses.

In this first and introductory article, we show how organized labour’s party-building projects in Nigeria veered from the radical and Communist-inspired efforts of the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party (SWAFP) of the 1960s to social democratic and ultimately social liberalist (i.e., what social democracy is in the age of neoliberalism) partisan formations of the 1989-90 Nigeria Labour Party and the current Labour Party, respectively.

Labour Party and social democracy

Peter Obi joined the Labour Party in May only because he realized he would not get the presidential ticket of the PDP which he had served as minister (after serving as governor on the platform of APGA) and as Vice-Presidential candidate in 2019.

Despite this opportunistic politics, and that he implemented several anti-poor people policies as governor of Anambra state from 2006 to 2014, his campaign, which has the support of several of those that have wrecked Nigeria such as former presidents Ibrahim Babangida, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Goodluck Jonathan has also ignited mass following.

There are several reasons for this. These include his much-hyped “efficiency” whilst in government and his perception as being at least better than the rest of the degenerate bunch of ruling-class folks, because of the inflated record of his achievements.

The trade unions’ leadership, which had largely abandoned LP for much of its twenty years of existence, has also thrown their support behind his candidacy. This is though Peter Obi never endorsed the NLC’s “Workers’ Charter of Demands.”

A few groups on the radical left have also endorsed the LP ticket of Peter Obi, for what it’s worth. They argue that the Labour Party is much more than Peter Obi and add that the masses flocking to the party because of his candidacy presents a ready audience for building workers’ political power for the struggles that lie ahead.

But this perspective loses sight of the structural reality of the party as a political instrument of reformism, even in its best incarnation. It is not accidental that LP has been an “orphanage” for capitalist politicians who lose ground in the traditional capitalist political parties since 2007.

Working class and youth activists who genuinely fight for liberation need to understand what labour parties are in general, and what the Labour Party in Nigeria has turned out to be, beyond the “Obidient” movement.

Labour parties, or “social democratic” parties as they are also called, became fashionable in the advanced capitalist countries after World War II. National trade union bureaucracies established them as reformist alternatives to Communist and other radical parties.

They helped to perpetuate an illusion of liberation of the working-class people within the framework of capitalist development. They could forge a sort of social compromise between the working class and capital at the time due mainly to two reasons.

First, the capitalists were afraid that if they did not make concessions to the radicalized working class, they would face revolution and have their exploitative order destroyed. Second, a massive increase in production, innovation, and profit marked the period. So, the capitalists could afford to allow room for significant improvement in the working and living conditions of the working people.

This was the context in which social democratic parties that came to power as workers’ parties worshiping capital established the welfare state in Europe.

But over the last three decades, and particularly since the 2008-2009 global economic crisis, these same workers’ parties have been the most diligent disciples of neoliberalism, pushing through austerity measures and anti-worker policies more effectively than capitalists’ conservative parties.

When socialists within these parties that have more radical agendas have arisen, such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, the parties’ bureaucracies have collaborated with conservative parties to discipline, disgrace, and kick them out of office.

The social democratic evolution of workers’ parties in countries like Nigeria that became independent only after World War has been different, only to some extent. But they have arrived at the same bus stop of social liberalism.

In Nigeria, Marxist-Leninist trade unions formed Communist workers’ parties, such as the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party (SWAFP), shortly after independence and the Socialist Working People’s Party (SWPP) in 1978. But these failed to attain much significance for the working class’s struggle.

The military suppressed SWAFP after the coup and hounded it out of existence at the end of the Civil War. SWPP operated in the shadows of marginality during the Second Republic, as it was not a registered party and did not have deep roots in the rank-and-file workers’ movement to enable it to work effectively underground.

Between 1983 and 1989, when the military started a transition programme, a lot changed. The Stalinist regime of “socialism from above” in the USSR and its East Bloc had crumbled, waiting to be buried. And the radical influence of socialists in the trade union movement had gravely declined.

So, when NLC formed the Nigeria Labour Party (NLP) in 1989, it effectively became the first workers’ party in the country’s history that would be social democratic and not Communist or at least aligned towards radical socialism.

When Babangida proscribed NLP and 12 other parties formed in that period and established the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the trade union bureaucracy simply led the rump of the defunct NLP into the SDP, without a fuss.

That SDP ended up in the dustbin of history with the annulment of the “June 12” election, and its leadership acceptance of the military junta’s decision.

If the brief life of the first social democratic labour party in Nigeria was tragic, the trajectory of the 21st century Labour Party has been farcical. Its “Obidient” moment is just the absurd icing on the cake of a worker’s party’s parody.

A year after the restoration of the republic and lifting of the NLC proscription in 1999, NLC initiated a Civil Society-Labour Prodemocracy Network with funding from the European Union.

In the course of the three meetings of the network that were held between 2000 and 2001, socialists, who were mainly from the left civil society movement, pushed for the formation of a radical Working People’s Party.

But the trade union bureaucracy unceremoniously jettisoned this plan and established a Party for Social Democracy in 2002. Parties such as the National Conscience Party (NCP), Democratic Alternative (DA) and People’s Redemption Party (PRP) were challenging INEC in court during this period.

Their demand was for the electoral body to open up the space for party registration. The PSD (and trade unions) maintained a studied silence but was quick to seize the benefit of the legal victory that these radical parties won.

Under pressure from a few of us in the trade unions, the party’s name was changed to the Labour Party at its founding Congress on 28 February 2004.

Class collaboration and abandonment

The change of name helped ginger the flocking of tens of thousands of workers to its banner. But neither the trade union leadership nor the party leadership that emerged was ready to do away with the poisoned chalice of reformist and class collaborationist politics, which came with the earlier name.

Whilst laying the building blocks of the party as PSD in 2002, all branches were directed to integrate the professional middle class and the elusive “progressive” capitalists into prominent roles within the party leadership at all levels.

This class collaborationist approach was to lay the basis and justification for welcoming bourgeois politicians of all shades to run for elections on the LP platform, after failing to secure tickets for running on the platform of the leading capitalist parties.

To compound the situation, most trade unionists that ran for offices at both national and state levels did so on the platforms of traditional capitalist parties. Adams Oshiomhole was the most graphic example of this farcical political dance.

Virtually all (former) trade unionists that have run for or been elected to executive or legislative seats at national or state levels have done so on the platform of other (and usually APCPDP) parties.

A good example of this trend from the beginning is the current run of NLC stalwarts for governor and deputy governor in Kebbi and Niger states, respectively.

Meanwhile, the party never saw or built itself as anything but an electoral machine. At no time in its history has it ever been on the field of the non-electoral struggle of the working class. This fitted perfectly well with the praxis of welcoming promising and not-so-promising bourgeois politics as its flag bearers.

Indeed, leaders of the party have always publicly argued that the sole purpose of the party is to win elections, otherwise it would be only an NGO. It was a regular cry of Dan Nwuanyanwu and Abdulkadir Adulsalam when they served as the party’s national chairman in 2004-2014 and 2014-2020 respectively.  

The jetsam and flotsam brought in with the “Obidient” movement such as Kayode Salako who became the LP Lagos state chairman in 2022 almost overnight, has also echoed this argument. But, reducing the politics of a workers’ party to the electoralist dimension undermines the essence of working-class struggle.

Class-conscious politics requires a workers’ party to lead their struggle for self-emancipation from exploitation. This can only be done with a revolutionary socialist program and praxis. But what this electoralist thrust of social-democratic/liberalist workers’ parties does is to replace this essence with a surrender to supporting capitalism and consequently continued exploitation of workers.

Thus, instead of promoting the working class’ fight to win workers’ power, Labour Party diverts the focus of workers to the aim of forming government. And as surely as night leads to day, this leads to the acceptance of bourgeois candidates as the party’s flag-bearers, and a political program that accommodates workers’ interests as, at best, a subordinate adjunct to the interest of the capitalist class.   

However, while party leaders at all levels have not been so concerned about fighting for workers, they have always been more concerned with using their roles in the party for making money, for themselves. Almost all intra-party struggles have been around sharing formulas. And over the years, this has included even many who could otherwise have been considered as being on the left in the party.

Defeat and reformism

At the time of the formation of the Labour Party, it was not given that it would end up as a social liberalist electoral machine for dregs of the capitalist class. There were debates and resolutions within Congress, which captured the possibility of a radical, even if not revolutionary, socialist party of labor.

For years after its formation, the left battled for the soul of LP with the SWL (and its precedent May 31st Movement, M31Mo) at the fore of this. There were groups that we stood up for and helped facilitate their involvement in the party who took to sectarian blackmail. But we never stopped putting forward socialist arguments within the party, even when we were a tiny minority. 

There was some hope that a massified Labour Party, with the involvement of the trade unions in building it, could contribute significantly to the political radicalization of the working class, up to 2014. Expressed intentions of reclaiming the party since then have been only shadowboxing. And dreams of resting on the “Obidient” moment to do likewise will definitely reveal themselves to be macabre illusions.

It is now twenty years since LP was formed, first as PSD. The left does not need another twenty years to realize that this social democratic labour party cannot but be a graveyard for radical forces and, even in its best incarnation, a pole of reformist diversion of the working class from revolutionary politics.  

by Baba AYE

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