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Labour and politics; the case of the Labour Party

by Baba Aye

In this article first published in the October 2012 edition of The Health Worker (pp 26-29) Baba Aye who is National Chairperson of the Socialist Workers League and Deputy National Secretary of the Labour Party appraises the labour movement’s approaches to (partisan) politics in Nigeria, with particular attention on the Labour Party. He further considers the import of views now rife to some extent or the other in socialist circles that the limitations, real or perceived of the LP require the need for forming parties on behalf of millions of working people.  He points out the need for combining work within and beyond electoral platforms, at this point in time, if revolutionary socialists are to be in any position where they can provide required political leadership for the working class. 

A major question that has faced trade unions in Nigeria from the early beginnings of the trade union movement has been what their attitude should be to partisan politics. This dilemma is not limited to unions in this country. It is one that trade unions in different lands have had to face, time and again. This is because while trade unions are primarily organisations for the economic struggles of workers, objective reality often forces the fact on the working class that even such limited economic aims as the trade unions might set themselves can hardly be met without some form of partisan political engagement or the other. It would appear that the Nigerian trade unions have eventually taken the view that trade unions have to be involved in partisan politicking. This is demonstrated by the Nigeria Labour Congress’ formation of the Labour Party in 2002. It was then called the Party for Social Democracy, but changed its name to the Labour Party (LP) at its Founding Convention on February 28, 2004.

The nature and state of the LP is one that has agitated the minds of several activists in the labour movement over the last eight years. Some of the questions that have emerged from this state of agitation are legitimate. But the answers proffered hardly involve, or help to deepen any serious understanding for working class activists. Such “answers” include the categorization of LP as being no better than such parties as the rightwing People’s Democratic Party. Not surprisingly, conclusions flowing from such “understanding” include sectarian efforts at forming new parties representing “millions” of workers. Before going further, it needs to be pointed out that the formation of (more) parties that represent workers is not in itself either bad or undesirable. Indeed, at a level, such acts could be commended. But at a deeper level, the challenge is more one of building a party of workers, to represent themselves. It is near impossible in the current state of Nigeria to build such a party outside and beyond the circles of workers drawn into the trade unions.

This article argues that a deeper understanding of the trajectory of the Labour Party is necessary for labour activists committed to the emancipation of the working class and the progressive transformation of society. It puts in perspective the labour movement and its components as well as a summary historic view of organised labour’s engagement in partisan politics as a basis for understanding how the current Labour Party has evolved and the challenges the working class faces towards enthroning a politics of emancipation.

The labour movement is implicitly a political movement. This is because; politics boils down to the struggle for power by different social classes and groups. The labour movement’s basic components are: trade unions which inadvertently tend to undermine the unilateral power of the employers in the workplace and; pro-labour radical and revolutionary groups, which stand for the socialist transformation of society. While socialist groups more often than not stand for engagement in partisan politics, the trade unions which are the dominant of the components of the labour movement have a more ambivalent relationship with the question of partisan politics.

In some cases, trade unions stand aside from such politics, believing that political involvement could hinder the economic struggle for improved wages and working conditions because they would no more be considered “neutral”. An example of this is Ghana. In other cases, the trade unions could align with some party or the other that is considered to be more amenable to organised labour’s interests. An example of this is the relationship between the AFL-CIO and the Democrats in the United States. Unions could also rather present platforms of demands to different parties and support whichever party is deemed at specific times to accept such platform. In other cases, trade unions establish labour parties. Examples of this alternative include the formation of the Labour Party by the Trade Union Congress in 1900 Britain and the Labour Party by the Nigeria Labour Congress in 2004.

The earliest involvement of Nigerian trade unions in partisan politics was in 1946 when the then Trade Union Congress affiliated with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). Two years later, the trade union movement split, the first of several splits which lasted for thirty years, over debate between those who supported continued affiliation and those who were against such affiliation. Interestingly, there were two camps amongst the “dis-affiliationists”. There were those who argued that labour had no business with partisan politics and there were those who wanted the trade unions to leave the NCNC and form a labour party.

The next major effort of organised labour at building a political party was in 1963. There were three major differences between this experience and the earlier one. First, due to the lasting split in the trade union movement, it was not the whole movement that was involved. It was the more radical trade union centre i.e. the Nigerian Trade Union Congress (NTUC), in conjunction with radical groups such as the Nigeria Youth Congress. Second, a party was formed by the unions rather than getting affiliated to an existing party. Third, this party declared itself to be socialist and its name was the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party (SWAFP). This party split within a year. The smaller faction went ahead to form what it called the Labour Party.

While the two parties functioned for a while underground after the military banned partisan politics subsequent to the coups of 1966, by the 1970s, both parties had become history. When the 2nd Republic was to be granted by the military, two workers parties were formed. These were the Socialist Working People’s Party (SWPP) and the Socialist Party of Workers, Farmers and Youths, which later became known simply as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). None of these parties could participate in electoral politics as the Murtala/Obasanjo regime introduced registration of parties as a precondition for electoral contestations, for the first time in the country’s history. This “politics of registration” has continued till date.

It is also noteworthy that, for the first time, the trade unions were not directly involved in the formation of either of these parties, even though a number of leading trade union activists were in the parties leaderships, particularly that of the SWPP. This was largely because the military government had dealt the trade unions, particularly their more radical factions a several blows, meant to “tame” them, before rolling out the process leading to a 2nd Republic. Thus, not surprisingly, the SWPP and SWP were much smaller and less influential amongst workers than the earlier SWAFP and Labour Party.

The 2nd Republic parties were all disbanded by the military after the 1983 coup which brought the Buhari/Idiagbon junta to power. By 1989, Babangida “the evil genius” who had overthrown that junta in 1985 unveiled a “political transition” programme that has been confirmed to have had a “hidden agenda” as Chief Alao Aka-Bashorun, former radical President of the Nigeria Bar Association had pointed out then. The gap-toothed General had earlier in 1986 constituted a Political Reforms Bureau which traversed Nigeria to identify the economic and political system which Nigerians preferred. The clear answer was SOCIALISM. But the report of the Bureau was characteristically jettisoned.

Thirteen parties were formed in 1989 subsequent to the unveiling of the so-called transition programme. The Nigeria Labour Party was one of the parties formed. Independent observers noted that of all the parties formed then, it was the only party along with that formed by former Local Government Chairmen, which were really on ground across the country. But all the parties were banned and two parastatal-like parties created. These were the Social Democratic Party (SDP), declared to be “a little to the Left” and the “a little to the right”, National Republican Convention (NRC). Nigeria Labour Congress threw in its lot with the SDP.

The cookie of the 3rd Republic crumbled with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections deemed won by the SDP candidate, Chief MKO Abiola and the six years of revolution and counter-revolution which followed.

In 1999, the “4th Republic” was born, marking what would be the beginning of Nigeria’s longest “democratic” experiment, with civil governments. This year also marked a “new beginning” for the trade union movement. The military’s ban on the NLC in 1994 was lifted in 1998 and it held its 7th National Delegates Conference in January 1999. By 2000, NLC had won back the confidence of the mass of Nigerians, positing the working class as the vanguard of struggle for radical reforms. This was through its leadership of the anti-fuel price hike resistance in June, on the heels of its popular struggle for a living minimum wage.

On the basis of this re-birth, NLC forged relations anew with radical civil society, including socialist groups within the broader labour movement. The main plank for this re-alignment was a “Labour-Civil Society Pro-democracy Network”. This platform agreed on the need to establish a Working People’s Party. At the same time as it was re-forging its alliance with radical civil society, NLC initiated an agenda-setting process for itself. This led to the formulation of its policy document that was eventually adopted at the 8th National Delegates Conference in 2003. One of the policy positions of this document was on labour in politics. Therein, NLC committed itself to establishing a party and clearly declared that such a party’s programme would be clearly socialist.

In 2002, when the NLC established the Labour Party, then as the Party for Social Democracy, though, the ideological orientation of the party was mellowed down. This, it was argued, particularly by Comrade SOZ Ejiofor, a dominant figure within both the trade union movement and the party at that point in time, was necessary to draw in “big men” who might have patriotic aspirations without being radical.

Many have argued that quite a number of persons that have flown the flag of the party since then have questionable “patriotic” or “social-democratic” credentials. Examples often cited include the likes of Femi Pedro and Andy Uba who at different times contested for the gubernatorial seats of Lagos and Anambra states respectively, on the platform of the party.

It is not my intent to justify the passing involvement of such figures that merely used the party and went back to where they came from subsequently. It is more pertinent to consider why this was so, where we are now and what might be deemed necessary to be done, by change-seeking working class activists.

In this light, a major problem which still subsists is a disconnection between the trade union leadership and the party. The most explicit demonstration of this was the crossing over of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, the NLC President at the time of the party’s formation, to the Action Congress of Nigeria, the platform on which he is today serving his second term as Edo state governor. But the problem is much more structural than being about individuals like Comrade Adams. For example, the NLC & TUC’s Labour-Political Commissions which were meant to serve as interface with the Labour Party structures are moribund. This has dire political, organisational and ideological consequences.

It might be asked why despite this daunting reality it might be apt to still consider the Labour Party as the party of and for the working class. First and of critical importance is the fact that across the country, the more active strata of working class activists still see the Labour Party as their party, even where they have issues with elements of its trajectory. This, for me, is not an abstraction, but what I have physically witnessed in virtually every geo-political zone of the country, in the course of my activities as a trade union educator. Second, is the circumscribed nature of what an (electoral) party can be in Nigeria, based on the constitution and the Electoral Act. Interestingly, the different platforms which are now forming or transforming into alternative parties for the working people intend to be engaged in the electoral process. With the limited spread of groups behind these, they would have to involve strange bedfellows to secure registration.

The Labour Party is a reformist party, no doubt. It is almost impossible to build a mass workers party which is anything but reformist. Despite the present disconnect between the leadership of the trade unions and the party it represents the pan-Nigerian political platform which many a rank and file worker see as their party. Reforms are necessary for improving the welfare of the people. In Ondo state where the Labour Party won a gubernatorial seat for the first time; such social programmes as the Abiye mother and child health project have impacted on the lives of the working people. This is quite commendable.

It is however pertinent to point out that reforms alone cannot lead to the emancipation of the working class. This requires revolution from below, through which an end would be put to the present exploitative system of capitalism and society run on the basis of solidarity and cooperation. Political education of workers is crucial for this process. But it is very unlikely that such education or organisation for revolution could be pursued by the Labour Party or indeed any party based on its registration by INEC.

The challenge for more radical working class activists who might be committed to revolutionary change, but see beyond the sectarian lenses of going it alone is to learn how to work, both within the Labour Party, and outside it (in the unions and communities). This would be with the intent of reaching out to the widest possible layers of working people, with ideas and programmes for “system change”.

About socialistworkersbulletin

a bi-weekly publication of the Socialist Workers League, in the traditions of International Socialism. we stand for revolution from below! and our call is: workers & youths! unite & fight!


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