Duncan Hallas

Revolutionaries and the Labour Party

* * *

The Labour Party since 1979

Five years of right-wing Labour government ended in electoral defeat in May 1979, with Labour receiving its lowest share of the total vote since 1931 (36.9 per cent). [55] The swing to the left in the party began almost at once. In itself this is unremarkable. The same thing had happened after the electoral defeat of 1970, culminating in the adoption of Labour’s Programme 1973 with its famous promise of “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the distribution of both wealth and power” in favour of the working class.

However this time there have been several new features. There was the attack, partly successful, on the entrenched organisational position of the right (the so-called constitutional issues), there was a right-wing breakaway which has succeeded in establishing a serious electoral challenge to the Labour Party and there has been an influx of new members, temporarily reversing the long decline of nearly thirty years. These are substantial changes. The organisational successes (mandatory re-selection of MPs, election of the party leader and his deputy by conference on the 30:30:40 formula) may seem modest enough: by the end of February 1982 only seven sitting MPs had been refused re-selection. Yet they undoubtedly precipitated, if they did not cause, the secession of a section of the hard right to form the SDP in 1981.

From the 1979 conference through the 1980 conference and the January 1981 special conference at Wembley, the left, although suffering some defeats, was able to score a series of victories on both policy and organisation. And even the (unreconstructed) Parliamentary Labour Party, voting on the old system, rejected Denis Healey in favour of Michael Foot (seen as the “broad left” candidate) in late 1980. Moreover, and this is very important, there is a movement asociated with the name of Tony Benn, a movement going far beyond the ranks of the regular attenders at Labour Party ward and constituency meetings. Benn’s campaign for the deputy leadership produced big and enthusiastic meetings at a series of union conferences last year and he can still pull much bigger crowds than all the right-wing Labour MPs put together.

The “forward march of Bennery” was, indeed, halted by Healey’s (very narrow) victory over Benn in the deputy leadership election at the October 1981 conference and by the successes of the right in the NEC elections. In spite of these defeats Benn remains the focus of a very much bigger Labour Party left than has existed since the early fifties.

That revolutionaries have to relate to that left goes without saying. The question is how. Some revolutionary groups (I am taking them at their own valuation for the purpose of this argument) and a good many sympathisers and half-sympathisers and ex-sympathisers and ex-members of the revolutionary left have sought to do so by joining the Labour Party. Leave aside those who are merely tired or disheartened. Are the changes in the Labour Party such that entry by organised revolutionaries is likely to bring serious gains, serious numbers of people ready to join a revolutionary party and who cannot be won by open work?

The politics of the Bennite left are reformist politics. About this there can be no dispute. All the genuine spokesmen and women of the Labour left stand, thus far, on the common ground of electoralism and parliamentary politics. True, various of the Labour left (including Benn himself on occasion) speak of “extra-parliamentary mobilisation”, “mass struggle” and so on. The unfortunate Peter Tatchell of Bermondsey was victimised on account of some fairly mild remarks along these lines.

However, the extra-parliamentary activity envisaged is directed to what happens inside parliament. “Mr Foot and Mr Tatchell clearly share a faith in the efficacy of parliament as the source of political power”, the Economist cynically remarked. “Few observers of the modem House of Commons are prepared to credit it with any higher status than as a permanent electoral college ...” [56] Benn himself is perfectly explicit on the matter:

Modern democracy requires a revitalisation and reformulation of the philosophy of government enshrined in the idea of Parliament. [57]

And again,

Parliament and MPs freely elected are the greatest safeguards for our freedom. This is clearly understood by the Labour Party and the Labour MPs. [58]

He accepts, and so do his followers, that workers’ power can be achieved, through parliament, on the basis of the existing bourgeois state machine. He rejects, and so do his followers, the position of Marx that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” [59]

It may be said that this is obvious, everyone knows the Bennites are reformists. That is to miss the point. That point is that the necessity of revolution, the class nature of the state, workers’ councils and so on, are simply not issues inside the Labour left at the present time. In other words there is no native revolutionary current in the Labour Party today. There is not even a native centrist current of any size. That is why the entrists are compelled to avoid or fudge the issue in public. The circumstances in which CP members inside the Labour Party in the early twenties were able to argue publicly “the question of Soviets versus parliamentary democracy” simply do not exist today.

Thus we have leading members of the Militant tendency, not sympathisers, not raw recruits, but Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe and so on, proclaiming on television their belief in the parliamentary road to socialism. Now either they believe it (which seems very probable), in which case they are not revolutionaries, or they do not believe it, in which case they are misleading and miseducating the workers they are trying to influence. Other entrist groups may protest that they would never do such a thing. But they are very small and not yet a serious irritant to the Labour leaders. If any of them should grow to the size and influence of Militant they would, as things are now, be faced with exactly the same pressures and exactly the same choice – capitulate on a matter of principle or be thrown out.

To avoid misunderstanding: nobody suggests that revolutionaries should be shouting revolution, in season and out of season. Not at all. But when the issue is raised by the bourgeois media or by the leaders of “a thoroughly bourgeois party, although made up of workers” – Lenin’s description of the Labour Party – revolutionaries have to “tell the truth to the workers” – Lenin again. To do so tactfully, in an explanatory way, yes indeed, but to tell it.

If it is argued that this is impossible at present, that it would be a gift to the right wing, then what is really being said is one of three things. Either that hardly anyone would support them – there is no “native” Labour support for the Marxist position, in which case there is no basis for principled entry work. Or that, although this is true now (as certainly is), one day there will be such a basis and meanwhile we keep our heads down – a repetition of Socialist Outlook and The Week in a new form which will also lead nowhere. Or they are saying: we are simply too weak to stand on our own feet and so must shelter in the Labour Party in order to recruit individuals as the forerunners of the SWP did in the fifties and early sixties. Yet now it is possible to work openly and to relate to Labour lefts – through the Right To Work Campaign for example. That is exactly what the SWP is doing. The relationship of forces is not now what it was in 1950 or 1960.

It may be said that the above argument ignores a vital element in the situation, the influx of new members into the Labour Party. Certainly, this is a significant phenomenon. If it could be shown that it was connected with “the emergence of a left centrist wing moving in the direction of revolutionary struggle”, or was likely to be so connected, the case might be different (might be different, it would depend on the scale and the relationship of forces between revolutionaries and left centrists).

In any event, the matter requires examination. The membership in question is the individual membership. The Labour Party publishes figures, compiled on the basis of per capita affiliation fees. Some have already been cited. There is, however, a complication. In 1963 it was decided that every constituency party must pay for a minimum of 1 ,000 members, irrespective of the actual membership (the minimum was reduced to 256 in 1980). Hence all post-1963 membership data is speculative. For what they are worth the figures show a decline from a (real) membership of 767,459 in 1962 to a (partly fictitious) membership of 660,000 in 1978. For 1979 we have the estimate of the official Labour Weekly that the true membership was 284,000. Evidently, the claimed membership was exaggerated by 100 per cent for years.

Since then, it is claimed by Labour Weekly, there was a net growth of 60,000 between the spring of 1979 and the spring of 1981. Let us suppose that this is correct. If that growth had continued at something like the same rate: then the Labour Party would now have around 374,00 members. But the official figure for 1981 is 303,953, the Labour Weekly estimate 300,250. [60] So the party has less than one third of the membership it had in 1952, at the height of the Bevanite movement. All this refers to dues-paying members. The active membership is usually reckoned at about ten per cent of the total, although it may well be higher amongst the post-1979 recruits. At a generous estimate, then, there may be around 40,000 active members, defined by the Labour Party’s low standard of activity, and of these six to eight thousand may be newcomers (or those that have rejoined after having left). These are sizeable numbers, although far from massive. And the upward trend has now tailed off.

The question is what sort of people are the newcomers. One theory, favoured by the “quality” press, that they are mostly Polytechnic lecturers and students, may be dismissed out of hand. There is evidence, though, that they are heavily and disproportionately white collar. It is admittedly impressionistic: observation at meetings, conferences and so on, and so relating to the more or less active. It does, however, correspond with psephological analysis of the 1979 election. “The swing to the Conservatives was 6.5 per cent amongst semi-skilled and unskilled workers ... and 11 per cent amongst skilled workers. On the other hand it was down to 4.5 per cent amongst office and clerical workers and actually went in Labour’s favour in the professional and managerial classes.” [61] How big a minority of the newcomers are manual workers is impossible to tell, but most of their activists are white collar, often professional white collar.

Politically, there can be no doubt that the great majority of the new members are on the left in Labour Party terms. But are they moving left? Quite large numbers (relative to the 6-8,000 new active Labour Party members) from the periphery of the revolutionary left and from the various New Left, libertarian and “single issue” activist circles have, for the most part, moved rightwards into the Labour Party. To say this is not to dismiss them all as individuals. It is merely to point to a political trend – the British counterpart of the European “crisis of militancy”, a counterpart whose emergence was delayed in Britain until the summer of 1979 by the repulsive face of the Callaghan government. These are the disillusioned children of 1968 and of the early seventies and those they have influenced. [62]

A glance at the Beyond the Fragments conference (1980) and also at the founding conference of the Socialist Society (1982) is sufficient to indicate how far the rightward drift has gone in this milieu. But there are also goodly numbers of active trade unionists, both manual and white collar, amongst the new intake into the Labour Party. By no means all of them militants in the usual (British) sense, but some of them are. On the other side of the balance sheet there has been a numerically quite small but politically quite important influx from the right wing of the CP. This element, well to the right of much of the “native” Labour left, supplies, and will increasingly supply, pseudo-“Marxist” justification for capitulation to the right (incomes policy is the litmus paper here).

To strike the balance of these divergent trends is impossible – in the abstract. The test is in practice. The outlines of the result of that test are already apparent. Following the defeat of Benn at the 1982 Labour Party conference there was the Tatchell affair, Benn’s “I will fight like a tiger” speech, his subsequent climbdown and probable withdrawal from the deputy leader contest this year, the failure of Labour Liaison 82 to get off the ground, the NEC decision to investigate Militant and the “Peace of Bishops Stortford”. The Labour left is in retreat, a fact which does not preclude but rather assumes that further conflicts will occur. But as the next general election becomes closer the left will be forced more and more onto the defensive. The entrists will thus have to adapt more and more toleft reformism – or risk expulsion.

Trotsky had something to say about entrists who adapt in these circumstances. Writing of a group of entrists into the French socialist party (SFIO) in 1935, when it was moving rightward, he declared:

The Spartacists’ notion that it is necessary to remain inside the SFIO at any cost is treachery ... Marxists take advantage of legality (both legalities, the legality of the state as well as that of Blum [i.e. the SFIO]) to the fullest extent, without ever relinquishing their reason for existence: the class struggle – the real one, not the imaginary one. Those who say “we will forego telling the masses the truth about the latest social-democratic treachery so as not to be expelled from the party led by the social- patriots” become the willing accomplices of these traitors. By claiming to speak in the name of Marxism they reveal what contemptible scoundrels are. [63]

Hard words. But do they not apply to Militant and, increasingly, to Socialist Organiser too?

The shallowness of the swing to the left in the Labour Party since 1979, shown by recent events, has surprised many. It has been a swing amongst the activists (inclding a lot of union activists), not amongst the masses. The results of the “consultations” of their members by the TGWU and NUPE on the vote in the 1981 deputy leadership election was profoundly revealing. It showed big support for Healey who could scarcely even get a reasonable minority amongst the activists at the time.

The reason for this state of affairs is clear enough. It is the profound downturn in the industrial struggle in the last few years. It is unnecessary to detail this here for readers of this journal. It is sufficient to refer to the analysis in earlier issues. [64] The activists moved left, seeking a “political solution” in the Labour Party to their industrial weakness. But the mass of workers do not move left in such circumstances. Their radicalisation is always associated with a rising level of direct action.

The rise of the SDP, which has of course strengthened the right in the Labour Party, is an aspect of the same phenomenon. Leaving aside its appeal to disenchanted Tories, the SDP has proved able to attract sizeable numbers of working-class Labour voters, for the time being at any rate. This speaks volumes about the state of working-class consciousness today.

Of course the tide will turn in due course. Meanwhile the task of revolutionary socialists is to face reality, to recognise things as they are, to fight very hard in support of all the struggles that do occur, to seek to increase their numbers and influence on that basis, to apply the united-front approach systematically and untiringly. It is also to patiently explain, to clarify what is and what is not revolutionary work. Both these tasks require a revolutionary party, operating openly under its own banner.




55. However, the greatest fall in the Labour proportion of the vote had occurred earlier. It was 47.9 per cent in 1966, 43 per cent in 1970, 37.1 per cent in February 1974 and 39.2 per cent in October 1974.

56. Economist, 19.12.81.

57. Benn, Arguments for Socialism, 1979, p.111.

58. Ibid., p.147.

59. Marx, The Civil War in France, quoted from Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune, 1971, p.68.

60. Guardian, 26.6.82.

61. Socialist Review, May-June 1979, p.4.

62. Harman, Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left in International Socialism 2:4, 1979, gives a searching analysis of this, in its European aspect.

63. Trotsky, No Evasions on the Independent Party in The Crisis of the French Section 1935-36, 1977, p.51. Emphasis in the original.

64. See especially Cliff, The Balance of Class Forces in Britain Today, International Socialism 2:6, 1979, and Beecham, Updating the Downturn: the Class Struggle Under the Tories, International Socialism 2:14, 1981.


Last updated on 5 July 2019