Chris Harman


An illusory victory

(February 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 2, 16 February–19 March 1981, pp. 3–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Scarborough 1960 went down in history as both a high point and a low point in the history of the Labour left. It won a vital vote at the party conference – only to see the leadership ignore the vote and the position effectively reversed within months as the controlling block votes switched sides. Wembley already looks like being the Scarborough of the 1980s. The left – with virtually the sole exception of the Socialist Workers Party – greeted the conference decision with pure ecstasy. Yet already, the great victory looks like turning into the great defeat.

What really happened at Wembley? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Labour left?

Chris Harman, who observed the conference for us, provides an SWP view on some of these issues.

* * *

I expected the Labour Party conference to a be a bit different to the last one I observed. That was, after all, 16 years ago. The party had just won the 1964 election and sycophancy to Harold Wilson was the order of the day. The conference rose to a man (and they were almost all men) to the conquering hero, left and right forgetting all the arguments of previous years. There was not a murmur of disagreement on that occasion.

However, the most notable difference last weekend was not the mood of the delegates – after all, when Foot spoke at the end they rose (with the only exceptions somewhere or other, the cringing figures of Owen and Williams) to applaud him as they had once applauded Wilson. The difference was in the delegates themselves.

The Labour Party Conference has always been two conferences in one – a conference of union delegates, a sort of mini-TUC without certain public sector and white collar unions, and a conference of constituency delegates.

The Union delegates at the special conference were what they have always been.

Experienced trade unionists, balding, grey haired, in their fifties or sixties, overwhelmingly male, obviously from the traditional sections of the working class, attending conference as a reward for a life time of service to their union (or at least to their union leader), as interested in the bars as the debates, moving around in groups of a dozen or more under the paternal eye of a general secretary.

It is the constituency delegates who have changed. They were never as proletarian as the union delegations. But they did used to be old. The absence of anything resembling youth and the dearth even of middle age was the most noticeable feature of any conference in the Wilson era. All that seemed to remain in the party was the residue of the 1945 generation, aging year by year, their youthful Bevanite enthusiasm long since forgotten, taking it in turns to attend the conference with the handful of others from their age groups who kept the constituencies just about ticking over.

Now the constituency delegates are much younger – little more than half the average age of the union delegates. But they are also much more distinctly middle class. In clothing, in hair style, in speech, they were easily distinguishable from the mass of union delegates. Not that they spoke with the plumb voices of the Jenkins and Owens, the born-to-lead public school boys (and girl) who throw a tantrum to media applause every time their birth-right is denied them. No, the constituency delegates were more likely to be from Grammar School and provincial university than from Eton and Oxbridge. Theirs is the distinctive dress and style of the middle ranking town hall employee or civil servant, poly lecturer or social worker. At the main Bennite meeting – of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy – in the lunchtime at conference you felt tempted to do a spot check on ASTMS, NALGO and NATFHE membership cards. For the meeting was everything you’d expect of a Broad Left gathering in one of these unions. Not more than one in men or one in twenty of the several hundred present could have been manual workers.

‘Saturday’s overwhelming decision by the Labour Party for an electoral college was a major victory for democracy within the labour movement. It was an equally decisive defeat for the party’s right wing ... It is a momentous decision in the struggle not only for the return of a Labour government at the next election, but also to ensure a Labour government which carries out the policies of the labour movement ...’
(Morning Star, 26 January 1981)

The point of noting the contrast between the social composition of two parts of the conference is not to shrug off the constituency delegates as irrelevent ‘human rubbish’. After all, those without sin should be the first to cast stones, and it’s still true that about a third of the membership of the SWP (and about 80 per cent of the editorial team of this Review) come from the same milieu as those delegates. The observation is of importance when it comes to looking at the scale of the power the Bennite left really has at its disposal – for the lunchtime meeting was Benn’s meeting and the delegates there indicate what is Benn’s real active base.

It is a power that is very limited within the structures of the Labour party, and even more so outside them.

Much ado about nothing

The vote for the electoral college may have provided Williams, Owens and Rogers with the excuse they have been seeking to dive out of the party. It may also have given the Shores and the Kinnocks a push in the direction of lining up Healey and Foot against Heffer and Benn. But the electoral college – even if not reversed – will not increase the power of the left in the party appreciably. At present the constituencies have about 18 per cent of the votes at conference and choose a quarter of the party’s national executive committee. Four fifths of conference votes and three quarters of the executive seats are at the disposal of the unions (the direct union seats and the women’s seats).

In the electoral college the constituency delegates will increase their weight a little, to hold 30 per cent of the votes. But this will be more than compensated for by the weight of the Parliamentary Labour Party – of which three quarters are hostile to the Bennite left.

The balance of power is held by the trade union leaders. And this power can increasingly be expected to be swung behind the moderate right.

At the special conference itself, the majority of union votes went behind the ‘right of centre’ compromise which would have given half the seats in the electoral college to the right-wing dominated PLP. It was only confusion among the leaders of USDAW and an obstinate refusal of the leaders of the AUEW to vote for anything other than their own proposal to give four fifths of the votes to the PLP which enabled the left’s version of the college to go through.

‘Wembley was a great victory for Labour’s ranks ...With the transformation and retransformation of the trade unions they will play an even bigger part within the Labour Party. The block vote of the union delegations at Labour Party conference will become a vital transmission belt for the demands of an aroused and mobilised working class.
‘Michael Foot has called for a mass campaign against the Tories, linking opposition in parliament to mass agitation in the country. An impregnable base for the party must be built in the trade union branches, in the factories, on the housing estates and amongst the youth’.

(Militant, 30th January 1981)

And it is worth remembering, that for all their complaints about the block vote, the renegades Shirley Williams and Tom Bradley were elected to the executive last October by ... the block union votes.

If the left has a narrow majority on the executive it is because the shift to the right among the trade union leaderships in recent years (particularly in the AUEW) is not yet reflected, for instance in the women’s seats elected from conference. But should the issues seem to be important enough to them people like Allen and Basnett can be expected to line up with Chapple, Duffy and Jackson to achieve a majority for the right to impose its nominees. If they haven’t done so so far, it is because they have not regarded what the left has been doing as that serious, and so have been prepared to vote for ‘left union’ nominees on the executive in return for the ‘left’ unions backing their nominees (e.g. in TUC elections).

In an electoral college choosing the leader or the deputy leader of the party, such ‘left-right’ trade-offs between union leaders would not play a role, and the majority of block votes will be cast for ‘moderate’ candidates.

What that means can be judged by assuming that Foot were to drop dead tomorrow. The conference would meet as an electoral college. Assume that Healey stood against Benn. The line up would be:

25% of PLP equals 7½% of electoral college
75% of constituencies equals 22½%
33% of unions equal 13⅓%
total vote 43⅓%

(by subtraction) 56⅔%

Healey would win – even though the estimates for Benn are highly optimistic (e.g. assume he would get TGWU vote)

The argument is even clearer if you take the not quite so hypothetical situation of Benn challenging Healey for the deputy leadership in the coming autumn. For under those circumstances, enormous pressure would be applied (by Foot among others) to get Healey re-elected,, so as to preserve ‘the unity’ of the party. Benn would certainly receive an overwhelmingly defeat. Healey recognises this – which is why straight after the special conference he insisted he would be happy to face a challenge to his position in October. We suspect Benn will think twice before mounting such a challenge.

‘The final result was a combination of brilliant tactics on the part of the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, pig-headedness on the part of some right wing union leaders and a fair dose of good luck’
(Chris Mullin in Tribune, 30 January 1981)

Such calculations enable one to see why, at the special conference itself, those on both left and right who did not allow their passions to ruin their ability to do simple sums, could insist that the electoral college would not produce any great change in the party.

So, Moss Evans moving the NEC’s version of the electoral college (which would have given more votes to the constituency left than the successful formula) argued, it was ‘not revolutionary’. A left delegate from Salford pointed out that ‘under the electoral college system, every leader since the war would probably have been the same’. Joe Gormley, opposing the successful version nevertheless added that the system selected ‘doesn’t make two hoots of a difference’. And Clive Jenkins, privately telling friends of his on the press not to get too worked up reminded them that ‘60 unions’ had voted with the right at the conference.

These estimates of the impact of an electoral college are a far shot from the rantings of Owen and Williams. But they are just as far from the elation which overtook sections of the left at the conference. So Joan Maynard told the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy meeting, ‘This conference is about making sure the next Labour government is different to last time.’

To believe that a 40 per cent union, say in the choice of Labour Leader would prevent a reversion to some form of social contract under a Foot government is to live in cloud cuckoo land. Who does Joan Maynard think rammed the social contract down people’s throats between 1975 and 1978? Was it Williams and Owen? Or was it not rather Jones and Scanlon ably assisting Callaghan and Healey with Foot as the broker? Does Joan Maynard forget the September 1976 TUC where the big unions told the seamen they would be ‘smashed’ if they went on strike in defiance of the wage controls? Or the winter of 1977-78, when the general council refused to move a finger while the firemen were left to strike alone?

‘A watershed for Labour Party democracy’
(Tribune, 30 January 1981)

This Review is not noted for its high estimate of the abilities of Terry Duffy of the engineering union. But he was capable of making a point at the special conference that the Labour left have forgotten. It was, he pointed out, distaste for the notion of Healey as Labour leader that led some of the big unions to vote for the change to an electoral college at last October’s conference.

‘I’m convinced’, he said, ‘That many unions only voted the way they did at the last conference to stop Healey. If they’d known Foot was going to be leader they would have voted the other way’.

‘What a day at Wembley ... Wembley was a famous victory for the workers’ movement’
(Socialist Challenge, 29 January 1981)

Confusion at the special conference meant that decisive right wing block votes were not cast against the left at Wembley. Now, faced with the threat of a gang of four split, ‘middle of the road’ MPs (including some in the Tribune group) and union leaders are working with Foot to ensure that such confusion is not present at the Brighton conference in October, and that a formula is rammed through that will placate the right and the media. We cannot expect the left’s exultation to last long.

The real weakness of the left

The fact that the very marginal gains made by the left could so easily be snatched from them points to something of fundamental importance that the Labour left refuses to grasp – genuinely socialist forces continue to be very weak.

There has been an undoubted growth in the number of left activists in the last year. Some of these have been in the Labour party. Many more have been attracted to the big local meetings at which a Benn or a Skinner has spoken. Nevertheless, in terms of enduring organisation the left remains weak, and in terms of power it is weaker still.

Honesty forces us to say that the constituency delegates who voted for the left at Wembley represented very little. They do not have organic connections with groups of workers involved in struggle. All they represent, in fact, are small caucuses of 20 or 30 like-minded individuals in the areas from which they come.

Of course, the gang of four and their acolytes are completely hypocritical when they talk about the unrepresentativeness of the constituency delegates. If it is so easy for the constituencies to be grabbed by small, manipulative minorities, why have the gang been so unsuccessful at organising such minorities themselves? The reason, quite simply, is that the ideas they peddle cannot inspire even small numbers to work hard for them in localities.

But the hypocrisy of the right does not justify self-delusion on the part of the left. Let us repeat: The left is weak. In most areas its active supporters can be measured in their dozens, its passive supporters (those who will go to a Benn meeting once every two or three years) in their hundreds. Yet the organised working class is to be measured in each area in its tens of thousands. And with this organised working class, the constituency left has no real links. Its tie with the class is the same cross on a ballot paper that ties the right wing Labourites or the gang of four with the class.

Of course, there is a left within the unions which does have living links within the class. But when you talk of this left, you have to use a different language to that used by the Labour Coordinating Committee and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Socialist Organiser and Militant, the followers of Benn and readers of Tribune. For the union left is far from exultant and triumphalist at the movement. In its former bastion of strength, the engineering union, it is on the defensive as never before. Other bastions are falling fast (see the report on the CPSA elsewhere in this issue). Bitter struggles are being fought against the right, but they are rearguard struggles.

The weakness of the left within unions like the AUEW is not an accidental thing. It is a reflection of a more fundamental weakness – the inability of a whole layer of industrial militants to respond to the wave of redundancies and closures, to resist the six per cent, to put any flesh and blood on to the empty slogans of 18 months ago about treating the Thatcher government like they did the Heath government.

‘Mr Michael Foot, the Labour leader, last night declared his willingness to challenge at this year’s party conference the system for electing the leader agreed last Saturday. He told Labour MPs that the outcome has been unsatisfactory “for the future health of the party”. Before Mr Foot’s formal declaration, 150 MPs had declared their belief that the conference vote should be changed ... in a call for unity signed by members of the left wing Tribune group as well as moderates ...
‘Mr Peter Shore, speaking of what he described as “an appalling week” for the Labour Party, called on the “great mass of sane and tolerant members to rally behind the leader”.’

(Financial Times, 30 January 1981)

If socialist militants in industry were leading mass struggles, then they would find it much easier to win the political argument that something different is needed in response to the Tories from the vague waffle of Foot and Healey. But they are not leading such struggles, and all too easily are slipping back into the delusion that a government of Foot and Healey will be different to the governments of Wilson and Callaghan.

Periodically, sections of the Bennite left make genuflections in the direction of the need for rank and file activity in the unions, But these cannot come to anything unless, they grasp the first essential fact – the left is weak, and the key to overcoming its weakness is recognising it, recognising that where it really matters, where ‘the chains of, capitalism are forged’ it is still very much on the defensive. To reverse that situation the left has to stop going on about ‘reselection’ and ‘electoral colleges’ and to start talking about how you fight redundancies, how you deal with the threat of the recession to shop floor organisation, how you respond to short time working, how you get occupations, how you get blacking, how you organise the unemployed and get support for them from the employed.

But if sections of the Labour left really want to worry about these sorts of things, then they will need an organisational form and political concerns which will look remarkably like those of the SWP and remarkably unlike the electoral caucuses of the Labour Coordinating Committee, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Party Democracy, or for that matter, the Militant group.

Last updated on 21 September 2019