Hilary Wainwright

Open letter to the SWP

Writing off the left

(January 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.105, January 1988, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Hilary Wainwright is a member of the Socialist Society, author of Labour: A tale of Two Parties and co-author of Beyond The Fragments. She was also a member of the organising committee of the Chesterfield conference.


You say in your report of the Socialist Conference at Chesterfield (November SWR) that, “The real problem remains the failure of much of the left to face up to the inadequacies of the Labour Party and the failure of parliamentary reformism.” So in your opinion, Chesterfield represented a stage in the same old cycle of hopeless “resolutionary” struggle, driven by the same illusions, inhibited by the same parliamentarist caution?

“The conference” you say, “increasingly became a vehicle for Benn to put his own alternative to Kinnock”. You seem to be saying, in other words, that: “There they were, at it again, thinking they can challenge the leadership, win an election, and all will be well.” That “nothing has changed”.

It is true, there were some familiar landmarks; like Eric Heffer accusing Neil Kinnock of betrayal, implying that if we all joined the Labour Party, with a few heave-hos, we could have a different leadership. But to focus on these misses the underlying political processes which led to Chesterfield and to the great climax of the year: the party conference, with occasional public meetings to rally for an alternative candidate for the leadership. The period after the conference would see a lull before work for the local elections and then the conference again. The response to Chesterfield showed a deeply felt desire to break free of a political rhythm determined by the party leadership and the electoral machine.

The workshop topics and conference papers reflected this too. Instead of A left perspective on winning the next election or Campaigning for the leadership: prospects and possibilities, the papers and workshops were on Democracy and state power, International finance, The fight for local government, The politics of race, The working class and socialism. Are not these the very issues that any attempt to “face up to the failures of parliamentary reformism” should discuss?

I was not aware that these discussions and papers were dominated by a bone-headed evasion of the failures of parliamentary reformism. Rather another. “Our objectives can only be won by a movement for socialism based on popular struggle” concludes the conference’s draft aims and objectives.

You underestimate what those Labour leftists who desire an independent base nave been through. The movement for constitutional reform in the party – for the reselection of MPs and the election of the leader – was not some trivial constitutional squabble. The establishment was alarmed. Here was the trusty, deferential Parliamentary Labour Party being called to account by noisy, aggressive party activists, and what was worse, trade union militants.

Times leaders thundered away about the threat to democracy. Some of the most pro-NATO, pro-capitalist members of Labour’s parliamentary elite were so horrified by the prospect of the party outside parliament rudely intruding into their cosy club that they broke away and set up their own party.

Tony Benn and the campaign around him were, without filly recognising it, challenging the power of the state in parliament – the power that makes parliament such a pathetic apology for democracy.

Unfortunately, they were using the alleyways of the Labour Party as a short cut to the kind of change which needs a movement down the High Street. They have taken some time to recognise the enormity of their defeat. (Some of those involved in Benn’s campaign have “thrown in the towel”, as Nigel Williamson, now editor of New Socialist put it to me, in the process.) The most recent party conference with its effective reversal of the mandatory reselection of MPs brought home the extent of the left’s defeat (the frustration of this conference was an important factor behind the size of the Chesterfield conference).

The miners’ strike has been another formative experience. The socialists gathered at Chesterfield were among the thousands of Labour Party members who led the political support movement for the miners – joined later, as I remember, by the SWP.

For once the Labour left disowned their party leadership not by resolutions, but by action: independent action with socialists and campaigning groups outside the party.

Hour behaviour towards these people at Chesterfield: your arrogance, your know-all hectoring, was a bit like greeting someone who is coming to shake your hand, with a fierce bash on the head, sending them away hostile and angry.

There is something important at stake. Not a mass movement of hundreds of thousands. But a movement which realistically could involve thousands of active socialists not cowed by Thatcher, or cautioned by the Labour leadership.

It could provide support for the often isolated groups of workers in struggle, and spread support for political campaigns such as those in defence of the rights of women and blacks and for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland. And it will have the ability to stand up publicly, undaunted by fear of immediate unpopularity, for what it believes.

It is a movement in which there will need to be constant argument. The lessons which those who came to Chesterfield are drawing from the failures of Labour in office concern the limits of reform through the ’ existing state. The argument now with these people is over the nature of revolution in the world of the 1980s and how to achieve it. This includes argument over how to win the support of the majority of people for popular democracy and how to expose the limits of parliamentary democracy.

You have one view; Arthur Scargill has another. Socialist Society members outside the Labour Party like myself, Ralph Miliband and John Palmer and the many Labour Party activists at Chesterfield have yet others. Your arguments will be listened to, but only if you speak to persuade rather than to prove your revolutionary virility.

The time when I was most impressed by the SWP was when I was a delegate to Newcastle Trades Council. Then the trades council was led politically if not always organisationally by SWP comrades from the power engineering company, NEI Parsons.

There were three reasons why they were so influential. First, they genuinely wanted to build the trades council into an effective and principled campaigning organisation. They always had this objective in mind. If some individuals joined with them in the SWP, great, but “building the SWP” was not their answer to all the problems of the Tyneside left.

Secondly, they were sufficiently confident in their own fundamental principles to be curious and supportive towards new initiatives and ideas. They never reacted as if these were a threat because they or the SWP were not in control.

Thirdly, they were very persuasive, their speeches always built on the ideas of other delegates who were moving in the same direction as them, gently mocking comrades like those in Militant who were just spouting a line and not grasping the particular circumstances. They came down hard on the old right wing who tried to swing age and procedure against those who wanted action.

The Socialist Conference and all the activities it is generating locally are of course very different from a trades council. But like the Newcastle Trades Council in the 70s, the Socialist Conference and the movement it is trying to create should itself be supported and built, rather than simply “intervened in” to recruit.

The aim of building such a movement raises many questions about how it can be done. In my opinion, it must be built to reach the kind of people whose disillusion with Labour is so deep – though not followed through into a socialist commitment – that Labour, even left wing constituency parties, will never draw them into political activity.

One problem is that many on the Labour left believe in a sort of mass telepathy: that because they believe that the Labour Party is ultimately their party, so other working class people, CND supporters, black activists and so on, will believe it too and automatically be listening to what they say, riveted by their debates within the party.

Experience has shown otherwise and some at Chesterfield recognise this. We must make sure that this first flicker of recognition amongst Labour Party socialists is fanned into a flame which reaches far beyond their familiar circles.

Don’t let your sectarians blast it back to smoulder within the confines of Labourism.


Yours in hope
Hilary Wainwright

Last updated on 15 April 2010