Chris Harman


A brief history of futility

“WE CAN reclaim Labour” – That is still the message being put out by the Labour left and some of the major union leaders after last week’s jamboree in Bournemouth.

(11 October 2003)

From Socialist Worker, No.1872, 11 October 2003.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“WE CAN reclaim Labour.”

That is still the message being put out by the Labour left and some of the major union leaders after last week’s jamboree in Bournemouth.

But the whole history of the Labour Party is that such attempts will fail.

Tony Blair may be the most right wing Labour leader since Ramsay MacDonald, who abandoned the party to lead a Tory government in 1931.

However there is not some glorious tradition to reclaim.

The whole way in which the Labour Party has operated has always been to insulate governments from the pressure of rank and file socialist activists.

This was shown as early as the first Labour government of 1924.

As John Scanlon told in his pioneering history of Labour at the time, the party membership “had chosen an executive of the left”, but Ramsay MacDonald proceeded to choose “a cabinet from the right”.

The cabinet proceeded to ignore executive complaints about its policies. That pattern has been followed ever since.

David Coates describes in his history of the party,

“Only when forces external to the Labour left itself radicalised the electorate, and only when the right wing leadership temporarily discredited itself by policies which culminated in its electoral defeat, was the Labour left able to exert any sustained leverage on the party.”

Such shifts to the left never stopped subsequent governments tailoring their policies to what British capitalism needed.

So the Wilson government of 1964 and 1974 started with fine talk about socialism and “taxing the rich until the pips squeak”. It ended up with welfare cuts, wage controls, rising unemployment and anti-strike measures.

Another historian of the party, Ralph Miliband (father of two current Blairite ministers), wrote prophetically in 1972:

“The shift to the left in the trade union movement is significant because it reflects a rank and file militancy.

“But the evidence is entirely lacking that the new trade union left has the slightest intention of bringing about sweeping changes in the leadership of the Labour Party, or that it would be able to do so if it had.

“The limited role which union leaders, including left wing ones, see themselves as playing in the Labour Party is that of representatives of organised labour, involved in a bargaining relationship with their political colleagues in the Labour Party, and not in the least as political rivals intending to capture control of the party for purposes radically different from those of the men who now control it.”

The Wilson and Callaghan governments of the late 1970s confirmed this prediction completely.

The once-left union leaders were telling workers to accept policies including welfare cuts and wage controls.

Even when some unions began to join rank and file socialist Labour Party members in rebelling, it had no effect.

As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein tell in their history of the party:

“During these years Labour Party conference was to overrule the executive no less than 23 times. The executive’s policies were often critical of the government. The result? Nil.

“The 1977 conference decided by 6,248,100 votes to 91,000 to include abolition of the House of Lords in Labour’s election manifesto. Callaghan didn’t give a damn. Abolition of the Lords did not go into the manifesto.

“The same conference deplored ‘the continuing disqualification from public office of the 21 Clay Cross Labour Party members’. This resolution had no more impact on the government than water off a duck’s back.

“In 1978 the Labour Party conference rejected the government’s 5 percent pay rise guideline by 4,077,000 votes to 194,000-to no avail.”

It is no wonder that Ralph Miliband, a one-time adviser to left MPs, was forced to conclude:

“The Labour Party will not be transformed into a party seriously concerned with social change.

“Its leaders may have to respond with radical-sounding noises to the pressures and demands of their activists.

“Even so, they will see to it that the Labour Party remains, in practice, what it has always been – a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly and by now irrevocably rooted.

“That system badly needs such a party, since it plays a major role in the management of discontent and helps to keep it within safe bounds.”

There have always been sincere socialists inside the Labour Party, and there still are. Some 35 years ago the socialist writer Raymond Williams summed up the experience:

“The Labour left has been a kind of shadow reproduction of the whole official Labour Party and its perspectives.

“Just as the Labour Party has been a compromise between working class objectives and the existing power structures at the national level, so the traditional Labour left has been a compromise between socialist objectives and the existing power structure at the party level.

“It has made important efforts to reform this party power structure, but with odds continually against it.

“It becomes of necessity involved in the same kind of machine politics, the same manipulation of committee votes in the names of thousands, the same confusion of the emptying institutions of the movement with the people in whose names they are conducted, as that of the leaders and managers whom it seeks to affect or displace.”

These words are just as true today.

But the sheer scale of the movement against the war and of the bitterness against Labour’s social policies points to the possibility of an alternative.

That is a socialist political force that no longer relies on futile attempts to control Labour leaders who cannot be controlled. It would be a terrible shame if what we got instead was a return, under the banner of “reclaim Labour”, to the politics of futility.

Last updated on 13 December 2009