Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Faith of their fathers

(November 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.279, November 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Attempts to ‘reclaim’ Labour have always disappointed

I wrote an article for Socialist Review shortly after the Labour election victory six years ago warning people how bad a Labour government could be. I did so because there were very large numbers of people on the left ‘whose only experience has been of the 18 years of Tory government’ and who felt that ‘this is fantastic, things must get better, things must improve’.

Today the argument has moved on. There is enormous disillusionment with the Blair government. Something like half the people who were members of the Labour Party in 1997 have dropped their membership and the debate on the left is how to react.

On the one hand, there are people like Tony Benn, the majority of the Communist Party and Tribune who still argue it can be ‘reclaimed’ by its traditional supporters and become a vehicle for working class aspirations. On the other there are those like Murray Smith of the Scottish Socialist Party. He holds that Labour’s adoption of neoliberal economics means it cannot possibly regain its influence over core sectors of the working class and is indistinguishable from the Tory Party in terms of its voting and activist base.

The first position is, in my opinion, clearly wrong. Leading ministers in every Labour government began as left wingers. Yet in power they were bent, sooner or later, to what capitalism demanded of them, whether it was cutting the dole, waging war in Korea, imposing wage controls or cutting welfare provision at the behest of the IMF. To put it crudely, Labour has not been ‘reclaimed’ in the past, and cannot be reclaimed now. If opponents of ‘Reclaim Labour’ make a mistake, it is in underestimating the scale of disillusionment caused to working class activists and voters alike during the governments of 1924, 1929-31, 1964-70 and 1974-79.

I will just take the case of the last two governments. There was a massive drop in the Labour vote. The number of Labour council seats fell by nearly half in the course of the first Wilson government. And by 1979 Labour’s general election vote had fallen to 36 percent, compared with 47.9 percent in 1966. There was a hollowing out of Labour organisation on the ground.

In 1951 the party had had over a million members. By 1980 Labour’s general secretary admitted the real membership was only 285,000. Of these a quarter were pensioners. Local reports indicate an even worse situation. The Brixton party, which had 1,212 members in 1965, only had 292 in 1970. A series of articles in the (pre-Murdoch) Times of 1968 told of one constituency party after another falling apart. And an article in the official magazine Labour Organiser could point out that fewer than 10 percent of members were active.

Nor was this all. The proportion of workers in the party was already, at that time, very low in much of the country. In Fulham, for instance, 70 percent of the population were then manual workers, compared to only 25 percent of Labour councillors and General Management Committee members.

It was hardly surprising that socialist intellectuals like Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson, looking for a lever to change society early in 1968, did not find it in the Labour Party. In the May Day Manifesto of that year Williams described in graphic detail the futility of trying to achieve change through the Labour Party. The party might not have been quite as denuded of activists and roots in working class areas as today. But by the Winter of Discontent in 1979 it seemed well on its way to losing both.

Obituaries were premature. The brief swing to the left in the party after the defeat of 1979 combined with the viciousness of Tory government policies gave it new life. By 1981 Labour had reversed the trend of three decades and gained new members – at least 60,000 in a year. And many of these were younger and more active than the existing members. Some at least were solidly working class, believing that they could change society through a party that was now prepared to organise a demonstration against nuclear weapons, and massive rallies against unemployment.

A key role in reviving the influence of Labourism lay with people who, just as today, talked of ‘reclaiming’ and ‘democratising’ the party. Many on the left were deluded into thinking the party could be a vehicle for near-revolutionary social change.

There was a packed thousand strong ‘debate of the decade’ in 1981 over whether socialists should be in the Labour Party. By the end of 1982, two of the three key speakers against had changed their minds and applied to join the party (the exception was Paul Foot). Socialist Review could note:

‘There is a flood of people back towards the Labour Party from the left: the editors of both the original and the later New Left Review, the authors of the anti Labour Party May Day Manifesto, the former luminaries of Black Dwarf, leading lights from the Eurocommunist wing of the Communist Party, the supporters of the International Marxist Group, the authors of Beyond the Fragments.’

Yet within two years the forces that had always ultimately decided the fate of the party – the parliamentary party and the conservative trade union bureaucracy – had reasserted themselves. The party was firmly on the path that led from Michael Foot though Neil Kinnock and John Smith to Tony Blair. ‘Reclaiming Labour’ meant, in effect, making it easier for the pattern of 1929-31, 1964-70 and 1974-79 to be repeated.

It does not have to happen again. The scale of the movement today can open up a very different path. But we will not get that by believing that Labourism is automatically finished. As we wrote in Socialist Review in September 1981, ‘Labour politics has one thing in common with Christianity. The fact that the Second Coming never takes place does not destroy the willingness of the faithful to believe in it.’

Despite the historic record, there will still be people genuinely repelled by what Blair is doing who will be attracted to the ‘reclaiming’ notion as somehow being easier to achieve than building something quite different. Their attitude makes it more difficult to provide the sort of alternative that would make even them change their minds. That is why we have to argue vigorously against them.

But we should not deny their existence, pretend they are unimportant or forget that their forebears helped put the Labour Party show back on the road in the past to disastrous effect. Destroying such illusions requires rational argument – but also proving in practice there are other ways of fighting back, based upon real class struggle.

Ministers in every Labour government began as left wingers

Last updated on 27 December 2009