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International Socialism, Winter 1993


Charlie Kimber

Bookwatch: the Labour Party in decline


From International Socialism 2:61, Winter 1993
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


There is a conviction in some quarters that the Tories will almost inevitably win the next election. This in part reflects the deep seated pessimism of many on the left. They believe that workers are so dulled by right wing ideas that they will never fight and are always prey to the siren calls of the media. On the surface such pessimism seems incredible. Labour is consistently 15 to 20 percent ahead of the Tories in opinion polls. John Major’s government is the most unpopular since records began and his personal popularity has sunk to coincide with the rate of VAT – 17.5 percent.

But the belief that Labour could easily lose the next election is also rooted in some past experience. Labour lost in 1992 despite being 20 percent ahead in the polls at the time of the Trafalgar Square poll tax riot and being 16 percent in front during the ambulance workers’ dispute in 1989–90. So many Labour Party members, on the left as well as the right, believe that drastic changes are required in order to avoid a repeat performance.

Four recently published books provide a useful background to Labour’s present crisis. They also provide a history of how Labour reacted to the many opportunities available to socialists in the 1980s – the steel strike, the health workers’ dispute, the poll tax rebellion, the ambulance workers’ dispute, the movement against nuclear weapons and the Gulf War.

One of the strengths of Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee’s book Defeat from the Jaws of Victory is that it reminds us that those who now wish to preside over ‘modernisation’ are the same figures who ran the party during the run up to defeat in 1992. Those who have caused the wreckage claim to be the only ones who can carry out reconstruction. And some, like John Smith, have been in the leadership during many years of reverse for Labour.

Smith served as secretary for trade from 1978 to 1979 in the last Labour government. He was part of that administration which did so much to embitter workers against Labour as it doubled unemployment and slashed living standards. Smith was always on the party’s right wing. He joined the Solidarity group when it was formed in 1980 after the defection by the Gang of Four to found the SDP It was designed to repel the left and ensure Labour remained true to pro-Washington, right wing, pro-EC policies. But although he lined up with Solidarity, Smith remained aloof from much of the inner party controversy of the 1980s. Heffernan and Marqusee note:

He rarely if ever made any direct attacks on the left. Unlike the ‘soft left’, he did not have to. Nobody doubted where Smith, an old-style right-winger sponsored by the GMB, stood on the witch-hunt, unilateralism, the Gulf War or reselection. [1]

His reward was a central place in the 1983 election effort. He was a member of the campaign committee and starred alongside Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Peter Shore and others in the TV election broadcasts. Smith’s biographers will not be able to claim that his media efforts brought much success. Labour took just 28.3 percent of the vote, its lowest share since 1918. Foot went, but Smith prospered. In 1985 he took over the important trade and industry team and once again was at the leading edge of the 1987 campaign. Again he was in the middle of defeat as Labour lost despite being well ahead in the polls during the 1984–5 miners’ strike.

As so frequently with the Labour right, responsibility for utter failure seemed a passport to progress. Smith was honoured to be joint campaign manager for the Kinnock-Hattersley dream ticket when it re-applied for the top positions in 1988. This time, dealing only with opponents inside the party and to the left, he was on the winning side. His years of loyalty to the leadership which drove Labour rightwards meant he was well placed to succeed Hattersley as shadow chancellor in 1989 and then to replace Kinnock last year.

Heffernan and Marqusee also give powerful evidence that the reaction to the latest election loss is very similar to what occurred in 1983 and 1987. The 1983 defeat sent shockwaves through the party. Labour had come third or worst in almost 300 constituencies. Although the national executive held no formal post mortem, right wing MPs and a supporting crew of academic pundits rushed to denounce the left and all its works for the disaster. Shadow cabinet minister Gerald Kaufman denounced the manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. [2] It had, he said, frightened voters into the arms of the Tories. Intellectual support came from Eric Hobsbawm who blamed the left for ‘engaging in a civil war rather than fighting the right’. [3] The solution offered by Labour’s leaders was a long and thorough process of ‘realignment’.

At first the changes seemed quite small. Neil Kinnock’s victory in the leadership race was seen as a victory for the centre left and a defeat for the right wing. When Kinnock wrote about ‘my socialism’ for the New Statesman he quoted Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Gramsci. [4] He used the word ‘socialism’ 39 times. But preparations were already being made for a massive shift in policy. Kinnock could not move too swiftly. The year long miners’ strike prevented an immediate move to ditch socialist principles and rhetoric. But he did show his intention by spurning any real solidarity with the strike and tearing into the leaders of Liverpool council who had for a time defied the Tories.

What signalled real change was a further election defeat in 1987. The party rank and file was fully demoralised and there was no miners’ strike to prevent the drift rightwards. Now MPs and union leaders demanded a further fundamental shift in policies and presentation. Bryan Gould argued, ‘We need to develop radical policies which are not only true to our socialist values but also appeal to the self-interest of those whose votes we need.’ [5] Gould argued that the crucial voters were those who were relatively comfortably off. They would only be attracted if Labour embraced the ‘popular capitalism’ of the Tories. ‘The idea of owning shares is catching on,’ he insisted, ‘and as socialists we should support it as one means of taking power from the few and spreading it more widely.’ [6]

Gould’s argument was echoed by many others including Nigel Williamson, the editor of Labour’s magazine New Socialist. He pleaded that, ‘Labour needs to attract votes from the better off majority if it is to have a real chance of power.’ This required Labour to be ‘the party of progress, a modern party which promises a better tomorrow and not merely a better yesterday’. [7] Backing up all this rhetoric were very old fashioned demands for a purge of the left. Party treasurer and seafarers’ union leader Sam McCluskie urged the party to change its rules to block the ‘hijack of constituency parties by factions unrepresentative of the broad mass of Labour supporters.’ He also wanted Labour councils to ‘stop espousing the cause of minority interests’. [8]

So there is nothing new in the horrified reaction to the latest election defeat and the frenzied demands to shift policy even further to the right. As Martin Smith says:

The policy and organisational changes undertaken by Neil Kinnock are not completely new but a continuation of a process initiated by Gaitskell. All Labour leaders since the 1950s, except Michael Foot, have attempted to modernise the party by identifying it as a national social democratic party. The attempt to change policy started long before the arrival of Mrs Thatcher. [9]

After Labour’s third defeat of a decade in 1959, Gaitskell tried to repudiate completely the image of Labour as a ‘party devoted to nationalisation’ by removing Clause 4 of the party’s constitution. He wanted to drop all mention of class conflict and project Labour as a British party rather than one reflecting class organisation and class feeling.

Harold Wilson continued the process. He gradually removed much of Labour’s commitment to public ownership and sheltered behind ‘modern’ phrases like the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’. The climax of this modernisation strategy was the white paper In Place of Strife which was an attempt to shackle the unions with laws, courts and fines. Class was out and the ‘national interest’ (the bosses’ interest) was in.

This long history emphasises how jaded and weary the smart phrases about ‘modernising’ are. Far from charting a new course, David Blunkett and Tony Blair are plodding down a path that has already been tried repeatedly. The history also shows that Labour’s problems are both deep and long term. For quite simply all the decades of ‘modernising’ have not worked, even in the terms defined by the Labour leaders. If what matters is gaining office then ‘modernising’ is a crushing failure. Labour has managed to lose four elections in a row at a time when there is immense bitterness and frustration at the Tories and also to alienate many of its traditional supporters. In 1992,

Exit polls indicated that Labour underperformed among three crucial groups: older women, young men and, most telling of all, its own ‘core vote’. Labour won a smaller proportion of the votes of the unemployed than in 1987. It also lost support among council tenants and people on low incomes ... It was part of a longer term trend. Since 1966 Labour has gained 4 percent among managerial groups but lost 5 percent among clerical workers, 15 percent among unskilled manual workers and 18 percent among skilled workers. [10]

How can this be explained? The basic truth is that in the end Labour’s electoral support depends on the radicalism generated by workers’ struggles. But the whole history of Labour in the 1980s and 1990s is a twofold attempt both to prevent struggles taking place or, if that were not possible, to distance the party from those who were fighting back.

Every great battle finds an echo in the Labour Party because of its links to the trade unions. But Labour’s leaders have done their best to shun the workers’ action which could have brought down Thatcher much earlier and then scuppered Major. Neil Kinnock launched vicious attacks on the miners’ pickets during the Great Strike of 1984–85. He denounced people who could not or would not pay the poll tax. He refused to call for solidarity action with the ambulance workers’ dispute in 1989. The change from Kinnock to Smith made no difference. Smith threw away the huge public feeling over the pit closure programme in October 1992. He set his face against the mood for widespread industrial action to force the government to drop its plans – action which if it had happened could have forced Major out and seen Smith in Downing Street.

At the same time as shunning struggle, Labour’s policies were shifted ever closer to the Tories’. Often this took an immense internal battle to fundamentally change the party’s official positions. It is easy to forget just how much Labour’s conference and policy statements have changed. At the 1980 conference delegates had a real chance to debate. Shadow cabinet ministers were forced to wait their turn to speak. Now delegates are little more than observers, presented with policy statements which cannot be amended and treated to lengthy orations from a series of leadership figures.

In 1980 the main economic resolution, moved by the far from revolutionary David Basnett, leader of the GMB, demanded restrictions on the flight of capital, an ‘extension of public ownership with industrial democracy’, ‘reflation of public service spending’, ‘a substantial cut in arms spending’, a ‘wealth tax’, a 35 hour week without loss of pay and recognition that ‘Britain’s social and economic problems can only be resolved by socialist planning’. [11] It was passed overwhelmingly with the leadership’s support.

By 1992 the party’s manifesto had not a single mention of socialism – for the first time in its history. Campaign chief Jack Cunningham could urge, ‘the Tories are already planning a rough, dirty election ... our credibility is going to be the key issue. We shouldn’t promise what we can’t deliver, we shouldn’t raise hopes, we shouldn’t build up people’s expectations only to dash them.’ [12] In 1983 the constituency section elected seven left wingers to the executive. In 1992 it elected one. At the 1993 conference that lone figure, Tony Benn, saw his vote drop by a third and he was booted off. The constituencies returned ‘safe’ figures like Blair and Harriet Harman, all from the shadow cabinet.

For some writers, like almost all of those featured in the Smith and Spear collection, this process of shifting rightwards has been both necessary and successful. Ben Rosamond claims that, ‘Labour emerged from the Policy Review process with a set of policies designed to meet the realities of industrial relations in the 1990s and carefully constructed to assuage both trade union and electoral opinion.’ [13] Martin Smith concludes that, ‘The importance of Thatcherism is that it has allowed Neil Kinnock the space to transform the party more successfully than any previous leader.’ [14]

Indeed for some people the process has only just started and needs to be propelled forward at brusque speed. Pete Alcock celebrates Labour’s ‘advances in policy debate about welfare policy which have been made throughout the Thatcher years’ and bemoans only that ‘service delivery’ still has not permeated the party’s thinking. [15] With the Commission for Social Justice which has been set up by John Smith eagerly considering whether to target benefits and how to hold down wages, people like Alcock may soon have new triumphs to celebrate.

It is remarkable that these writers have such a bland acceptance of Labour’s betrayal of its own supporters – and also fail to ask simple questions about whether the whole process has been a success. Have working class people benefited from the anti-union laws, privatisation and heavier defence expenditure – all parts of Labour’s ‘modernising’. Shouldn’t the leadership be held responsible for Labour’s failures and shouldn’t they look squarely at the real results?

One of the sharpest consequences of Labour policy becoming more like the Tories’ is a declining and demoralised Labour membership. ‘One of the central lessons of the general election’, said Labour’s general secretary Larry Whitty after the party’s defeat, ‘is that Labour did best where it had an active campaign, and that is much easier with a large party membership.’ [16] Academics Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley estimate that if Labour had 300,000 more members, it would have won 40 percent of the vote in 1992, not 34 percent. But Labour’s membership is shrinking.

Seyd and Whiteley’s book, compiled with the help of the Labour Party, provides a devastating insight into the collapse of Labour’s membership and gives enough information to explain why it has happened. Labour’s Grass Roots, the Politics of Party Membership is not a left wing analysis. It is an academic text which blames the left for many of Labour’s problems. But it provides very valuable material which destroys the myths put forward by people like John Smith.

Labour’s membership peaked in 1952 at over 1 million. From then on it declined. The method of counting members (each constituency had to register at least 1,000 between 1963 and 1980) hid the scale of the decay. But when a more honest system was adopted in 1981, the supposed membership of 666,000 was shown to be only 348,000. Today Labour claims around 260,000 members of which only 200,000 have paid the appropriate subscription. [17]

John Evans, the chair of Labour’s finance working party, told the 1992 conference that almost half the present membership paid a reduced rate of £3 a year. As the cost of providing them with a membership card and Labour Party News was £3.50 a year, Labour was in the bizarre situation of losing more money the more it recruited. [18] The party survives financially because of the unions (who provide half the funds) and a core of 75,000 people who have a standing order to the party. Most central are the 28,000 people who give £5 a week. But this is no long term solution. Indeed, Evans told delegates, ‘The general election defeat has left Labour with its most serious financial problems in its history. The party on the ground in many areas has deteriorated and its organisation weakened.’ [19]

A confidential report to the national executive from the finance working party last December said that on present trends individual membership would fall to 200,000 and union affiliation fall by a further 1 million within four years unless remedial steps were taken.

Britain’s largest union, the TGWU, has decided to slash affiliation from 1,070,000 last year to 750,000 in 1994. So despite an increase in affiliation fees from £1.60 to £1.80 per head, the TGWU will pay £320,000 a year less by 1995. [20] The union currently sponsors 38 MPs including such luminaries as Neil Kinnock, Margaret Beckett, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Their ranks will be thinned to 25. This will probably be done by ‘natural wastage’ although some branches have urged that Brown and Blair be ditched immediately for their support for breaking the link with the unions.

What no Labour leader can suggest is a way to staunch the haemorrhage of members. Yet this disintegration is not inevitable. It is certainly not, as some have suggested, because of changes in the pattern of industry. In 1955 there were 45 local parties with membership of more than 3,000. They were by no means all in areas which are now associated with strong Labour organisation. Constituencies with very high memberships included Woolwich West, Lewisham South, Faversham (in Kent), Eastleigh (in Hampshire) and Southampton Test – precisely the sort of places which are now frequently written off for Labour. There were thriving Labour clubs with big and active memberships in Swindon, Reading and Bristol. [21]

These branches recruited workers in traditional industries and also from the developing electronic, engineering and manufacturing sectors. A party with this many members had what Seyd and Whiteley call ‘ambassadors to the community’ everywhere. On each housing estate and in every factory there were Labour Party members. They were often fairly passive members, but they were crucial in arguing Labour’s alternative to the people with whom they lived and worked. They challenged the ‘common sense’ right wing ideas peddled by the media.

A study of south London makes it clear that the local Labour Party was once an established part of the local community. From the 1930s onwards it was ‘a centre of social and political life’. But by the late 1960s it had become nothing more than a ‘rusty and seldom activated election machine.’ [22]

Labour’s membership has not only declined, its composition has also been transformed. ‘The typical party member is a middle class man,’ say Seyd and Whiteley. [23] There are very few young members just 5 percent are under 26. A study by a team from Sheffield University showed that the average age of members was 48! [24] This incredible statistic is easily explained and will stand as an example of how Labour cuts its own throat.

In 1983 there were 495 Labour Party Young Socialists branches and the national LPYS was very active. [25] But to the leadership’s horror, the dominant voice was that of Militant. So as a part of making Labour electable, the youth section had to be purged. Unfortunately for Labour, in the process of saving the innocent youth section from the hands of ‘unrepresentative extremists’, the leadership also destroyed it. During the miners’ strike the number of LPYS branches rose to an unprecedented 581. But none of this persuaded Tom Sawyer, the 52 year old chair of the NEC’s youth committee, from issuing proposals for reform. Sawyer leaned heavily on work by ex-student activists John Mann and Phil Woolas who damned the LPYS as ‘moribund’ and ‘insignificant’. Their recommended remedy was ‘mass collective activity’ for young people and ‘political education’. Labour, they said, should aim its youth activities ‘almost exclusively at teenagers’ and stage ‘large scale cultural and social activities’. The age limit should go down from 26 to 21, various local structures should be abandoned and more power should be held at the centre. [26]

When Sawyer’s proposals were sent out for consultation 85 percent of replies were opposed. They were implemented regardless. Certainly the ‘moribund’ LPYS was transformed by Sawyer’s plans. By 1990 the boring old 581 branches had been changed to 52. They had almost 300 members between them. Labour thus managed to organise 0.003 percent of youth in its target range. By the 1993 conference there were just 18 youth sections left. So, after a furious debate (about the organisation’s name – one suggestion was ‘Rosebuds’), Labour plans a fresh approach and a relaunch of its youth section as ‘Young Labour’. To cover up the lack of numbers, Young Labour branches can cover several constituencies.

Nor is the party just older. Its class base has shifted. A party which was once composed largely of workers is now dominated by well intentioned members of the new middle class. They are committed to Labour ideas, but they are not in the main rooted in the workplaces and housing where most working class people, and most Labour voters, spend their time. Just one in four members are manual workers. Only 17 percent live in council houses compared with 25 percent of the whole population and 39 percent of Labour voters. [27] There are as many Labour members in the lecturers’ union NATFHE (membership 70,000) as there are members in the public employees’ NUPE section of the UNISON union (membership 580,000). [28]

Of course most teachers and lecturers are workers. But people at or near the top of these professions are not. And it is these people which Labour seems to be good at attracting. Less than half of Labour’s members consider themselves to be working class. Some 49 percent of Labour’s members (compared with 14 percent of Labour voters) are defined by Seyd and Whiteley as belonging to the ‘salariat’ – which is a higher occupational classification than routine non-manual. [29] Two thirds of Labour voters have a household annual income of under £10,000 whereas two thirds of Labour members have a household income of over £10,000. One in five Labour members has a household income of over £25,000. [30]

There are not enough Labour members and they are not in the right places to challenge consistently the media’s version of events. Labour has launched repeated membership drives. Again and again the leadership have called for more people to be recruited but each time it has failed. In 1980 a party enquiry reported that ‘an increasing membership must be of prime importance to the future work’ and in 1987 Neil Kinnock headed a (completely ineffective) campaign to push Labour’s membership back up to 1 million.

The want of influence which flows from a declining membership is reinforced by Labour’s lack of a newspaper. In 1983 the party had two regular publications – Labour Weekly and New Socialist. Neither could by any stretch of the imagination have been described as lively or popular. But they did aim to carry Labour’s policies to a wider audience. The Kinnock leadership closed down Labour Weekly, ostensibly because it was losing money, but Labour Party News – the members-only magazine which replaced it – was a far greater drain on resources. Between 1986 and 1990 it cost the party £750,000. [31]

Seyd and Whiteley now argue that Labour needs to be ‘energized’ at the grass roots level. But their book produces a wealth of material which can be used to demonstrate precisely why Labour has such a small and demoralised membership. Put bluntly, Labour’s policies are unpopular with its own members. In almost every area where the leadership has insisted on a ‘modernising’ sharp move rightwards, a consistently large majority of the members are committed to ‘old style’ attitudes. Two thirds agree that ‘the central question of British politics is the class struggle between labour and capital.’ Yet Labour routinely expels people who resurrect the old bogey of ‘class politics.’ [32]

Over 70 percent of members are in favour of more nationalisation and an overwhelming 82 percent want the industries privatised by the Tories returned to public ownership. Yet at the last election Labour promised only to take a controlling stake in water and continue the sell-off of British Telecom. Labour pledged to keep nuclear weapons for as long as any other country had them, but 72 percent of members say Britain should have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. [33]

Perhaps most remarkably, 72 percent think workers should be prepared to strike in support of other workers, even if they do not work in the same place. [34] The idea of backing solidarity and sympathy strikes is absolute anathema to Labour’s leaders. Left wingers who have been pushed to the very edge of the party turn out to be more popular than some members of the leadership. So, for example Dennis Skinner scored higher (in 1991) than Roy Hattersley. [35]

Given the disenchantment with many of the core policies presently pushed by Labour it is easy to explain one of the book’s most important findings – that 43 percent of those interviewed are less active today than five years ago compared with just 20 percent who say they are more active. [36] A follow up study released this year showed that the gap between the percentage of members who felt themselves to be less active and those who felt themselves to be more active has grown from 23 percent in 1989–90 to 26 percent in 1992. [37] Only 56 percent of members had done any activity at all in 1992 (compared with 82 percent in 1990). Over 40 percent had not even put up a poster (in an election year) or sent money or attended a single meeting.

Of the most important reasons members gave for leaving the party, 25 percent mentioned Labour’s abandonment of its basic principles. Also crucial was ‘the move too far to the right’. A further 25 percent expressed dissatisfaction with specific policies of which the most important was Labour’s support for the Gulf War. In addition to the move rightwards in policy, there are other important factors which explain why Labour members are now less active and do not try to recruit others to the party. One is the systematic witch hunt by the leadership against constituency activists.

Seyd and Whiteley found that the more left wing you are, the more likely you are to be an active Labour member. Yet the left have been hounded at every turn. Humiliated, disowned and threatened with expulsion they have become more passive – or torn up their card. Labour says it wants more members but it shuns their participation and rides roughshod over the decisions made by those members at conference. It calls for an election effort by members but it disdains public meetings and focuses the whole campaign on TV events and photo opportunities. In addition, almost a third of active Labour members are presently councillors. Their experience is of implementing unpopular Tory policies which directly harm the people who elected them. Some accept this as necessary, some indeed seem to revel in it. But many others are repelled and fade away.

Given all this evidence of the gap between the members and the party hierarchy, it might seem incredible that Labour’s leaders ever got elected or manage to force their policies through conference. But the problem is that for all their anger at Labour’s move right, the members are trapped by the central belief of the party – that there is no alternative to winning power in parliament. When members are asked directly if Labour should abandon its principles to win an election, over 60 percent disagree. [38] But a clear majority are also for the ‘modernisation’ strategy – trimming policies to get votes. [39]

Although they cheer Tony Benn’s speeches and applaud Dennis Skinner’s assaults on the Tories, they vote for Tony ‘law and order’ Blair to front the party. Labour’s whole tradition is that of bending every effort to capture parliamentary office. However much members may talk about a different set of principles, in practice they are paralysed by the grim fear of electoral unpopularity and what the media will say about ‘loony’ Labour activists.

And the problem with all three books mentioned so far is that they remain firmly inside this parliamentary tradition. Heffernan and Marqusee are superbly vitriolic about Kinnock, they record in glorious detail the betrayals of those who now head the party. But not once do they really ask why this happens. Were they all just nasty people? Were they all simply consumed by a desire for power? Perhaps some of them were. But many started out as good left wingers before, in a process which has been repeated over and over again during the last century, becoming what they are today.

Neil Kinnock did vote 84 times against the cuts and closures of the Wilson-Callaghan government (a Labour government), he did defend the miners’ mass picket of 1972 – violence and all. What broke him and a thousand others was that concentration on office rather than the struggle. Heffernan and Marqusee can recognise that the miners’ strike was the most significant event in the 1980s, but they still focus utterly on Labour as the place for socialists.

They may regard struggle as central, but they are completely wedded to a party which has, even in its best moments, relegated struggle to second place. This means Heffernan and Marqusee do not have a solution. All they can hope is that, despite the best efforts of the Labour leaders, struggle will revive. That would definitely force Labour leftwards. But as the journey from 1981 to 1992 showed, winning positions, policies and constitutional change inside the Labour Party is building on sand. What matters is developments outside the party. Even here there is no automatic link between a revival in confidence and a growth in Labour membership. A Labour press official told me that the party had ‘probably recruited about 1,800 people more than they expected between October 1992 to January 1993.’ ‘Of course that could be something to do with the computer and anyway it’s less than the Trots,’ she told me glumly before realising the source of the enquiry.

Yet for all its problems Labour is not finished. Unlike the fashionable columnists in the Guardian, we should not write off the chances of John Smith’s Labour winning the next election. The hatred of the Tories can be too great even for Labour to dissipate. The government is plainly capable of making such huge errors that virtually nothing can save them or – like the American Republican Party in 1993 – of embarking on a madcap right wing agenda that alienates swathes of middle class support as well as most workers. If the union leaders can be pressured to put up even the semblance of a fight, struggle could drive out the government and one effect would be to put Labour in office.

Labour’s tailing of the Tories does nothing to mobilise votes. But despite firm commitment to right wing policies and a horror of supporting struggle, Labour type parties have won elections recently in Spain, Australia and Greece. These parties won despite the handicap of either being, or recently being, administrations which were implementing vicious anti-working class policies. Today many voters have no memory of the last British Labour government and the Tory myths about its incompetence tend to fade when compared with the present rabble.

Even the most apparently dead party can sometimes revive. In 1968 the French equivalent of the Labour Party won just 16.5 percent of the votes and the following year Gaston Deffere, its candidate in the presidential election polled just 5 percent. Twelve years later the new Socialist Party founded by François Mitterrand was swept to victory. It then, of course, presided over a decade of cuts and austerity measures which saw it return to 20 percent in this year’s legislative elections.

The Portuguese Socialist Party was formed in exile just two years before the 1974 revolution by a handful of doctors and lawyers. But in the heady conditions of revolt (and with money from the ruling classes of Western Europe) it mushroomed ahead of its rivals in time to help stifle the Portuguese revolution and restore ‘social peace’. Moreover Labour still derives strength from the very union link which its leaders want to weaken. Despite Smith’s 1993 ‘reforms’, the trade unions still elect half the national executive, have a third of the votes for leader and account for 70 percent of the conference voting strength. This means that, even if very weakly, working class struggle finds an echo inside Labour through its organic links with organised workers.

So Labour can win the next election, although the haemorrhage of membership and the distancing from the unions will make it more difficult. But even if Labour does win it won’t be a party committed to workers’ interests and it won’t hesitate to turn on its own supporters once in government. Moreover there are more important considerations for revolutionaries than the prospects of Labour’s electoral success. Whatever has happened at the polls, Labour remains the party which the overwhelming majority of advanced workers define as ‘their’ party. Reformist consciousness – the idea that the only way to change society is a little at a time through the mechanism of the existing state – remains strong.

It does not depend on Labour winning office or delivering reforms. As long as capitalism exists this reformist consciousness will exist. Even large scale struggle has the effect of strengthening reformist ideas as well as revolutionary ones. Reformist notions can (and must) be overcome only when workers feel their own power and are given an alternative political leadership which is well enough rooted in the class to provide a viable alternative. Building such an alternative means both analysing Labour’s failures and putting forward a different model.

At least Heffernan and Marqusee are angry about Kinnock, at least they want the fightback. Two other books reviewed here have none of that flavour. Seyd and Whiteley’s book is very useful about the reality of Labour’s membership. But you should avoid the ‘rational-actor models of activism’ and so on which assume that people join parties for reasons based on how it will transform their personal life chances rather than any wider considerations. Smith and Spear’s book has the occasional useful fact but is essentially a collection of rather tedious and shallow essays delivered at what must have been a less than exhilarating seminar series.

An apparently different approach comes from Gregory Elliott. The early part of his Labourism and the English Genius is superbly biting about Labour’s failings. He assaults the ‘modernisers’ economic agenda as ‘wallowing in the ideas of socialism’s opponents’. [40] He satirises the fact that ‘The traditional Labour cycle – moderation and failure in government, radicalisation out of office and so on and on – has been broken in opposition by a leadership whose novel solution to the problem of unkept promises was to make virtually none.’ [41] He attacks Kinnock’s failure to nail the Tories over, for example, the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands and over the Westland affairs when ‘pushing at an open door he managed to slam it on himself’. [42]

Elliott’s history of the party is interesting. He says there are three phases to Labour’s past. Firstly there is the period from 1899 to 1940 of ‘classical social democracy’, then the transition to Keynesian social democracy up to 1975, then the era of social liberalism. Elliott shows that even in its best moments the party’s record, when not iniquitous, was derisory. It was either backing the foulest imperialist slaughter or claiming to tackle the deepest social problems with the smallest measure of reform.

He is also scathing about attempts to reform Labour by working inside the party. He attacks those whose ‘addiction to inner party struggle invariably led them to mistake composited triumphs inside "the movement" for tangible victories outside.’ [43] I would raise some questions about Elliott’s description of Labour’s history, but at least he is trying to confront the structural problems behind Labour’s decline. The trouble starts when he tries to put forward an alternative.

Here we find that the most important element is deemed to be constitutional change in order to liberate the state and the economy from the influence of archaic commercial and finance capital. With the House of Lords gone, proportional representation installed, regional parliaments flourishing and the monarchy on the scrapheap, it would be possible for manufacturing interests to burn more brightly. What starts as a biting and effective critique of Labour’s shortcomings ends up as an apology for the sort of Lib-Lab nonsense peddled by the archest ‘modernisers’.

Elliott even projects this schema back into history. He criticises Ramsay MacDonald for cutting unemployment benefit and wages in 1931 as a solution to capitalist crisis. But his main wrath seems to be directed at MacDonald’s rejecting the ‘obvious option for the minority Labour government of formal collaboration or an "informal understanding" at any rate with the Liberals. For although they had extended full support to Baldwin during the General Strike they had thereafter undergone a radicalisation.’ [44]

None of the books reviewed here puts forward real hope precisely because they are, from different viewpoints, about Labour from a Labour perspective. There is today a new anger among ordinary people about the system. Building a movement around those feelings and the struggles that result from them means starting from an alternative to Labour’s tradition. It will be one which puts socialist principles before chasing the opinion polls. That backs every struggle, whatever the headlines in the Sun or the Express.

There are several books which it is well worth reading to understand how such a movement can be built. Duncan Blackie’s pamphlet Socialism and the Labour Party: a dream betrayed [45] is an excellent introduction to both Labour’s history and why Labour fails. Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism marries together the theory about Labour with a good history up to the 1960s. It shows that there was no ‘golden age’ of the party and is very helpful for the background to Labour’s present problems. He insists,

Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour. [46]

He adds that Labour plays an important role in the maintenance of capitalist society,

Social democracy for most of its existence has been primarily engaged in political brokerage between labour and the established order. This is a function which is of crucial importance to modern capitalism. [47]

If you want to know what a Labour government felt like from the inside, Tony Benn’s Diaries show the manoeuvres, the cynicism and the betrayals. The volumes covering 1973–77 and 1977–80 are particularly helpful. You might find Paul Foot’s book The Politics of Harold Wilson in your library and its study of one man and his Labour administrations throws a sharp light on the whole Labour project. David Coates has written a series of works (mostly out of print unfortunately) all of which have some useful material. The include The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism [48] and Labour in Power? [49] which is devastating about the last Labour government.

If you are interested in what happened to Labour parties at a local level, Barry Hindess (in better days) provides useful material in The Decline of Working Class Politics [50] which looks at Liverpool. S. Goss’s Local Labour and Local Governments [51] is heavy going at times and certainly not a revolutionary text but it has a close examination of Labour in inner South London. But the best book to pick apart Labour’s tradition remains Cliff and Gluckstein’s The Labour Party – a Marxist History. [52] It explains Labour’s roots and how its whole tradition is one of a partial break from ruling class ideology and yet an acceptance of its central element – that ‘national interest’ comes before class interest. Most workers still look to Labour at elections. But their support is grudging and with few illusions that John Smith in Number Ten will make a lot of difference. It is well worth reading Cliff and Gluckstein’s book to understand how we replace Labour’s rotten tradition with something better. The task is not to try and rescue Labour from its present decline but to build a fighting alternative.


1. R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory (Verso 1992), p. 142.

2. Ibid., p. 25.

3. Ibid., p. 34.

4. Ibid., pp. 42–43.

5. Ibid., p. 93.

6. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party – a Marxist History (Bookmarks 1988), pp. 357–358

7. R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, op. cit., p. 95.

8. Ibid. p. 97

9. M. Smith and J. Spear, The Changing Labour Party (Routledge 1992), pp. 17–18.

10. R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, op. cit., p. 322.

11. Ibid., p. 10.

12. Ibid., p. 302.

13. M. Smith and J. Spear, op. cit., p. 100.

14. Ibid., p. 28.

15. Ibid., p. 150.

16. Larry Whitty’s speech at the press launch of Seyd and Whiteley’s book, June 1992.

17. P. Seyd and P. Whiteley, Labour’s Grass Roots (Oxford, 1992), p. 16.

18. Guardian, 12 December 1992.

19. Tribune, 15 January 1993.

20. Tribune, 11 December 1992.

21. P. Seyd and P. Whiteley, op. cit., p. 15

22. Ibid., p. 17.

23. Ibid., p. 28.

24. Daily Mirror, 17 December 1992.

25. R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, op. cit., p. 171.

26. Ibid., p. 71.

27. P. Seyd and P. Whiteley, op. cit., p. 39.

28. Ibid., p. 35.

29. Ibid., p. 33.

30. Ibid., pp. 39–40.

31. R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, op. cit., pp. 107–108.

32. P. Seyd and P. Whiteley, op. cit., p. 125

33. Ibid., p. 125.

34. Ibid., p. 125.

35. Ibid., p. 153.

36. Ibid., p. 90.

37. Guardian, 25 September 1993.

38. P. Seyd and P. Whiteley, op. cit., p. 134.

39. Ibid., p. 162.

40. G. Elliott, Labourism and the English Genius (Verso 1993), p. 20.

41. Ibid., p. 20.

42. Ibid., p. 138.

43. Ibid., p. 131.

44. Ibid., p. 42.

45. D. Blackie, Socialism and the Labour Party: a dream betrayed (Bookmarks 1991).

46. R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (Merlin, 1972), p. 13.

47. R. Miliband, in New Reasoner, No. 5, p. 46.

48. D. Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism (Cambridge 1975).

49. D. Coates, Labour in Power? (Longmans 1980).

50. B. Hindess, The Decline of Working Class Politics (London 1971).

51. S. Goss, Local Labour and Local Government (Edinburgh 1988).

52. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party – a Marxist History (Bookmarks 1988).

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