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International Socialism, Summer 2001


Mike Marqusee

Labour’s long march to the right


From International Socialism 2:91, Summer 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


John Rees is right, in International Socialism 90, to highlight the reactionary record of the Wilson-Callaghan government, and to warn against sentimentalising Labour governments of the past. But he tells only part of the story, and as a result his account of the changes in the Labour Party is incomplete.

The Labour government was elected in 1974 on the back of a great industrial upsurge. As a result, in its first two years it did take significant measures in the interests of working class people. It passed the most pro trade union employment legislation ever seen in Britain; it increased public spending and taxes on the rich substantially; it passed the Sex Discrimination and Race Relations acts. And it was under pressure from its supporters to do much more. There was even talk of introducing some form of ‘industrial democracy’.

The crisis of 1976 was a key moment in the ruling class counter-offensive against the working class gains of the previous period. The monetarist standard was planted firmly in the centre of economic policy, where it has remained ever since. The Labour government abandoned the manifesto on which it had been elected – with its pledge to achieve a fundamental shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people – and attacked its own supporters, with the appalling results that John outlines.

But this willing capitulation to the bankers and the bureaucrats did not go unchallenged within the Labour Party. At every party conference during those years the government’s record – not only on the economy but on social and international policy – was condemned by majority votes. Meetings of the party’s National Executive Committee became focal points for discontent, and prime ministers frequently found themselves isolated in a small minority. A powerful alliance of the trade unions and the constituency activists posed the most serious inner party challenge the parliamentary leadership had ever faced. In parliament itself backbench MPs routinely rebelled, in substantial numbers, against government legislation. And in the cabinet there were Tony Benn and a few others offering an alternative policy and leadership.

In reaction to the betrayals of the Wilson-Callaghan government, the Bennite tide washed across the Labour Party, profoundly affecting the nature of discussion and activism in nearly every constituency in the country, and offering a major pole of attraction to trade unionists. It was by no means clear in the early 1980s that Thatcher would succeed and the prospect of a takeover of Her Majesty’s Opposition by the forces arrayed around Benn was an alarming one for the ruling class. They unleashed a tirade of media abuse and misrepresentation, not only against Benn but against the Labour left as a whole, not least in local government. Every pressure was brought to bear to split the insurgent forces – to divide trade unions from constituency members, the ‘soft left’ from the ‘hard left’. A substantial section of the right wing party leadership was induced to break away, forming the SDP and guaranteeing Thatcher a second term.

Looking back, the whole dreary history of Labour’s long march to the right since 1983 can be seen as a prolonged backlash against Bennism. The political elite were determined to close the loophole through which Bennism had arisen in the Labour Party and ensure that the official opposition – and future government – could be trusted to put capital’s interests first. That meant changing the Labour Party so that the leadership would be insulated from working class pressures. Of course, this was only one facet of the war waged against the working class during the 1980s, and in the end Bennism rose and fell because of the larger movements in the class struggle. After the defeat of the miners the Labour left found itself increasingly marginalised within the party.

The defeats of the working class in the 1980s and the apparent hegemony of ‘free market’ norms and managerial prerogatives affected the character of virtually all our social institutions – from the BBC to the Football Association, from universities to housing associations – and the Labour Party was no exception. Its policies were radically revised to make them inoffensive to big business. Its official ideology was reconstructed around a commitment to ‘free enterprise’. Its internal democratic structures were effectively abolished. Its links with the trade unions were downgraded and a new (financial and political) relationship with the private sector was forged. As a result, the party that took office in 1997 was not the same as the party that took office in 1974.

There are a number of contrasts between Blair’s New Labour government of 1997–2001 and the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974–1979. First, the 1974–1979 government turned on its supporters in response to economic crisis in a period of severe global instability. Blair has administered the punishment in a time of sustained economic growth, low inflation and currency stability (and the help of a huge parliamentary majority). Where the 1974–1979 government was acting in flagrant defiance of the manifesto it had been elected on, the Blair government more or less implemented its core pledges on ‘fiscal responsibility’ and low income taxes for high earners. Voters in 1997 thought they were voting for improved public spending and a more equal society – but that’s not actually what the New Labour manifesto promised them.

Most importantly, Blair has faced only a fraction of the opposition from within the Labour Party that Wilson and Callaghan had to endure. Through four party conferences he suffered only one defeat of any importance – on pensions in 2000. Significantly, however, even this defeat was administered without the help of the constituencies, which backed the government by two to one (unimaginable in the 1974–1979 period). And while the trade unions did take action on this one occasion, under pressure from their members, for the most part they have been content to mutter sotto voce criticisms and restrict themselves to discreetly lobbying the government for modest concessions. Backbench rebellions have been mostly small in scale, and significantly sustained almost entirely by survivors of the pre-Blair era. The new intake has been the most pliant and downright conservative in the party’s history. And there are no voices of opposition within the cabinet, and no alternative leadership on the horizon.

As John acknowledges, in the past socialists could hope to make a difference to the balance of forces within the Labour Party and the character of Labour governments. I don’t think that’s possible (to any significant degree) any more and it’s one of the reasons I left the Labour Party and joined the Socialist Alliance. I know many others feel the same.

The crowning proof in the transformation of the Labour Party was the manifesto on which it fought the 2001 general election. The centrepiece of this is a pledge to open health, education and other public services to the private sector, and to attack the jobs and conditions of public sector workers. Alongside that are promises to cut corporation tax, restrict civil liberties, step up the persecution of asylum seekers, and sign up to George Bush’s National Missile Defence system. This is more than a retreat from socialism, it is a rejection of classical social democracy. It is not timidly reformist – but openly reactionary.

If we are to grasp what the Labour Party was and wasn’t, what it is and isn’t, we need to take care to avoid ‘essentialism’ – assigning some single, eternal, unchanging and defining essence to ‘the Labour Party’ or even ‘labourism’. Like all social institutions, Labour is a creature of history, shaped by the ever-changing society of which it is part. ‘Reformism’ as an ideology cannot fully explain either its successes or its failures. The Labour Party was certainly ‘reformist’ in that its leadership always confined their ambitions well within the capitalist framework, and in that the vast majority of its members believed that socialism would be achieved gradually, and principally through the ballot box. But it was also always a composite and contradictory entity, embodying countless working class struggles (and confusions) as well as relentless pressure from ruling class ideas and the capitalist state. But as a result of everything that has happened inside and outside the party over the last 15 years, the admixture has qualitatively changed. In the past the confusions and contradictions of the Labour Party reflected mass working class consciousness. That was one reason why it was worth engaging in the party’s internal debate. But a gulf has now opened between that popular consciousness and the Labour Party, and along with it a profound alienation.

The transformation of the Labour Party has been a piecemeal process, and it has been driven by forces outside as well as inside the party. But, cumulatively, it does amount to a historic defeat – a defeat for which working people are paying heavily at this moment. But in a sense it is only the final funereal flowering of the defeats of the 1980s. It is the logic of capitalist globalisation worming its way through the electoral system. And as is sometimes the way with defeats, it has also opened up the possibility of future victories. Given the inevitable electoral arithmetic of a class-divided society, it has opened up a new electoral space for the left, as working class people, denied political representation through the Labour Party, seek alternatives.

How can the left can meet this challenge?

John is right to point to the anti-capitalist movements and the evidence of renewed resistance on other fronts, and find in this a source of hope for the future. But it should also be remembered that this new wave is unfolding within a larger context dominated by more depressing trends. Overall our political culture is being shaped by forces that fragment, segment and atomise the majority. Low voter turnouts are only a symptom of a broader and more insidious disbelief in the efficacy of any form of political action. Hence the importance of electoral intervention – as an essential democratic counter-agent. The franchise is not the be-all and end-all of our democratic vision, but it is the major political conquest of the working class, and as a minimum acts as a restraining force on capitalist politicians. If we permit the exercise of the franchise to become an entirely hollow act, the result will be mass alienation, not mass action.

Blairism is merely the British expression of the managerial politics of globalisation. Against the media-modulated politics of spectacle, in which the majority are entirely passive, we must build a vehicle for participation, for intervention, for activism. That can only be done if we pursue both electoral and non-electoral struggles.

No, we don’t want to reinvent the Labour Party. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t – history has moved on. In particular, whatever it is that the Socialist Alliance becomes, it is vital that it is shorn of Labour’s worst vices – paternalism, authoritarianism and national chauvinism. Nor do we need merely a regroupment of the existing socialist organisations. It is not a question of a fudge or a halfway house between ‘reformists’ and ‘revolutionaries’ but of embracing a wide (and complex) spectrum of opinions and activities. This must include disenfranchised Labour Party members, trade union and community activists, unaffiliated socialists of many stripes, anti-corporate activists and outright revolutionary Marxists.

To weld all these components into an effective electoral and social movement will require what I would call a principled agnosticism and ecumenicism.

Agnosticism: acceptance that it is wrong for the Socialist Alliance as a whole to take a fixed or programmatic view about how the transformation to socialism that we all seek will ultimately be accomplished. To do so would be to narrow the Socialist Alliance’s appeal drastically and plunge it into perpetual internal dispute over long term prognostications. Moreover, all those who advance a particular scenario for socialist transformation – revolutionary or otherwise – need to remember that social reality is in flux. Our knowledge of the world is forever incomplete. While people can and should argue the case for the strategy which they find most convincing, they must also recognise that under present circumstances there will always remain a degree of uncertainty, that the case they are making cannot be ‘proved’ in the same way as more immediate questions of policy or strategy. Agnosticism is a tool to help us arrive at a truer picture of capitalism and socialism, and how we get from one to the other.

Ecumenicism: a recognition that there are diverse traditions of resistance to capital, some Marxist, some non-Marxist, and that nearly all have a contribution to make to the movement we seek to build, and concomitantly, recognition that no one tradition can boast a high resolution blueprint. It’s not just about being courteous and comradely – though our behaviour towards each other will have a huge bearing on our prospects of success. Ecumenicism is about a willingness to listen and to learn from other comrades, and a preparedness to revise one’s opinions, if necessary. On a global scale, it means a recognition that there is no single epicentre of socialist struggle.

Pluralism and diversity are not merely feelgood buzzwords. Applied rigorously, they are a necessary part of socialist strategy. They are the method by which the movement as a whole can advance. This is not a postmodernist cop-out, but a scientific acknowledgement of the partiality of any one historically-shaped perspective. As William Blake said not long before the outbreak of the French Revolution, ‘Reason, or the ratio of all that we have known, will not be the same when we know more.’

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