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Pete Goodwin

Is there a future for the Labour Left?

(September 1983)

A Socialist Workers Party Pamphlet.
First published September 1983.
Published by the Socialist Workers Party.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Derek Howl.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ON 9 JUNE 1983 the Labour Party received its lowest vote at any general election since 1918. Hardly had the polling booths closed than the inquests started, and they have gone on ever since, particularly on the Labour Left.

Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Tribune and Militant: all have given their considered interpretations of ‘What went wrong?’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’ Their discussions have ranged wide over the recent experience of the party. There are considerable differences in the answers they give. On one point, however, they all agree. All are adamant that wherever socialists go from here, the journey must be within the Labour Party.

This pamphlet challenges that assumption. It argues that the Labour Party is a trap for socialists, and ultimately a fatal trap. Of course our case is not new. It has been advanced by generations of revolutionary socialists, and we shall cite evidence for it from the whole of the Labour Party’s history.

But we will start by examining the past four years, the years dominated by the name Tony Benn. Because these years have provided one of the strongest possible tests of the argument that socialists should be in the Labour Party, a test that it has plainly failed.

1. The rise and fall of the Bennites

BETWEEN Labour’s election defeat in May 1979 and its conference in September 1981 the party experienced its biggest swing to the left for at least a generation.

The starting point for this lay in the five years of Labour government under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan between 1974 and 1979. The record of those years was simply disastrous.

When Labour won an overall majority in the general election of October 1974 unemployment stood at 643,000. By May 1979 it had doubled to 1,299,000. Labour’s agreement with the union leaders, the ‘Social Contract’, cut the real wages of those in work by up to 10 per cent in two years. In Labour’s last full year in office fewer council houses were built than in any preceding year since 1945. And, particularly in their last two years in government, Prime Minister James Callaghan and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, pioneered the strategy of cuts in public services such as health and education which the Tories were to follow.

Between 1979 and 1981 all this was openly and bitterly recognised by the Labour Left. In Tribune in September 1979, veteran left-wing MP Ian Mikardo expressed the mood. Many of his constituents who normally voted Labour, he said, had told him:

‘Callaghan has let us down, has let his own people down, has let the working class down; Healey has shut our local school and our local hospital; and why are there no jobs for our children when they leave school?’

Mikardo endorsed their feelings. Under the Callaghan government, he said, ‘the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, as they do under Tory governments. When that shift is organised by a Geoffrey Howe, our supporters expect it; but when it is organised by a Denis Healey they feel let down and angry about it.’

In 1979, then, the Labour Left were unanimous that there was no point at all in having another re-run of Labour government in the mould of Wilson and Callaghan – which in practice were no different from the Tories. They were also unanimous on a second point: that there was no point in trying to remedy the situation by simply passing left-wing resolutions at conference. They knew that all too well. They had passed all manner of resolutions last time Labour was in opposition, only to find them not worth the paper they were written on when Labour gained office.

Again Ian Mikardo expressed the mood well:

‘Our problem isn’t that we don’t have good policies, it is that our good policies don’t get implemented. We had very good policies in our manifesto of October 1974, but the Wilson/Callaghan governments turned their back on them ...’

Now the Labour Left had to ensure that this would not happen again. So they focussed their attention on a package of changes to the party constitution. Two of these changes they considered of particular importance. First, that Labour MPs should have to come for reselection by their local parties before every election. Second, that the party leader and deputy leader should be chosen by an electoral ‘college’ of representatives of local parties, trade unions and MPs at conference – and so by representatives of the whole party, not just by MPs, as before.

Both these changes were designed to give the party as a whole more control over its MPs and party leaders, and so ensure that left-wing conference policies were actually implemented by the party when in government. They were the Labour Left’s considered response to its own previous failures.

The fight for these constitutional changes dominated the Labour conferences of 1979, 1980 and a special conference held at Wembley in January 1981, where they were eventually won.

The Labour Left were ecstatic. ‘What a great day at Wembley! ... Wembley was a famous victory for the workers’ movement,’ said Socialist Challenge. ‘A watershed for Labour Party democracy,’ said Tribune.

‘Wembley was a great victory for Labour’s ranks ... With the transformation and retransformation of the trade unions they will play an even bigger part within the Labour Party. The block vote of the union delegations at Labour Party Conference will become a vital transmission belt for the demands of an aroused and mobilised working class.’

These were the words of Militant.

Many less committed commentators agreed that a decisive change in the Labour Party was taking place. The evidence seemed impressive. In the teeth of the most virulent opposition from the press and the right-wing Labour establishment, the left had won support for their constitutional changes among the overwhelming majority of the constituency activists and half of the trade union block votes. Their victory at Wembley prompted the defection of some of the best- known leaders of the Labour Right to form the SDP. And even before that defection, the left seemed powerful enough to pressure the Parliamentary Labour Party into choosing former left-wing rebel Michael Foot as leader over the favourite and champion of the traditional right, Denis Healey.

Outside the conference halls and parliamentary lobbies the evidence seemed even more impressive. After thirty years of continuous decline the Labour Party was winning new members in large numbers. Precise figures are impossible to obtain, but it seems that in the two years after May 1979 individual membership of the Labour Party increased by 50,000 or more.

The increase in dues-paying members was paralleled by an increase in active members. A significant proportion of these were people who had previously been influenced by the revolutionary left. They added not merely to the numbers and enthusiasm but also to the left-wing colour of the party wards and general management committees.

And they seemed to be mobilising people around them. Just before the Wembley conference the Labour Party nationally had made an apparently successful lurch towards extra-parliamentary politics. In November 1980 it had organised a 100,000-strong demonstration in Liverpool against unemployment, to be followed by a series of similar demonstrations in various cities.

Finally there was the phenomenon of Tony Benn. Apparently enthusiastic about extra-parliamentary action, openly critical of the undemocratic nature of the British state, seemingly learning from his experience when Labour was in office and moving continually to the left as a result, Benn was regularly able to attract large and enthusiastic audiences to Labour Party public meetings in a way that had not been seen for a generation.

The left hardly paused after it had won the constitutional changes. It immediately went on to use the new procedure for electing the leadership, to launch another challenge.

Denis Healey was the figure most notoriously associated with the worst aspects of the 1974–79 Labour government. He was also openly opposed to most of the left-wing conference policies. To challenge him for the deputy leadership of the party was the next logical step for the left.

Tony Benn’s campaign against Healey was, however, received with coolness, and in some cases with hostility, by the leaders of the left-wing unions and by many of the left MPs. The Transport and General Workers Union leadership tried to float John Silkin as a safe alternative. Clive Jenkins tried to prevent his union, the white-collar workers’ ASTMS, supporting Benn.

What upset their plans was not so much the overwhelming support Benn received within the Constituency Labour the unexpectedly enthusiastic response he got from union activists. Throughout spring and summer 1981 Benn spoke at packed fringe meetings at union conferences. In some cases, such as in the ASTMS, the leadership’s opposition was overturned and the union’s votes thrown behind Benn.

When it came to the vote, on Sunday 27 September 1981, Benn ran Healey desperately close. He received 49.6 per cent of the electoral college votes to Healey’s 50.4.

Of course the left were disappointed not to have won. But they had done far better than anyone would have dared predict only a few months before. Against all the odds they seemed to have tapped new layers of support among union activists, and to have thrust aside the weak-kneed compromisers from what had become known as the ‘soft left’ – such as Neil Kinnock, who himself abstained, voting for neither Benn nor Healey.

The left really seemed to have arrived. They had two and a half years of apparently uninterrupted successes behind them. One more push and they would be home.

It was not to be. 27 September 1981 was the high point. Thereafter it was downhill all the way. As the Socialist Workers Party monthly Socialist Review commented that October:

‘The forward march of the Labour Party has been halted. Labour politics over the next year will be a different matter from Labour politics over the past year.’

What were the weaknesses in the upsurge of the Labour Left around Benn, which we had noticed but virtually everybody else had ignored?

First of all this upsurge was taking place against a backdrop of a downturn in industrial struggle.

The contrast between the situation under the Tory government of 1970–74 and that during Thatcher’s first four years is instructive. Heath’s government was stopped in its tracks by the 1972 miners’ strike and the strikes over the five dockers imprisoned for picketing. It was brought down by a second miners’ strike in 1974. There have been no such industrial victories against Thatcher. Instead we have seen a long series of union defeats or, worse still, struggles not even taken up.

Now contrast the fortunes of the Labour Party during the two periods. The Labour Party in opposition under Heath did swing to the left in policy terms. But there was no significant upturn in membership and nothing to parallel the turmoil around the constitutional changes or Tony Benn.

The two contrasts are clearly related. After 1979 many socialists and union activists focussed their attentions on the Labour Party precisely because of their industrial weakness. But sooner or later that industrial weakness was bound to catch up with them. For a low level of industrial struggle makes workers generally less confident of their ability to change things and so pushes the mass of union members to the right over the whole range of politics. The left turn in the Labour Party could not remain immune from this forever.

Already, during the deputy leadership campaigns there was a clear sign of this. For at the same time as union activists were at their most enthusiastic for Benn, wider consultations among union members almost invariably showed support for Healey. A ballot in the print union NATSOPA gave Healey a 3–1 majority, while even in left-wing unions such as the public employees’ union (NUPE) and the Fire Brigades Union membership consultations gave a majority to Healey.

The general shift to the right among union members was also beginning to have its effect in electoral terms. The arguments about the Labour Party constitution had taken place under the assumption that Labour was bound to win the next election – at stake was simply what sort of a Labour Party would win. But by the time of the deputy leadership election Labour was already well down in the opinion polls to the SDP, which had been formed earlier in the year. Soon that was to produce concern about whether Labour would win the next election at all, a concern shared by the supporters of Tony Benn just as much as the Labour Right. We shall see the effects that this had.

Lastly, the victories of the left depended not so much on their own efforts as on the behaviour of the trade union leaders. Half the union block votes at conference had all along been cast clearly and openly against the left. In unions such as the General and Municipal, the engineers’ (AUEW), and the electricians’ and plumbers’ (EETPU), the left could produce scarcely a dent in the right-wing union machine. The right-wing union leaders often seemed incapable of tactical agreement to make full use of their strength at Labour Party conference, though it seemed unlikely they would continue to be so tactically inept.

But more important were the union block votes that Benn’s supporters had secured: the votes cast by the left union leaders. These had all lined up in favour of the constitutional changes. But why?

In the main this seems to have been because the left union leaders were bitterly disgruntled by the last year of the Callaghan government. Pay limits had been pushed beyond breaking point in 1978/79, producing the rash of strikes known as ‘The Winter of Discontent’. The left union leaders were particularly concerned to see that the Labour leaders got a rap over the knuckles for this and that Denis Healey, chief architect of the policy, should not become party leader.

With the election of Michael Foot as leader and Healey run to a hair’s breadth for the deputy leadership, they had achieved this objective. Would they now swing back behind the party leadership? And if they did, what would be the result for Benn and his supporters?

The first reverse came within a day of the deputy leadership election. In the elections for the national executive committee the right-wing unions organised their vote to ensure that the previous left majority was overturned. Now the Labour Right had a clear majority if the ‘soft left’, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, voted with them.

Before 1981 was out, the right had used this majority to refuse Tariq Ali membership of the party; to prevent the endorsement of Peter Tatchell as Labour candidate for Bermondsey (though this was later reversed); and to set up an inquiry into the Militant tendency. On all these issues, not only did Foot and Kinnock vote with the right, but so did Alex Kitson of the TGWU – a revealing indication of how the top left union leaders were moving.

Equally revealing was the immediate reaction of Benn and his supporters to this witch-hunt against the left. Benn stormed out of the national executive meeting where it took place to announce to the waiting press: ‘I am the real deputy leader’ – on the grounds that some of the Labour MPs who had voted for Healey had subsequently defected to the SDP.

It was exactly the sort of reaction which, at the height of their campaign, his supporters would have welcomed. But now they greeted it with embarrassment. Within days Benn had withdrawn it, and in January 1982, at a meeting between top party and union leaders at Bishops Stortford, he agreed not to stand again for the deputy leadership.

The extent of the retreat must be stressed. Benn agreed not to stand again because all the union leaders pressured him to do so. He could see that he would not secure their votes in any new contest. And by agreeing not to challenge Healey, he had abandoned the central thrust of the left’s previous case – that there was absolutely no point in having left conference policies if the party had a leadership which was unwilling to implement them.

On the basis of everything Benn and his supporters had been arguing over the previous two years, Labour’s new leadership – dominated by the right wing, with a sprinkling of ‘soft lefts’ moving ever closer to them – was patently unwilling to implement left conference policies. The calmness with which Healey and Hattersley greeted overwhelming conference votes for unilateral nuclear disarmament and the rapidity with which they later agreed to put this policy into the election manifesto, both indicate just how unseriously they took such conference resolutions.

Yet from January 1982 onwards Benn had retreated to merely defending these resolutions. His watchword was now, to use his own words, ‘unity behind the existing leadership and the existing policies’. By March 1983, in a speech made in Gwent, that had become:

‘Denis Healey was elected after a contest and ever since then our main task should have been to unite around Michael and Denis ...’

Benn carried the overwhelming bulk of his supporters with him in this retreat. In the first few months of 1982 there was some brave talk about trying to draft Benn for a new campaign. But it rapidly petered out, even though the ‘existing leadership’, including Foot and Kinnock, had in the meantime demonstrated exactly where they stood with their crude flag-waving in the Falklands war. Again some of the hard left protested, but feebly – they did not even raise the issue when it came to the 1982 Labour Party conference.

The one issue on which the left did continue to fight was against the witch-hunt. But even here their decline is revealed. At first many thought that at the 1982 conference they could actually defeat the witch-hunt – now in the form of a ‘register’ of organisations inside the party which would exclude Militant. Some rather naive faith was displayed in the leaders of the left unions. On the week of the conference Militant itself was carrying the headline ‘TGWU executive rejects register’. In the event the union’s leaders, Moss Evans and Alex Kitson, easily persuaded the TGWU delegation to vote for the register, and it was passed by the massive vote of 5,173,000 to 1,565,000.

Then the left changed tack, trying to boycott the register. But two of the most important organisations behind the left-wing campaigns of the previous years, the Labour Coordinating Committee and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, decided to register.

The left then switched to trying to organise local Labour Parties to refuse to expel members of unregistered organisations. But immediately the expulsion of the five members of the Militant editorial board were announced, one of the local parties directly involved, Norwood, agreed to recognise the expulsions rather than risk being disbanded. And it did so with the full support of its best-known member, leading left councillor, Ted Knight.

But more important even than the continual succession of retreats was the fact that opposition to the witch-hunt failed to pull the left around Benn together again and stop its general downhill path.

For throughout 1982 the pressure grew for party unity in face of the coming general election, not just among the union leaders, but also among many of the constituency activists who had supported Benn’s deputy leadership campaign. The Labour Coordinating Committee and Campaign for Labour Party Democracy both increasingly distanced themselves from any attempts to continue the fight in the party, and the fact that practically all leading right-wing Labour MPs survived the re-selection process is another indication of the way the mood was swinging among the constituency activists.

What put the final seal on the left’s retreat was the Bermondsey by-election of February 1983. Peter Tatchell had finally managed to get endorsed as candidate and sitting right-wing MP Bob Mellish promptly resigned to put him to the test of the polls. For the Labour Left it was seen as a crucial test, the one thing that could revive their flagging fortunes. The left press unanimously proclaimed ‘All out for Bermondsey’.

Already succumbing to the pressure, Tatchell conducted his campaign in the most orthodox manner. All awkward questions were sidestepped. Michael Foot and Roy Hattersley were prominently featured. No-one on the Labour Left complained.

Even so the press smears and the left-wing label stuck. The result, with the Labour vote reduced from 64 per cent to 26 per cent, was a catastrophe for the Labour Left, beyond any of their wildest fears.

Now, with a general election approaching, the left in every local party were that much more cautious for fear of ‘another Bermondsey’. The thinking of the whole Labour Left was now fixed on that general election. Any suggestion that a government of Foot, Healey and Hattersley would, if elected, actually betray its working-class supporters as that of Callaghan had done was abandoned.

As Tony Benn put it when the election campaign opened: ‘The campaign which Labour is fighting is very different from that with which we fought the 1979 election. Then the policy was dictated by the then prime minister. Now we have a policy which has been drafted by successive TUC Congresses and Labour Party Conferences.’

In reality the left, including Benn himself, were marginal as far as Labour’s national campaign was concerned. As the editor of Socialist Organiser lamented afterwards: ‘The fact is that it was possible to run the most dull, anaemic campaign while remaining entirely in line with conference policy.’

This applied to the local campaigns run by even the ‘hardest’ lefts. All dropped any mention of extra-parliamentary action, any reference to Labour’s past internal battles, and any criticisms of the existing leadership of the party. The candidates who supported the Militant tendency carefully dropped any reference to their favourite cure-all, ‘the nationalisation of the 200 monopolies’. In Bermondsey the local left-wing party plumbed the ultimate depths. Having ditched Peter Tatchell, they carefully featured their new candidate with his wife and baby daughter as their way of dealing with the anti-gay witch-hunt which had featured in the by-election.

Not one single ‘hard left’ Labour candidate fought the election in the manner that they had talked about over the previous four years.

But it is in the election’s aftermath that the final act in the fall of Benn and his supporters has been played out.

The ‘lesson’ that most of Benn’s former supporters have drawn from the election disaster is that they need to moderate their policies even further, effectively to abandon the last vestiges of what they had fought for between 1979 and 1981.

The extent of the rout is summed up in its chief beneficiary – Neil Kinnock. Kinnock had become the number one hate figure for Benn’s supporters when he urged abstention in the deputy leadership election of 1981. Since then he had been a consistent and vocal advocate of all the witch-hunts against the left. Now he was openly advocating abandoning opposition to the Common Market – an important litmus test on the Labour Left, where absolute opposition to the Common Market had been almost an article of faith until the day of the election.

As Kinnock groomed himself for the leadership in the summer of 1983, the image he unflaggingly projected was that of the ‘responsible’ politician, in the mainstream Labour tradition, with a tinge of left rhetoric, but no attempt to mask his practical agreement with the right.

Yet the vast majority of the union votes that had gone to Benn in 1981 now swung behind Kinnock with scarcely a murmur of protest. So did a great swathe of constituency votes. And this was not reluctant support. The Labour Coordinating Committee, once solidly behind Benn, backed Kinnock enthusiastically, theorised his policy retreats and became increasingly aggressive against the hard left. All the evidence is that these feelings were being echoed throughout the constituency Labour Parties, Benn’s former stronghold.

Only a minority of the forces which had united behind Tony Benn in 1981 were willing to mount opposition to this. And their opposition was pretty feeble. The ‘hard left’ candidates for leader and deputy leader in 1983, Eric Heffer and Michael Meacher, had a distinct softness about them by 1981 standards. Heffer’s recent track record had been to the right of Benn. He had been silent about the Falklands war. Now, like Kinnock, he was back-tracking over the Common Market. Altogether he was very much a token candidate.

Michael Meacher, standing for deputy leader, looked more serious. But only at the expense of making it clear that he would like to be Kinnock’s deputy rather than Heffer’s. And he made abundantly clear his break with the spirit that had dominated the 1981 deputy leadership campaign: ‘Talk of the politics of betrayal (a word that I never use, and deplore) must be set behind us,’ he said, and ‘rejectionist attitudes towards the parliamentary Labour Party, if they survive in some quarters, need to be revised.’

So most of Benn’s former supporters who were not rushing head-long into the Kinnock camp were rapidly building their bridges to it. Benn himself did not raise objections. Those, like Ken Livingstone, who stood out against the Kinnock lure, found themselves in a tiny minority.

Only two years after seeming on the verge of victory, the Labour Left campaign around Benn had crumbled to nothing.

2. Was there ever a Labour party ‘golden age’?

COULD it have worked out differently? This is more than an academic question. There are still people on the Labour Left who claim that next time it will.

To answer the question we must turn both to Labour’s history and to an overall look at how the party works.

First the history. Few Labour orations are complete without reference to it: to the party’s ‘founding fathers’, to Clause 4, to the ‘triumph of 1945’ or the legacy of Nye Bevan. No doubt we will hear much of that from Neil Kinnock. But the serious left refers to the same things in support of its own position.

What is the truth?

When the Labour Party was founded in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee it made no claim to be a socialist organisation of any sort. Rather its stated aim was to establish ‘a distinct Labour Group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a willingness to cooperate with any party which for the time being be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of labour, and be equally ready to associate themselves with any party in opposing measures having an opposite tendency.’

This policy of co-operation was pursued with a vengeance. In 1903 the Labour leaders Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie made a secret agreement with the Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, under which the Liberals would try to ensure that there would be no Liberal opposition to Labour candidates who supported ‘the general objects of the Liberal Party’ and in return the Labour leaders would ‘demonstrate friendliness’ to the Liberals in any constituency where they had influence.

This was how, in the 1906 general election, the Labour Party secured its first substantial representation in parliament. From then until the First World War the Labour Party was effectively a trade union-sponsored parliamentary appendage to the Liberals.

The bulk of the Labour leadership supported the war right through to the end, so getting the party its first experience of government office – brought as a very junior partner into the war-time coalition so as better to harness the trade unions behind the war effort.

The end of the war did, however, produce two important changes for the Labour Party. First the Liberals were effectively removed as a major electoral rival to the Conservatives. From now on Labour would have to fight elections under its own colours and stand as itself a candidate for government. A new party constitution was therefore adopted in 1918, instituting for the first time individual party membership.

Second, the war eventually produced throughout Europe a massive wave of working-class radicalisation. With the Russian example of 1917 fresh in everyone’s mind, revolution was seen as an immediate matter of practical politics – in Britain as elsewhere.

The authors of the new Labour Party constitution were well aware of this. As one of them, Arthur Henderson, put it: revolution ‘unmistakably confronts [us], if we turn aside from the path of ordered social change by constitutional means ... One good reason for beginning now to build up a strong democratic party, with a carefully thought-out programme ... is that such a party will be able to prove that political methods are effective ... the Labour Party can rehabilitate Parliament in the workers’ eyes.’

It was with this in mind that the famous Clause 4, with its commitment to ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ was inserted into the new Labour Party constitution. Labour’s commitment to ‘socialism’ was therefore a deliberate move to head off the massive shift to the left in working-class consciousness after the war.

What is more, the more intelligent members of the ruling class did not take it as anything more than that. In 1923 the party found itself for the first time in a position to form a government, but only if it relied upon Liberal support. For the Labour leadership there was no doubt they should form an administration, even though that meant advancing no measures which would offend the Liberals.

But it is the attitude of the Liberals that is most revealing. As their leader, Herbert Asquith, put it to his colleagues:

‘Whoever may be for the time being the incumbents of office, it is we, if we understand our business, who really control the situation ... if a Labour government is ever to be tried in this country, as it will sooner or later, it could hardly be under safer conditions.’

This was a remarkably calm reaction from the ruling class to the new party, only five years after the adoption of the famous Clause 4. But, of course, it proved absolutely correct. The first Labour government lasted less than a year and not only did not achieve any notable reforms, it did not even propose them. Its most notable feature, well documented in the memoirs of the time, was the sheer enthusiasm with which the new Labour ministers grovelled before the establishment.

The same miserable performance was repeated in 1929 when Labour formed a second minority government – but with one important difference. Now the world economic situation was much worse. When Labour took office in 1929 unemployment was 1,164,000. By July 1931 it had more than doubled to 2,800,000.

The response of Labour chancellor Philip Snowden was one familiar to those of us who have seen Denis Healey, Geoffrey Howe or Nigel Lawson at work – cuts in wages and benefits. Eventually, in the late summer of 1931, the cuts demanded – including a 10 per cent reduction in unemployment benefit-were such that even the TUC and a substantial minority of the Labour Cabinet baulked.

Faced with this revolt. Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and a handful of his leading colleagues then formed a National government in coalition with the Conservatives, and in October 1931 won a sweeping election victory which reduced Labour to only fifty seats in parliament.

This then is the real story of Labour’s early ‘golden age’. The party was formed as a non-socialist trade union pressure group closely allied with the Liberals. It broke from the Liberals only when they disintegrated. It adopted the ‘socialist’ Clause 4 only in order to turn the massive working-class upsurge after the First World War back into safe channels. It then proceeded to conduct itself as a party of government of the most extremely ‘responsible’ kind, leaving behind it not even a single significant reform.

During this period (in 1920) Lenin gave the following verdict: ‘The Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie.’ Was there anything in Labour’s early history to suggest that this was an exaggerated assessment?

Labour Party mythology has produced one demon to explain all this away – Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party through the 1920s, prime minister of the first two Labour governments and the ‘traitor’ who defected in 1931. But this is an excuse for an explanation. MacDonald was elected Labour leader in 1922 as the left candidate, thanks to a reputation acquired as a feeble opponent of the First World War. All the newly-elected MPs from ‘Red Clydeside’ – among the most radical the Labour Left has ever had – voted for him.

Even on the eve of MacDonald’s defection a majority of his Cabinet were still willing to go along with cuts in unemployment. But, above all, his policy of ‘responsible’ government and opposition during the 1920s was accepted by the vast majority of the party – including those who were to lead it after his defection.

What happened to the Labour Party in the 1930s is extremely instructive to those of US who have witnessed events in the party over the past few years.

The defection of MacDonald and the catastrophic election defeat of 1931 immediately produced an apparently sharp swing to the left at Labour Party conferences. The newly-formed left-wing Socialist League was able to push through resolutions declaring, for instance, that ‘the main objective of the Labour Party is the establishment of socialism.’ Old Labour leaders were shouted down or voted off the national executive. Labour leaders as prominent as Clement Attlee could be found pronouncing that ‘the events of the last year (1931) have shown that no further progress can be made in seeking to get crumbs from the rich man’s table ...’

But the left’s successes depended on the dissatisfaction of the trade-union leaders with the 1931 fiasco. Once they felt they had straightened out the party leadership to avoid a repetition, the union leaders moved against the left.

Socialist League leader Stafford Cripps noted that the conference was in 1933 ‘hesitant’ and in 1934 ‘defiantly reactionary’. As the 1935 general election approached the party ditched its left-wing leader, George Lansbury (although, note, replacing him with yet another leader elected ‘from the left’ – Clement Attlee). The party fought the election with a lack-lustre campaign and, as one journalist remarked at the time, ‘a shameful spirit of political defeatism’. They recovered some ground, but still lost badly.

After 1935 the offensive against the left continued. In 1937 the Socialist League was instructed to dissolve itself, which it duly did. At the end of the 1930s left-wing notables such as Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps were expelled.

In effect the Labour Party had, after a brief left-wing flourish, renewed its traditional posture as a ‘responsible’ electoral alternative. With working-class struggle at a very low ebb in the 1930s climate of crisis and mass unemployment, this meant no indulgence towards the left and no involvement in extra-parliamentary activities. Throughout the 1930s the Labour leadership was rigidly opposed to any involvement in the marches and campaigns of the National Unemployed Workers Movement.

Yet it was the leadership formed in this period that was to take Labour to the ‘triumph of 1945’. That in itself should cast some doubts on the significance of the ‘triumph of 1945’ – and a closer examination bears them out.

There were three elements to Labour’s 1945 package – nationalisation, social welfare and Keynesian management of the economy to produce full employment.

The nationalisation proposals were thrashed out in the 1930s and bore the hallmark of the right-wing Labour leader Herbert Morrison. Only industries that ‘failed the nation’ would be nationalised. The unions would nominate some ‘competent and suitable persons’ to the boards of the nationalised industries, but their day-to-day running would be in the hands of ‘trained business administrators’. This was a long way from workers’ control and socialism. Not surprisingly, Attlee could later remark: ‘There was not much opposition to our nationalisation policy.’

The welfare state which the 1945 government set up was constructed to a plan commissioned by the war-time coalition and drafted by a Liberal, Lord Beveridge.

Keynesian management of the economy, too, had been introduced by the war-time coalition. And, as events were to show, it was not Keynesian policies which produced full employment. That was the product of the long world-wide post-war boom. When the boom collapsed so Keynesian policies were abandoned. Indeed it was a Labour chancellor, Denis Healey, who was the first openly to abandon them.

Looked at in hindsight, the achievements of the 1945 Labour government as a whole look very much like a continuation of the interventionist policies of the war-time coalition, given an extra boost by the wave of radicalisation that had built up during the war and had given Labour its 1945 election landslide.

And the British Labour government was not alone in nationalising industries and constructing a welfare state after 1945. Throughout Western Europe similar packages were being implemented by coalition governments. All these included, and some were dominated by, self-proclaimed non-socialist parties. What’s more, so long as the post-war boom lasted the Conservative Party willingly preserved the Labour government’s nationalised industries, welfare state and full employment virtually intact.

Once the limited package of reforms had been achieved (in effect by about 1948) then a period of ‘retrenchment’ set in. The Attlee government was busy launching the British side of the Cold War. To pay for the massive rearmament programme Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell made the first attack on the welfare state – the imposition of prescription charges.

Any pretence that the 1945 package had been a stepping stone to a transformed social order was abandoned. As one observer wrote on the 1950 general election:

‘Nationalisation was almost entirely absent from Labour’s electoral programme ... Most of what the party had suggested for further nationalisation was buried under the heading “Encouragement for Enterprise”.’

As the Attlee government lived out its final days among austerity measures, two Labour Cabinet ministers, the left rebel of the 1930s Aneurin Bevan and the young technocrat Harold Wilson, resigned in protest against the imposition of prescription charges. When Labour went into opposition after the 1951 election, Bevan formed the centre of a new left wing in the party.

Again, the fate of the left around Bevan is instructive in understanding Labour’s recent years. Like Benn’s supporters, those of Bevan received massive support from the constituency activists in the early 1950s – and there were probably more activists then than today, for the Labour Party’s individual membership peaked at over a million in 1952, between three and four times the size today. Bevan, like Benn, was both a number one hate figure for the press and the right wing and a focus of hope for tens of thousands of left activists. The battles of his supporters inside the Labour Party were fought with great bitterness and at the time seemed likely to rip the party apart.

But without the support of any significant section of the trade- union leadership, Bevan and his supporters were powerless, and in the early 1950s the trade-union leaders formed a solidly right-wing block behind the parliamentary leadership of first Attlee and then, after 1955, Hugh Gaitskell.

So the left fought their battles to the point of expulsion and then backed off, or, in 1955, suspended the fight for the duration of the election. In opposition to the Tories’ Suez adventure of 1956 they finally found themselves enthusiastically at one with the Labour leadership and that eased Bevan’s eventual incorporation into the party establishment. At the 1957 Labour Party conference he turned on his former supporters in the debate on unilateral nuclear disarmament, asking how he could ‘walk naked into the conference chamber’ without an H-bomb!

It looked like the end of the story. But there were two more dramatic twists. Immediately after Labour’s third successive election defeat in 1959 Gaitskell proposed removing the famous ‘Clause 4’ from the party’s constitution. The proposal was intended as a symbol of the sort of right-wing remedy for the party’s ills we have seen proposed today: trying to make Labour seem more ‘classless’. The trade-union leaders baulked at this, fearing a loosening of the ties between themselves, as representatives of the working class, and the party.

Gaitskell had pushed them too far, just as we have seen Callaghan did in the winter of 1978/79.

The union support for the parliamentary leadership was weakened, and this combined in 1960 with the enthusiasm of many union activists for the newly-formed Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Union conference after union conference voted in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a far more radical step then than it is today. At last the left had trade-union support, and in 1960, amidst the same level of hysteria that surrounded later Labour conferences between 1979 and 1981, the Labour Party voted for unilateralism.

But the victory was a hollow one. Most of the union leaders now closed ranks behind Gaitskell and they had little difficulty in bringing their activists back into line. Most of the union conferences that had swung so dramatically to unilateralism in 1960 swung back equally sharply in 1961 (helped along the way by a compromise formula floated by some of the ‘soft left’ of the time).

At the 1961 Labour Party conference unilateralism was defeated by three to one. It was not even to re-surface as a conference issue for ten years.

One further incident in this dispute was to be of importance. Harold Wilson had long since distanced himself from his resignation with Aneurin Bevan, and he was no supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament. But during the 1960/61 debates he also distanced himself from Gaitskell’s heavy-handed response and unsuccessfully challenged Gaitskell for the leadership. When Gaitskell died unexpectedly in 1963 not only did Wilson seem a more competent successor than the leading right-wing candidate, he also appealed to those in the party and trade-union establishment who thought the heavy-handed approach to the left was unproductive. He was elected with the solid backing of the left.

What needs to be stressed, for today it must seem incredible, is the faith that the left continued to place in Wilson. His first Cabinet included numerous former Bevan supporters and the then bête noire of the Tory press, left leader of the TGWU Frank Cousins. The left were delighted. Tribune carried the headline: ‘Tribune takes over from Eton in the Cabinet.’

And after 18 months of actual government with a narrow majority the faith still remained. When Wilson won an increased majority in 1966 Tribune greeted it with the headline ‘Socialism is right back on the agenda’.

The adulation extended even to some who claimed to be Marxists. In 1964 Perry Anderson, editor of New Left Review, was writing: ‘Wilsonism has made the Labour Party into the dynamic left wing of European Social Democracy’ and ‘The Labour Party has at last, after 50 years of failure, produced a dynamic and capable leader.’

The Labour Left, having been defeated, was making the best of a bad job and pretending it had won. Not, as we have seen, for the first or last time.

Of course the adulation could not withstand forever the reality of the Wilson government. Between 1964 and 1970 that government doubled unemployment, constructed the Polaris fleet (in absolute defiance of its only specific election pledge on nuclear weapons), used a crude anti-communist witch-hunt against a strike by the seamen, slavishly supported the American war in Vietnam, massively tightened restrictions on immigration, and, under pressure from employers and the City as the first ripples of economic crisis began, attempted to introduce anti-union laws. The list could be continued ad nauseam.

Eventually, and feebly, the Labour Left protested. But, far more important, because these were years of rising industrial struggle the main result was a further and massive exit from the Labour Party to the left. But not to the Labour Left. Instead militants in the unions and the new revolutionary left grew in numbers and strength.

We are nearly back to the beginning of our story. After Labour lost the 1970 general election, party conferences shifted radically to the left in policy terms, thanks particularly to the block votes cast by left union leaders such as Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones. With the level of industrial struggle continuing to mount and the memories of the first Wilson government still fresh, however, this did not produce any serious influx into the Labour Left.

But three things should be noted about it.

First, those policy resolutions after 1970 included some just as radical as those passed by Labour conferences in the past four years. For instance in 1972 and 1973 resolutions were passed in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament and Labour’s Programme 1973 was almost universally regarded as its most radical since 1945. The Labour Right were happy to go along with the rhetoric even then: applauding Denis Healey’s promises to ‘squeeze the rich until the pips squeak’.

Secondly, the policies won then were sufficient to tempt back into office after the 1974 election victory Tony Benn, already moving leftwards in that period of opposition, and to tempt into office for the first time Michael Foot, who had refused office in Wilson’s first government, and Eric Heffer.

Lastly those conference policies were sufficient to enable the union leaders of the Broad Left, an alliance of various left-wing groups in the unions, to enter into an even more slavish collaboration with the 1974–79 Labour government than they had in 1964–70. The disastrous effects of that ‘Social Contract’ on working-class living standards are clear to see. And we should not forget that those who did most to sustain this Social Contract were the same left union leaders, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, who voted through the radical conference policies of 1970–74.

This then is the real record of the Labour Party. It is the record of a party which was in practice committed from its foundation to running capitalism. Of course that commitment has been coloured with a more or less radical rhetoric, depending on the level of the class struggle. But when it comes to office the commitment has been absolute. And because Labour has generally reached office in periods of capitalist crisis, it has not been a party of notable reforms. From the MacDonald governments, through the last years of the Attlee government to Wilson and Callaghan, Labour in office has been a party of cuts and austerity.

If the first few years of the 1945 government stand out from this, we have seen that its reforms were firmly within the capitalist system, comparable to those achieved by the Liberal government before the First World War, and had already been started by the Tory-dominated Second World War coalition. Moreover they were unrepeatable re- forms, their apparent success depending on the conditions of the post-war boom.

Alongside this record goes another. That of the Labour Left. Reacting to each miserable performance of Labour in office, the left has each time tried to push the party on a more radical road. Each time it has apparently scored victories and each time those victories have proved hollow. Every seemingly irresistible left tide has proved eminently resistable.

All each new tide has achieved is to wash into the Labour establishment former left-wingers who first entrance and then dash the hopes of another left-wing generation.

3. How the party works

LABOUR’S RECORD is clear enough. But what lies behind it? Why has Labour’s history been so stubbornly conservative? Why has the Labour Left been an unending succession of false dawns?

The answer often given is that Labour’s parliamentary leadership have continually become ensnared in office or the lure of office. This does indeed happen. The memoirs of leading Labour politicians of this century are like a catalogue of virtually every imaginable way in which government office can tame or corrupt.

But the Labour Party is more than its parliamentary leadership. It has an affiliated trade-union membership numbered in millions, and an individual membership numbered in hundreds of thousands. Why has the left been so unsuccessful in using this mass support to bring MPs into line?

First the unions.

They have always been a central power in the Labour Party, in some ways even more important than the parliamentary leadership. It was, after all, the unions that brought the party into existence and supplied much of its initial parliamentary leadership from their ranks. They have continued to supply the bulk of party funds and to command the vast majority of votes at conference. Much of the time their influence has been from the wings, but, as we have seen, at times of upheaval in the party they have stepped firmly and decisively to centre stage.

Two things must be stressed about this huge trade-union influence on the Labour Party.

First, it is not the product of some constitutional quirk or right- wing conspiracy. The unions’ predominance in the party’s power structure arises from their great weight in the working class itself. They organise and affect the day-to-day lives of millions of workers.

Secondly, union influence on the Labour Party has never been exerted directly by these millions of ordinary union members, but by the full-time trade-union officials who wield the votes of their members as a block at conference.

These full-time union officials are by no means mere passive instruments of their membership. They occupy a distinct social position. All are, by definition, taken away from the shop floor. All have higher status than their members and most have a higher income too. All are professional negotiators, or, as the radical American sociologist C. Wright Mills once put it, ‘managers of discontent’. All have a stake in existing society, but a stake that depends on their articulating the grievances and maintaining the organisation of their members.

In industrial struggles the consequences are clear. Even the most right-wing union leaders have, on occasion, to support strikes, for fear of losing control of their membership altogether. But even the most left-wing union leaders are worried about workers’ struggles going ‘too far’ and putting at risk the organisations their status depends upon.

The General Strike of 1926 provides the classic example: started with the reluctant support of even notorious right-wingers of the time, such as the railwaymen’s leader Jimmy Thomas, it was ignominiously called off with the agreement of the heroes of the trade-union left, Purcell, Hicks and Swales, by comparison with whom Arthur Scargill looks distinctly moderate. The same pattern can be found throughout numerous far more mundane disputes.

The role of the full-time union officials on their home ground is therefore, ultimately, conservative. It is the same within their creation, the Labour Party. Throughout the history of their party the union leaders have generally sustained its ‘responsible’ parliamentary leadership, both in opposition, and, even more, in office.

This solid trade-union support has sometimes been nakedly obvious: as when the trade-union block vote was used to defeat Bevan and his supporters in the early I950s. The union vote has been used consistently to discipline the left: to drive Communists out of the party in the 1920s; to close down the Socialist League and expel Cripps and Bevan in the 1930s.

But three things obscure the union leaders’ powerful conservative influence on the party.

There have been times when union officialdom as a whole has fallen out with Labour’s parliamentary leadership: when MacDonald pushed cuts in unemployment benefit too far in 1931; when Gaitskell tried to weaken the link with the unions in 1959; over Wilson’s proposed trade-union legislation in 1969; and because of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978/79. At these times the union leaders have shifted leftward, used left rhetoric and left-wing currents within the party to pull the parliamentary leadership into line. They have then stopped things going ‘too far’ by reverting to their normal conservative posture and using their block votes at conference to vote the left down.

Secondly, the union leaders do not always have a smooth ride with their own members. In 1960, over disarmament, and in 1981, during the deputy leadership campaign, unions generally considered right- wing defied their leaders and voted leftwards. But each time this has been a rebellion of union activists, which did not reflect a similar depth of feeling among the mass of members – and the union leaders have had little difficulty re-establishing their authority. Thus the 1960 vote for disarmament was reversed in 1961, while the 1981 surge for Tony Benn was followed in 1982 by block union votes for the witch-hunt against Militant.

Thirdly, the general, rightward role of the union leaders in the Labour Party is masked by the fact that there have always been some left-wing union leaders, seemingly constantly at loggerheads with their right-wing colleagues.

Of course the difference between left and right union leaders is not without consequence. Take one of the biggest unions, for example, the Transport and General Workers Union.

In the 1950s the TGWU, under the leadership of Arthur Deakin, was notorious for its crudely aggressive opposition to the supporters of Nye Bevan. Since then it has had left-wing leadership, first under Frank Cousins, then Jack Jones, and now Moss Evans and Alex Kitson. At Labour Party conferences it has consistently supported unilateral nuclear disarmament, even when such a policy was distinctly unfashionable. It has also been a more or less consistent opponent of wage controls. The differences between the years under Deakin and those since are not unimportant.

But they are certainly not decisive. In 1964 Frank Cousins became a minister in Harold Wilson’s first government and a key architect of its incomes policy. This apparently passionate unilateralist did not baulk when Wilson, within three months of achieving office, ditched his election pledge and proceeded to construct the Polaris fleet.

Cousins did indeed resign when the government restrictions on wages came too much into conflict with the rising militancy of TGWU members. But when asked by one rather naive Labour Left intellectual, Ken Coates, to become the ‘leader of the left’ against the increasingly unpopular Wilson government, he declined.

After the 1974 election victory, TGWU leader Jack Jones, like Cousins before him, offered no criticism when the Labour government flouted conference policy on nuclear weapons – now unilateralist with the help of TGWU votes. The Labour government not only ignored this, but set out to modernise the Polaris weapons system. Jones, with fellow left union leader Hugh Scanlon of the AUEW, was also a central figure in Labour’s ‘Social Contract’ which meant cuts in real wages and workers’ living standards.

Again, late in 1981, the TGWU’s latest left-winger, Alex Kitson, voted from the start for the witch-hunt against Militant, while he and Moss Evans secured the union’s block vote for it at party conference in 1982.

On the decisive questions then, the ‘left’ leaders of the TGWU firmly backed Labour’s parliamentary leadership. The same has applied to other left union leaders.

For the role of the union leadership, left or right, is the same in the Labour Party as in industry. It is the role of a distinct social group which, despite individual and not unimportant differences in style and rhetoric, has one interest: the maintenance of a ‘responsible’ Labour government which will preserve and further their own role as mediators between workers and employers.

Why has the Labour Left been so unable to challenge the power of the union leaders? Their periodic complaints about ‘the tyranny of the union block vote’ show there are times when they are bitterly aware of the problem.

The answer is two-fold. First of all, most of the Labour Left has accepted the traditional division between ‘politics’ and ‘economics’. They have simply not seen it as their role to organise in the workplace or in the unions. True, many individual members of the Labour Left have also been active in their own unions, but this went alongside their party activity. True, local Labour parties under left-wing influence might sometimes take collections for strikes, but again this was not a focus for their activity.

A glance through the files of a traditional Labour Left paper such as Tribune illustrates this. There is scarcely any systematic coverage of strikes at any time in the paper’s history.

Organisation in the workplace and unions has been left to others – notably the Communist Party. Individual members of the Labour Left might co-operate with the Communist Party in this, but always the Communist Party provided the initiative and organisation.

Which brings us to the second problem. Where the Labour Left has devoted attention to the unions it has adopted the Communist Party ‘Broad Left’ strategy, that of building electoral organisations inside the union machine to replace right-wing officials with left-wing ones. In other words, the Labour Left has relied on the very same left union leaders whose behaviour we have just described. So the greatest success of the Broad Left strategy, the election of Hugh Scanlon as leader of the engineering union, was also its greatest disaster. Scanlon went on to be one of the key props for the ‘Social Contract’ – not just a disaster in industrial terms, but a disaster inside the party for the Labour Left.

So even where the Labour Left has addressed itself to the problem of the unions it has remained thwarted.

But the Labour Left has traditionally been stronger among the individual membership of the party. In recent years the supporters of Tony Benn have seen this as their stronghold. How strong is it?

The individual membership has always been secondary to the unions in the party’s power structure. Individual membership did not exist on a national basis until 1918 and during the 1920s and 1930s it was neither as large nor as active as its counterparts in other European countries. It reached its high point in 1952 – just over one million. Then for 25 years it steadily declined – during the 1964–70 Labour government catastrophically.

Individual membership of the party appears to have grown significantly for the first time in a generation as the campaign behind Benn advanced – but that growth now seems to have stopped. The most recent official figure, given to the 1983 conference, after the years of growth, was 280,000.

But even that is misleading. For all experience and research show that between 80 and 90 per cent of these individual members have no participation in the party other than paying their membership fee, now £5 a year. Only somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent attend any party meetings at all. So the party has only between 30,000 and 60,000 individual ‘active’ members (or between 50 and 100 per constituency).

Nor are these active members particularly working class. Observers in the 1960s and 1970s commented on the increasingly middle-class composition of Labour’s constituency organisation. No doubt some of their claims were exaggerated. Hard statistical evidence is difficult to come by. But a survey of constituency delegates to the 1978 Labour Party conference revealed that only 30 per cent of them were manual workers, while 57 per cent had professional or managerial occupations. It seems likely that this is not untypical of the constituency activists as a whole.

The active individual membership of the Labour Party, where support for the left has been concentrated, is therefore relatively small in number and has shallow roots in the working class.

Of course in this there is nothing surprising. The number of active committed socialists in Britain in the early 1980s, whether inside or outside the Labour party, is small. The problem for all socialists is how to relate to the world around us – and in this respect the Labour Party imposes its own rigid pattern.

For the Labour Party is overwhelmingly an electoral organisation. The fundamental purpose behind its existence is to win elections. The entire structure of the constituency and ward organisations is determined by this. Indeed constituencies and wards are electoral divisions.

The electoral nature of the party also decides what local activists spend their time doing – discussing policy resolutions, essentially resolutions about what should be done by a Labour government or council once elected, and the technical arrangements of electioneering, who should be the candidate, how to raise money, and so on. The high point of attendance and interest is the meeting to select the candidate. The high point of activity is at election time. Any other activities – support for a strike, discussion of general political issues – are at best secondary.

In recent years there has been some appearance of change in this. Since 1981 the Labour Party has permitted workplace branches, and there has been much talk from sections of the Labour Left of turning Labour into a ‘mass campaigning party’. But these things do not alter the fundamental picture.

By 1983, two years after workplace branches were permitted, there were only fifty. If the Tories legislate against the union’s political levy these might increase considerably as a device for maintaining party finances. But they remain essentially passive appendages to the electoral organisation, a passivity summed up in their draft rules which preclude discussion of ‘any industrial matters which are properly the concern of the appropriate trade union organisation’.

As for the general talk of turning the Labour Party into a ‘mass campaigning party’ it has remained largely at the level of talk, even in the most left-dominated local parties. This was apparent during the 1983 election. For months even the hardest Labour lefts were fixated on the election, accepting that it was inevitably the focus of their politics and trying to see how they could make some special intervention. But when it came to the election campaign itself they were simply engulfed. They dropped the special points they had been arguing so bitterly and campaigned in the traditional manner.

In other words the electoral orientation shifted the left activists massively to the right. This is scarcely surprising. As anyone who has canvassed at election time will testify, it is one of the most unpolitical activities there is. Everything is geared to winning. Everything is geared to not offending the possible voter. The highest point to which political argument rises is to reassure the wavering ‘doubtful’. It seems natural to drop ‘contentious’ issues.

The last thing the Labour Left activist says when canvassing (even though he or she may believe every word of it) is:

‘I think the present leadership of the Labour Party is thoroughly class collaborationist, capitulated to the most rabid chauvinism over the Falklands, and are wrong on everything from NATO to immigration controls ... can we expect your vote next Thursday?’!

This pressure to the right is a fundamental part of electoral politics, but it becomes even sharper when, as today, the mass of the working class is on the defensive, demoralised, and so not readily open to left-wing ideas.

Once the electoral priority is accepted, that winning this time comes first, then everything else follows – and the political ideas of the Labour Left are hidden when it really counts.

The same logic lies behind the apparently never-ending stream of fiery left-wing rebels who become the pillars of tomorrow’s Labour front bench. Of course individual ambition and corruption play their part in this. No organisation, in the Labour Party or outside, lacks its quota of individuals who sell out for personal gain of one kind or another. But there is more to it than that.

For me electoral logic of the Labour Party means that the positions of councillor, MP or minister are the instruments through which ‘socialism will be implemented’. What could be more natural, then, than to take the post and use it in the meantime ‘to push things a bit more to the left’. After all, the left activist will argue, ‘If I don’t take the job then some right-winger will – or, worse still, some Tory.’

In the best of cases, the left-wing councillor or MP will say that his or her aim is to use the position ‘to mobilise from above’ – for extra-parliamentary action. But most of the people who voted the left-wing councillor or MP into office simply ‘voted Labour’, not necessarily agreeing with left-wing ideas and not responding to the call for action.

So the left-wing councillor or MP plays down one or another of his or her views, makes a compromise here or there, in the belief that not to do so would mean losing office and so whatever influence he or she might have.

The conservatism of the Labour Party, and the continued failure of the Labour Left to break out of it, are therefore not merely matters of historical record. They are rooted in the very nature of the party itself, not just in its parliamentary leadership but in its organisation outside parliament – where the left has won many of its ultimately hollow victories. The failures of the left are inevitable in a party set up and dominated by union officials and structured simply to win elections.

4. What’s left on the Labour Left?

DO THOSE on the Labour Left today show any signs of breaking out of the constraints which have doomed their predecessors?

Certainly, so far as the majority of those who organised around Tony Benn is concerned, the answer must be an unequivocal No. Their shift into line behind Neil Kinnock, whether it be of stampede proportions or merely rapid bridge-building, is a textbook repeat of the Labour Left’s tragic history.

But what of the minority who, since the general election, have held out against the Kinnock lure?

What remains of the ‘hard’ Labour Left consists, on the face of it, of two distinct groups. On the one hand there are the remnants of the ‘hard’ left proper – London Labour Briefing, Ken Livingstone, some of the ‘Campaign Group’ of Labour MPs; on the other hand there are the ‘entrists’ – chiefly Militant supporters, but also Socialist Organiser and Socialist Action. These claim to be part of a very different tradition to that of even the most left wing of the rest. They claim to be revolutionary Marxists.

In reality, however, the differences between the two groups are not fundamental. Even at the high-point of left-wing influence in the Labour Party it was not possible to argue openly for revolutionary politics. So in practice they abandon their revolutionary arguments – explicitly so in the case of the Militant. As its editor Peter Taaffe put it in 1982:

‘In the pages of the Militant, in pamphlets and in speeches, we have shown that the struggle to establish a socialist Britain can be carried through in parliament, backed up by the colossal power of the Labour movement outside.’

The smaller and newer entrants, Socialist Organiser and Socialist Action, are not yet under pressure to be quite so explicit. But in practice they argue in the same way. At any rate Socialist Action saw no differences with Ken Livingstone sufficient to bar him from being the main speaker at their meeting on the lessons of the 1983 election.

So we can take Ken Livingstone’s speech at that meeting as more or less representative of what the whole of today’s ‘hard’ Labour Left is arguing.

First, Livingstone argues that it is no use saying ‘defend existing Labour Party policies’ because, he says, ‘they’ve been exposed as totally unworkable’. For example, Benn’s supporters won Labour Party conferences to the Alternative Economic Strategy, a package of reflation, import controls and increased state intervention in a mixed economy. Livingstone claims that he always thought this would not work, but thought it a necessary stage the left would have to go through.

Now, he says, he recognises that he overlooked ‘the fact that the weakness of that economic strategy could be exposed in a general election campaign every bit as easily as it was going to be exposed if a Labour government ever had to rely on it as its economic policy.’ Voters, after all, remembered previous Labour governments, their promises and their failure to deliver.

Livingstone rubs home his criticism of the Alternative Economic Strategy by berating ‘people still rabbiting on about import controls as though they could solve the crisis all on their own’.

On nuclear weapons Livingstone argues that ‘it was quite illogical for us to go stomping around saying we were going to get rid of nuclear weapons while staying in NATO ... We are still wedded to a defence strategy that that says we are part and parcel of the Pentagon’s armed struggle,’ he says, and attacks John Silkin for arguing for more spending on conventional weapons.

Livingstone’s conclusion?

‘We have to reopen Labour’s programme, and make it a coherent one which we can win the support of the workers for, before we have any chance of winning an election.’

And this is clearly a reopening sharply to the left:

‘We have to argue for the control of capital. We have to argue for the extension of public ownership ... We have to raise the issue of the workforce having control.’

On nuclear weapons Livingstone’s clear implication is that Labour must argue for withdrawal from NATO, and for the substantial reduction of conventional forces.

Not only does Livingstone want changes to the programme, he argues that Labour’s political focus must change too:

‘It may be that we can mobilise to win socialist policies and a left-wing NEC, but that’s not good enough. We have to turn outwards and start to build the base in the community that is the prerequisite for the election of a Labour government of the sort we want. Unless we turn out in support of workers in struggle, every group in the community that’s going to be fighting the cuts, we aren’t going to be able to see these people then turn around and vote for us at a future general election’.

Livingstone’s case has some considerable merits.

In the first place it recognises that the ‘left’ policies adopted by Labour Party conferences are woefully inadequate by any socialist yardstick. In that, Livingstone separates himself off from most of the left around Benn even at their high-point. He makes it clear that Tony Benn’s famous judgement that ‘8.5 million people voted for socialist policies at the 1983 election’ is pitiful self-deception.

Secondly, he is right that the contradictions in the policies adopted by conference made them appear incredible, and so gave ground to the Tories. And that is a great improvement on the traditional Labour Left explanations for their electoral failures simply in terms of a hostile media or the stab in the back from the right.

Thirdly, of course, Livingstone is absolutely right to argue that a fight for socialist policies is worthless unless it is tied to the actual struggles of workers.

But alongside these strengths go a number of fatal weaknesses, weaknesses which apply equally to the whole of what remains of the ‘hard’ Labour Left.

Take for a start the context within which Livingstone frames all his arguments: Why Labour lost the last election and how it can win the next. He may have some perceptive things to say about why Labour lost – but what would have happened to a Labour Party fighting for election on Livingstone’s programme of outright opposition to NATO, substantial cuts in conventional weapons, nationalisation of big business under workers’ control? Given the present low level of working-class consciousness, it would have lost, and lost badly.

From a socialist point of view, of course, it would have been immeasurably better to campaign hard on such a programme, whatever the result. For this would win at least a minority of workers to these policies.

But Livingstone and his supporters cannot afford to do that – because the Labour Party is in the business of winning elections. If they accepted that their programme would not win the next election, but pressed ahead with it regardless, they would rapidly find themselves without a serious audience in the party, and, probably, out on their ears.

It is unlikely to come to that. The evidence of the past few years is that the majority of today’s left accept the overriding priority of winning elections. When that conflicts with their left-wing politics, as it must, then it is the latter that is dropped.

In January 1983 Val Venness, a leading supporter of London Labour Briefing and ally of Ken Livingstone, gave an interview to Socialist Worker.

‘I truly believe that you need the mass of the working class behind you,’ she said. ‘I think the Chilean experience is one thing that you have got to learn from ... A Labour government has got to take on the people who obstruct it, arresting them if necessary – arm the workers if necessary – elect the judges.’

Now these are important questions, which need to be argued in the working class, even if at the moment they will get only a minority hearing.

In June 1983 Val Venness was Labour candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green. During the election campaign the local paper publicised the January interview under the heading ‘Labour candidate says arm the workers’. Val Venness remained silent. A local party spokesperson claimed she had been ‘totally misquoted’.

In other words, these important political questions, apparently vital to the Labour Left’s case, were to be abandoned when they came into conflict with securing the maximum vote at election time.

Another example is Militant. Militant argues that its hard left policies would win elections. After the Bermondsey by-election debacle it commented:

‘The Labour Party would not lose such seats if it campaigned boldly for the socialist transformation of society, for the public ownership of the big monopolies that dominate all workers’ lives, and for the introduction of a socialist plan of production.’

In June 1983 Militant had four supporters as parliamentary candidates in a position to put that to the test. But they did not do so. In their election addresses not one claimed to be a Marxist or a supporter of Militant, not one advocated the Militant’s traditional prescription for ‘boldly transforming society’ through ‘the nationalisation of the 200 monopolies’, and one even managed to confine his talk of public ownership to ‘renationalisation of those assets already sold off to private speculators’ – a position with which even the most right-wing Labour MP could agree.

So, when it came to the crunch, the hard Labour Left decided there was a conflict between arguing for their policies and winning the maximum possible votes – and resolved this conflict by going for the maximum possible votes. There is no reason to believe any significant section of today’s hard Labour Left will behave any differently.

The second problem with Livingstone’s case is that Livingstone and the rest of the hard left are now in a distinct minority in the Labour Party in openly resisting the stampede behind Neil Kinnock. Their arguments on the Alternative Economic Strategy and NATO also set them clearly apart from Benn, even at his boldest. Are they in any serious position to win their arguments inside the Labour Party? This they would have to do if their programme was to be accepted as an election platform.

Just imagine what winning would involve. It would mean openly breaking with Benn over the Alternative Economic Strategy and NATO. It would mean openly breaking with practically all the trade-union Broad Left supporters over import controls. It would then mean winning the vast majority of the constituency parties and the trade-union block votes to these positions. And it would mean driving what remained of the right wing out of the party – since they would never accept Livingstone’s programme.

Of course in the present climate in the party that is a pipe-dream. No doubt Livingstone, Militant and so on would all acknowledge that they have no hopes of any easy victories. But can they even start the fight?

In the present mood, when the party will continue to consolidate around Kinnock, the answer must be No. A serious, uncompromising fight inside the party for the sort of policies which Livingstone and Militant claim to stand for would find itself in a very hostile environment.

So, in order to survive, today’s hard left do not make a decisive break with those immediately to the right of them. They need Benn and Meacher and the left union leaders on their platforms. As these allies move closer to Kinnock, so the hard left will have to move behind them or find its place in the Labour Party in jeopardy. And again, there is no indication that any significant section of today’s hard lefts are willing to risk that.

The last weakness in Livingstone’s case is his declared commitment to ‘turning out in support of every group of workers in struggle’. It is a commitment the hard Labour Left has claimed to have for some time – but how serious is it?

The centre of workers’ struggle lies in the workplace, yet examine the record over the past few years and you will find singularly little of the Labour Left’s attention devoted to the workplace. Take London Labour Briefing: month by month it has published the minutiae of internal Labour Party struggles, and a regular section on ‘personal politics’, but scarcely a mention of industrial struggle. The same goes for Tribune under the editorship of the hard left Chris Mullin.

Worse still, some of the hard left Labour activists in local government have actually found themselves opposed to some industrial struggles, when the employer happens to be a ‘left’ Labour council.

Where the hard Labour Left has focussed on workers’ smuggles this has been through the prism of the ‘new’ Broad Left in the unions. In practice ‘turning to workers’ struggle’ means for them putting more emphasis on those new Broad Lefts.

The problem is that these are like their predecessors. They are not primarily geared to organising and intervening in workers’ struggles. They are essentially electoral organisations whose goal is to replace right-wing union officials with left-wing union officials.

So in the unions which already have ‘left’ leadership, such as the TGWU and NUPE, the hard Labour Left does not organise new Broad Lefts. It sees no need for them – and so remains defenceless when these left union leaders turn against it.

But the position is no better where the new Broad Left organisations do exist. The ‘new’ Broad Left officials (in the minority of cases where their electoral endeavours are successful) occupy the same social position and behave in the same way as the ‘old’ left officials.

We already have proof of this. In 1983 the ‘new’ Broad Lefts did achieve apparently dramatic victories in the railway workers’ union (NUR) and the Post Office electricians’ (POEU). The new NUR leadership from the start accepted deals on wages and working conditions which were as bad or worse than its right-wing predecessors had accepted. And in the Labour Party, after the election defeat of 1983, both the NUR and POEU ‘new’ Broad Left leaderships promptly swung solidly behind Neil Kinnock.

So on the union front too the Labour Left are going to find themselves inevitably pulled to the right. Unless of course they break with the Broad Left strategy. But again there is no sign of any significant section doing that.

What remains of the Labour Left shows no prospect of doing any better than its predecessors and every prospect of doing considerably worse.

5. The revolutionary alternative

SO ARE THERE no circumstances in which the left can really get the upper hand in the Labour Party? Is a Left Labour government a total impossibility?

Not quite.

Given one condition (and only given that condition) we could see a Left Labour government in office, perhaps with Ken Livingstone in the Cabinet and supporters of the Militant as junior ministers, a government which, unlike any of its predecessors, really might worry the ruling class.

But we must be clear about the one condition. Such a government would be elected only if there was a massive upsurge of workers’ struggle. This needs to be stressed because this is also the condition under which revolutionary politics would have the chance of a mass audience.

Given such an upsurge in workers’ struggle the whole apparatus of the Labour Party could shift well to the left. It would be a case not merely of supporters of the left taking a more prominent place in the party power structure, but the likes of Neil Kinnock, and quite likely even Roy Hattersley, would be found talking a language and advancing measures quite unimaginable today.

This party would be an election winner, possibly after the previous government had been removed from office by a wave of strikes. The government it formed could indeed try to push through a radical reformist programme, including substantial nationalisation.

What would happen next?

Clearly the ruling class would not react with the equanimity with which they have greeted previous Labour governments. In the London clubs and at society balls, in officers’ messes and at legal dinners, there would be open talk of resistance. The Telegraph, Mail and Express would howl.

But the bulk of the ruling class would operate with greater calculation. As the government is the product of a rising tide of class struggle, they will disown any premature attempts against it, for fear of a botched attempt which would merely aggravate the situation.

Instead they will put it to the new government that they and their state machine will co-operate – provided the co-operation is reciprocated, provided the government restrains ‘extremists’ and respects the ‘constitution’. And the new Left Labour government would agree. How else, it would ask, is it going to run things? With what other instrument than the state machine is it going to introduce its reforms?

In this way the ruling class will ensnare the new government, progressively reducing its opportunities for radical action. Meanwhile the ‘normal’ symptoms of capitalist crisis will continue – aggravated by the employers’ lack of confidence in the government – producing rising unemployment and soaring prices. Government popularity will fall, and the ground will be prepared for a more direct assault.

This scenario is not based on idle speculation. It is based on past experience.

Such a government came to office with mass backing in Germany in November 1918 when the Kaiser’s rule collapsed. The big industrialists, the state bureaucrats and the officer corps were prepared to co-operate with a government composed equally of left and right socialists, though both had previously been regarded as pariahs by the establishment. But they demanded a price: ‘extremists’. So Emile Barth, a leader of the Berlin revolutionary shop stewards and now a member of the government, a man whose left-wing credentials would put Ken Livingstone to shame, could be found denouncing workers who went on strike for ‘besmirching the revolution with wage demands’.

It happened again in Chile, after the government of Salvador Allende was elected in 1970. Many on the left today tend to forget that the Chilean ruling class collaborated with Allende for two years – in order to entrap him. In return for their collaboration they demanded that he do the ‘reasonable’ thing – condemn the land seizures, the mutinies in the navy and the strikes that were ‘damaging the country’, and recognise the ‘constitutional’ and ‘non-political’ character of the armed forces.

In both Germany and Chile the end result was catastrophe.

In Germany the left socialists were forced out of office within eight weeks, the right socialists after eighteen months. Thousands of workers were murdered. The old state machine and ruling class remained intact behind the façade of parliamentary democracy until it eventually spawned Hitler.

In Chile, in September 1973, the same generals who had sat in Allende’s ministries and maintained discipline in the ‘non-political’ armed forces, turned and bombed his presidential palace, murdered him and tens of thousands of workers, and instituted the most brutal military dictatorship.

What reason is there to believe that a Left Labour government in Britain would fare any differently? After all, today’s Labour Left accept the same basic premise as their predecessors, that given popular support the existing state machine can be used to institute socialism. Their behaviour in local government, right down to opposing strikes against ‘their’ council, is exactly in keeping with what happened in Germany and Chile.

But there is another lesson to be drawn from the events in Germany and Chile – one altogether more positive. In each case workers learned through their own experience of struggle. They built their own organs of power – the workers’ councils of Berlin and the cordones of the industrial suburbs of Santiago, Chile’s capital.

Of course these were only small beginnings, but they pointed to a very different way out of the crisis: that these organs of workers’ power could take over the running of society themselves, smashing the old state machine before it could begin its bloodbath. In other words a revolutionary way out of the crisis. One in which ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself’.

In neither case did it happen, though in each case the potential was there. Why?

Because, though the experience of struggle is the greatest educator, often creating in days what would have been thought impossible in weeks, it is not enough on its own. To bring it to fruition there is needed from the beginning an organised, experienced and clear-sighted minority who intervene in workers’ struggles large and small and argue the lessons of struggle. In other words a revolutionary socialist party.

Such an organisation was lacking in Chile. In Germany it was built, eventually to a massive scale, but too late and with too little experience to change the course of events. Had even a relatively small revolutionary party, with some roots in the working class and with experience of working together, existed from the outset in either Germany or Chile then the outcome could have been different.

Of course in Britain in 1983 we seem a long way from such life-and-death events. Class struggle is at a low level. Socialists are not just a minority, but a tiny minority, in an apparently unreceptive working class. But the examples of Germany and Chile are by no means irrelevant.

World capitalism in 1983 is in the deepest crisis, and a downturn in class struggle is by no means unprecedented in such a situation. Past experience of the workers’ movement in Britain and internationally this century is that prolonged crisis can breed demoralisation and passivity.

But that same experience teaches also that such demoralisation does not continue uninterrupted, that a slight upturn in the economy or a political crisis can give a new confidence to workers, and that struggle can burst out again with all the added power of accumulated bitterness.

The question is: what do socialists do now to prepare for such events?

It is all too easy to say ‘we will cross that bridge when we come to it’ and in the meantime do one’s bit on the left of the Labour Party. The evidence we have mustered shows not merely the miserable achievements of the Labour Left and its miserable prospects. It also shows that the politics of ‘we will do it for you’, whether it be as a councillor, as a union official, or ultimately, as a Left Labour government, sooner or later comes into conflict with the actual struggles of workers themselves.

Revolutionary socialists, on the other hand, believe that, as Marx said, ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself’. This is no mere watchword for the future, but a guide to action today.

It means not pretending to be stronger than we are, passing grand resolutions in ill-attended ward meetings or capturing union positions without any real base. It means intervening and building every real workers’ struggle we can find, no matter how tiny, and arguing unambiguously for our revolutionary politics with the small minority who will listen. In this way we seek to build a revolutionary party here and now.

Because what we do today counts. Only in big struggles that will eventually come has revolutionary socialist politics the potential of a mass audience. But whether that potential is won or lost depends on the influence, experience and clear-sightedness of the revolutionary party we build today.

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Last updated: 18 August 2016