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Peter Hadden

British Labour Right rejects democracy

(February 1981)

From Militant Irish Monthly, February 1981.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Ciaran Crossey & Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

January’s Special British Labour Party conference marked a significant step towards the conversion of this party into a democratic and fighting instrument of the British working class. It is this which explains the hysterical reactions of both press and TV. From the media in general there has been an unprecedented barrage of abuse. The image has been projected of trade union leaders sitting in backrooms deciding who should be Prime Minister.

In reality the decisions of the conference will greatly extend Labour Party democracy. Right wing proposals to elect a leader by individual ballot and also to hold the election separately from the annual conference were decisively rejected. In the final ballot, following the elimination of other procedures, the conference voted in favour of an arrangement which will give 40% of the votes in a new electoral college to the trade unions, and 30% each to the MPs and Constituency Labour Parties.

This proposal received 3,375,000 votes, as against 2,865,000 for a GMWU resolution suggesting that 50% of the votes go to the MPs and the rest to the CLPs and unions. Aside from direct election by the party conference the method chosen was the most democratic decision that could have been taken.

The press barons of Fleet Street had wanted instead a system of individual voting which they could influence. They wanted the most undemocratic system possible – one in which four millionaire newspaper owners would have had a say over and above the Labour Party activists. Under the new system the trade unions, who created the Labour Party in the first place, together with the constituency activists, will have the decisive say.

To no-one’s surprise the “Gang of Three” of Williams, Owen and Rodgers, have suddenly become a “Gang of Four” and then a “Gang of Eleven”. They first of all teamed up with Roy Jenkins, now returned from his £48,000 per annum post in the EEC. They have formed what they pompously call a “Council of Social Democracy.”

What concerns these individuals is the fact that the Labour Party no longer offers a safe nest, in which to further their careers. It is now on the cards that they will link up with a dozen or so MPs and sooner or later form a new Centre Party. Shirley Williams has already stated that it is “almost inevitable” she will leave the Labour Party. But as Michael Foot correctly stated, such resignations would not represent a split in the party, but would simply be a defection of a few individuals.

Nor would it be of great concern to Labour Party members. When one right wing MP, Robert MacLennon, warned the Wembley delegates that MPs might leave the Party the reaction from the audience was “let them go then.” The truth is that many if not all of the MPs who have joined with the new “Gang of Four” would have been booted out by their constituencies through reselection.

The right wing have lost the battle of ideas within the Labour Party and are now looking elsewhere. But a new Centre Party, despite media backing, would not transform British politics as is claimed. It is being promoted by the ruling class as a means of preventing what they see as the inevitable return of a Labour Government. It is most unlikely that it will succeed in this at the next election, and even if it were to make a few short term electoral gains it would quickly lose its impetus.

This new “democratic centre” – nothing more than a further political trap for British capitalism. Ray Jenkins has been offered £14 million by sympathetic businessmen to help him in his venture. He himself is currently earning a boost of £10,000 per annum as a part time consultant for merchant bankers, Morgan and Grenfell. There: is no room in British society, given the collapse of the economy, for the old ideas of social democracy. The new grouping in its first statement talked of reviving the British economy and moving to a classless society. As a Financial Times reporter explained: “Such empty phrases” are nothing new.

This hits the nail on the head. Jenkins’s policies are those which were tested and which failed under past Labour Governments. During 1975 the last Labour Government prior to Thatcher and the Tories presided over a 10% fall in living standards, the sharpest fall in Britain since the mid 19th century. At the beginning of its term of office unemployment stood at 600,000. By 1977–78 it had risen to almost 1,500,000. When Labour’s right attack socialist ideas as election losers they should be reminded that their policies paved the way for the victory of Thatcher.

Another group of right wingers, including Healey, Mason, Varley and Hattersley have declared that they will stay in the Labour Party. Correctly they sense that a Centre Party would soon collapse. They are also being urged to remain by those more sombre strategists of the capitalists who see them as a necessary brake on a future Labour Government.

However, in or out, the days of the right are numbered. But the struggle to transform the Labour Party into a full socialist organisation has not ended. It is clear that sooner or later the ideas of people like Tony Benn and of the Tribune Group will predominate over the old right wing. But the Alternative Economic Strategy of the Tribune left does not offer a solution to the problems of the economy. The alternative strategy is based on the notion that the capitalist crisis can be cured by drastic reforms. It advances such measures as partial nationalisation, import controls and a. wealth tax. These measures, in the context of private ownership of the major sectors of the economy, will only make matters worse.

It is projected that in the course of the current recession there will be a decline in manufacturing output of 14%, a worse figure even than that of the 1929 slump. Tribune’s policies, if introduced by a future Labour Government, would not revive the economy. Far from persuading the capitalists to invest, they would provoke a strike of capital and economic collapse.

The only solution lies in the implementation of a socialist programme. It is essential that the increasing democracy within the party now be used by the rank and file through conference, through reselection and through the election of the leader to ensure that the next Labour Government does not attempt to tinker with capitalism but implements socialist policies. This would entail a Bill to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy and place these under democratic workers management, so that production and the development of the economy could proceed according to a rational plan and not as dictated by the needs of the profiteers.

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