“Labour Is Not A Socialist Party”

Helmut Schmidt’s observation that Tony Benn was “the Bertie Wooster of the political economy” is usually off-putting if considering quoting the Sage of Holland Park, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. One such occasion on which Benn was right was in his description of the Labour Party and its relationship to socialism.

What he said was that “…the Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it,” which would tend to be the experience of most of us. At most levels, the people you meet would describe themselves as on the left, but after a bit of discussion, it becomes apparent that it is wide political mix. There are of course the doctrinaire amateur idealogues, but there will also be syndicalists as well as fair-day’s-pay trade union members, social democratic pragmatists, and people who just want a better deal for themselves and their neighbours and families.

There are also of course eccentrics and people who you get the impression would be in the Tory party if they lived in Surrey. Certainly, there are always people who say they joined Labour not because they support it and its policies, but because they want to change it. (I have always found this attitude a bit strange: like joining the Tories to end capitalism or the SNP because you oppose independence.)

This having been said, the variety and range of our members is at once both the strength and the weakness of the Labour Party. It is our strength because it makes us even a little more representative of the population we wish to serve, because it gives us a wide rnage of insights into specific issues and needs in our communities, and because common sense is not automatically over-ruled by socialist dogma.

It is however our weakness because it makes it difficult to coalesce around a single unifying cause, like the pursuit of a small state, or independence. It has been part of the organisational and above all the political triumph of Labour’s winners to create such a unifying core: for the pioneers like Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, it was trade union representation. By the time of the Attlee government, Herbert Morrison had added the civic section of the party (to the suspicion of Ernie Bevin), and could proclaim “socialism is whatever the Labour Party does” – Labour was the party of identity for working people.

Harold Wilson and George Brown created a vision of Labour as the party of modernity and efficiency, washing away the cobwebs of the tweedy Macmillan and Home Tories. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson complemented Gordon Brown’s Iron Chancellor message of prudence with their own vision of New Labour, New Britain, a young country. In every case, these fused together Labour’s different strands to offer the voters more than the sum of their parts.

In between these successes, the range of views in Labour served only to make Labour unelectable.

Macdonald himself left to lead a coalition with the Tories; the Keep Left Group and then the Bevan cult undermined first Attlee and then his successor Gaitskill. After Wilson and Callaghan, the left took power, and subsequently failed miserably to unite the party. Michael Foot’s authority was hollowed out by his former colleague Tony Benn; some of the right surrendered the fight and departed to the  SDP. Labour lost not only the 1983 election, but those in 1987 and 1992.

There are two conclusions which can be drawn from this history.

The first is that when Labour is split, it cannot win power. This seems obvious: unity is strength is after all our old motto.

The second conclusion is that the left cannot create that unity, and a quick history of the 1970s shows us why not. The far left analysis of UK politics was famously expressed by an activist filmed on the old World In Action programme while on their way to the Battle of Grosvenor Square in 1968: “the Labour Party has betrayed the revolution, the unions have betrayed it, and the workers have betrayed it. It is up to us.”

That is the vanguardist doctrinaire left, some of whom took up the struggle outwith parliamentary politics. Others, however sought to infiltrate Labour.

Of these, the Militant Tendency gained most traction for some time, with its mission to first take over Labour, then implode it, to leave the working class vote clear for its own Trotskyist programme. Others developed a programme of socialist renewal, based on deselecting sitting MPs and replacing them with approved and “ideologically sound” activists (usually themselves by an amazing coincidence.)

A further wing of this project was that pursued by the likes of Socialist Organiser, which looked to create alliances between the Labour left and the revolutionary left in trade unions, protest groups and far-left parties. (For example, it was common knowledge that some in the municipal left in London were in close cahoots with the WRP.) Much of this is history – although it must be remembered that Jeremy Corbyn comes out of that same left. And at the same time, it can be seen that much of the motivation of the left in the Labour Party is that it assumes as an article of faith that the leadership has betrayed the cause and the workers.

For that reason, the Bennites and the other far leftists in the 1970s and 80s believed that revolutionary socialists with no commitment at all to democracy belonged in the Labour Party, while social democrats and liberal centrists did not. These latter groups included MPs, councillors and voluntary local office bearers who were hounded out of office, and sometimes the party itself.

As the Labour Party today looks towards its new leadership, we must all hope that if the left is again dominant, it has changed its ways. And that those who surround Jeremy Corbyn see the need to keep on board those in the party with whom they disagree.  However, the signs are not all good. Social media is full of his supporters calling his opponents the same names as suffered by moderates back in the day; Corbyn himself describes his own party as having been Tory-lite. A few fringe nutcases are beginning to hint at rigged polls to stop him.

And certainly the overall pitch against Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall is that, as supporters of the Blair/Brown governments and the Miliband leadership, they must be traitors who should not be treated with in good faith (unlike their man.) The fear must be that the myth of betrayal lives longer than the memory of the success of Labour governments.

It looks again unlikely that the left will be able to create the unity which is required for victory at the General Election in 2020.

(Incidentally, the episode which sparked Herr Schmidt’s mocking of Tony Benn was the latter’s role in drawing up Labour’s 1974 manifesto, which was then responsible for the Wilson government’s policy of attempting to grow the UK out of a recession at a time when no other European economies were doing likewise. The result was a massive balance of payments crisis and in the end, public expenditure cuts. This is a policy which Jeremy Corbyn seeks to copy.)

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Labour Leadership debate – I’ve Had Enough.

I have written and published a poem about how much I love an argument, despite the energy and the depression it causes. Contrarian Blues Like Hitchens, for me a good day should include at least a modicum of disputation. As Hegel observed, the dialectic process produces ideas and solutions in its synthesis which transcends either the thesis or its antithesis. Or some such balls: for me an argument challenges my views, knocks some of my crazier ideas on the head, and enlightens me.

Indeed, one of the reasons I am opposed to a Tory-free politics in Scotland is the lack of political challenge: social democrats need a direct and hard-headed enemy. A body politic needs the same as the human psyche, in the words of Martin Luther King, a tender heart and a tough mind. For society as a whole it means a constant questioning of what should be provided communally and how it can be paid for. For Labour, for example, it means a continuous internal debate about the respective roles of welfare and the means of providing it.

So why am I finding the current Labour Party debate depressing? The answer is that I have had the same arguments twice before in the last year: in the Scottish independence debate, and in the General Election.

And like those arguments, the one on the Labour leadership comes down to this: do you believe in evidence or do you believe faith?

The evidence-based argument is that Labour only wins when it embraces the centre ground. This what Labour’s most successful leaders did: Blair, Wilson – and yes, Attlee, whose government embraced the post-war orthodoxy of domestic state control and an aggressive anti-communist foreign policy. Wilson’s governments were based technocratic economic orthodoxy and their greatest achievements were centrist liberal reforms: votes at 18, penal reform, abolition of censorship, lives saved by seatbelts and the breathalyser, comprehensive education and the Open University.

The Blair/Brown governments perhaps sum up the Labour Party at its best: a broad coalition of democratic socialists, social democrats and liberal centrists, which brought about the same sort of liberal reforms (such as devolution) and a wider measure of redistributive policies than Wilson had managed: the National Minimum Wage, tax and pension credits and other poverty measures which reduced poverty for millions, record investment in the NHS and education, the right to trade union representation, Sure Start etc.

The evidence is that Labour wins when it includes the centre in its broad church, and that when we win, we can achieve great things for those in society who most need them.

The faith based case is as follows.

People really want something beyond what Labour has ever offered. They want the transformation of the economy and society into a socialist commonwealth. When asked what this will be like, and how it will operate, things become more difficult, not least because there is no evidence of such a society ever having existed.

In the days before the fall of the USSR, communists would tell us it was the Soviet Union. Trotskyists would tell us it was what the Soviet Union would have become if not for Stalin. Since then, we have had the DDR, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia. None of these stand up to scrutiny, and even their adherents hedge their praise with “well, if it wasn’t for US imperialism…”

The other way in which the faith-based socialist commonwealth is defined is by what it is not. For example it would not be New Labour’s Britain: “no inequality, no wars, no banking crisis, no Trident, no nuclear power, no expenses scandals…” Which still does not define what it actually be like, how it would work, where is similar, how its economy would support its welfare system, its levels of taxation, its means of increasing productivity, its defence policy. There is little or no evidence.

And there is a second article of faith: that people will vote for this chimera. The argument goes that Labour does not need the centre because such a programme will be so attractive to and so much in the self-interest of voters. In particular, it will inspire the non-voting working class to all register and install a radical socialist government indefinitely once Labour gives them the call. Again there is little evidence to suggest this will happen.

Indeed, the most recent evidence is quite the opposite. In the much quoted Scottish independence referendum, the No campaign won on the basis of solid evidence, above all on the economy. Scots were convinced that independence would make them worse off, so rejected independence. Likewise, the Tories won the May election through an old-fashioned campaign of targeted negative campaigning: vote Miliband, get Sturgeon. In Scotland, the SNP wiped Labour out – but not on the basis of an idealistic manifesto.

A new variant of the wishful thinking politics is that we are now entering a new age. This states that in the light of the internet, there is a freedom of information and opinion which frees people from the shackles of the old control exercised by the establishment through the media. Therefore everyone will see that a new left politics will be to their benefit, and will vote in the socialist commonwealth which will have no inequality, no wars etc. (see above)

This argument has three major flaws. The first is the immediate evidence of the 2014 referendum and the 2015 General Election. The second is that there are as many right wing views as left wing ones to be found on the internet. And the third is that people always regarded the old media with scepticism, as in “do you believe everything you read in the papers?” To assume otherwise, i.e., that voters would have supported leftwing policies if the Sun had not told them otherwise, is patronising and insulting to those voters.

So that’s me: firmly on the side of evidence.

I rejected the articles of faith of the Scottish independence movement: that oil would sell at $133 dollars a barrel, that Scotland could keep the pound, that Scotland could achieve growth levels in excess of 10% if only it was independent, that productive young people would turn their backs on London and opt to stay in the hills and glens. Likewise I rejected the almost mystical reliance on “Our Nicola” and her plan to abolish austerity by increasing Scotland deficit by £10 billion.

And I now reject the faith-based mania which appears to be sweeping Jeremy Corbyn into the lead in Labour’s leadership campaign. There is no evidence that he has the capability to lead the party effectively. There is no evidence that he can win the 100+ seats we need at the next election. There is no evidence that he can be a great reforming PM like Attlee, Wilson or Blair. There is no evidence that many of his policies will work or would be the best use of resources.

So I am not voting for him. I would prefer a single candidate against him who combines Yvette Cooper’s experience, Liz Kendall’s imagination and Andy Burnham’s campaigning credentials. Unfortunately none exists, so I will use the device of the preferential ballot to vote for all of them.

And I will not be in the argument any more, at least on social media. I have had enough of arguing for evidence against increasingly blind faith.

Perhaps it is like being Galileo against the Pope. We are talking about different universes. And life is too short.