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.)