Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

A Party with Socialists in it. A History of the Labour Left. Simon Hannah. A Democratic Socialist Review.

with 2 comments

Image result for a party with socialists in it

 

A Party with Socialists in it. A History of the Labour Left. Simon Hannah. Pluto Press 2018.

(This review article appears in the latest Chartist magazine).

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 victory and his re-election in 2016 have been followed a number of pacy biographies. There have larger number of efforts to explain the victory, often as part of a global rise of “outsider” politics. By contrast Simon Hannah’s A Party with Socialists in it, is an account of the North Islington MP’s leadership within the long history of the Labour left inside the party.

An issue hangs over A Party with Socialists in it. There may be socialists in Labour but can Labour become a vehicle for socialism? The late Ralph Miliband, Hannah observes, came to consider the party unfit for socialist purpose, unable to create a “radically different social order” (Postscript to Parliamentary Socialism. 1973)

The Labour Party, Hannah states, was created as a Broad Church designed to represent the “entire labour movement”. He suggests that the seating is arranged around two wings. There is the ‘transformative’ current – the socialist left – which aims to change society radically, facing sustained opposition from the Establishment. Seated separately have been the ‘integrative’ battalions in the Parliamentary party and major trade unions. Outside and inside office, they try to avoid friction by making peace with the Powers that Be.

A Party with Socialists in it ably covers more than a century of differences between right and left from the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 onwards – a vast sweep. But historical reminders are often extremely relevant.

To explain the background to Blair and Brown’s modernising project it is useful to look at the 1950s ‘revisionist’ debate, between figures such as Anthony Crosland and Aneurin Bevan. This centred on the balance between social and private ownership and making property serve “social purposes”. In the 1970s this again became a live issue. While the first stirrings of the neo-liberal privatisation agenda could be seen inside the Conservative Party, Labour appeared to be rethinking the “balance” between public and private in the opposite direction.

Alternative Economic Strategy.

The Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) came onto the Labour agenda. Stuart Holland’s version of the AES aimed to create a “new public ownership and social controls in the meso-economic sector”. It included nationalising the 25 top manufacturing companies to “harness the market power of big league firms”. Along with planning and rights to workers’ participation, it aimed to tackle inefficiency, to create jobs and end the decline in British profits and competitively. Hannah notes that the AES included protectionist measures. (Strategy for Socialism. Stuart Holland. 1975)

As Hannah notes, capitalists were unlikely to welcome the AES without ferocious opposition. Wilson, the figure of the ‘integrationist wing of the party, never intended this to happen. Only a shadow of the AES, a National Enterprise Board, that helped prop up some failing enterprises and the Bullock Report’s plans for corporatist works’ councils, “torpedoed” by the unions themselves, remained. (Pages 146 – 152) Avoiding ruffling the established powers ended with accepting an austerity programme in response to IMF demands. For Hannah this was “capitulation to international finance”. Efforts to bring together companies and workers through ‘Social Contract” wage restraint ended in the 1979 Winter of Discontent.

The 1980s rise and fall of ‘Bennism’, and the narrowly thwarted deputy leadership bid in 1981, saw the left rally around the former Cabinet Minister. Benn’s socialism, in Hannah’s account, was that of a “constitutionalist political reformer”. He based his ambitions on “genuine national sovereignty” and wider democracy including extra-parliamentary activism. Some saw this as a transformative ground for socialist activism; others considered that it placed too great a hope in a reformed Parliamentary system. It encouraged the belief that if the levers of the Labour Party were won, a sovereign left government could detach itself from the world economy, and bodies such as the IMF and implement the discarded AES. This idea remains popular on the left amongst those who wish for an independent Britain ‘taking back control’ from the European Union. 

Hannah surveys the left’s defeats in the 1980s. The first pitched battle was on the question of inner-party democracy (Page 164) The Chapter The Broad Church Collapses is valuable in covering with a critical eye on the main players, the inward looking and often fractious activities of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLDP) and the Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC).

Neil Kinnock’s modernising ambitions, a move to the centre, are widely said to have foreshadowed the 1990s dominance of Tony Blair’s team. Did Neil Kinnock isolate the left only by ditching radical policies and purging organised factions? (Page 197) Certainly Kinnock’s moves to remove policy making from Conference and NEC control were important to activists.

Forward March of Labour?

Others suggest that the search for policies adapted to the new constituencies appearing with ‘post-Fordist’ times played a part in the modernising agenda. A fierce inter-left polemic took place on the decline in the power of the industrial working class. (The Forward March of Labour Halted? 1981) Ideas about a post-Fordist production or a postmodern world may have had a limited appeal. But wholesale industrial run down, the defeat of the miners’ strike, and the wholesale closures that followed, saw the pillars of the labour movement disappearing. .

There were efforts to develop a response through new left policies in the late 80s, notably at the Socialist Movement Chesterfield Conferences called by Tony Benn, the Socialist Campaign Group and the Socialist Society, including Labour left journals and radical non-Labour forces. They attempted to learn from the experiences of municipal socialism shut down by Thatcher and the balance-sheet of the 1980s class conflicts. This initiative merits more coverage than the many pages devoted to the expulsion of the Militant platoons that claimed to represent the socialist vanguard

The Blair leadership appeared to cut off any chance of these Labour left or these ideas continuing as a serious ‘transformative ” current in the party. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, dedicating their book to the independent left-wing academic, concluded, at the zenith of New Labour, that the “route to socialism does not lie in transforming the Labour Party” (The End of Parliamentary Socialism 1997).

Nevertheless the mid-1990s the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA), broke the ‘sealed tomb’ of the left under Tony Blair, and in 1998 got 4 left-wingers elected to the Labour’s NEC. The CLGA was broader than the CLDP or, Labour Briefing. There is no account of the role in the CLGA of Labour Reform and other ‘soft left’ forces, including Tribune and contributors to the present magazine.

Progressive Umbrella. 

Blair and Brown may have ended in a progressive umbrella hard to distinguish from a liberal desire to inject justice over market outcomes. Yet they were not only an acceptance of the neoliberal consensus but also a response to its appeal and to changing class configuration. Their relaxed attitude to finance and acceptance of privatising public services, not to mention participation in the invasion of Iraq, were disasters. The Third Way ideology was vapid cover.

But not every single policy was unwelcome, as can be seen as Universal Credit replaces Tax Credits. Stealth redistribution, nevertheless, means little as the modernisers’ centre-ground has dried up. There is little space for Labour in a “neo-liberal” consensus following the 2007-8 banking crisis. Accepting Conservative austerity plans, apparently eternal fiscal features means attacks on bedrock public services. Put simply, why indeed should the majority pay for their mistakes?

Hannah states that the 1940s left tended to assume that their main disagreements with the Labour leadership was over the speed of change, not over principles. The collapse of the Ecumenical endeavour during the Blair-Brown years, largely put an end to this way of thinking. For many on the left the turn to “social liberalism” cut the ground under the feet of any common endeavour.

In the light of this those who had given up on transforming the Labour Party would also deserve a mention, not least because many of them are now against party activists. A Party has nothing about the short-lived Socialist Alliance (its main challenge in the 2001 election, with derisory votes), Respect (George Galloway MP), or the more recent Left Party. All of these bodies involved Labour left-wingers. Many could offer not entirely happy experiences of working directly with left-factions and the larger Leninist groups which shape their take on Corbyn’s Labour left and Momentum. This gap contrasts with the large space devoted to Militant. No doubt it was “witch-hunted” but Militant’s top-down discipline and claims to lead the socialist fight have long limited its impact within the Labour left and more recent attempts to form electoral alternatives to the party.

Another initiative, which Hannah could have mentioned, is that the People’s Assembly movement of protest against austerity united trade unionists, the Labour and non-Labour left with a wide range of activists. The status of affiliated supporters allowed many to have a voice within the party, which it was easy to transfer into full membership after Corbyn’s election.

It is striking that British Labour is alone amongst established European left parties to have undergone change in the wake of Corbyn’s victory, perhaps indicating that its structures are not such an obstacle to the left after all.

An “invaluable account”.

A Party is an invaluable account not just of the history of the Labour left but of the future prospects of the Corbyn leadership. Hannah ends with hope that ‘capitalist realism’ is ending. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership may open up many possibilities As John McDonnell puts it in his Introduction, Labour can be a “genuinely transformative party”.

Momentum, in this view, is not just an effective electoral machine to support Jeremy Corbyn. It helps extend Labour’s influence amongst the public, and tips towards being a social movement for change. It would be to equip the practical idealists with the Parliamentary muscle to carry open-minded socialist ideas into effect. If Labour came to power would it also be needed to counter business and right wing attempts to sabotage the project? Could it develop a new better, version of the AES that avoids its pitfalls? The alternative, offered by the factionalising remnants of the modernisers, is an attempt to jump on a ‘progressive’ bandwagon driven by French President Emmanuel Macron. It is a bit of everything, except a realistic way of tackling a decade of government austerity.

Postscript 2nd of June.

 

The present Labour Party debate and splits on the fall-out from Brexit can can be seen in the light of the lingering influence of the ‘Bennite’ claim that the objective of the party should be ““genuine national sovereignty”. Those , a shrinking but still influential current,  advocating a ‘People’s Brexit’,  with the bare bones of a 20th century version of an national Alternative Economic Strategy, seem to reproduce the same difficulties and, in their sovereigntism, fall well short of an internationalist democratic socialist goal.

Advertisements

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. So is that why Theresa May is still in power, as the Labour party, even under Corbyn, is not left-wing enough?

    Steven Johnston

    July 3, 2018 at 8:53 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: