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The Brexit Left and the Legacy of the 1970s Alternative Economic Strategy.

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Image result for State Intervention in Industry. A Workers’ Inquiry.

A High-Point of the AES years.

The Brexit Left and the Legacy of the 1970s Alternative Economic Strategy.

“…the AES represents a transitional strategy, capable of mobilising working class struggle around immediate issues within an overall and coherent framework of advance towards socialism.”

London CSE Group. 1979. (1)

After the Brexit Referendum result, in the middle of the “birth of a post-neoliberal order” in which right-wing forces are on the rise, we were informed that the left needs a “progressive vision of sovereignty”. For some, to adapt Walter Bagehot, the dignified part of this new socialist Constitution, lies in left-wing populism. To “excite and preserve the reverence” of left-wing thinkers, there is the prospect of a collective will arise from a federated People uniting resistance to neoliberal hegemony. This will be capable of standing up to the “post-democracy” of international oligarchs. For others, the efficient mechanisms of nation states, by which this “works and rules” there is popular sovereignty to create, “democratic control over the economy, full employment, social justice, redistribution from the rich to the poor, inclusivity and the socio-ecological transformation of production and society…” (2)

To combat right-wing national populism this left must be, it is said, itself national. Tying these two strands together, standing for the “little people” against “neo-liberal internationalism” and “cosmopolitan identitarianism”, Wolfgang Streeck chooses “the reality of national democracy imperfect as it may be, over the fantasy of a democratic global society.” A key element in such an approach is said to be a break with austerity, based on command of a sovereign currency. Some, standing out perhaps from Continental left-populists who are often  guarded about sovereignty, and reluctant to leave the EU,  claim that  Brexit offers the terrain on which to offer a “radical break with neoliberalism”. Chiming with the People’s Brexit cry this should be “a radically progressive and emancipatory Brexit narrative”. Modern Monetary Theory” (MNT), has, William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi consider, is the key to such a Labour Party strategy, its financial motor, if adopted within an efficient national framework. This, they hope, may offer the prospect of Karl Polanyi’s ‘organic rationality’ to counter the logic of markets. They are among an array of writers, some with long standing hostility to the European Union, predating any views about currency, that hector doubters about the radical democratic prospects of national sovereignty. (3)

Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts made some wide-ranging criticisms of this approach. They detect a coalescence of right wing and left pro-Brexit strategies based on will and the nation. Corbynism mirrors the obsession with ‘taking back control’ which underpinned the vote for Brexit, with the two movements even agreeing on the political agent needed to wrench back that elusive control – the nation-state. Both claim to be able to free society from the necessity of living through the economic forms of capitalism through the building of national barriers. Apparently different but strangely resonant, each shows the Janus-faced indeterminacy of populism in an era of democratic crisis.” (4)

Brexit.

This is where the issue of Brexit enters. Plans based on MMT require sovereign states and sovereign money. If there is one thing that the EU is, it is a limit to such schemes. Yet, is this theory about to take earthy form? A large group, including Labour policy makers, and many who have attended talks on the matter, may be unwilling to base an anti-austerity strategy on a theoretical picture of the Production of Money. An adviser to John MacDonnell has gone so far as to comment that, “MMT is just plain old bad economics, unfortunately, and a regression of left economic thinking. An economy with its own currency may never run out of money but that money can become entirely worthless (5)

Is Labour moving in the national populist direction outlined, either positively by left theorists Mitchell and Fazi or negatively, by Bolton and Pitts? There is little sign of rage against “the moral failings of the international financial elite,” when we get down to the details of plans for an overhaul of taxation to increase revenues within a more equitable system. Nor are pondered proposals for “new models of ownership” a sweeping attempt on behalf of society to assert “social self-protection”. Indeed if anything Labour has been too cautious to offer a worked out reform of the Universal Credit system. They have preferred to float improbable limited experiments for a Basic Income – at least a more equitable idea than MNT’s “job guarantee programme” which leaves many more questions open – rather than a wholesale reform of social security.

A larger group nevertheless considers that freedom from European treaties and institutions is essential for some programmatic pillars: re-nationalisation programme, taxation and control over the financial sector and some direction of the movement of capital. Others contest that Labour’s public ownership proposals, investment and anti-austerity plans, are challenged by membership of the EU. This is strongly contested by many, above all by writers for Another Europe is Possible’s publications. Many will now point to the turbulence of the process of “transition” to Brexit. The prospect of a Hard Exit to trade on WTO rules, demanded by the Communist Party of Britain amongst others, leaves the country open to international markets, transnational companies, and states, headed by Trump’s US. Is this an escape from capitalist domination? It would seem that the principle of ‘sovereignty’ does not translate easily from political theory and Constitutional law into the world of economics and global politics. (7)

The “transition to socialism” is an uninvited guest in modern left debate about populism, Brexit and Europe. Yet there was a moment, a long moment, in the 1970s, when there appeared to be feasible plans in Britain – paralleling French Socialist, Communist and other continental European left parties’ strategic policies – that claimed to lead in that direction. The Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) was at the centre of discussion, “The AES formed the philosophical core of Labour strategy, culminating the 1973 Programme” writes Simon Hannah, “which stands as crowning moment of Labourite anti-capitalist thought.” It “was a declaration of struggle against capitalism”. Labour governments of the 1970s, it is claimed, thwarted the left’s socialist thrust. Today it is said that Brussels would play the role of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, the Parliamentary and media Right, Business, cautious trade union leaders, the IMF, and markets, all combined to face down efforts to shift power away from capitalism to ordinary people. (8)

The Rise of the Alternative Economic Strategy.

The Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) can be said to have originated in Labour policies developed after the 1970 election defeat, reflected in the 1974 election Manifesto. Elected in 1974 the Labour Party faced an economic crisis with a radical programme, including plans to nationalise 25 leading companies and the creation of the National Enterprise Board committed to “extending public ownership into profitable areas of manufacturing industry” and “industrial democracy”. The left, with Tony Benn as Minister of Industry, Eric Heffer as his Minister of State, and Michael Meacher as his Under-Secretary, and advisers, Francis Cripps, Stuart Holland Frances Morell as advisers, had a strong, though not decisive,  presence.

Harold Wilson ignored proposals to bring companies into public ownership. After Britain voted to continue to be part of the European Economic Community in 1975, which the left had opposed, they lost their toehold in the Cabinet. The age of ‘Bennery’, best remembered as support for workers’ co-operatives Triumph Motorcycles, KME and the Scottish Daily News, to replace failing companies, had ended. Industrial strategy elements, such as the National Enterprise Board (NEB) and “voluntary planning agreements” floated around in limbo until Labour lost power in 1979. Famously Labour, faced with pressure on public expenditure, presented as severely as possible by Treasury forecasts, and the failures of income policies, gave in to a variety of interests demanding austerity. The swingeing cuts in state spending culminated in agreement to terms for an IMF loan, in 1976, which is considered the start of a shift from Keynesian economics to Monetarism.

This turn helped the development of the AES as a distinct counter set of policies. “By 1976” John Callaghan summarises, “the AES envisaged a programme of reflation and redistribution of income defended by import controls, and an extended sector of public enterprise, planning agreements and industrial democracy designed to boost investment and productivity.” In this shape the AES became the programme, of variable geometry, of the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, many trade unionists, stressing variously the manufacturing or public service aspects, and a variety of left-wing ‘think tanks’ such as the Institute for Workers’ Control, the Conference of Socialist Economists and the Cambridge Political Economy Group. It enjoyed wide backing in Constituency Labour Parties, and influenced many of the incoming ‘New Labour left’ members, including Marxists, inside and outside the party. Despite (or because of) this, Prime Ministers, James Callaghan adds, it was “effectively ignored”, amongst efforts by Tony Benn and his allies, to give some tangible ideas life. (8)

Stuart Holland began from these premises “In both domestic and international policy the modern capitalist State is plunged increasingly in the dark by the simultaneous trend to monopoly domination and home and multi-nationalism abroad. Keynesian policies are increasingly eroded both by the increased market power and self financing of the big league at home, and by their capacity to thwart government taxation, monetary and exchange policies.” The economy was weakening. The alternative, “industrial regeneration” lay in forthright measures. John Callaghan summarises, “urgent action was needed to assume control of the strong points of meso-economic sector, including its financial institutions, so that the state could a adopt new planning instruments. “The alternative was a crack down on union power and workers’ rights by a government adapted to decline by attempts to increase profitability at wage-earners’ expense.” Holland’s version of the AES focused on new public enterprise as a countervailing force to multinationals and planning through formal agreements and industrial democracy. (9)

The AES resonated widely on the left. Over the following years the AES inspired a variety of radical visions. For the London CSE Group, on the eve of Thatcher’s victory, the radical aspects of the AES offered a means to “impose greater working class political control on each of the forms of capital” and (without defining clearly what this meant) a rise in “socialist consciousness”. In their view, “the policies proposed represent a challenge to the control by capital of the internationalism of its commodity, money and productive forms, and in particular to the role of British imperialism in the world economy.” Geoff Hodgson had already argued in 1977 that that, despite Holland’s “weak” position on the state, “the only effective strategy of advance”. Core proposals, on Planning Agreements and a real National Enterprise Board, “can encourage a powerful interaction between mass struggle and legislature advance”. Hodgson continued throughout the decade to see “the Alternative Economic Strategy is a means of mobilising the working class for socialist ends.” The AES allowed many ideas to flourish. Mike Prior and Dave Purdy followed a curious byway. They proposed to develop a “socialist” social contract, based on wage and price restraint, as part of the alternative strategy to expand trade union influence and “impose conscious social regulation” on capitalism. (10)

In 1980, in the pages of International Socialism, the SWP theoretical journal, Bob Rowthorn talked of “the implementation of this programme as the first stage in a revolutionary process characterised by intense conflict and struggle.” It was both democratic containing, a “number of measures for extending the influence of the working class and its allies, and for exerting social control over the direction of the economy” and national “based primarily on changes within Britain itself, and does not consider the wider question of how to overcome the present crisis in world capitalism.” For Rowthorn, this involved “withdrawal from the Common Market”. By 1981 with Thatcher in charge, Rowthorn believed, writing in the pages of Marxism Today,  “A real challenge to capitalist power, as envisaged in programmes like the AES, can only succeed if either (1) the Left has overwhelming support in civil society — in which case the old military apparatus will disintegrate if the bourgeoisie seeks to overthrow the legitimate government by force; or (2) the Left has a strong foothold in the armed forces — in which case the Right, and its foreign allies, may be frightened to sabotage the economy, for fear of provoking a conflict which they might lose. Others had already pointed to the absence of a committed “revolutionary party” able to fulfil the promise of the AES and ward off such threats. Holland, however, had other obstacles in mind and had warned against “go it alone” Labour policies, without the backing of left parties in France and Italy, a view he was to develop in the 1980s. (11)

For some, writing after the AES had disappeared from sight in the 1980s, the strategy was bound up with the fate of efforts by Labour’s ‘transformative’ left to change the party. It marked the high-tide to, in Tony Benn’s words, “to build a bridge which links democracy with socialism and merges the arguments for one with the arguments for the other.” Inside the party it paralleled, in this view, attempts to bring together grass-roots inner-party control with a wholesale transformation of the state and economy. Yet Labour governments in the 1970s neutralised its radical thrust before, in the eyes of the left, democratic change – that is, the socialist left’s advance – inside Labour was, in the 1980s, first thwarted, and then driven back. The inability of these efforts to make headway coincided with the Callaghan government’s turn to Monetarism, described retrospectively as a “key moment in globalisation”. The strikes and party infighting that followed fuelled, it is said, the rise of Margaret Thatcher before ‘authoritarian populism’ appeared on the horizon. In response to the fall of the Labour government in 1979 and “left wing capitalism” Stuart Holland wrote of the failure “to defend their nominal autonomy” and their “capacity to command support for an autonomous development.” (12)

The issue remains, what kind of socialism was offered by this autonomous path? Government legislated planning and nationalisation, are, tradition has it, is not a socialist panacea. Benn believed that “capital” should be made “accountable to the people it employs”. “Planning agreements were to make the power of the major companies subject to the assent of the people who worked within them, without putting workers on the board.” The Trades Councils who produced the report, State Intervention in Industry (1980) pointed to the key role of “workers themselves being actively involved in formulating the policies”. Did this actually happen? Their report indicated that in practice, “The NEB distanced the government even further from shop floor representatives.” (13)

By contrast, Andrew Glyn suggested, in line forms of co-operation already existed within capitalism, ready to be taken over and perfected by social ownership Aligned to Militant at the time and critical of many aspects of the AES he stated, “As Marx pointed out in Capital, the same people who extol the organisational excellence of capitalist factories and businesses and the sophistication of the planning techniques available to the individual capitalist enterprise, also deny the possibility that the same techniques can be applied to the co-ordination of production between the different giant enterprises which dominate the economy.” Glyn continued, “why could not a workers’ government in Britain apply the same systems to planning the British economy?” (14)

This insight, awakened from the dead Engels’ Socialism Scientific and Utopian (1880). Marx’s comrade, noting the increasing “socialised means of production” and “socialised producers” at odds with private ownership. For Glyn, in today’s conditions, one could unleash the potential of these forms by a smooth ‘technical’ transition, by a legal change of ownership, to socialist relations of production. The Militant economist accomplished the not inconsiderable feat of ignoring decades of left thinking on the way the capitalist labour process meant deskilling and domination by management’s “organisational excellence”, not to mention the wishes of groups represented in the Trades Council’s Report. (15)

Despite the interest of important sections of the trade union movement, often organised through inter-union bodies such as Trades Councils, there was no mass movement inspired by the trade union leadership (anxious to negotiate with the Labour government), and only a minority interest from the rank of file, for this aspect of the AES, or for the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy (1977). Many unions, and some on the left, saw collective bargaining as the horizon of their democratic input. Holland has since pointed out that he never channelled management’s right to manage. Workers’ rights were to remonstrate, debate, to get redress for grievances, but not to legislate over business plans or company accounting. This is an understandable pragmatic approach, but falls short of the hopes of radical AES supporters. Only in the calm of political marginalisation would prominent AES backer Geoff Hodgson write an account of how an economy might correspond to the Workers’ Inquiry’s aspirations. (The Democratic Economy. 1984)

The AES and Socialism.

How radical was the AES? Donald Sassoon wrote in his history of the European left, “to anyone willing to brush aside the fog of rhetoric …an industrial policy that is based on planning agreements and a stakeholding company is, in fact, a policy of coexistence and partnership with the private sector, aimed at improving the latter’s performance.” He observes that the AES was one of the “very few attempts by British socialism to develop an industrial strategy aimed at making capitalism more profitable.” A more balanced judgement would hold that the strategy was an effort to expand the scope of political action to change economic relations, within the boundaries of the possible. Yet, Sassoon also adds, this was not necessarily realistic: “economic independence” between countries could not be waved away. The plans were not thought through. One aspect of this stands out. What were the measures kept in reserve to prevent capital flight and financial movements that resisted attempts to “harness of the market power of big league firms”? Bob Rowthorn’s warnings about military intervention, and implicit call for a socialist armed forces strategy, aside, the example of the IMF loan, and the campaigns against ‘Bennery’ indicated that the scope for radical change within the institutions might have been narrow. (16)

It is not only historians who have poured cold water over the prospects of the AES. “It is simply not possible to make a mixed economy work in a socialist way.” wrote David Coates in 1981, “while the size of the private sector remains large and in the control of a class that is hostile to Labour radicalism, and at a time when the development of class forces has already produced serious problems of profit realisation and capital accumulation.” In other words, Britain was capitalist and had a capitalist state.

Coates developed this theme, pointing to the lack of instrument to transform this, , “…the Parliamentary Left prefer to meet the threat of the multinationals by using the power of one national state and its associated national trade unions, in spite of the vast evidence that the nation-state is less and less able to play that role effectively, and without considering that the Left’s purposes might be better served by attempting to build international linkages both within each multinational (between the workers at each plant) and between the different national trade-union centres and socialist and communist parties—linkages made possible and necessary by the interlocking nature of the capitalist economies, the similarity of the problems faced by the Western European working class, and the emergence of similar programmes to the AES in left-wing parties across the continent.” This leaves open the issue of what exactly the workers were to do to show solidarity. Yet it has the merit of pointing to the need for those who had elaborated these left programmes to work together. This has in fact happened, through the existence of the structures of the European Union, by legally empowered pan-Continental Works’ Councils, and the creation of political blocs inside the European Parliament. Open to criticism, far from solid or powerful, without a doubt, these moves are under threat by Brexit.(17)

Europe.

What of the Common Market, the European Economic Community, as the European Union was known at the time? Sassoon, and many others, observed “a staunch defence of the nation-state as the best instrument for the development of ‘socialist’ planning was part and parcel of the AES.” Looking back over the decade Stuart Hollande wrote on the “New Communist Economics” of the still substantial Communist Parties in France Spain and Italy, and noted moves, which extended to the French Parti Socialiste, towards programmes for “political and industrial democracy”, and planning embedded in the “democratisation of the economy”. Could their projects be coordinated with the UK Left? At the time European Parliamentary blocs were out of the range of sight. But alongside talk about the “transformation of capitalism” Holland did not fail to mention the need to “stem a national decline.” As Paul Auerbach underlines, behind the AES was the “implicit assertion of the possibility of economic renewal thorough unilateral national action”. (18)

Francis Cripps wrote in 1981, “The Alternative Strategy seeks to counterpose democratic national self-government against the anarchic pressures of a global market system.” “The mere fact that the Strategy is national in its scope is not sufficient to condemn it out of hand. Indeed, if successful, it would provide a progressive model for other countries with similar social and political institutions.” Leo Panitch and Colin Leys have claimed the “national policy autonomy” or national sovereignty..” “some degree of collective control over politics and society, and in particular over the flows of capital, trade and people” are pillars of left politics. (19)

There is much to say on what confronts the left today. It is clear that very few people would find much in common with the starting points for the AES. In Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe’s influential British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze (1972) the historical decline of British decline and its profitability crisis needed a left response. Based on “converting the fight for the rights and conditions of the workers” it should lead to a “revolutionary political strategy inside the labour movement.” (20)

Instead the minds of some of the radical left today are focused on how terrible the European Union is. This is more sophisticated ways than Tony Benn’s description of Britain as a “colony” that should be “liberated” from Brussels. From the Left’s Senate, pours forth the icy realism of one of its oldest members. Waving, as one likes to imagine, his long fingernails, from the arch-conservative Paleo-Marxist bloc Perry Anderson fulminates: the EU is, “an oligarchic structure ever more indifferent to expressions of the popular will, even to legal appearances.” Economically it is a de-regulating body, the plaything of globalisation, and a facilitator of privatisation and market competition.” This space approaches the neo-liberal ideal of an economy protected from politics – the popular will. The Euro-Zone is a means to enforce not just fiscal discipline, but in the case of countries burdened with debt, headed by Greece, sell-offs and, more widely, austerity. Stuart Holland wakes up and concurs, “an anti-democratic disaster” that stands in the way of my “entrepreneurial state” ! (21)

Blue Labour fellow travellers William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi. The Socialist Workers Party imagines another Europe, but Callinicos warns, this “will be achieved through breaking the autocratic, neoliberal structures of the EU, not by pursuing the Utopia that they can reformed.“ (22)

And yet, Europe itself cannot be said to be Nowhere. “What makes the EEC a constraining power at the moment is not any directive from the Commission but Britain’s de facto integration in and dependence on the European Economy.” Left populism, from a splintered Podemos to a La France insoumise, dropping to 8% or less, in the polls,  is in crisis. The  demand  sovereignty resonates only  on the national populist right.The internationalists’ call to reform the institutions goes on, the march, together with our comrades in the rest of Europe, continues, through the political institutions governing this economy and above through alliances of the left and unions.  There is only one Brexit, with dreams of restored Imperial sovereignty, Popular Sovereignty, a People’s Brexit, attached. That is the only possible Brexit, one that leaves us without any hook into directing the continent, floating, as a directionless buoy, in the oceans of the world neoliberal economy. (23)

*****

  1. Crisis, the Labour Movement and the Alternative Economic Strategy. London CSE Group. Capital and Class No 8. Summer. 1979.
  2. What Is Needed Is A Progressive Vision Of National Sovereignty. Thomas Fazi. Social Europe. 19th of May 2017. Page 4. The English Constitution. Walter Bagehot. Oxford University Press. World’s Classics. 1928. Chantal Mouffe. For a Left Populism. Verso. 2018. Reclaiming the State. A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi Pluto Press. 2017. The Return of the Repressed. Wolfgang Streeck. New Left Review. 104/2. 2017. 
  3. William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi Op cit. The authors claim to be on the radical left. Their use of Polanyi draws on Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman see: The Great Deformation Maurice Glasman. New Left Review. No 205/1, 1994. 
  4. Page 54. Corbynism: a critical approach. Matt Bolton. Frederick Harry Pitts.Emerald Publishing 2018.
  5. Cited in, Pete Green Is Labours economic policy really neoliberal? Open Democracy. 14th August 2018. See the various plans for finance and macroeconomics in The Corbyn Project. Robin Blackburn. New Left Review, 2018. 111/2.
  6. THE LEFT AGAINST BREXIT – AN INTERNATIONALIST CASE FOR EUROPE. : Britain should leave the EU on WTO terms’, Communists propose.Page 145.A Party with Socialists in it. A History of the Labour left. Simon Hannah. Pluto. 2018.
  7. Pages 57 and 59. The Retreat of Social Democracy. John Callaghan. Manchester University Press. 2000. See also: Chapter 5. The End of Parliamentary Socialism. Leo Panitch & Colin Leys. Verso. 1997.
  8. Page 32. Strategy for Socialism. Stuart Holland. Spokesman. 1975. Page 59 John Callaghan op cit.

  9. Crisis, the Labour Movement and the Alternative Economic Strategy, London, CSE Group. Capital and Class No 8. 1979. Pages 156 – 157 Socialism and Parliamentary Democracy Geoff Hodgson. Spokesman 1977. Geoff Hodgson. Britain’s crisis and the road to international socialism: a reply to Jonathan Bearman. International Socialism, 2/7 1980. On a Socialist Social Contract see: Out of the Ghetto. Mike Prior and Dave Purdy. Spokesman. 1979.

  10. Bob Rowthorn. The Alternative Economic Strategy.International Socialism. Spring 1980. Bob Rowthorn The Politics of the Alternative Economic Strategy Marxism Today. January 1981.The Eclipse of Politics: the Alternative Economic Strategy as a Socialist Strategy. Donald Swartz. Capital and Class. No 13. 1981.

  11. See The Impasse of Social Democratic Politics. Leo Panitch. Socialist Register. 1985/86. Merlin. Page 244 Stuart Holland. Capital, Labour and the State. In: What Went Wrong, Explaining the Fall of the Labour Government, Edited by Ken Coates. Spokesman, 1979.

  12. Pages 90 to 91. Tony Benn. Interview with Eric Hobsbawm. In The Forward March of Labour Halted? Eric Hobsbawm. Verso. 1981. Page 9. Pages 96 and 157 – 8. State Intervention in Industry. A Workers’ Inquiry. Coventry, Liverpool. Newcastle N. Tyneside Trades Councils. 1980. Russell. 

  13. Andrew Glyn. Capitalist Crisis: Tribune’s ‘Alternative Strategy’or Socialist Plan. Militant Pamphlet, 1979. Stuart Holland said in 2017. “One of the main claims about my proposals in the 1970s was the allegation that I wanted civil servants to run industry. I didn’t and I don’t. They’re not qualified, not up to it. You need professional managers (my emphasis) in holding companies with a strategic remit from the government. I made that argument in shaping the case for the National Enterprise Board, submitting that the NEBshould have such a remit for six main roles, including regional development, gaining direct information on the cost and profit structures of big business, using this to counter transfer pricing by multinational companies, locating more R&D in the UK, as well as long-term innovating investment not influenced by the short termism of stock markets.” Martin O’NeillStuart Holland Hope amidst despair?Renewal. Col 25. 34.

  14. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific Friedrich Engels. Various Editions.

  15. Page 525. One Hundred Years of Socialism. Donald Sassoon. Fontana Press. 1996.

  16.  Labourism and the Transition to Socialism. David Coates. New Left Review. 1/129. 1981.

  17. The New Communist Economics. Stuart Holland. In Eurocommunism. Myth or Reality?Paolo Filo della Torre, Edward Mortimer, Jonathan Story, Penguin 1979. Paul Auerbach. The Left Intellectual Opposition in Britain 1945 – 2000: the Case of the Alternative Economic Strategy. Socialist History Society Conference. September 26-7 2003.

  18. Francis Cripps. The British Crisis—Can the Left Win? New Left Review 128/1 1981. Page 170. The End of Parliamentary Socialism. Leo Panitch & Colin Leys. Verso. 1997.

  19. Pages 215 – 6. Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze . Penguin. 1972.

  20. Page 539. The New Old World. Perry Anderson. Verso. 2009.  Martin O’NeillStuart Holland Hope amidst despair? Renewal. Col 25. 34.

  21. Why the Left Should Embrace Brexit. Thomas Fazi and William Mitchell. Jacobin. 29.4. 2018. The Internationalist case against the European Union. Alex Callinicos. International Socialism No 148. 2015.

  22. Vol. 2. Page 284. Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today. Antony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst and Athar Hussain. Routledge. 1978

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

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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.