The General Election of 9 April could have marked the turn of the tide for the labour movement. The Tories could have been defeated. The dead weight of a long decade of major working-class setbacks could have been sloughed off
That chance has gone. Labour lost the election. The Tories have a majority of 21 seats, for 43% of the vote. They look secure for five years.
This Tory victory is therefore — it must be said plainly — a very grave defeat for the working class and for the labour movement. We will pay a heavy price. The recovery of labour movement self-confidence and combativity will be slower, more drawn·out, and more fraught with difficulties.
Why Kinnock lost
Why did Labour lose? Why did the Tories win? The short answer to that question comes in two parts.
The fact is that Neil Kinnock and his friends did not seriously campaign against the Tories over the last five years, as an opposition that meant business would have done, seizing on issues like the poll tax. And Neil Kinnock‘s Labour Party appeared before the electorate as an untried and untrustworthy gang of Tory understudies, concerned only to win votes at any price.
The voters chose to stay with the Tories they knew rather than take a risk with the “me-too” pseudo-Tories who staff Labour’s front benches.
The nasty personal attacks on Kinnock were effective because Kinnock does appear in political life with the brand of the turncoat and the traitor on his forehead. He is a man who has, for political advantage, trimmed and changed and abandoned all the political opinions he formed when he was honestly thinking about political issues, and not about how best to gather votes.
Neither Kinnock nor the Labour Party could have had a convincing reply to the jeer that Kinnock was not to be trusted. The very alacrity with which Kinnock embraced and adopted Tory and Liberal policy, abandoning his own previous views, destroyed his credibility as a man to be trusted with any policies at all! When Labour's leaders rushed to endorse calls for the Government to use public money to compensate the speculators who had got their fingers burned at Lloyds of London, a lot of people who agreed with the Tory Government’s final decision not to compensate must have been convinced that this Labour front bench of belly-crawling ex-radicals was hysterical and unbalanced, not only by socialist standards, but by any standards of proper political behaviour.
When the Kinnock front-bench gang of former leftists, having shed their own souls, slithered around Westminster, the spectacle was revolting, and not only to socialists.
When Kinnock made his speeches about “dying for his country”, or about “serving democracy", or about how he “loved” Britain as much as Glenys, they were embarrassing not because he was insincere — probably he was being completely sincere — but because he was plainly speaking under compulsion and duress, saying what the tabloids wanted him to say (and much good it did him with them!) Kinnock and his team might have got away with it if they could at the same time have offered alternatives to the Tories’ policies, and if they had put up a fight on issues where everyone knew the Tories were wrong. But Labour’s central policies have been only marginally different from those of the Tories, and they have been a woefully wet and wimpish Opposition. The consequence is that they appeared to the electorate as an especially tacky gang of politicians on the make, willing to say and do almost anything to win office.
The Thatcher era opened with an unemployed Liverpudlian, Alan Bleasdale’s fictional Yosser Hughes, capturing the imagination and sympathy of Britain with his desperate plea: “Gi’s a job”. The Kinnock era closed with Labour leaders winning only the disdain and contempt of large numbers of Labour’s natural supporters with the cry, “Gi’s a vote”.
Socialist Organiser said all this throughout the campaign and over the long pre-election campaign. We warned that Kinnock’s policy of sitting tight and hoping that the Tories would lose the election, tipping the ripe apples and plums of office into the arms of the waiting Labour Party, was irresponsible. It meant passive speculation rather than a struggle to win and to create the majorities necessary for victory.
When John Major took over from Thatcher 18 months ago, he said that he could win the election despite everything because the Tory Party was “one of the greatest fighting machines in Western Europe”. That was and is true. And Labour responded to that machine by mimicking the noises its engines made, as if that could give them power; and they stood gawping as it bore down on them, with the confidence of idiots that Major’s tank was certain to run out of fuel. They got everything ridiculously wrong.
Why Labour loses elections
This is the short, immediate answer to the question, why did Labour lose? But the labour movement which is now trying to orient itself after the fourth successive Tory victory needs to look at the more basic explanations also.
Those explanations lie not only in the nature of the Kinnock-led Labour Party, and in its inept performance against Major, but in the political system under which we live.
Consider what really happened in this election. The labour movement which found itself compelled to go into battle under the leadership of the Kinnock gang did not fight just a political party: it fought the dominant forces in our bourgeois society. With odd exceptions like the Financial Times — whose readers will not have followed its advice to vote Labour! —the entire Establishment gathered around the Tory party.
The Financial Times itself doing an opinion poll of top bosses, found that 92% of them backed the Tories, with 7% Liberal and just 1% Labour.
The Establishment’s control over our lives does not depend on elections. The decisions which shape British society are only very rarely submitted to the electorate for a decision, and then only obliquely and indirectly.The key decisions are in the hands of the top capitalists, ensconced in a vast network of social connections, channels of influence, and structures of authority.
The Establishment has a considerable measure of control over what people do in elections. And anyway, as some candid bourgeois commentators put it during the election campaign, elections are to do with selecting the people who will make the decisions — in consultation with the Establishment.
For example, the British electorate never decided to scale down and cripple the National Health Service, and in a straight referendum would, on all indications, vote against what the Tories are doing. All this power, the wealth of the bourgeoisie and its ability to “create facts” and shape opinions, was brought into the balance on the side of the Tory Party.
The gross unfairness of the gruesomely biased tabloids is only one of the visible pustules on the face of this supposedly democratic system.
We live under capitalism, and the Tory party, the party of the capitalists, is this system’s “natural party of government”. The Tory Party is rampant capitalism conscious of itself and — alter Thatcher — self-righteously asserting capitalism’s drives and imperatives.
Against this, what is the labour movement and its political party? The contrast with the bourgeoisie and its political party tells us a great deal.
While the bourgeoisie runs society, and shapes opinion not only by ideas but by the weight of the way they mn it and of the institutions through which they run it, the working-class movement is the movement of those on whose exploitation everything else is erected.
The working class does not run society day-by-day, industry-by-industry, firm-by-firm. It has neither the great institutions which shape opinion, nor the wealth and power which exert an automatic influence on the vast middle layers of society.
It mobilises, it struggles; but it is normally, on every level, at a serious disadvantage.
In political struggles such as this election was, the advantages are all with the capitalist Establishment. In trade union struggles, unemployment depresses the labour movement and gives the capitalist massive advantages; and the Tories have used their political power to legally hamstring the unions.
On the level of ideas, the naturally dominant ideas are those of the ruling class and they systems they run and personify. Most people do not easily (or at all) form an overall picture of our society, of how it works and how it came into being. It is very difficult to imagine a different society — socialism — and more difficult still to believe in it; and to dedicate yourself to the fight to win a different system, as socialists do, you have to travel mentally quite a long way from the conventional mentality of the capitalist world in which you live.
What is, is. It is difficult, for people who have known nothing else but Thatcherite Britain, to conceive of even a radically modified version of this system, like the capitalism with a more “caring” face which the labour movement gained during and after the Second World War and which is now a receding memory for many, and for a whole generation — the tens of thousands of young people on the streets, for example — something they have never known.
Powerful labour movements like ours have been shaped by combining battles in three arenas: for trade-union advantages, and the elementary working-class solidarity which trade-unionism breeds; for parliamentary power to win laws to our advantage; for the idea of a better world, different from the capitalist one, different from the prevailing capitalist ideas of what the world can be like.
Where Marxists, in the minority, advocated that the labour movement should be reconstructed around a drive to wipe out capitalism, the majority of the labour movement, while it talked about winning socialism “one day”, fought in its best period only for radical reforms. It fought to modify, civilise and humanise the capitalist system. It fought for legislation against extreme exploitation and in favour of working-class organisation, and for welfare provision, which superimposed elements of “the political economy of the working class” (the expression is Karl Marx’s) on the still-dominant political economy of the bourgeoisie.
When it fights, the labour movement can win. It can, and did, win enough people around the core of the labour movement to gain overall electoral majorities.
It did that in 1945, despite the tremendous advantage that Churchill’s war leadership gave the Tories, and despite a vicious and dirty Tory campaign (they alleged that Labour would set up an authoritarian state “with its own Gestapo”, and so on).
The Labour leaders of that time were a long way from our idea of socialism, but they were honest reformists. They did not go into that election pleading with the electorate for the chance to show that they could make a better job of carrying through Tory policies than Churchill could, nor rely on the tacky arts of the Public Relations consultants or on political beauty-contest razzamatazz to sell the same policies as the Tories under a different label and with pink packaging instead of blue.
When it fights — when it represents something distinctive — the labour movement can win. Kinnock did not fight. He shadow-boxed. The US-style rally before a hand-picked audience in Sheffield was Kinnock’s best idea of fighting — it was as if, like superstitious savages, Kinnock and his advisers believed they could conjure up a triumph by mimicking it in advance.
Kinnock did not represent anything politically distinctive. Even Labour’s pledges on the Health Service were tepid and conditional, “as resources allow”.
In these circumstances, all the natural advantages of the Establishment’s party, the natural party of government, won the election for the Tories. Even the slump worked for them: because Labour had no distinctive policy to win people to, and because Kinnock was palpably untrustworthy — if he could not be trusted to stick to his own beliefs, how could he be trusted with Margaret Thatcher’s or John Major’s beliefs —— many unhappy people thought it safer to stick with the natural party of capitalism.
This is the basic, underlying reason why Labour lost the election. Kinnock’s craven, passive, Tory-mimicking politics enhanced and strengthened every one of the natural advantages the Tories always have.
What now for the Labour Party?
If a Labour victory would have been the beginning of the turning of the Tory tide that has flowed for 13 years, favouring and encouraging working-class action, is this fourth Tory victory likely to lead to the opposite? Probably not.
The Tory press brouhaha that the election signifies the death of socialism is no more than a continuation of the long-term bourgeois campaign to achieve just that, the death of socialism: it is just an attempt to improve on their election victory by further pulverising the Labour Party: it is a form of pressure on the Labour Party to go further to the right and finally to cut its links with the trade unions.
Most of the arguments in the press are rhetorical and spurious. For example, the jeering rhetorical question they throw at Labour: if you can not win in a slump, when can you ever win? In the given circumstances, the slump triggered an additional need for safety and caution in those not wiped out by it. Something similar happened in the 1935 election (and in 1931, though that was complicated by the defection of the Labour leader Ramsey MacDonald to the Tories).
Labour is in a much improved position in Parliament. The official Labour Party argument that the Party is well—placed to win in the next election is — other things being equal — not entirely spurious.
And the Tory victory is a victory for a Toryism that has felt compelled to moderate its Thatcherism in order to survive electorally. It is a Toryism from under whose feet the Thatcherite monetarist and free-market certainties have been blown away.
The true measure of what Kinnock is, even in his own reformist terms, is found in the fact that he did not even dare to pick up and run with the banner of resurgent Keynesianism — the old basis of Labour’s post-war politics, now undergoing a certain revival in bourgeois circles as the monetarists are discredited.
No: the labour movement has, because of the Kinnockites, missed a great opportunity to defeat the chosen party of big business and put into government the party still based on the trade unions, and that is a grievous failure: but it does not leave the labour movement positively worse off than we were before.
Politically, the Tories have been forced into a degree of retreat. For sure, the National Health Service is not safe in Tory hands, but when John Major, aker the election, emphatically pledged that the Tories would not scrap the NHS, he was not only repeating the old lying Tory denials of what they have already done; he was registering, on behalf of post-Thatcher Toryism, the massive public condemnation of Tory NHS policy.
If Labour’s leaders had any go in them, they would now begin to fight the next election by launching a great single-issue crusade for the National Health Service.
The Labour left
Where now for the Labour left? Left-wing candidates, like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Grant and Dennis Skinner, got exceptionally high swings in their favour.
They proved that where left-wing policies are advanced they can win the support the right-wing second-class Toryism of Kinnock failed to win.
That is the proper lesson to be learned from Labour’s defeat in the election.
The dominant forces in the Labour Party will not learn that lesson; they will use the election defeat they have brought down on our heads to argue for more of the policies that brought defeat.
They will argue that Labour must complete its transformation into a continental-style “social democratic” party, exclude the trade unions from politics, commit Labour irrevocably to Owenite politics, and do everything to make itself into a replacement for the now-defunct SDP except adopt the name. (And who can be sure even about that, if they get their way?) And what will the Labour left do? The broad Labour left has been crushed not only by the repressive regime that Kinnock and his friends have imposed on the party in recent years — with the banning of newspapers such as Socialist Organiser — but also by the great and paralysing wish in the ranks of Labour and the trade unions to get the Tories out at any cost, and not to question what Kinnock says and does if only it works. That mood has made honest rank-and-file members of the Labour Party, reluctantly and not without heart-searching, endorse or vote for the expulsions of socialists.
The election defeat will not necessarily put an end to that mood now, any more than it did in 1987. It may even intensify it.
Yet the resignation of Kinnock, and the offensive of the right wing to pull the party further their way, must reopen the question settled in favour of Kinnockism in the mid-’80s. The central question is: what is the Labour Party? Where is it going? Is it to cease being the party of the labour movement and become a mildly “left” depoliticised machine — perhaps financed by the state, as in so many European countries political parties are — for electing careerists to Parliament? Or will the party, in the wake of its fourth election defeat, take stock of itself?
The entire logic of recent Labour Party history suggests that it will continue down the last bitter stretch of the road on which the renegade socialist Kinnock has led it.
Many Labour Party leaders — not only the Right, but also a section of the “left” who have lost confidence in the working class and in Labour as a working-class party — will argue that Labour should make its central concern between now and the next election a campaign for Proportional Representation, coupled with a commitment to coalition which will bind any future “Labour” government to what its Liberal coalition partners will accept.
Yet they may not prevail. The left may be able to ensure that they do not. We may be able to prevent the tremendous historic defeat for working-class politics that such a transformation and destruction of the old Labour Party would represent.
There is an important parallel here. When in October l959 Labour lost its third General Election in a row, the Party leaders round Hugh Gaitskell decided to make Labour a continental-style social-democratic party. They immediately launched a big campaign to purge it of all vestiges of socialism. It looked like nothing could stop them.
Then, slowly, the rank and file of the party and the trade unions, even trade union leaders, asserted themselves against Gaitskell. They refused to let the leaders gut the party.
That can happen again, despite the different situation the labour movement finds itself in. It can be made to happen.
Now is the time for the left to reopen the whole series of questions closed in the Labour Party for the last five or six years. Tony Benn should stand for the leadership and use the leadership contest to take the campaign into the unions.
There are technical difficulties — Benn would need the backing of 55 Labour MPs to stand — but they are not insurmountable. The Left in the party should start now to argue that we must challenge John Smith, or whomever else the right wing chooses as Party leader.
The would-be revolutionary left
And the hard left? The dominant mood on the hard left now is to accept as an accomplished fact the complete loss of the Labour Party and the elimination of mass trade union-based — albeit reformist — working-class politics in Britain.
Every serious socialist for many decades has argued for transcending and superseding the old mass working-class politics, replacing the structures created by the trade unions at the beginning of this century with a reorganised labour movement that would consistently and comprehensively pursue the class struggles of the working class and aim, by way of taking state power, at the complete elimination of the bourgeoisie. Only then, we argued with tragic accuracy, could the gains of the reformist working class movement be made secure.
The transformation of the Labour Party now aimed at by some of its leaders is a transformation entirely in an opposite direction. That would be an unmitigated defeat for the working class, a tremendous historical setback.
The “revolutionary” socialists who can contemplate that with either pleasure or resigned acceptance are hopeless sectarians, people unable to relate to or deal with the working class and the labour movement as they really are. The “revolutionary” triumphalism — we told you so — with which a sect like the SWP contemplates what is happening to the Labour Party conceals a paralysing defeatism.
Their refusal to do anything more in the election than mouth “vote Labour” — for catchpenny opportunist reasons of not offending people — is based on the same defeatism.
For more than a decade, we have repeatedly had to tell these people that their real political ancestors — whatever about their claims to be the “Trotskyists” — are the ultra·left Stalinists of pre-Hitler Germany, whose super-”revolutionary” refusal to taint themselves with any connection with the Social Democrats (“counter-revolutionaries” as indeed they were) implied, as Trotsky told them, giving up on the struggle to stop Hitler, and accepting in advance the inevitability of Nazi victory over the German workers.
For the entire period of Thatcherite rule, the “anti-Labour” socialists have masked a passive acceptance that nothing could be done against the Tories with super-revolutionary (and, of course, true) denunciations of the iniquities of the Callaghan-Foot-Kinnock Labour Party.
Serious Marxists do not give up on the working class nor on its mass political movement like that. Serious socialists do not tell workers that nothing can be done with the existing labour movement. They tell them to struggle within their own organisations. Those who say “I give up” may build sects; they will not help the working class to emancipate itself from capitalist ideas or reformist leaders and organisations.
The lesson for the sectarian left, even at this late hour, is: do not abandon the mass labour movement to those who will now try to carry out the will of the ruling class and complete the transformation of the Labour Party! Join the Labour Party! Those who do not share the hardboiled sectarianism of the SWP, but have let themselves be driven out of the Labour Party in disgust over the last period (and many of them turned out to canvass for Labour in the election) should come back into the fight now.
For ourselves, we in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty will continue to advocate these ideas in the trade unions and in the Labour Party. There is another central lesson to be drawn from the condition the labour movement finds itself in now: the need for socialist education and propaganda.
People do not become socialists automatically, faced as they are with the power of the bourgeoisie and their Tory Party, and living in a world dominated by institutions and economic processes that constitute an intense and persistent form of “propaganda” for acceptance of this capitalist society. They need help. General socialist education in the labour movement is at its lowest ebb in decades. We need to integrate activity in the labour movement to promote the immediate interests of the working class with long-term explanation of what socialism is.
The collapse of Stalinism, the vacating of the field by many of those who have misrepresented socialism for so long, has cleared the way for a resurgence of the real socialism of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty exists to take that socialism into the working class movement and to fight for it there.
Editorial, Socialist Organiser no. 520, 14 April 1992