The Labour Left in the 1980s and Trotskyism: a survey by banned Marxist paper, Socialist Organiser (1990)

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Editorial in Socialist Organiser

On 25 July [1990] the Labour Party's National Executive Committee voted to ban Socialist Organiser.

It is no longer "legal" in the Labour Party to sell Socialist Organiser or to help produce it. Attempts to expel those who produce the paper are expected to follow in due course.

The ban on Socialist Organiser takes the Labour Party on to a new level of intolerance, and moves it a big step nearer to being an authoritarian one-faction party.

The imminent witch-burnings of those who produce and distribute SO are intended, among other things, to drive this lesson home to the rest of the Left, and thus to intimidate and inhibit them from challenging the duck-egg-blue faction of spineless careerists who now control the Labour Party.

And the way SO has been banned is a brutal assertion by the Labour Party leaders that they have the right to police the party and to do what they like, as they like. All the norms of justice have been trampled on in the scramble to burke SO.

A statement by Labour Party Socialists at a House of Commons press conference on 24 July summed it up like this:

1. The newspaper have not been told of the charges made against them.

2. There is to be no hearing of the case, and therefore no evidence can be presented, or witnesses crossexamined.

3. No notice has been given of the NEC's case, and it is therefore not possible for the defendants to bring evidence or advance argument.

4. The NEC have published documents on this case which are grossly libellous and inaccurate, and no opportunity will present itself within the Labour Party's structures to challenge these crude assertions.

These breaches of natural justice are extremely serious for a progressive party which purports to favour the extention of civil liberties. Lord Gifford QC has stated that it is easier to optain justice before the British courts than it is to optain such justice from the NEC

We got neither proper charges, nor even proper notification that there were any charges, and we were not allowed to reply to the charges or comment on the "evidence". What is this? A democratically-run, pluralistic working-class party, or one of the pseudo-"Leninist" sects the Labour Party denounces (falsely alleging that SO is one of them)? Procedures with dissidents such as the Labour Party's procedures with SO were long typical of the most notorious of the quasi-religious anti-Leninist sects, Gerry Healy's WRP.

But the Labour Party leaders will learn that the NEC's decision is not the end of it. SO supporters will stay in the Labour Party. Others will join to replace those they expel and more will join than they expel.

The fight against the ban is not over. The decision will have to go before the Labour Party conference in October. Between now and October we will be conducting a campaign in the Labour Party and the trade unions to get Conference to rescind the NEC's decision by referring back the relevant section of the NEC Report.

The would-be witch-hunters of Walworth Road will find that they have not destroyed SO.

SO has been a central part of the Labour Left for a dozen years. The paper was set up in October 1978 after one of the most representative conferences ever of the Labour Left, to serve as the organ of the "Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory".

The SCLV set out to organise the Labour Left for a fight on two fronts: against the Thatcher Tories drive for office, intent on using the government and the state to beat down the labour movement — and against the disgraceful righi wing Labour government then in office.

Socialists had to do everything in their power to stop the Tories, and at the same time organise the fight to cleanse the labour movement of the right wing policies whose operation by the Callaghan government was opening the way to a Tory victory in the 1979 eiection. The SCLV organised the left to run what was in cffect an independent election campaign, using our own literature. SO was central to that work.

Nevertheless, the right wing lost the election for Labour. And then all hell broke loose in the l.abour Party.

The overwhelming majority of activists in the Constituency Labour Parties came out in support of renewing the Labour Party, making it into a fighting working-class party. They expressed a determination that when Labour next took office it would be a radically different party, with slogans like "Never Again" —never again a right wing Labour government that would disgrace the labour movement and once again open the way for a Tory return.

For a while the left seemed unstoppable. A section of the hardcore ruling-class supporters in the party—David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and others—felt that the best thing they could do was split the Labour Party. In 1981 they formed the SDP. With vast media support, it mushroomed into what looked for a while like a powerful national party. That frightened a lot of people in the Labour Party.

Nevertheless, the prospect still seemed real that the left could reconstruct the Labour Party into a fighting, campaigning party which could then go out and win back lost ground with the electorate. Even Michael Foot, who succeeded James Callaghan as Party leader ;TI 1981, talked about drumming up "a storm of protest" against the Tory government, seeming to commit himself to an attempt by Labour to resist Thatcher's onslaught on the labour movement and the welfare state.

The left had won a series of important victories for Labour Party democracy. When Tony Benn stood for deputy leader agair.st Dennis Healey in 1981, he got 83 per cent of the Constituency Labour Party vote, losing narrowly overall because of the trade union block vote.

What went wrong?

Trying to reorganise the Labour Party immediately after the 1979 election defeat, the Left was like a man trying to build a lifeboat when the waves were already swamping the ship. Almost immcdiatcly an economic slump undermined the fighting strength of the trade unions —- and the Tories did their best to make it worse, deliberately using the slump to smash up the militancy of the working class.

Within 18 months hundreds of thousarIds of workers had heen thrown out of the factories onto the streets. The dole queues became enormous. The strength and militancy of the '70s was savagely uridercut. The whole social and economic terrain had turned hostile to the organised labour movement.

Labour could have resisted these developments had the trade union leaders been fighters, and not overpaid office boys and girls. But resistance was not centrally orgamsed. It was chopped up and defeated piece by piece.

Steel workers were left to fight alone, then the miners were isolated in their great year-long strike. There were other struggles, too. All were defeated or contained.

As the labour movement weakened, the Tories took the chance to put on the shackles. They pushed through a series of anti-union laws which made the sort of solidarity action that had been typical in the '60s and '70s illegal, thereby hamstringing the working class in a legal framework more authoritarian than in any other West European country.

Unavoidably, Labour's attempts to sort itself out threw the party into disarray, making it unattractive or repulsive to some of the electoratc. The SDP cashed in on that, and was able for a while to rocket upwards in the polls.

People began to panic — including leftists who had shouted "Never Again" in 1979. The labour movement was being bashed by the slump and the Tories. The Labour Party was in disarray, and seemed to be under threat of being pushed back to third-party status behind the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

Many of the socialist warriors of 1979-80 began to scale down their demands, hopes and expectations. Rocking the boat, they decided, was too dangerous in these circumstances. They resolved to settle for a "slightly improved" Labour Party, led by "soft leftists" like Michael Foot, and then, from 1983, Neil Kinnock.

The "soft" or "cuddly" left began to differentiate from the "hard" Labour left. This was not a matter of reformists and revolutionaries identifying themselves to each other and regrouping accordingly, for the "hard" left was and is also led by reformists—but by serious reformists like Tony Benn. The others— Neil Kinnock is a good example— who presented themselves as also "lefts", have more and more ceased even to be reformists, and dare not now even commit themselves to undoing what the Tories have done, for example, on trade union law.

Militant, which then had two or three thousand supporters, had largely stayed aloof from the broad left coalition which shook the Labour Party in 1979 and after. But the witch-hunt against Militant, starting in 1981, was used to pressurise and bludgeon the left and to separate out the "softs" from the "hards".

Initially that was an openly bourgeois enterprise, organised by the media. Then it was taken up by those at the top of the Labour Party intent on remoulding the Labour Party so as oncc again to make it acceptable to the bourgeoisie as a sure-safe alternative government.

One other central factor helped to destroy the potential that the big left wing of 1979-81 seemed to have. Sections of the left took powcr in local govcrnmcnt, in London, Sheffield, etc.

They took power under the guns of a very hostile and ruthless central government. They had the choice either of using local government positions to mobilise mass resistance to the cuts the Tories were imposing, or of trying to run local government and make the best of the rotten choices the Tories left them with.

The dominant left wing leaders decided that it would be business as usual — plus fantastic, and ultimately silly, socialist rhetoric which pretended that what was really happening was that the Left was taking local "power".

Leftists who had angrily denounced the Callaghan government for accepting the dictates of the International Monetary Fund instead of mobilising the working class to fight back now found themselves using the self-same arguments for making the best of the choices left in local government after Thatcher's dictats had been bowed to.

Those people set up a vigorous new school of class collaborationist supine reformism in the heart of the left which had set out with such brave hopes and pretentions in 1979. By their failure to give a positive lead in a real fight, and by their arguments, the leaders of the local government left played a malign role. Though some of them have not gone all the way personally, they prepared the way for Kinnockism. All you had to do to appreciate and love Kinnock for what he was trying to do, was to remember the arguments of the local government left and apply them to national politics.

So the working class reeled under the blows of the slump and the Tory government, and the left squandered its chances and split up. A soft-left/right-wing coalition took control of the Labour Party, and in the last seven years it has evolved steadily to the right until today David Owen can plausibly say that Neil Kinnock is doing what Owen and his friends set up the SDP to do.

One reason why SO is expelled now is that the Labour leaders fear the demands of the rank and file of the movement, especially should Labour win the next general election. They want to sterilise and cauterise the party so that it will be a docile instrument for a new right wing Labour government.

Neil Kinnock was one of those who shouted "Never Again" in 1979. He has now taken the Labour Party so far to the right that in some respects what the Wilson/Callaghan governments tried to do puts them far to his left. "Never Again" has now taken on a quite special meaning for Kinnock and his friends.

Socialist Organiser as it is today is a product of the fights which shaped the left in the '8Os. We resisted the political suicide—that is what it was—of those who settled in to local government administration, consoling themselves with fantasies about local "power". Over questions like policy for local government, We parted company with many [such as Ken Livingstone] who helped set up S. O.
We have consistently advocated class struggle politics, but we were never strong enough to determine events al the crucial turning points.

Naturally we are disappointed by the series of defeats that now have added to them the banning of S. O. by the leaders of the Labour Party. But we are not dismayed.

The work of transforming the mass labour movement, of winning it for socialism, is an immense work: when we have won the labour movement for class-struggle socialism, then we will be close to the socialist revolution. Defeats and setbacks in this work are to be expected.

In trying to change the Labour Party in 1979 and after, the Left came up against the entrenclled power of the ruling class, expressed in its media, and in the work of its supporters and agents within the labour movement. It is bitter truth that many of the setbacks we have suffered were avoidable: the policies S.O. advocated wouid have avoided those defeats.

A writer in Workers'Action (thc newspaper whose supporters took the initiative to set up the SCLV and SO), John O'Mahony, clearly defined the alternatives facing the left at the beginning of the upsurge in 1979.

"If the proposals Ifor Labour Party democracyl get through it will be the beginning of a major left/right struggle. The outcome will probably determine the character of the Labour Party for decades.

Either the left will go on from a victory on democracy at Brighton to consolidate the Labour Party as a genuinely socialist party seeking to overthrow capitalism on the basis of the class struggle of the working class, and build up a mass membership around such policies.

Or the left will be purged and the Labonr Party transformed from its present ramshackle self into a tight and intolerant party modelled on the West German, Swedish and other Social Democracies".

We understood the choices and we fought for the class struggle alternative at every turn. We were not strong enough: but we have grown stronger in the course of those struggles, and we will therefore be better able to affect similar events in the future. The struggle goes on.

Despite what some of the fainthearts and deserters say now, the struggle will always go on, as long as there is capital and wage slavery! The job of Marxists is to learn the lessons of the struggle, and to bring those lessons and experiences to new struggles. That is what S O exists to do.

The argument why socialists should be in the Labour Party, and why they should resist bcing pushed out of it, was never that the Labour Party is a socialist party. Despite thc party's acceptance of the distant goal of socialism, it has never been an effective class-struggle socialist party. At its best it has been a party of serious reforms negotiated from the ruling class.

The argument why socialists should be in the Labour PartY and stay there despite bans and proscriptions is that Labour is the mass party of the working class. based on the bedrock organs of the working class, the trade unions. Labour remains that despite the recent changes, and despite the readjustments of the weight of union power (or union leaders' power) in the affairs of the Labour Party.

Nothing fundamental has changed here. SO will continue in the Labour Party. Between now and the Party conference in October [where the ban on S. O. would be raised] and, whatever happens in October, in the years ahead we will give Kinnock and his friends reason to know we are still around.

Working class militancy has begun to revive. We have won unspectacular but nourishing victories in the last year. The left will revive too. We are preparing for it.

BANNED!
Labour Party bans SO: but we vow to fight on!
Socialist Organiser No 455
26 JULY, 1990