The Left and Labour: Lessons from the 1979 General Election

Submitted by dalcassian on 8 July, 2009 - 12:58 Author: Sean Matgamna

The following article was an "As We Were Saying" column in Socialist Organiser, in 1991, during the Walton by-election.

There, "Militant Labour" (today, the "Socialiat Party") people who had recently discredited themselves when they, led by Derek Hatton, controlled the Liverpool Council, stood Lesley Mahmood as a candidate against the Labour Party.

No exact parallels can be drawn between the Labour Party then, either in 1979 or 1991, and the much-changed entity of the same name that exists now. Nonetheless, it throws some light on the discussion in AWL now on Labour and the unions. Most interesting, perhaps, is the passage on the duty of socialists — then as now — in conditions where they can credibly do so, to stand against the LP — the pre-Blair/Brown coup Labour Party.


Today, many on the left are so disgusted with the Kinnockite Labour Party that they can't control their urge to get out of the Labour Party. They are ripe for adventures, like Militant's "Broad Left" candidacy in the Walton by-election...They should study the lessons of the history of the labour movement!

Let us start with "Socialist Unity"s attempt to create an alternative to Labour for the 1979 general dection.

One of the most striking things in the recent history of the left is the incomprehension with which a large part of the left regarded Thatcher when she was moving towards power at the end of the '70s.

The Tories had changed radically in opposition, hardened and embittered by the long series of ruling class failures over 15 years to quell the labour movement—under both Labour (1964 70 and '74-'79) and Tory (1970-74) govermnents.

The Tories edged towards power openly determined to smash up the labour movement. They intended to inflict savage cuts, following in the pioneering tracks of the Labour government after '76. The slump that came im 1980, and the collapse of militancy that came with it, allowed the Tories to inflict tremendous damage on the labour movement. That they would succeed like that could not be predicted in 1978-9; that a Tory victory in the general election was a serious threat to the working class should have been obvious to anyone able to read newspapers.

Yet a sizeable part of the left behaved in this situation as if the Tories scarcely mattered, and as if the Labour leaders were the main enemy. They chose to ignore or brush aside all the broader questions facing the working class. They tried to act in defiance of the central political fact of life in the 1979 general election: Labour was the only alternative to the Tories. Instead of relating to the broad class questions, they mounted a miniature—token—electoral challenge to the Labour Party in a handful of seats.

This was "Socialist Unity", a broad coalition put together to mount such an electoral challenge to Labour.

Now there were very good reasons for hostility to the Labour leaders. Unlike Neil Kinnock today, they were actually in power, doing foul deeds. They ran a limping capitalist government —- dependent on Liberal, and even Ulster Unionist, support for the last two years of the government's life —while they attacked the living standards of those who put the government in power, pioneered '`monetarism", and initiated social services cuts at the dictat of the IMF.

Labour ran a regime of very savage repression in Northern Ireland, and in general, under James Callaghan, the Labour government did its best to serve the same capitalist class that Mrs Thatcher would serve much more ruthlessly and more effectively throughout the 1980s.

Yet, it was going to be either this government re-elected or a Tory government. More: despite its record in office, Labour was still the trade unions' party, it still retained the loyalty of progressive workers; the only sizeable defection of workers from Labour in the 1979 general election, that of the skilled workers in the Midlands, went not to the left, but to the Tories. Its links with the labour movement normally inhibited what it could do against the working class.

For the left, the possibilities were stark:

• Support Labour, however "critically". This is what the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory did, producing its own anti-Tory propaganda which a number of Labour Parties distributed, and also warning people to prepare to filght back against Callaghan.

• Try to present itself as the possible government alternative to both Labour and the Tories.

• Throw in the towel, declare the election irrelevant, that there was no choice, and advise the working class to abstain.

• Ignore the broad question of government, and the Tory threat, and mount a token "socialist" propaganda candidacy in a few constituencies.

Socialist Unity decided on the last option.

Who and what was Socialist Unity? Its core was the IMG (from which Socialist Outlook [today, Socialist Resistance] and Socialist Action and the Castroite Communist League can all claim descent). Then there was "Big Flame", a group of semi-mystical quasi-Maoists.

Beyond that there was the ISO/Workers League, a group expelled from the IS/SWP in 1975, which contained a sizeable proportion of the cadre of the IS group as it was in the late '60s and early '70s. And there was "Marxist Worker" of Bolton. Then there were quite a few unattached individuals who hated Callaghan and wanted action.

Numbers? IMG: 800-1000 perhaps; the ISO/WL had 200 at its founding conference and probably had a big periphery; Big Flame less than 100; Marxist Worker, five or six. And perhaps a few hundred "independents". As a whole, it was a conglomerate heavily middle class and white collar union in its composition.

How could this collection ever, for one single moment, have imagined itself a credible electoral force, anywhere, let alone an alternative to both the Tories and the union-based Labour Party? At the beginning, Socialist Unity talked of standing in lots of seats, and then narrowed it down to half a dozen.

By the time of the 1979 general election, there was scarcely any pretence that it was anything but a stunt. People were advised to vote Labour, wherever there was no Socialist Unity candidate.

The truth is that Socialist Unity was something intruded into serious working class affairs — and few things in recent history have been more serious for the working class than the 1979 general election! - from the realm of irresponsible toy-town sectarian fringe "politics". And, despite the self-presentation, and its attraction for people who hated Callaghan, Socialist Unity had more to do with the competition of the IMG with the much larger SWP than with serious class politics.

That, at any rate, is where it started. It was an attempt by the IMG to exploit the contradictions in the SWP's approach to politics.

In March 1977 both the IMC and the SWP stood separate candidates in the Stechford (Birmingham) by-election. The SWP was trying to move into politics, so to speak! Both organisations got only a few hundred votes on polling day, but the IMG (with 494 votes) did noticeably better than the SWP (which got 377, though it was perhaps four times the IMG's size).

Why? Probably because the "parliament is a waste of time", "strikes are the only answer" approach of the SWP didn't make them good vote gatherers.

Whatever the reason, bettering the big SWP cat rapidly went to the head of the small IMG mouse. From now on electioneering was their great expertise. They decided on what their discussion bulletin referred to as a "unity offensive" on the SWP.

Socialist Unity in the election could, they said, mount a credible alternative to Labour. There should be united left candidates. That was the answer to traitor Callaghan and threatening Thatcher.

The excitement of being able to compete with the SWP and the flocking to them of a few hundred people desperate for a socialist choice in the election drove everything else out of their heads. They had been in the Labour Party for the previous two or three years; now, almost all of them pulled out. They re-launched their paper on the winds of success, renaming it Socialist Challenge, which, edited by the enterprising and shameless Tariq Ali, even managed to give the appearance of SWP collaboration — by reprinting Paul Foot's book reviews from a commercial magazine!

Above all, the IMG recruited. Everything now was "unity". Unity of odds and sods on the fringes of the labour movement with each other, but not unity of serious socialists with the labour movement, for whose activists the election was a deadly serious business. Needless sectarian divorce from it, in fact.

Nor was there any unity with the SWP, either. The SWP learned the lessons of the, Stechford by-election: after a few more by-election essays, they never again stood in an election for many years after! Politics, they say, is for the Labour Party, which they denounce for its parliamentarianism, except for one day every four or five years when they are ardent Labour supporters.

By the election in June 1979 Socialist Unity had dwindled to six candidates. Their programme had become blurred and muzzy, and it was not revolutionary socialist. All the Socialist Unity candidates, predictably, did very badly, averaging only a few hundred votes. Not so predictably, Tariq Ali, one of the best known black men in Britain, standing in Southall where there had been much anti-racist activity, and the Labour MP [Sid Bidwell, a former Trotskyist and early member of the "Socialist Review" Group in the 1950s, forerunner of the SWP] had been tainted with racism, got only 477 votes.

The IMG bubble had burst, but not before they had established one of the most discredited and irresponsible episodes in the recent history of the left. While the vandal Tories were marching towards power, they spent their time making imaginary war on the SWP — which was busy making imaginary war on Labour (except on election day...). Both pursued self-advancement above all else.

Let it be clear what I am saying and am not saying here. If, in 1979, socialists had been in a position to make a serious, credible challenge to Labour's dominant right wing, then it would have been criminal not to have made it. Because there was no such possibility, nor any half-way serious reason to believe that there was, it was criminal to mess about.

Socialist groups compete with each other and try to recruit. Any group which says otherwise is either not long for this world or silly and hypocritical. But Socialist Unity was designed to compete with the SWP and recruit to the IMG, by engaging in manoeuvres which cut across the needs of the class struggle — which in the gıven circumstances had to mean fighting for the victory of the trade unions' party, the bourgeois workers' party — the Labour Party — against the open party of big business, the Tory party.

All the big class issues and the reality around them were forgotten in the debauch of wishful thinking and seetarian opportunism.

Many on the left are today in a mood like that which generated Socialist Unity. It is not, they half-say, worth electing a Kinnock-led Labour government. They could not be more wrong.

The choices now are essentially the same as then. There is no conceivable working class based alternative government to the Tories except Labour. To say it doesn't matter is to play the Tories' game! To say that there is no choice is to abandon politics.

In fact there is a choice: if the trade union-based party — even under a Kinnock who wants to continue Tory policies — beats the Tories it will be a tremendous release for the energies of the labour movement. With that under our belt, we can deal with Prime Minister Kinnock!

The idiocy of Socialist Unity disgraced the Labour left; it will be a shame if similar idiocies disgrace us now that it may be possible to put an end to the Tories — this time with Militant playing the role the foolish IMG played in 1979, with the victory of the five "real Labour" council candidates in the Liverpool local government elections of 1991 standing in for the IMG's "victory" at Stetchford in March 1977.

And, finally, what happened to those who ran Socialist Unity? Big Flame's are now among the most shameless anti-socialist witch hunters in the Kinnockite Labour Co-ordinating ~ committee! Strands of the ISO/Workers' League evolved into the group around the magazine Catalyst, in thc Socialist Society. "Red Pepper" is their descendant today. The Socialist Movement AGM showed they haven't changed much! John Ross, one of the masterminds of Socialist Unity, is now a house-trained professional "left social democrat", and Ken Livingstone's pet sycophant. The real Socialist Unity spirit seems to live on in that section of Socialist Outlook [now Socialist Resistance] which abstained at the Socialist Movement AGM on whether to advocate a vote for Labour in the next general eiection. Those who do not learn from history...

"AGAINST THE TIDE"
Socialist Organiser" 489 [1992]

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