Learning the lessons of the Labour left

Submitted by Matthew on 31 January, 2018 - 12:57 Author: Will Sefton
A Party with Socialists In It

A Party with Socialists in it: a History of the Labour Left (Pluto Press 2018) by Simon Hannah.

Clarion editor Simon Hannah has produced a well written and concise history of the Labour left from the party’s inception through to the present day.

In 270 pages the book deals with over 120 years of history in quick-fire fashion. It is a useful resource for people on Labour’s Marxist and reformist left. It the first book to try to describe the contradictions and struggles of the Labour left as it enters a phase where a lifelong backbench rebel and obscure Labour left activist could become Prime Minister.

From the outset Hannah draws a comparison between two counterposed tendencies of the Labour left. The left has sometimes been a transformative movement, as demonstrated neatly in the 1974 Labour manifesto: “We are a democratic socialist party and our objective is to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families.” And sometimes is has sought to integrate itself with mainstream politics and merely exert pressure to shift debate, before betraying founding principles and becoming a part of the establishment order.

As the book discusses, there is a perpetual problem of the Labour left finding itself in a position of influence, or occasionally power, and failing to capitalise on that. Often overemphasis on individual figures, above a broader movement.

Witness the capitulation of Bevan on unilateralism, Foot’s opposition to mandatory reselection, the tenure of the Wilson government. Often the Labour left has proven itself unable to push a transformative agenda, even when that was its starting point.

Hannah tells us how the Bevanite movement was able to influence and win over many members at its height in the early 1950s, but did very little to entrench and systematically build on its influence. Where the Bevanite movement was most influential — among young people — was also where Trotskyists were most organised in the party.

After 1959 the Labour leadership re-licensed a Young Labour movement. Trotskyists built up the Keep Left youth newspaper. Even with the the banning of Keep Left and the expulsion of members of its editorial board, local groups grew to over 700 within a couple of years. A vibrant Labour youth movement should remain a goal of serious minded revolutionaries.

The dangers of capitulation and co-option remain.

They are present in our debates on issues like free movement, public sector pay, and council cuts. Here there have already been examples of the Labour leadership rolling back on previously agreed commitments.

The comparison with the movement around Tony Benn’s challenge for Deputy Leader (1982) is instructive.

Benn's campaign was based on a lot of solid organisation. It was backed by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy which had been winning on important democratic reforms in Labour. The Rank and File Mobilising Committee which supported Benn’s campaign (of which our forerunner Socialist Organiser was a key initiator) helped to build a large movement of rank-and-file Labour Party members who wanted to end Labour Party governments being unresponsive and right-wing. The campaign took place alongside a struggle in local government against Thatcher. It culminated in Benn just losing the Deputy Leadership.

In contrast Corbyn, became leader of Labour with no prior organisation in existence, and as Hannah notes, with the Labour left at one of its weakest periods.

The danger now is indicated in some of the rhetoric that has been put out by Momentum and the party. Since the 2017 conference Labour under Corbyn has positioned itself as the new mainstream of politics. Theresa May has accepted some of Labour’s ideas – talking now about “ordinary working people”. But as Hannah argues, to be the real new mainstream you have to fundamentally shift the debate and make irreversible change to how things are viewed. The establishment of the NHS, a historic compromise, but one that drove back against vested interests and was part of what Marx called “the political economy of the working class”, is one such example of a fundamental shift. Even the Tories talk about protecting the NHS.

On the other hand you can become “the new mainstream” by watering down and compromising on your arguments.
It remains to be seen exactly which way the Corbyn movement will go. Serious activists should brush up on their history and understanding of the previous movements that have helped shape the present. A Party with Socialists In It is a good place to start.

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