Issue 205 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Does Labour's left have an alternative?

We talk to Labour and union activists about the future under a Labour government, and assess some past experience

'We have become totally supine. We have allowed them to switch off our brains. We are staggering zombie-like into what we are told will be a Labour paradise.'

This admission comes from one who should know a Labour MP quoted anonymously in the Financial Times (15 January 1997) in response to still further attacks on the left from the leadership.

There is obviously deep discontent within Labour's left. This can only have been heightened by Tony Blair's actions since the new year. Blair and Brown have made explicit their absolute commitment to backing big business against workers. And they are continuing their attacks on opposition within the party. Tommy Sheppard, Labour's assistant general secretary in Scotland, was removed from his position in January because he supposedly wanted Labour to take a more left wing line north of the border than in 'Middle England'. New Labour clearly feels that a devolved Scottish parliament still promised by Blair within his first year of government will be too susceptible to left wing pressure and so is determined to clamp down now.

The Labour leadership has also announced plans to change the nature of the ruling National Executive Committee and to cut the plenary sessions of the conference from five days to two in an attempt to contain discontent behind closed doors.

No wonder that many on the left, both in and outside the Labour Party, are asking, do we have to face an ever rightward moving Labour leadership or can the left revive after the election, and if so what form will it take? Can it recover from Blair's 'revolution'?

Most on Labour's left certainly do expect things to change after the election. The MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn, for example, sees all sorts of developments within a year or two of a Blair government:

'There will be a debate within the party over welfare spending and the union laws. Irrespective of the election there is a sign of the growth of industrial activity. There will be a resurgence of left activities within about a year initially they will be more outside than inside parliament. There will be a lot of local authority demands to lift the cap on local spending.'

Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune, the Labour left weekly, also feels that things will change once the election is out of the way:

'After the election there will be all sorts of political pressure will they split or be like old Labour? A lot of good people have left the Labour Party or are sitting back and waiting to see what will happen. There's realisation that this government will be hard to do business with. The trade union leaders feel out in the cold: the way John Edmonds was treated recently is extraordinary.'

For much of Labour's left there appears to be a tacit recognition that outside events will rebuild the left, rather than the left itself taking the initiative at this stage. But there are differences of opinion over the events themselves and how quickly opposition to Blair will make itself felt.

'Things will unravel quickly, with the Intergovernmental Conference on Maastricht due and the first budget soon after the election. There will be substantial cuts in the public sector and the continued holding down of wages,' says Mike Marqusee, political correspondent of Labour Left Briefing and a member of Islington North Labour Party. 'It's time people realise that Blair means it. He has a conservative ideology which will bring him into conflict with the labour movement as a whole.'

Marqusee believes that the left will have to begin to organise by the summer, both because of the external attacks on workers and because the Labour leadership is preparing changes to the constituency parties and to weaken the trade union link. That may not be easy because, as he says, 'the habit of making demands on your leaders has been erased in many sections of the movement. We are up against quite ruthless forces and the legacy of defeat.'

Chris Baugh, a member of the National Committee of the civil servants' union, CPSA, (speaking in an personal capacity) and chair of the Left Unity grouping in the union, sees a central conflict over Blair's attempt to end the union link.

'Blair wants to remove the trade union links which are an important channel for working class protest. But severing the link is not a forgone conclusion. There'll be enormous tensions there can be an explosion of anger sparked by Blair and his clique's refusal to tackle the social problems we face. That will shine a spotlight on the battle of the rank and file. The unions were built in illegality and will be defended in illegality.

'People should vote Labour in my view. But from a socialist perspective it means preparing for industrial battles. Most people are suspicious and wary. The seeds of a major political battle are already there.'

There is clearly a question mark over whether Labour's left can rebuild its strength and lead opposition to Blair. On one level it should be relatively easy. As Mark Seddon puts it, 'New Labour defies political gravity.' The policies on which Blair will fight the election are in many ways very different from the policies which most Labour voters want, which should in theory make it easier to rebuild the left. Serious attempts to break the link with the unions challenge the very fundamentals of what Labour is about. There will almost certainly be clashes between those whose expectations have been raised by a Labour government and Brown's tight public spending guidelines.

But can a revitalised left generalise and lead the opposition to Blair which is needed? Here we have a right to be much more sceptical. The left's record has not been good in recent years. Some former left wingers have accepted the Blairite agenda for example Dawn Primarolo, once a leading Bennite activist, now a power suited finance spokeswoman. Even those such as Clare Short, who have been very critical of Blair, have been prepared to keep quiet in the interests of unity.

Such pressures will not disappear after the election. There will be much talk of not rocking the boat, of giving Blair a chance to sort out the Tories' mess, of ensuring that Labour wins a second term to carry out its changes. Threats of a disciplinary code for Labour MPs and controls over local party activists are designed to ensure the minimum public dissent from the left. In addition, the ideological climate has moved rightwards inside the Labour Party, with many MPs accepting right wing arguments on crime, education and the market.

Anyone on the left who spoke out too strongly against the Labour leadership in recent years has been witch hunted. This meant open expulsions throughout the second half of the 1980s. Now it is much more likely to mean keeping quiet as the Blairites go on the rampage, which helps to explain the contradiction that, although those around Mandelson and Blair are very isolated ideologically inside the Labour Party, they are able to maintain rigid control and indeed go on the offensive.

Mark Seddon says of Labour's left, 'The left has been extremely weak in the past two or three years. It hasn't been prepared to put the block on the major changes that have been going through. It looks rather feeble. I don't have a huge amount of confidence they haven't shown their mettle so far.'

The left's reaction to most attacks has certainly been feeble in recent years. This is the outcome of 15 years of retreat since the Bennite high tide. The left found itself pushed onto increasingly unfavourable terrain, accepting the rightward move of Labour under Kinnock, then Smith, and now Blair. The left stronghold in the early 1980s of local government has become a millstone round its neck, as now former left wingers are implementing job cuts and pay freezes with seeming enthusiasm.

Many on the left never came to terms with the defeats inside Labour during the 1980s. The danger now with some is that they hope for some sort of saviour to

solve the problems of rebuilding and that isn't going to happen. Mike Marqusee describes it as the 'great game of the soft left waiting for Robin Cook'. But, as he says, you can't rely on a split in the cabinet. In addition, the Parliamentary Labour Party is likely to be more right wing after the election the result of a lengthy process of weeding out opposition which has been going on for years. 'Blair couldn't have done any of this without Kinnock clearing the way.'

While this has been going on, however, support for left wing ideas and activity is clearly growing in some areas. In Scotland, Labour's retreat on devolution and the remoteness which many attribute to Blair's leadership have led to more radical ideas from many at the grassroots.

Steven McCabe has been a Labour Party member for 14 years and is a TGWU branch delegate to West Renfrew Constituency Labour Party in the west of Scotland. He was formerly a councillor in Port Glasgow. He expresses the contradictory views of many Labour activists:

'I'm in a quandary. I want a Labour government but the party is fast becoming a centre right party. Internal democracy is disappearing rapidly and at the moment there doesn't seem to be a place for folk on the left like me.

'That might change after the election there will be opposition particularly in respect of local authority funding and on the question of a Scottish parliament. People will fight inside the party but I think it's too late and Blair has won too much for the party to be won back by the left.

'If it was up to me and people like me we'd cut defence spending and increase social spending. I'd be for raising taxes in Scotland to fund the local authorities. But I can't see us winning the Labour Party to that position. What I do see is a realignment of the left particularly here in Scotland around the question of a Scottish parliament.'

Eileen Penman, a Unison activist and shop steward in Edinburgh, is also disillusioned with New Labour.

'As a feminist and socialist I feel the general election is almost irrelevant. It's hard to justify voting Labour anymore. When I think of the suffragettes' struggle to win women the vote, I can't believe that I'm expected to waste that vote on such a bunch of crooks. I am outraged that the Labour Party has moved so far to the right and sold out on every principle it ever stood for. We are determined to preserve everything the Tories have ever done, from keeping the trade union laws intact to refusing to tax the rich.

'In Scotland there is an unstoppable mood for self government. I'm not a nationalist by instinct and I don't trust the nationalist politicians any more than I trust Labour. I've voted Labour all my life but it's got to the stage where people believe if we break from the corrupt and outdated parliament in London then the left, at least in Scotland, will have a chance to organise around a socialist agenda. Many working class people in Scotland will still vote Labour and hope for the best, knowing in their hearts that Labour won't deliver. It is a real dilemma.

'But trade unionists, the rank and file, must stand together. That is where I see a change taking place. I am optimistic that ordinary trade union members and local communities, north and south of the border, will fight back and make demands on a new Labour government. Unlike Labour Party members they don't necessarily feel that they shouldn't rock the boat. There will be some sort of struggle the economic situation dictates that there will be. With attacks on jobs, services, wages and benefits, we will have to do something to turn the tide.'

There is increased feeling that a left alternative to New Labour is necessary. But so far any attempt to build a focus for such ideas has been concentrated outside the official Labour machine.

Mark Seddon explains how there is now 'a huge amount of support for Tribune there hasn't been so much interest since the Bevanite period [in the 1950s]. The support is there for Tribune they can't try and ban it. Relations with the unions are improving. The paper is something to rally around.'

The left inside mainstream Labour will find itself hampered for a while to come. There will be arguments inside the Labour Party. For example, Jeremy Corbyn points to flashpoints such as the annual conference in October. 'The leadership will have a lot of trouble getting things through the conference, for example the attack on the General Management Committees. The NEC elections will be interesting.' But Labour conferences are often noted for controversy before they take place, only for compromise and backroom manoeuvring to be the order of the day once they arrive. Last year Barbara Castle's resolution on pensions looked as though it would win against the leadership, only to be defused by lobbying and compromise. The conference after a Labour election victory will still exert such pressure on many Labour supporters.

What is undoubtedly true is that a Blair government will disappoint badly and will therefore lead to a resurgence in left ideas. A movement of the Labour left can grow again although it will almost certainly be galvanised by events outside parliament, rather than inside.

As Chris Baugh says, 'The key priority is defending the union links. The industrial battles are linked to that. Those battles are yet to be fought and can be won. This is going to place socialism firmly back on the agenda. The possibility of creating a mass socialist party in Britain will come about. It's going to be a government of crisis. As much as Blair tries to dampen down expectations, expectations there are going to be.'

Any resurgence of the Labour left, however, will be much the weaker unless it learns two crucial lessons, which it seems unlikely to do. The first is that the left is always relatively weak in changing things through parliament, for the simple reason that parliament itself whatever its composition is not in a position to effect real change, because power lies outside it. The second is that a left movement which is based around parliamentary change is doomed to failure. It has to be harnessed to real struggles of workers. This was the lesson of the Bennite movement in the early 1980s (see below).

And we have to be clear that any such movement must be based on the power of ordinary workers themselves. Bill Morris and Rodney Bickerstaffe are extremely discontented with Blair. But their attitudes to the strikes of the Liverpool dockers and Hillingdon Hospital cleaners show that they cannot be trusted to carry that discontent through to backing industrial struggle.

The question of independent organisation is therefore crucial. Blair clearly is not going to relax his relentless attacks on the left and on ordinary people. We are likely to see the explosive anger which has already errupted in countries like France and Greece. In such circumstances we are certain to see a revival of left wing ideas a revival which has already began.

Socialists have found a much wider audience for their ideas, which can continue to develop. But building independently of both the Labour leadership and the trade union leaders and on the basis of workers' own struggle remains the key to success of socialist organisation.


The last left wing movement inside the Labour Party was in the early 1980s round the figure of Tony Benn. When Labour were finally booted out of office in 1979, the left reasoned that the real problem was the leadership's lack of accountability. Hence it concentrated on constitutional changes forcing Labour MPs to stand for reselection and for the party leaders to be chosen by an electoral college of local parties and trade unions as well as MPs. This was won at the Special Conference at Wembley in January 1981. When Benn stood against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party in September that year, he came within a hair's breadth of winning.

Yet this success was built on sand. Benn got close to winning because a section of the trade union bureaucracy refused to back Healey who was blamed for keeping public sector wages down when Chancellor of the Exchequer. But Benn's support among the union rank and file was limited.

The Bennite left's strength lay in the constituency parties. But here too there was a crucial weakness. It concentrated on the internal workings of the Labour Party at the expense of the outside world, and did not see the class struggle as central to change. It still assumed that change could only come through parliament and that electing a left wing Labour Party to office was the lever which could bring change about.

At its height the Bennite left had the active support of some tens of thousands. Had those thousands of activists turned to the task of rebuilding basic trade union organisation in the workplace, they could have helped prevent the cowardly retreats of the bureaucracy and strengthened the left. The right rapidly regained authority within the Labour Party, especially after the election of Neil Kinnock as leader in 1983. The left then attempted to use its position on local councils as a force for change.

The most celebrated of these 'socialist' town halls was the Greater London Council, won by Labour in 1981, with Ken Livingstone as its leader. The GLC pledged, like other Labour councils, to resist the Tories' attacks. Determined to squeeze public spending, Thatcher had cut the government grant to councils and then made it illegal for councils to make up the shortfall in revenue by raising the rates beyond a certain limit. Most councils caved in, pleading the need to obey the law. A handful of left wing councils, on the other hand, pledged resistance including breaking the law if necessary. Yet they all capitulated in the end.

The reason was that the left never saw the main struggle as outside the council chamber. They never understood that the battle against central government could only be won by mobilising the power of workers. Instead they imagined that because they represented the population in voting terms they represented it in fighting terms. The feverish goings on at County Hall barely touched the lives of ordinary workers.

The Bennite left of the 1980s also stopped a large number of activists from breaking with reformism. It fought ideologically against the idea that the key to real change was politics based on working class self activity, saying that the Bennites represented a new form of open, democratic politics. This was hostile to 'leadership' whether of the right wing Labour or revolutionary 'vanguardist' variety. It claimed to have learnt from the new movements, principally the feminist movement, and so could include groups ignored by Labourist and revolutionary politics because they were not defined in class terms like women, blacks, lesbians and gays.

But revolutionaries have always argued that for workers to be effective they have to take up questions of oppression. They have also argued that for the struggles of the oppressed to be effective they have to be rooted in class struggle.

The Bennite left did not totally exclude class but included it as one element among others (such as race and gender). Similarly they were not against extra-parliamentary activity but they tended to see it as supplementing the 'struggles' carried on in the framework of council activity. In practice, class dropped out of the picture, driving thousands of activists and socialists up the blind alley of reformism.

The arguments of the reformist left to come will repeat those of the past. They will delude people into thinking that there is an easier way to overcome the horrors of the system than through revolution based on workers' self emancipation and through building a different kind of political organisation from the Labour Party. Disillusion with Blair will force many thousands to move sharply to the left even if they do not break with reformism.

The task of revolutionaries will not be to stand aside and dismiss the phenomenon. But it is to argue that the best way to bring about real socialist advance is through reliance on workers' own activity.

Gareth Jenkins


The official documents and papers from 1966, now released to the public, are highly revealing about the Wilson Labour government of the time. They highlight the sterling crisis which broke out in January 1966. It reached its first peak in March, in the run up to the election, subsided in June as Wilson took on and beat the seafarers' strike, then rose again, after 5 July, during a global wave of speculation sparked by fears that America would be dragged into all out war in Vietnam.

The bankers and the speculators would not accept any increase in workers' living standards. In February, American currency dealers told the government that its 'record has been good, apart from incomes policy.' In March, Lord Cromer, the Governor of the Bank of England, told Wilson that his manifesto was 'doctrinaire and irrelevant...insufficiently positive in its references to wages and prices.'

The speculators turned on the pound after America bombed Hanoi and Haiphong, in North Vietnam. The pressures were largely global. Prices and interest rates rose all over Europe, and in America as well as Britain.

If sterling collapsed faster than other currencies, then this was partly because the government refused to devalue the pound. Lord Cromer met Wilson. He told him that the bankers would not accept devaluation. He described it as 'the Socialist..."recipe" for dealing with a situation which demanded unpleasant internal measures'. Cromer had no need to worry. Wilson was equally committed to a strong pound, even if it meant plunging the economy into recession.

On 15 July the secretary of the American treasury telephoned the chancellor, James Callaghan, and ordered him to cut wages through 'the prompt inauguration of an effective incomes policy'. Callaghan replied that he had already taken this decision. Within a week, he promised, there would be 'draconian measures on the wage front'.

On 20 July Wilson announced 500 million of budget cuts. Overseas development, housing, hospital spending and pensions were all savaged. The government also decided on a zero percent wage freeze. Although profits and dividends were both allowed to rise, no worker could have any pay increase at all. Meanwhile, Wilson told Cromer that 'he was quite ready to see an increase in unemployment.' Jim Callaghan also said in cabinet that he wanted unemployment to rise to scare workers and cut wages.

Having turned against its supporters over the economy, the government became hostile to workers over everything else as well. This can be seen in the way Labour dealt with the strike by members of the National Union of Seamen (NUS). It did all it could to break the strike.

Before the strike Wilson instructed MI5 to watch and bug the NUS leaders. He told the security service to report to him daily. Then the government asked the chiefs of staff to draw up a plan in case the dockers came out as well. Each time the ship owners and the NUS approached an agreement the government blocked the deal. Finally, on 20 June, Wilson resorted to redbaiting. He told the House of Commons that the strike itself was the work of the Communist Party, 'this tightly knit group of politically motivated men'. The Communist Party (CP) had no members on the union executive.

From the new documents we know that Wilson had considered playing the red card before, four months earlier against the National Union of Railwaymen. We also know that few people in Wilson's government believed the claim. Even Edward Heath, the leader of the Tories, thought Wilson was lying. Wilson was taken in by the paranoia generated by MI5. Until quite late, however, even he thought that the smears were nonsense. On 10 June he told the American Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, that the Communist Party was peripheral to the seamen's strike.

Labour's reforms crumbled. Unemployment trebled. Real wages fell. All Wilson's promises of investment, all Labour's talk of stabilising capitalism through a national plan, was forgotten. In being so timid and craven, Labour did not appease the bosses and the speculators but only encouraged them.

Dave Renton


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