Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

The Labour Party

16. Labour under Thatcher

Downturn on the industrial front

IN 1974 many capitalists welcomed Labour’s election victory. Five years later they rejoiced at its defeat. The Labour Government had successfully protected the employers from workers’ militancy. Now the employers wanted a government less beholden to the trade unions. They no longer needed a defensive shield to shelter behind, but a sword to carry their offensive forward against the workers.

The downturn in the industrial struggle started by the Wilson-Callaghan government accelerated. Compared with 1970–74 the anti-working class policies of the newly-elected government led by Margaret Thatcher met little resistance: rank and file organisation had been undermined through the Social Contract, productivity deals and the creation of a layer of full-time convenors acting as a crucial adjunct to the trade union bureaucracy. Added to this crisis of organisation was one of leadership. The reformist ideology of most union militants could not cope with a situation in which there was little room to win significant concessions from the system.

Rising unemployment added to the downturn. Workers generally lost the confidence to take on their employers. When they did so the disputes were defensive, fragmented, long, bitter and demoralising. The early 1970s had been a period of victories punctuated by defeats; ten years later saw defeats punctuated by only partial, short-term victories.

This increased the domination of the union bureaucracy over the rank and file. Union leaders moved to the right throughout the period after Thatcher came to office. Nevertheless, when forced into a situation where they felt they were not being taken seriously by employers and government, they on occasion mobilised their members for action – while keeping a firm grip all the way.

A series of such bureaucratic strikes began in 1980 when the steel union, ISTC, came out for fourteen weeks in its first national stoppage since 1926. Alas, sectionalism meant scab steel streamed out of the non-striking private firms and was carried through the gates of factories by TGWU lorry drivers. In the years that followed the workforce of the industry was cut by two thirds.

During the national strike in 1982 by train drivers in ASLEF, the NUR scabbed and the TUC General Council unanimously ordered the stoppage ended. Health workers were defeated despite one-day and selective strikes supported by hundreds of thousands of ancillary workers and nurses. The wholesale privatisation of hospital services such as catering and cleaning followed. Only the February 1983 national water workers’ strike resulted in a partial victory.

In 1983 the Trade Union Congress adopted the policy of ‘New Realism’. The TUC’s initial reaction to the Tory offensive had been, if not resistance, at least turning their back on Thatcher. Now Len Murray, general secretary of the TUC, grovelled: ‘We have to put our members’ case wherever we can, and that means talking with Government ... Arguing the trade union case with anybody does not make us an instrument, a tool, of Government or of any political party.’ [1]

However, a short time later the advance of New Realism was delayed by three disputes. In November 1983 the printers’ union, NGA, one of the strongest unions in the country, was taken on by a small employer in Warrington who was using the Tories’ anti-union laws to undermine the union. The TUC General Council ruled against the NGA when it defied the Tory laws and, faced with the police and the courts, the union was beaten at the end of February 1984. Five weeks later the government banned civil service unions at its secret communications centre, GCHQ. The TUC called a one-day national strike. Despite the short notice and bureaucratic method of calling it, there was some support. But still the government triumphed.

The day after the GCHQ strike, on 1 March, the Coal Board announced Yorkshire’s Cortonwood Colliery was to close in five weeks’ time. Answering protests, the chairman of the Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, announced his intention to shut twenty pits and destroy 20,000 jobs within a year. The Thatcherites were obviously staging a deliberate provocative action.

The struggles round the NGA, GCHQ and the miners delayed the march towards New Realism. Unfortunately this was merely it hiatus in its progress. After the miners’ defeat it pushed forward with greater vigour.

Despite the defensive nature of the strike, there were times when the miners could have broken through and inflicted a major defeat on the Tories. That they did not do so was in large part due to the attitude of the TUC and Labour Party leadership. There was no lack of sympathy for the miners’ cause among great numbers of trade unionists. But the potential for industrial solidarity was deliberately undercut so as not to justify militant tactics such its the flying picket, or provide an alternative to electoralism. This was why the Labour leadership’s attacks on ‘violent picketing’, which they described as no better than the brutal tactics used by the police, were so invidious.

As a result, the national miners’ strike was both a break in the downturn and at the same time had all the characteristics of strikes in the downturn. It was the longest ever mass strike in Europe. But it was radically different from the 1972 miners’ strike. Rank and file activity was lower, and, crucially, the miners showed less willingness to act independently of the bureaucracy. The sectionalism which had been encouraged by the Labour government’s incentive scheme of 1977 tore the miners apart and isolated them from other workers. In 1984–5 at most 10 per cent of the miners were active on picket duty, and, in contrast to 1972, they had to spend much of their time picketing out other miners.

This time there was little industrial solidarity from other workers. The damage had been done. For example, in 1972 power workers had been organised in a rank-and-file combine throughout the industry; they were involved in a pay campaign of their own, so all power stations strongly supported the miners. Within a couple of weeks twelve power stations had been closed completely, and 1,400,000 workers had to be laid off in industry. In 1984–5, on the other hand:

No meetings were organised by the TGWU and GMBATU between shop stewards in the power stations and miners’ representatives. The first meeting between Arthur Scargill and shop stewards in the power stations in Yorkshire did not take place until the strike had been going for ten and a half months – on 16 January 1985! [2]

And on 11 April 1984 the unions in the power industry signed a 13-month agreement for a 5.2 per cent wage increase. Not one worker was laid off for lack of electricity in the twelve months of the miners’ strike.

The Orgreave coke depot near Sheffield should have been the Saltley of the 1980s, but miners’ leader Arthur Scargill’s call to repeat the 1972 victory here was not heeded. In 1972 Birmingham engineering workers had come to the aid of the miners. But in 1984 the engineering workers of Sheffield (which is much nearer to the coalfields than Birmingham) did not. At Saltley the engineers joined the picket line en masse on its fifth day. At Orgreave picketing started on Thursday 24 May with about 1,000 miners. The nation’s television screens showed several thousand miners on the picket line being hammered on 27 May, 29 May, 31 May, and 18 June. On 30 May Scargill was arrested, and on 18 June he was wounded and had to be taken to hospital. [3]

But there was still no sign of the Sheffield engineers turning up to picket. Why?
To answer this one must look at the state of the Sheffield engineers. The Department of Employment Gazette reported that in Sheffield there had been no major stoppages in 1981, one in 1982 (against redundancies), and again only one in 1983 (over redundancies). [4] Workers who lack the confidence to stand up to their own bosses cannot be relied upon to come out in support of other workers. This was the basic cause of the Orgreave tragedy.

It would be a case of tunnel vision, a concession to sectionalism, to see the roots of the miners’ defeat as in the mining industry alone. They were part of a much wider picture. To explain the industrial explosion of 1972 we have to look at the changes in the situation of the working class in the period since the Second World War. To explain the state of the working class during the 1984-5 miners’ strike we need to look to the years since Labour came to office in 1974. [5]

Political upturn: Bennism

The sorry state of the working-class movement had both a short-term and a long-term impact on the Labour Party. At first the industrial downturn went hand in hand with a political upturn expressed in the rise of a new and powerful Labour left-wing current – Bennism. Since workers did not have the confidence to lake on their employers in the workplace, many of the activists looked for a political solution outside the workplace from a saviour on high: the Labour Party.

After Labour’s 1979 election defeat the party experienced its biggest swing to the left for a generation. During 1970–74 Labour conferences had moved sharply to the left, but the activists found their focus in industrial struggle. Now their struggles were largely resolutionary, against the right-wing inside the Labour Party.

The Labour left was convinced that there was no point in having a re-run of the Wilson-Callaghan government. In November 1980 the parliamentary party elected Michael Foot as Labour leader. This far from satisfied the call of party activists for change. Nor was it sufficient simply to pass left-wing resolutions at conference, as they had done for years past. What the party needed, the left believed, was a package of constitutional changes.

First, Labour MPs should stand for reselection by the local party before every election. Secondly, the party leader and deputy leader should be chosen by an electoral college of representatives of local parties, trade unions and MPs, in other words by representatives of the whole party, not just the MPs, as hitherto. These issues dominated the Labour conferences of 1979, 1980 and the Special Conference held at Wembley in January 1981 where they were eventually won.

Wembley put the Labour left in ecstasy. To quote some of their papers:

Tribune: A watershed for Labour Party democracy. [6]

Militant: Wembley was a great victory for Labour’s ranks ... The block vote of the union delegations at Labour Party conference will become a vital transmission belt for the demands of an aroused and mobilised working class. [7]

Socialist Challenge: What a day at Wembley ... a famous victory for the workers’ movement. [8]

Morning Star: It is a momentous decision in the struggle not only for the return of a Labour government at the next election, but also to ensure a Labour government which carries out the policies of the labour movement. [9]

The left advance hinged on an alliance between constituency party activists and parts of the trade union bureaucracy. Many union leaders were livid with the Callaghan government whose 5 per cent pay norm had forced them into the ‘Winter of Discontent’. The zenith of the resulting alliance was Benn’s contest with Healey for the deputy leadership of the party in September 1981. Benn only lost by a hair’s breadth. He received 49.6 per cent of the electoral college votes to Healey’s 50.4 per cent. Benn attracted 81.1 per cent of the Constituency Labour Party vote, 37.5 per cent of the trade union vote and 34.1 per cent of the PLP vote. The left was euphoric but self-deluded. The block vote system massively exaggerated Benn’s real support.

This is not to say that Benn lacked enthusiastic support from union activists. Throughout the spring and summer of 1981 he spoke to packed fringe meetings at union conferences. However the activists were not in tune with the millions of union members who were retreating before the employers’ offensive, and becoming more open to the media’s anti-socialist hysteria against its new bête noir, Tony Benn.

Healey beat Benn hands down in those few unions – NUPE, COHSE, FBU and NATSOPA – which balloted all their members instead of leaving it to the political activists at conference. The only exception was the NUM, where votes at branch meetings supported Benn. He got the block vote of 1,200,000 members of the TGWU, but the union’s executive had not asked its rank and file for a mandate.

In the constituencies the real support for Benn was measured not in millions, but perhaps tens of thousands. In recent years the total membership of the Labour Party has been in the region of 300,000, of whom about 10 per cent are activists. The definition of activist is one who turns up regularly to his or her Labour Party branch. How small this group was emerges from the circulation of the party’s paper, Labour Weekly, which at this time was 17,000, much of it bought in bulk orders by unions.

The wide gap between the activists and the majority of individual members was demonstrated by a survey in Newcastle-under-Lyme during 1960–61. This showed that 54 per cent of the members had never heard of Clause Four of the party constitution, even though it was printed on the back of every party card and though the survey was made immediately after bitter public debate roused by Gaitskell’s effort to drop this clause. [10] Notwithstanding all the excitement in the early 1980s, party membership actually fell from 348,156 in 1981 to 273,803 in 1982. Benn’s support on the ground was limited.

In September 1981 the Gallup Poll posed the following question: [11] ‘If the choice for the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was between Denis Healey and Tony Benn, who would you choose?’ The result was:












The internal party battles of 1979–81 were largely fought out before a small audience: the players thought they spoke for millions, but evoked a response from very few.

The character of the Labour left was another limiting factor. Many of the activists fought their way into positions against people from working class backgrounds who had risen to hold council positions and had become the backbone of backward, corrupt right-wing Labourism. However this new layer of Labour left-wingers were overwhelmingly middle class products of the 1968 generation. Larry Whitty, Labour’s general secretary, has described the current social composition:

60 per cent of party members have a degree or equivalent higher educational qualification, compared to a national average of just 11 per cent. Labour Party members are twice as likely to be employed in the public sector as in the private. Sixty-two per cent of them read The Guardian, and only 25 per cent the Daily Mirror. [12]

The chief stronghold of the left in recent years has been local councils. Here, by tradition, the middle-class element of the Labour Party always played an important role. Thus the Fabians, the architects of ‘municipal socialism’, drew their members from the middle class. In the 1920s medical officers of health and district health workers were typical members, and played a crucial role in shaping Labour’s welfare policies.

More important still, the constituency left has no real links with workers in struggle. Despite the great talk about extra-parliamentary activity, the constituencies have remained essentially what they have always been – small groups overwhelmingly geared to elections. To millions of workers the continuous discussion of ‘reselection’ and ‘electoral colleges’ meant very little indeed.

Bennism’s constituency base was numerically far smaller than that of Bevan in the early 1950s (because the individual party membership had shrunk by some three-quarters). Yet it succeeded in making quite an inroad into the party machine. In the 1950s the Bevanites faced a Revisionist right arguing with confidence from the basis of full employment and rising living standards. In the 1980s the right had witnessed the worst economic crisis for some half a century and the utter bankruptcy of Labour government in the face of this. It had temporarily lost confidence in itself. A sign of this was the splitting off of a number of MPs to form the Social Democrats.

The Bevanites lacked the support of any major union bureaucrats. Benn’s successes in the years 1979–81 depended entirely on the goodwill of a whole layer of union officials in the TGWU, NUPE, NUM, TASS, FBU, among others. Their support was shortlived. Having expressed their anger against Callaghan’s economic policies by going along with a certain leftism in the party, they decided criticism had gone far enough. Already in 1982 the left union officials started distancing themselves from Benn, as is shown by the ‘Peace of Bishops Stortford’, which they encouraged him to agree to.

Total dependence on union block votes had never worried the constituency activists and the left MPs. Nor did they ever dream of challenging the union bureaucracy. Accepting the traditional separation of the political and industrial wings of the movement, they discussed ‘political’ issues in Labour Party meetings, while leaving the struggle in the workplaces to the union bodies. Yet it is in the workplace that workers can win confidence, can have their minds opened to new ideas. It is here that the conservative union bureaucracy can be effectively challenged.

The constitutional changes of Bennism never touched the basic arrangement of power within the party. Thus of the twenty-nine members of the party executive, twelve are in the union section and five are in the women’s section – which is elected by the whole conference, in which trade unions have some 90 per cent of the vote.

Union influence is carved up in executive elections according to ‘preordained patterns in which representation by size and traditional position were the dominant consideration.’ Thus, if the post of party treasurer is held by a politician then ‘eight positions out of the twelve on the [union] section were automatically allotted through customary understandings.’ [13] What did this ‘understanding’ consist of?

Each union had a regular custom of deciding who filled the position on the NEC, and one of trade unionism’s oldest customs, that of “Buggins’ turn” ensured that the next in line formally followed in succession. [14]

Bureaucratic arrangement rather than politics decides the majority influence on the executive.

Leaving the union bureaucracy’s power intact made the left’s constitutional changes toothless. They did not touch the bureaucratic structure of the party and its actual power relations.

Labour Party structure makes it easy for the participants to deceive themselves. A handful sitting in a ward pass a resolution. This is adopted by the constituency general management committee (CMC) and then moved at the national conference. Hundreds of thousands of votes, or even millions, are cast for it. It reminds one of a distorting mirror in which a pygmy may look like a giant. This does not actually turn the pygmy into a giant.

Constituency activists have a lot of leeway to express radical views, but when it comes to important decisions the bureaucrats have the final say. Richard Crossman precisely and cruelly depicted the relation between the two:

the Labour Party required militants, politically conscious socialists to do the work of organizing the constituencies. But since these militants tended to be ‘extremists’, a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power. Hence the concession in principle of sovereign powers to the delegates at the Annual Conferences, and the removal in practice of most of this sovereignty through the Trade Union block vote on the one hand, and the complete independence of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the other. [15]

Such considerations were far from the minds of the Labour left as they celebrated the outcome of the January 1981 Wembley special conference. The day after the conference, the right-wing ‘Gang of Four’ inaugurated the Council for Social Democracy, forerunner of the SDP. Their formal break with the Labour Party came when the SDP was launched in March. It radically cut Labour’s support. The following Gallup poll [16] tracks this impact. It shows answers to the question ‘Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way: Mrs Thatcher is doing her job as Prime Minister? Mr Foot is doing his job as Leader of the Opposition’:


















1981 (first half)





1981 (second half)





In December 1980 Gallup estimated that Labour had the support of 47.5 per cent of the electorate. By December 1981, after the split of the SDP and a year of internecine warfare, support was down to 23.5 per cent, a uniquely low level for the main opposition party. [17]

The creation of the SDP had a major influence on Labour’s internal struggles. The Labour left were delighted by developments. Their capacity for self-deception seemed limitless. They believed the exit of the Gang of Four would tilt the balance to the left. In the very short term this was the case. But it soon became obvious that the general impact was in exactly the opposite direction. The electoral success of the SDP-Liberal Alliance put pressure on the Labour leaders to move rightwards in order to compete for the ‘middle ground’. This was especially so after the 1983 general election, when Labour beat the Alliance to third position only by a tiny margin (27.6 per cent of the votes to 25.4 per cent).

Still Benn managed to continue to fool himself. He saw the general election as a triumph:

... for the first time since 1945 a political party with an openly socialist policy had received the support of over eight million people ... socialism has reappeared once more upon the national agenda ... The 1983 Labour manifesto commanded the loyalty of millions of voters and a democratic socialist bridgehead had been established from which further advance in public understanding and support can be made. [18]

Benn’s words did not cut any ice even with his own supporters. Labour had received its lowest proportion of votes since 1918. Because there had been fewer Labour candidates in 1918, the number of votes per candidate in 1983 was the lowest ever. And these results followed four years of increasing mass unemployment and attacks on the welfare state!

The moment of truth for the Bennite left could not be postponed for long. The industrial downturn had engineered a political upturn, but it would not be long before the political level of the movement was adversely affected by the low level of class struggle. The Bennites, who fell into the substitutionist trap of claiming to speak for workers they had not brought into active agreement with themselves, were open to the hammerings of the media and the right-wing. In fact their obsession with resolutions, with constitutionalism, played into the hands of the right. The political activists found it a waste of time and effort to relate to the mass of the workers who did not attend the meetings where the resolutions were passed.

Labour and the Thatcherite consensus

The working-class movement is not the only factor shaping the Labour Party. The other element for a capitalist workers’ party is the ruling class. We saw how Labour’s electoral landslide of 1945 led to a political consensus in the reformist mould. Butskellism was born when the Tories came to terms with the changes introduced by the Attlee Government, the essence of which were policies of full employment, a mixed economy and expanding welfare.

Let us see what has happened to these three elements under Thatcher. When world capitalism entered the prolonged crisis of the 1970s full employment perished. Mass unemployment is here to stay. The crisis also overtook welfare. With national production generally stagnant – in 1987 manufacturing output in Britain reached only the 1979 level and was still 4 per cent below that of 1973 – the likelihood of business sanctioning any expansion of welfare is small indeed, especially with £12,000 million being spent on dole payments.

The clearest sign of the changing consensus is nationalisation, always a sensitive barometer of the progress of reformist politics. Three broad phases emerge. First, there was the period before 1945 when practically no nationalisation was carried out anywhere in Western Europe. As Przeworski explains:

Although social democrats formed or entered governments in several countries, the global result of these first attempts at socialization was null: with the exception of the French armament industry in 1936, not a single company was nationalized in Western Europe by a social democratic government during the entire inter-war period ... while social democrats held power in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, and Sweden. [19]

Things changed after the Second World War. In Britain and France there was a wave of nationalisation, while in Italy, Spain and Austria important public sectors emerged through a variety of other government measures:

Characteristically, state enterprises are limited to credit institutions, coal, iron and steel, energy production and distribution, transport, and communication. Outside these sectors only those companies which are threatened with bankruptcy and hence a reduction of employment pass into public hands. [20]

The post-war economic expansion not only generated full employment and funds for welfare, it paid the cost of buying out private capitalists.

Once the crisis began, however, the chance of new nationalisations, or of re-nationalising privatised industries, became practically nil. [1*]

This has facilitated the privatisation of industry by right-wing governments throughout the world in recent years. In France twenty-three companies, worth around a hundred billion francs (£10 billion), had been sold by early 1988. In Spain, Italy, West Germany, Austria, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, the process of privatisation has also taken place. In Britain, ‘in the past eight years, sixteen major publicly owned UK companies, employing 650,000 people and accounting for 40 per cent of the state sector, have been wholly or partially privatised, raising total proceeds of £17.5 billion’. [21]

Had the stock market not crashed in late 1987, the privatisation of the oil company BP had been expected to bring the government some £7 billion, the water industry £8 billion and the electricity supply industry £18 billion. Throw in the British Steel Corporation, Land Rover and a few other odds and ends, and the Treasury agenda had obviously pencilled in receipts of over £40 billion. [22] No future Labour government could spend sums like this buying back privatised industries.

Labour’s Programme 1982 was the basis for the 1983 election manifesto. It claimed that public ownership of industry would be expanded. The following year, the party conference passed a resolution, ‘carried overwhelmingly on a show of hands’, which reaffirmed ‘that Clause IV Part 4 of the Labour Party Constitution is the central aim of the Labour Party’ and called for ‘repossession of all parts of the public sector privatised by the Tories’. [23]

As late as 1985 Roy Hattersley, as Labour’s deputy leader, still asked for, and expected, unanimous support for a resolution on ‘the need to extend social ownership and democratic planning into a significant number of key organisations in the banking, manufacturing, new technology and service sectors.’ [24] Conference obliged. [25] It also passed a resolution which called on the next Labour government ‘to return all privatised services to direct labour and all privatised industries to public ownership, and to repeal any privatisation legislation’. [26]

The slide began once Labour geared itself for the 1987 election. The ambiguous concept of ‘social ownership’ was used to downgrade nationalisation and blur the distinction between common ownership and Liberal-SDP schemes for employees’ share ownership. At the 1987 election Labour pledged to take back only British Telecom and British Gas under ‘social ownership’. Neither company would be renationalised: instead existing shares would be converted into new bonds, including varieties of deep discount bonds designed to win favour with institutional shareholders. The growth in the underlying assets of British Telecom and Gas would in accrue to their shareholders. The fact that shares would be exchanged for non-voting bonds, and that safeguards would be introduced against short-term speculative gains, does not alter this.

At the 1987 Labour Conference the NUM moved a resolution to renationalise all industries privatised by the Tories. But this was now rejected by 3,869,000 to 2,397,000. Alan Tuffin of the Communication Workers Union told conference: ‘By the time we get back to power, we will not want to spend something like £15 billion in today’s prices getting these industries back. We are going to have lugger priorities like the National Health Service and low pay.’ [27]

Another nail in the coffin of public ownership was the support for wider share ownership. On Channel 4 television Bryan Gould, Labour’s campaign manager in the 1987 election and one of the pacemakers in the shift to the right, argued: ‘The idea of owning shares is catching on, and as socialists we should support as one means of taking power from the hands of the few and spreading it more widely.’ Gould did not shy from using the language of self-interest: ‘Why should we leave all the advantages of capital gains to people who already have plenty?’ [28] (By the way, Gould overlooked the fact that Thatcher’s privatisation share sales were popular because the buyers were able to make a fast profit by selling. Gould’s support for share ownership offered no such easy vote-catching appeal.)

Partnership with private industry

In the mid-1980s Labour policy moved from public ownership towards state encouragement of private industry. Thus in 1986 an article in The Observer on Labour’s Plan for Recovery by Neil Kinnock – who had become party leader in 1983 – said: ‘It is a matter of learning from the success of the French, the Germans and the Japanese, who have forceful governmental agencies and use them to great economic advantage.’ [29] His book Making Our Way was rhapsodic about the achievements of the Japanese. [30] In conscious imitation, Labour would establish a British Industrial Investment Bank, and a new state investment vehicle, British Enterprise, which would be empowered to take equity stakes in high tech and other industries.

To reassure private capital, Hattersley went out of the way to promise that future Labour governments would not impose high level of taxation on the rich. In September 1986 he was flown to New York by Greenwell Montagu, the City stockbroking firm to address institutional investors. He promised them a new Labour government would not return to ‘the very high marginal rates of taxation’ levied on the highest paid before 1979. [31]

Hattersley also underlined Labour’s financial prudence. Writing in July 1986, he criticised past Labour governments for their levels of public spending: ‘We have almost always committed ourselves to more public spending than the electorate thought credible and the economy could reasonably bear.’ [32]

To encourage private industry, even Labour’s moderate call for exchange controls was thrown out. The capitalists would find a way round them, Hattersley told the 1986 Labour conference, so we won’t bother trying to institute them.

The party leadership wanted to avoid the Mitterrand syndrome. On becoming French president in 1981 Mitterrand had attempted to increase demand in the economy by large-scale nationalisations by increasing social welfare. Within a year this ran into disaster: French capital refused to cooperate and fled the country. Inflation rose and the franc collapsed. International bankers demanded that the government put its house in order, and Mitterrand complied.

With this in mind, Hattersley told the 1984 Labour conference: ‘I don’t want to see the next Labour government start one or two years of unreality and end with another two years of deflation for the economy and despair for our party members.’ [33] Kinnock and Hattersley did their best to push down the expectations among their supporters that a Labour government would bring quick economic expansion. They knew well that British industry and banking are so integrated part of the world economic system, limiting government influence on exchange rates, interest rates and the flow of capital.

Accepting these constraints, Kinnock became a purveyor of ‘Thatcherism with a human face’ – a term first coined by the Financial Times to describe David Owen.

Keeping inflation down became a top priority. In a speech to the London Bureau School on 30 January 1986 Hattersley said:

We will only proceed as quickly as the inflation constraints allow.

If we have not constructed a mechanism which allows us to expand at maximum speed with minimum inflation then the speed of our reflation will have to be reduced. [34]

New Jobs for Britain, published by Labour in March 1987, made it clear that Labour’s plans for increased public spending look second place to incentives to private capitalists to invest. Above all, to advance economic success a ‘national consensus’ was needed, wrote Kinnock. [35]

We need a workforce that wants to be on the winning side, but we also need those who can manage – and manage to make it all work ... the days of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ are gone now. We are all in this together, and it is only together that Britain will make its way in the world. [36]

To cure capitalism Labour was even willing to embrace some Tory anti-union laws. The Labour Party and TUC document of September 1986, People at Work: New Rights, New Responsibilities, accepted the Tory-imposed ballots before strikes and to elect union executives. With justice the Financial Times noted this break with Labour’s own history:

Never before has the Labour Party, created by the unions, attempted to bring in controls of trade union activities on the scale proposed in the document. Never before has Labour tried to make that control statutory, backing it up – albeit now in a modified form – with the involvement of the courts, traditionally seen within the Labour movement as its enemy. [37]

In August 1986 John Prescott, Labour’s shadow employment spokesman and a leading figure on the ‘soft’ left, wrote: ‘I do not believe it is possible or even desirable to attempt to exclude the law from industrial relations.’ [38]

The Tories made secret pre-strike ballots central to their laws because they detest strikes being discussed at workers’ mass meetings. A meeting can give workers the confidence to fight. They can see the strength of their workmates all round them. The secret ballot atomises the workers and leaves them prey to the capitalist media. This is what the Labour Party now acceded to.

What about full employment? In 1983 the aim of Labour’s economic strategy was ‘to reduce unemployment to below a million within five years of taking office.’ The 1987 manifesto promised only to reduce unemployment by one million over two years. Since unemployment at the time was around four million, the target was to cut it to three million!

Thatcher’s consensus has its genesis not with Thatcher but with the Labour government of Jim Callaghan, with its monetarism, massive cuts in welfare, hospital closures and cuts in housing programmes. The consensus rising from the 1945 Labour election victory was coined as Butskellism. What would combine Thatcher and Kinnock?

Consensus does not mean unanimity. Tories and Labour put different emphases on the reformist consensus during 1945–1970. Labour put priority on full employment as against keeping down prices. It was more favourably inclined to the nationalised element in the mixed economy and more enthusiastic about welfare than the Tories. Throughout the period differences rose between the two parties and within the parties. Similarly with the new consensus the parameters of the debate were determined by Thatcher, but there were conflicts within those parameters.

In 1988, as this book is being written, the Thatcherite consensus is far less stable than Butskellism, which was based on expanding capitalism. Thatcherism may be quickly undermined by a sharpening of the crisis, disappearance of North Sea oil income or explosion of class conflict. In a situation of extreme economic and financial uncertainty, with the problems of massive unemployment, inflation, and threats to the balance of payments, there will be bitter disagreement between the Tory and Labour Parties about the level of spending cuts, the scale of the attack on real living standards, and the level of unemployment to be tolerated.

Underlying the conflict between the Tory Party and Labour party will be deepening conflict between workers and employers. This situation will drive workers to strain at the leash of the Labour leadership which today and in the future will use workers’ loyalty to itself as a restraint. At the same time capitalists will be pressing the Tory party and any future Labour government for further attacks on workers living standards. All this is bound to lead to conflicts within the Tory party and even more so within Labour.

The Labour Party will always represent a synthesis of class and nation. The balance in this synthesis will shift from time to time, above all according to the conditions of the class struggle, whether or not the party is in office and whether capitalism is prosperous and thus open to give more reforms or not. Labour is and always will be a capitalist workers’ party.

Bennism in retreat and the witch-hunt against Militant

It was just a matter of time before the retreat of the workers’ movement and crisis of capitalism caught up with the internal life of Labour. Indeed in 1981 the Labour Party conference elected a centre-right majority to the executive, ending ten years of left-wing control. Within weeks the new executive decided to block left-winger Peter Tatchell’s endorsement as parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey and to institute inquiries into the Militant, an organisation within the party which published its own newspaper of the same name. Then at a meeting in Bishops Stortford during January 1982 Benn, under pressure from top party and union lenders, agreed not to stand again as deputy leader. By withdrawing his challenge he abandoned the central thrust of the left’s previous case – that there is no point in having left conference resolutions if the party has a leadership unwilling to implement them.

1982 saw no campaign around the union conferences to compare with the previous year. Instead there was the miserable spectacle of Labour leader Michael Foot wrapping himself in the Union Jack over the Falklands. On 3 April 1982 the Argentinians took control of the Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic and Foot made a jingoistic speech to the Commons which had Tory speakers practically falling over themselves to congratulate him for ‘speaking for Britain’. Only one Labour MP – George Foulkes, a right-winger––dissented! On 14 April Foot again pledged his support for the sending of a British Task Force. Just a handful of union-sponsored MPs refused to support Thatcher’s imperialist war.

Only on 28 April did Tony Benn distance himself marginally from Foot. Even so he was careful to emphasise his agreement with the basic assumptions on which the war was conducted:

The reality is that there is unanimity in the House on the question of opposing the aggression of the [Argentinian] Junta. There is also unanimity on the right of self-defence against aggression ... I support my right Honourable Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale [Michael Foot]. [39]

At last, on 20 May, after six major parliamentary debates on the war, a vote was forced. Thirty-three Labour MPs voted against – less than half the number of MPs who had supported Benn for the position of deputy leader in 1981. Benn himself had been touring union conferences in 1981 addressing packed meetings over the deputy leadership issue. He did not campaign against the Falklands war, although he did address a small anti-war rally in London’s Hyde Park. [40]

The rightwards movement continued. The 1982 Labour Party conference discussed the setting up of a register of organisations within the party – its intention was to witch-hunt the Militant group. At first many thought that the conference might actually reject this. On the week of the conference Militant itself carried the headline: ‘TGWU Executive rejects register.’ But the union’s leaders, Moss Evans and Alex Kitson, easily persuaded their TGWU delegation to vote for the register, which passed by a massive 5,173,000 to 1,565,000.

The attack on Militant was the Trojan horse which opened the way for the defeat of Bennism. Like the ILP in the 1920s Benn’s supporters could not decide whether to resist the witch-hunt or not, so they sat on their hands. The Labour Coordinating Committee, which had campaigned for Benn’s election, refused to defend Militant on the grounds it was sectarian. The same tack was taken by other left groups in the party.

Witch-hunts are associated with retreat in the wider working-class movement and strengthened power of the right. They are not, as Militant leaders believed, a sign that the right fears losing control to the left, but that the left is weak. As the political climate lulls to the right, a vocal left-wing is seen as an electoral liability. At the same time a downturn in workers confidence leaves a wide gap between the majority and the advanced section who are easily isolated and attacked.

The witch-hunt of Militant in the 1980s had elements in common with that against the Communist Party in the mid-1920s, but the differences were stark. The Communist Party and Left Wing Movement had had far more power inside the Labour Party than Militant. Sunday Worker had a stable circulation of 85,000. [41] The Militant’s circulation never surpassed 12,000. The Communist Party had controlled dozens of constituency parties. Militant had a decisive influence only in Liverpool district.

In the 1920s the Labour leadership had to dissolve twenty-seven constituency parties to get rid of the Communists’ supporters. In the 1980s only Liverpool District Labour Party and Broad Green constituency Party were dissolved (up to the time of writing), while St Helens, Southwark and Bradford North constituencies and the Merseyside district were suspended.

The Communist Party had had great influence in many unions – the Miners’ Federation, NUR, AEU, Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, Shopworkers, Furniture Workers Union, mid the tailoring unions. The Militant had influence in only one fairly weak union – the CPSA. [2*]

The Left Wing Movement had been associated with the Communist Party – an organisation with an independent existence outside the Labour Party and rooted in workers’ collective organisation. Militant had no supporting organisation outside the Labour Party. Last but not least, the Communists and their fellow-travellers in the Labour Party in the 1920s were centrists but did not act as a sect. They were involved in every field of activity of the labour movement. Militant was a centrist sect. It did not support any campaign unless this was organised through the Labour Party or by itself.

Three examples. Militant made no reference to the 100,000-strong demonstration against the American war in Vietnam in October 1968. The National Abortion Campaign suffered a similar fate. During 1975, there is not one single article about abortion or the campaign in Militant. The 50,000-strong demonstration in June 1975 warranted neither photo nor report. The same applied to the Anti Nazi League. [43]

Militant’s sectarianism was combined with fantastic triumphalism. Again and again The Militant praised the labour-controlled Liverpool Council’s housing record to the sky. What were the facts?

Annual Average Council House Building in Liverpool



























Labour (in hung council)



Labour (under Militant influence)



The main conclusion from these figures is that, compared with the previous administration, the record of the Militant-influenced council is impressive, but compared to the record since 1955 it was very poor indeed.

From 1981 Militant has been continuously witch-hunted. Conference votes for expulsion of leading supporters of Militant show graphically the retreat of the Labour left. The average votes confirming the expulsion from the party of the five members of the Militant editorial board in 1983 were 5,091,000 to 1,651,000. By 1986, the expulsion of eight leading Liverpool Militant supporters, including Derek Hatton and Tony Mulheam, was carried by 6,146,000 votes to 325,000.

In 1983 support for the Militant editorial board came from unions as large as NUPE. In 1986, only the tiny bakers’ and furniture makers’ unions voted against the expulsion of the Militant Eight. The same conference, in 1986, saw Eric Heffer pushed off the executive, his vote halved two years after he was chairman of the party. He was being punished for protesting demonstratively the year before against Kinnock’s attack on the Liverpool Militants. [3*]

The axe also fell on the Militant-controlled Labour Party Young Socialists. This paralleled the 1930s, when the squashing of the Socialist League was accompanied by attacks on the Labour League of Youth. The LPYS paper Socialist Youth was closed, regional LPYS committees and conferences shut down and its the national conference cancelled. The age limit for LPYS membership was reduced from twenty-six to twenty-three, thus excluding half the membership. Finally, Andy Bevan, the Labour Party youth officer, who was also a Militant supporter, was sacked.

The confidence shown by Ted Grant, the political editor of Militant, at the 1983 Labour Party conference was entirely misplaced. He said then: ‘There is no way you will succeed with these expulsions. We will be back. We will be restored, if not in one year, in two or three years. We will be back.’ [44]

The Labour left ignored the witch-hunt in favour of fantasy. After the 1985 Labour Party conference, Tribune declared: ‘the Left has never been stronger and the prospect of a radical, left- wing Labour Government has never been greater.’ [45] Militant wrote: ‘The conference, made up of delegates representing nearly ten million workers, remained firmly behind radical socialist policies.’ [46]

The Labour left consistently fails to come to grips with reality. It lives in a dream-world in which block vote millions take the place of the flesh and blood millions outside the conference chamber and committee room, in which the radical policy resolution substitutes for the real struggle of class against class. [4*] One only had to juggle the constitution a bit, pass a few resolutions, get the right candidates elected, and the road to socialism would then be open.

To the Labour left, struggle in the real world seemed irrelevant to its forward march. If it was doing well at Labour conferences, the weakening of shopfloor organisation or defeats of strikes could be ignored. In 1988, after the witch-hunt and Labour’s third election defeat, we saw the obverse of the same coin. All was gloom and despondency. As a result the underlying resilience of class organisation and its potential was ignored in its turn.

The ‘Dream ticket’: Neil Kinnock becomes leader

When Michael Foot retired in disgrace after Labour lost the 1983 general election, the Bennites suffered one of their greatest defeats – the selection of Neil Kinnock as Labour leader. He had become the Bennites’ number one hate-figure when he urged left-wing MPs to abstain in the 1981 deputy leadership election crucially affecting the outcome. The bulk of Benn’s 1981 constituency vote now, two years later, swung to Kinnock with scarcely a murmur of protest, as did the unions. The hard left candidates Eric Heffer and Michael Meacher did very badly. Only thirty-six constituency parties, less than one in fifteen, voted for Heffer.

Percentage of votes in 1983 leadership election









Trade unions








Overall result





Percentage of votes in 1983 deputy leadership election








Trade unions






Overall result



Where union leaderships declared for Meacher as deputy leader (as they did in the POEU, NUM, and NUPE) the unions’ rank and file overturned this. The TGWU delegation did likewise at the party conference itself. The death agony of the Labour left battalions was tragic. Two years after the general election defeat of 1983 the Labour left campaign had crumbled to nothing. People like Michael Meacher, David Blunkett and Tom Sawyer, former standard bearers for Benn, ended up as allies of Kinnock and the right against their former comrades.

Kinnock’s dominance over Labour after 1983 repeated a familiar pattern. Practically all Labour Party leaders come from the left (the two exceptions were Gaitskell and Callaghan). Kinnock’s proletarian credentials were exemplary. His biographer Robert Harris explains: ‘His father, Gordon Kinnock, was a miner, as were both of baby Neil’s grandfathers, three of his uncles on his father’s side of the family and his two uncles on his mother’s side.’ [47]

In 1972 it came naturally to Kinnock to defend miners’ mass pickets in parliament, violence and all:

Hon gentlemen opposite have bemoaned picketing. If they had been on strike for five weeks, if their families’ total income was £7 a week social security benefit, if they were worried about smoking their next cigarette, if they were worried about paying the rent, and they saw some cowboy coming along, driving a bald-tyred wagon without a road-fund licence, what would their reaction be? What would be the instinct of any red-blooded man in this House, having put his family to all that inconvenience and near misery if he saw someone riding roughshod over his picket line? I know what my attitude would be. In fact, I should be worried if it were not the case. [48]

This quotation is especially telling if one compares it to his attack on miners’ violence on the picket lines of the 1984–5 strike, when he even-handedly denounced both police and pickets.

From his election as an MP in 1970, Kinnock stood out as a rebel. Robert Harris writes:

If one thing can be said to have been the making of Neil Kinnock, it was his repeated and documented opposition to the policies of that period. It won him popularity in the Party. It gave him a power base. [49]

Kinnock was especially cutting in opposition to the Wilson-Callaghan leadership. He was going to fight to defend his party from such people because: ‘This mass movement is too important and too valuable to be abandoned to careerist pimps.’ [50] In a debate on public expenditure, in March 1977, Kinnock pilloried Healey and his team of Treasury ministers.

They treat the City of London as if it were some kind of winnable Tory marginal constituency ... They think, generation in and generation out, as their predecessors have done, that somehow there is some deal, some kind of understanding, that can be reached with people who are sworn ideological enemies. The sooner my right hon and hon Friends understand that, the sooner we shall have the policies that we need if we are to have a Labour Government that we can be proud of. [51]

During the five years of the Wilson-Callaghan government Kinnock voted 84 times against the government, at a time when Labour did not have a majority in the House. He voted against the defence budget, twice, against the Prevention of Terrorism Act, against the Civil List increase in the money paid to the Queen, and he launched a tremendous attack on her wealth. [52] This was a far better record than Benn’s, who voted against the government just twice, and that only when MPs had been given a free vote on issues concerning the Common Market. Kinnock had the ideal left credentials necessary to lead the Labour party to the right.

His determination to do so became clear in 1984-5, with his denunciation of both police and pickets during the miners’ strike. He underlined his insistence that the labour movement should respect the Tory law by denouncing both miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and the Militant-influenced Labour-controlled council in Liverpool at the party conference in October 1985. The conference was followed by an acceleration of the witch-hunt against Militant which included the suspension of Liverpool District Labour Party and the expulsion of the leading Militant supporters in the city. Under Kinnock Labour moved further to the right than it had been since Gaitskell.

The collapse of ‘municipal socialism’

With Labour in a minority in parliament and the right-wing offensive at national level, the lefts seemed marginalised. Local government seemed to offer an opportunity to hold power and find a haven from the onslaught of Thatcher and the supporters of Kinnock.

There were more than 150 cities, towns and boroughs under Labour control in the early 1980s, with more than 9,000 councillors. This included virtually all the major towns and cities – London, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Leeds, Edinburgh and Bradford. Although some authorities were controlled by right-wing Labour, an influential left wing emerged in places such as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh. However the jewel in the crown of ‘Socialist Town Halls’ was the Greater London Council (GLC) where the party won control in 1981 and elected Ken Livingstone as leader of the Labour group.

Tory determination to cut public spending meant that the Government’s grant to councils – the Rate Support Grant – was being constantly slashed. The government then imposed rate-capping – limiting the ability of specific councils (overwhelmingly those controlled by Labour), to raise money by means of the rates.

The Labour councils had the policy of ‘Three Noes’ – no cuts, no rent rises, no rate rises. But as the government tightened the screw, the Labour councils failed to match their radical words with deeds. They did raise the rates, they did raise the rents and carried out cuts.

For a number of years the Labour councils declared their intention to fight on, even if it led to breaking the law. The 1983 Labour Conference called ‘on all Labour-controlled local authorities to collectively resist all curbs on local authority spending ... using the political and industrial strength of the labour movement.’ [53] The July 1984 Labour Local Government conference added further resolutions to defy rate-capping.

But Kinnock did not intend to be bound by this. He advocated that Labour councils should stay in office and act within the law to protect services – ‘better a dented shield than no shield at all’, he said. None other than Ken Livingstone pledged support for Kinnock’s position at a local government conference in February 1985, then the following month engineered the collapse of the GLC policy of defying the Tory rate-capping law. It was no accident that this coincided with the defeat of the miners’ strike. The week the miners went back the left councils’ fightback also collapsed. The GLC gave up the struggle. Others soon followed within weeks, leaving only Lambeth and Liverpool to fight on. Eventually they too caved in. Every single council pledged not to set a rate did so. There was no repetition of the Poplarism of the 1920s. Why was this?

Firstly not many councillors were ready to risk bankruptcy, surcharge and disqualification from public office. Unlike at Poplar, the left’s faith in conference votes had meant there were few links between councillors and the local workers’ movement to give them courage and act as a conscience against betrayal. Secondly there was the belief that an all-out fight now was unnecessary since over the electoral horizon was the white charger of a Kinnock government to rout the Tory attack. Finally, there was never any understanding that local government is impotent in the face of central government unless the collective power of workers could be marshalled behind it. Instead the move to the right justified surrender – laws should not be defied but changed in parliament.

Local councils could not even maintain reformist gains from the past in the face of Tory attacks. Thus from 244,916 houses built in 1953, the number fell to 151,824 in 1976, 86,194 in 1979 and 17,200 in 1986. At the same time local authorities sold a million dwellings to sitting tenants under the Tory ‘Right to Buy’ legislation. So in 1986 one million people were listed as waiting for a council house, plus a further 600,000 waiting for transfers. The number of homeless families had doubled since 1979.

Rent and rate rises accompanied cuts. In Walthamstow in March 1987 the rates were raised by 62 per cent, fuelling large demonstrations and the defeat of the sitting Labour MP in the 1987 general election. Ealing’s 65 per cent rate rise led to a swing of 10 per cent against Labour in the election.

While some Labour councils cooperated with the privatising of services, cutting jobs and selling council houses without so much as a whimper of protest, others tried to find ways round the problem. They did not face up to the need to break the law but turned to ‘creative accounting’ – borrowing money for services now and paying it back later. Liverpool, for example, took on debts of £92 million to Swiss and Japanese banks, to be repaid by 1992. ‘Creative accounting’ produced a yawning gulf between what the councils actually spent and what they declared in the returns to the government. The result, The Guardian predicted, was that some local authorities faced future financial catastrophe unless about £2 billion was found to unscramble ‘creative accounting’ measures. [54]

Everything hinged on a Labour victory in the 1987 general election. The defeat put the councils in a grim situation. In September 1987 the Controller of the Audit Commission forecast that council spending could fall by a third and their workforces be reduced by 700,000 over the next five years. [55] Eight London boroughs were left with a staggering £300 million shortfall on their budgets. In Sheffield the shortfall was £50 million. Straight after the election Manchester implemented a cuts package of £40 million and Liverpool £45 million.

Could the cowardice of the Labour councils be justified because no power could stop the Tories? Some two million workers are employed by local councils, about 20 per cent of all trade-unionists in the country. Their mobilisation would be crucial if the councils set out to fight central government. The Comintern considered that local councils could be a springboard of opposition to central government. But this is not the view of reformists, who see process as dependent upon the action of government – central and local – and not on workers’ activity. They see their main task as to win ‘public opinion.’ So in the 1980s they turned to clever advertising campaigns instead of leading a real struggle and relying on the collective strength of the council workers.

The ‘dented shield’, far from protecting working people from the Tories, turned out to be a shield protecting the Tories from the anger of working people. The reformist logic of taking responsibility for managing capitalism, although trying to reform it, had run its course. The experience of Labour councils completely, although negatively, confirmed Rosa Luxemburg’s statement that this side of the revolution socialists should be the party of intransigent opposition. Reformism, otherwise, becomes the agent of capitalism inside the working-class movement.

Not ready to defy the government, and unable to deliver much in real terms, left-wing councillors concentrated their efforts on presentation and on tokenism. Instead of more houses, jobs and services, there was a plethora of committees – ethnic monitoring committees, police monitoring committees and women’s committees among others. These token gestures did virtually nothing to improve the lot of women or blacks.

Of special interest were the economic policy units. The best known was the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB). Despite the fanfares it was a complete fiasco. Claims that its activities had created 208 new companies and 4,000 new jobs were false.

In most cases GLEB’s ‘investment’ offered a temporary reprieve before commercial pressures took their toll and the companies were forced into liquidation ... On a number of occasions it found itself supporting atrocious employers and business people of dubious financial integrity. [56]

The cost of GLEB over three years was £60 million with little to show for it. Even if 4,000 jobs had been created, this would mean that every job cost GLEB £15,000, while London’s 400,000 unemployed were barely touched! At the outset Hilary Wainwright described GLEB as a force which would ‘haunt capital in London for years to come’. [57] It was a joke!

If someone attacks you with a stick, brandishing a picture of a revolver will not protect you much. Posturing and tokenism disappoints everyone, and opens the door to smears about the ‘loony Left’ in the town halls. Failure really to fight the Tories led Labour to become identified with the very slum housing and decaying social services that their enemy’s policies had produced.

The collapse of municipal socialism was one added factor in the marginalisation of the Labour left.

Feminism: A broken reed

One influence on the Labour left was feminism. Many women who came into political activity around 1968 turned to the Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time of industrial downturn and the disappearance of popular movements. A vast political gulf separated the women’s movement of the early period from the later one.

In the first phase the woman’s movement coincided with huge struggles of working-class women – the Ford women machinists’ strike for equal pay, the London night cleaners’ fight for union recognition, the 20,000 Leeds clothing workers (85 per cent of them women) on strike using flying pickets, the tens of thousands of teachers striking for the first time in half a century and many others. Thus in the ten years 1968–78 the female membership of NUPE more than trebled, NALGO’s more than doubled, COHSE’s quadrupled, and that of ASTMS rose seven times. Women gained important reforms – the Abortion Act of 1967, free contraception on the NHS in 1973, free contraception for under-16s in 1974. Counter-attacks against abortion rights in 1975, 1977 and 1979 were rebuffed with demonstrations of up to 80,000 women and men. At this time the demands of the women’s movement were collective: for equal pay, abortion rights and nurseries, and the claims were against government and employers.

The influx of middle-class feminists into the Labour Party came later, when the women’s movement was in rapid decline and industrial defeats were shifting the labour movement to the right. If the general argument for New Realism was that strikes do not pay, it took a special form among feminists. To people like the Euro-Communist Bea Campbell, strikes and pickets were macho and typified the ‘anti-woman’, ‘male-dominated’ working-class movement. The focus was no longer collective, but on the individual woman as a victim of men: on rape and other violence against women. The theory of patriarchy – that the enemy of woman in man, that men benefit from women’s subordination – came to dominate. Now the women’s movement concentrated on personal solutions, on alternative relationships and lifestyles. This naturally appealed to middle-class women: working-class women could not afford the luxury.

The search for individual solutions led to fragmentation and collapse of the women’s movement, so that its remnants shifted away from the politics of movements towards institutional politics, largely towards the Labour Party. Protesting against women’s oppression, the product of capitalism, without challenging capitalism in toto, they fitted very well into Labourism, which both expresses workers’ opposition to the status quo, and at the same time blunts this opposition.

There is an affinity between the women’s movement and the Labour left. First, in terms of social composition they are white-collar and professional.

Secondly, for the socialist members of the women’s liberation movement and the Labour left, ideas are not moulded by the collective class struggle of workers, but are seen simply as a debate between individuals. Thirdly, unlike the revolutionary socialist organisations, which would demand from anyone in the women’s movement that she breaks with both the analysis of the movement and its style of work, the Labour Party, being a ‘broad church’, makes no demands. Fourthly, even in terms of structure there is far more in common between the structurelessness and loose federalism of the women’s movement and the bureaucratic swamp of labourism, than between either of them and the democratic centralism of a revolutionary socialist party. There is no party discipline, except where the bureaucratic right find it necessary. [58]

Women who joined the Labour Party in the early 1980s concentrated on setting up women’s caucuses within the party. Some became councillors and leaders of local government: such as Margaret Hodge in Islington, Merle Amery in Brent, and Linda Bellos in Lambeth. Though committed to women’s rights, they had to contend with the government offensive against working people, which especially hurt working women. Against this they threw not an organised fightback but committees! More pathetic tokenism. To give a couple of examples: the chairperson of the GLC women’s unit had a salary of £18,000 in 1982. That is impressive; it gives equality to women. Alas, many working women were lucky to earn a quarter of this. In 1983–4 the Stirling District Council women’s committee had a budget of £16,000, of which £11,000 was the salary of the Women’s Officer, leaving the magnificent sum of £5,000 for everything else. [59]

Instead of real services women were offered ‘participation in the decision-making structure’, in other words the opportunity for a handful of middle-class women to climb socially. Initiatives on blacks and gays, equally worthy in intention, were equally hopeless in application. They too failed to address the social roots of the problem or mobilise those forces that could resist the right-wing ideological attack of press and Tory hysteria.

New Realism: Exploiting political advantage from electoral defeats

Losing three elections in a row – 1979, 1983 and 1987 – seems disastrous to a party dedicated to office. The only comparable period in Labour’s history was the defeats in 1951, 1955 and 1959, but these were by comparison far less severe. In the elections of the 1950s the percentage lead of Tory votes over Labour was 0.8, 3.3 and 5.6. In 1979 and the 1980s the corresponding figures were 6.9,14.8 and 11.8. In 1983 the Tories polled 4.5 million votes more than Labour, in 1987 3.75 million. Such majorities are larger than any British party has enjoyed over its main rival since 1945.

The 1959 defeat led Gaitskell and the right-wing to blame failure on Labour’s loss of the vote of the affluent worker. The working class was undergoing ‘embourgeoisment’, they said, it was becoming middle class. According to the famous pamphlet Must Labour Lose? Labour’s class appeal was outdated: new industries and full employment meant workers’ attitudes were shaped by consumer needs – the washing machine, the television and the car.

The catastrophes of 1983 and 1987 also produced an extremely sharp reaction. Gaitskell’s thesis was resurrected in a grotesque new shape – the old theory of ‘embourgeoisment in affluence’ now returned as ‘embourgeoisment in recession’. According to this Labour needs to woo the share-owing credit card holder, the 1980s equivalent of the proverbial affluent worker. This somersault requires every traditional policy that is presumed unpopular to be jettisoned. And Labour’s New Realism found its prophet in Eric Hobsbawm, the Euro-Communist. [60]

Let us take the arguments in turn. One thesis was that the traditional working class was in decline, while the white-collar middle class was expanding massively. In fact there were still more workers in many core ‘traditional’ industries in 1988, such as engineering und road transport, than at the time of the 1926 General Strike.

Hobsbawm falsely labelled white-collar workers as middle-class, yet some three-quarters of them earned the same or less than traditional manual workers, worked under similar forms of discipline itnd came from similar home, educational and cultural backgrounds. [61]

For the Labour leadership, ‘yuppies’ were the symbol of the direction society was heading. Add to this the supposed affluence of workers (especially in the south of England) and we arrive at the most memorable phrases of the 1987 Labour Party conference – Kinnock quoting TGWU leader Ron Todd:

‘What,’ Ron Todd had asked, ‘do you say to a docker who earns £400 a week, owns his own house, a new car, microwave and video, as well as a small place near Marbella?

‘You do not say – let me take you out of your misery, brother.’ [62]

But did this docker really exist? Grade One dockers at Tilbury, the best-paid, earned a basic rate of £181 in 1987. [63]

Could it be that living standards were rising significantly elsewhere than the docks? In 1985 only 3.8 per cent of the heads of all households earned more than £400 a week. Manual male workers earned on average £163.60 a week. [64]

The Tories wanted us to believe, and Labour echoed them, that a new popular capitalism had won the masses through wider share ownership. There were, we were told, nine million shareholders. This was a phoney statistic. It referred to the number of shareholdings, so that if one person owned shares in British Gas, British Aerospace, British Telecom and Britoil this was reported as four. The Tories claimed that their privatisation share issues had widened share ownership, but many of these shares were quickly resold for profit. By August 1987 British Airways shareholders had fallen from 1,200,000 to 420,056, British Telecom from 2,300,000 to 1,417,905, and Jaguar from 125,000 to 35,749. [65] In 1986 only 13 per cent of adults owned shares, and among the semi-skilled and unskilled workers just 4 per cent. [66] One survey found that these shares made so little difference to people’s outlook that around half the respondents could not remember if they had shares. The group of employees among whom share ownership was most widespread, British Telecom workers, took little heed of their ‘investments’ during their bitter strike in early 1987.

All in all the picture of widespread affluence was a sick joke. The number of people below the official poverty line was six million in 1979, 8.8 million in 1983, and 11.7 million in 1986. [67]

Hobsbawm argued that traditional working-class loyalty to Labour was in irreversible decline, and so therefore was socialist politics. Such nostrums were exploded by a study of the 1983 general election [68], a particularly bad one for Labour. The party still got 51 per cent of the skilled workers’ votes and 48 per cent of the semi-skilled and unskilled workers’ votes. ‘Labour is ... obviously a working-class party’. [69]

Why do commentators think skilled workers are far more Conservative than semi-skilled and unskilled, and were turning their backs on Labour? It is because the psephologists include among ‘skilled workers’ the manual self-employed and small businessmen, together with ‘foremen and technicians’.

Changed patterns of consumption and house ownership have less effect on workers’ attitudes than Hobsbawm assumed when he wrote: ‘the manual working-class core of traditional socialist labour parties has been transformed ... by the decades in which living reached levels undreamt of even by the well-paid in the 1930s’. The study How Britain Votes shows that the purchase of council houses did not change people’s voting habits at the 1983 election. Those who bought ‘did not swing to the Conservatives at all. And while some did abandon the Labour Party for the Alliance, so of course did many council tenants.’ [70]

Similarly the absolute improvement in living standards is less decisive in shaping workers’ views than how far they advance relative to the rest of society:

conflicts of interest are as much, or more, about relativities as they are about absolutes. The cake may grow in size, but rising expectations will mean that conflicts over the size of the shares will continue unabated.

In this context what is important is that, although average real incomes have increased, income relativities have diminished only slightly. Similarly, while there have been great increases in educational provision in sixth forms and universities, class inequalities in access have remained unchanged. Absolute rates of upward social mobility have increased, but relative class chances have stayed the same. [71]

The subordination of workers to capitalist exploitation is the key factor affecting their voting habits:

employment conditions are more fundamental determinants of values and political allegiance than is life-style ... manual wage-labourers have relatively little security of employment and relatively poor fringe benefits such as sick pay and pension schemes. They have little control over their own working conditions and little discretion, being subject to managerial authority, over what they do at work. They also have relatively poor chances (despite some social mobility) of gaining promotion to the better paid and secure managerial positions. As a result manual wage-earners cannot be sure to improve their lot through individual action. Instead they must look to collective action. [72]

The working class has changed throughout its history, as the accumulation of capital leads to new industries and the contraction of others. Still workers continue to bear the weight of exploitation and make up the overwhelming majority of the population – in Alex Callinicos’s calculation at least 75 per cent of all those employed. [73]

Hobsbawm saw in the shift from manual to white-collar jobs the cause of Labour’s loss of social base. But the greatest rise in white-collar employment took place in the 1960s, a time of Labour success, while economic recession slowed the process in the 1970s, the period leading to Labour’s electoral disasters. [74]

Workers’ votes reflect, though indirectly and imperfectly, the class struggle on the ground. Chris Harman analyses the recent changes:

The working class was won to ‘collective’ values and Labour voting by three waves of industrial struggle – that of the late 1880s and the 1890s, that of 1910–26, and that of the late 1930s and the wartime years. It was the experience of these struggles which led first the ‘old’ manual working class of heavy industry and textiles to turn to Labour, and then the newer working class of light engineering, motors and so on to do so.

Yet white-collar workers, who have recently been ‘won to the collective’ values of organised trade unionism, have not turned to the Labour Party in the same way:

this process, by which new layers of workers were pulled behind others into support for Labour, stopped in the 1950s and 1960s – just as the massive growth of ‘routine’ white-collar employment began.

This was not because the conditions of work in such white-collar employment ruled out ‘collective’ attitudes ... But this industrial ‘collectivism’ did not translate itself into political collectivism ... Why?

You can’t begin to answer that question without remembering that Labour was in power for eleven of the years between 1964 and 1979 – the very years in which white-collar industrial militancy blossomed. Much of the militancy was, in fact, generated in reaction to the pro-capitalist policies of Labour in power. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most routine white-collar workers and lower grade ‘semi-professionals’ did not see any reason to identify politically with the Labour Party. [75]

Workers’ organisations intact

The future for socialism in Britain lies not with Neil Kinnock or any other saviour, however glossy their advertisements. It lies with the working class. To fit in with the consensus set by a ruling class in crisis, the New Realists have to write the workers out of the picture. They therefore stress not only the decline of the working class as a class, but its organisations, above all the trade unions.

However, the Thatcher period has uncovered a tremendous resilience in workers’ basic organisation. Unemployment has reduced union membership, but far less than in previous slumps: ‘between 1890 and 1893 the trade unions lost almost 40 per cent of their membership, and between 1920 and 1923 they lost 35 per cent. In the three years 1979–1982, trade unions lost 14 per cent of their members.’ [76]

Among employed workers, 48 per cent were in unions in 1988, compared with 49 per cent at the height of the struggle in 1974. Indeed, the Thatcher period has seen a slight rise in the proportion of workplaces recognising unions: from 66 per cent in 1980 to 68 per cent in 1984. [77] The number of shop stewards and office and school reps, rose from 317,000 in 1980 to 335,000 in 1984. [78] One commentator writes: ‘at workplace level, especially in the primary sector of the labour market, Thatcherism often meant “business as usual” [with] surprisingly little evidence of a dramatic halt of bargaining power away from the unions.’ [79]

Thus average wages have not declined. Indeed between 1979 mid 1986 workers’ resilience meant they rose by 13.8 per cent for full-time male workers; 21.1 per cent for female full-time workers and 8.1 per cent for female part-time workers. [80]

Workers have often been beaten in Thatcher’s war of attrition, but their organisation has not been smashed. Confidence inside the working class has declined for ten years, a process reinforced with every major defeat. Defeats breed sectionalism, and sectionalism feeds defeat. Yet it is one thing to say that the class army lacks self-confidence, but quite another to suggest that it has dispersed and joined the other side. There is no place for the doom and gloom scenario so beloved of the TUC, Kinnock and Co.

Has Thatcher won the ideological battle?

New Realists suggest that Thatcher’s populist ideas carry all before her. Nothing can be further from the truth. One has but to read British Social Attitudes: The 1987 Report to see the beliefs of Thatcher are not popular at all. John Curtice marshals the evidence and concludes: ‘The Thatcher policy revolution has simply not so far been accompanied by an equivalent revolution in public altitudes.’ [81]

Class interest rips Thatcher’s propaganda apart. ‘Within the working class there is a large majority with radical or egalitarian views.’ The following figures about workers’ attitudes [82] are indicative:

Nation’s wealth shared unfairly


76 per cent

One law for rich, one for poor

71 per cent

Management and workers on opposite sides

65 per cent

Bolshie attitudes prevail! What is true of workers applies to the population as a whole [83]:








Ordinary working people do not get their fair share
                                      of the nation’s wealth




There is one law for the rich and one for the poor




Full cooperation in firms is impossible because workers
            and management are on opposite sides




Big business benefits owners at the expense of workers




Management will always try to get the better of employees
                                      if it gets the chance




The same picture is repeated when it comes to the need for government provision of social services and the solving of unemployment. Few people prefer tax cuts to reductions in health, education and social spending.









Reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits





Keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now





Increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits





Margaret Thatcher has misjudged the public mood on welfare spending and cuts in services ... [84]

The fact is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, more people accept the values traditionally associated with the Labour Party than those of the Tory Party.

Of course, despite the above evidence the majority are not socialists. In the contradictory fashion typical of the reformist consciousness that prevails in the working class, protest against exploitation is combined largely with acceptance of the capitalist system as natural and inevitable. This can be seen from the attitude to profits: 57 per cent of the population believe we would all be better off if industry made bigger profits, and only 18 per cent believe that profits are already too high. [85] But at the same time 91 per cent think owners, shareholders, directors and managers would benefit most from the profits earned, while only 5 per cent and 2 per cent respectively think the general public or employees would be the main beneficiaries. [86]

Just how far many of the people who favour economic equality are far from being socialists is clear in the attitudes towards civil liberty or law and order:








Schools should teach children to obey authority




People who break the law should be given stiffer sentences




Censorship of films and magazines is necessary to uphold moral standards




Young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values




The law should always be obeyed, even if a particular law is wrong




Simultaneously, then, we have economic radicalism and moral ‘traditionalism’. [87]

Full of contradictions it may be, but the combined acceptance and rejection of the economic order and social status quo fits Labour much more than it does straightforwardly reactionary Thatcherite ‘populism’.

Kinnock may not like it, but the Labour Party has always appealed most to the working class. David Butler and Donald Stokes quote many interviews like this one in which a Stirling worker’s wife explains her support for Labour: ‘I always vote for them, it’s a working man’s place to vote Labour’. Their research ‘makes it clear how very much more salient to the working class are the ideas of class interests and class conflict. Seven in eight of our working-class Labour supporters gave evidence of seeing politics as the representation of class interests, and almost half regarded such interests as opposed.’ [88]

Kinnock is embarrassed by any reference to class interest. Instead, by promoting Thatcher’s values he makes the fightback more difficult.

So why did Thatcher win three elections in a row?

If the majority have attitudes that conform more closely to the Labour Party than the Conservatives, how could the latter have won in 1979, 1983 and 1987?

First one must avoid exaggerating Thatcher’s electoral success. Her big Commons majority is sustained by a percentage of the electorate smaller than the Conservatives obtained in the 1950 or 1964 elections, when Labour won. In ten of the nineteen elections since 1922 the Tories won a larger share of the votes than Thatcher managed to do in 1983 and 1987.

The electoral balance between Tories and Labour is rooted, in the final analysis, in the class struggle:

[Labour] cannot live at the expense of the mass movement indefinitely. Though hated and feared by the Labour leadership which craves respectability and wishes to run the system harmoniously, its long-term electoral support lies ultimately in the radicalism generated by workers’ struggles.

Since Labour contributes nothing to these by its own activity, an absence of struggle brings only temporary electoral success. In the long run a serious setback for the class eventually saps the source of Labour votes.

This happened in 1931 and the same seems to be occurring today. On both occasions a long period of class collaboration had been the rule among trade union leaders. Then came economic crisis which caused mass unemployment and a loss of shopfloor confidence.

In 1931 the unions seemed inadequate in the face of global economic problems. But the Labour Party had no solution either, and while many of the best militants clung to Labour for want of a belief in any other alternative, millions of voters drifted away. [89]

The same story repeats itself in recent years.

Industrial downturn was the prologue to the electoral debacles of 1983 and 1987. The clearest evidence of this can be found in shifts of mood during the 1984–85 miners’ strike. In February 1984, one month before the beginning of the strike, the MORI poll found Labour ten points behind the Tories (at 33 per cent and 43 per cent respectively). In August, when picketing was at its height and workers’ self-confidence in the face of the Tories was returning, Labour edged 3 per cent ahead at 39 per cent. When it became clear that the strike was heading for defeat, the position of the two parties changed again: in October Tory support went up to 44.5 per cent, while Labour went down to 32 per cent.

The elections of the 1980s have as their background the damage to working-class organisation inflicted by the policies of the Wilson/Callaghan governments. Labour was in office for eleven out of the fifteen years between 1964 and 1979. The experience of those years was decisive in lowering the threshold of support for Labour.

Labour’s general election results 1900–1987



Labour vote


Total vote
in millions











1910 (1)




1910 (2)
































































1974 (1)




1974 (2)
















Between 1945 and 1966 Labour’s share of the total vote was relatively stable. Then the imposition of incomes policy, cuts, and other measures which sacrificed reforms to save the system, lowered the threshold of Labour support radically. Particularly damaging was the impact of the Wilson-Callaghan government on Labour’s support among trade unionists.

Labour’s Percentage Share of the Trade Union Vote (MORI)




February 1974







October 1974









The memory of the Wilson-Callaghan governments meant that during the 1987 election campaign, 30 per cent of Labour supporters no longer believed the party’s promises, according to opinion polls. As the crisis made all governments turn on the majority of voters, so over the past two decades there has been disenchantment with both major parties: ‘the proportion of the electorate claiming an attachment to any of the political parties has fallen remarkably from 44 per cent in 1964 to around 20 per cent in the mid-1980s.’ [90] Millions of votes are cast, but with less and less conviction.

An extra nail in Labour’s electoral coffin is its remarkable skill at snatching defeats from the jaws of victory. Thatcher has slid on banana skins time and again, but each time Kinnock has managed to prevent her from falling.

For example, in April 1986 the US launched an air attack on Libya from British bases. About ten days later the disaster at the Russian Chernobyl nuclear plant showered parts of Britain with radioactivity. The Tory government handled both events badly. Polls showed these two events badly dented the popular support for Thatcher. That month MORI found Tory support was at 28 per cent, while Labour was at 38.5 per cent.

What was Kinnock’s reaction to these opportunities? On Libya he declared: ‘Gadafi is without doubt a malignancy who is sponsoring and financing terrorism throughout the world’, and called for ‘imposition of economic sanctions and the denial of credits and subsidised foodstuffs from the EEC to Libya. [91] On the nuclear industry Kinnock wanted a ‘pause before any further decisions are taken about the future of nuclear power in Britain.’ [92] How radical!

When Labour tried to look more imposing it was sabotaged by its own record in government. On 19 June 1986, when Kinnock called for economic sanctions against South Africa, Thatcher quoted the statement of the Labour government’s UN representative, who had voted against full mandatory economic sanctions in 1978 ‘because. . .we do not agree that the far-reaching economic measures which the resolution calls for would produce the changes in South Africa which we would like to see.’ [93] When Hattersley tried again Thatcher quoted his statement as minister of state at the Foreign Office on 7 July 1976: ‘I do not believe that the policy of general economic sanctions would be in the interests either of the British people or of South Africa.’ [94] Whatever the issue, a battery of damning quotations lies to hand.

This combines with Labour’s attempt to chase respectability, to make Kinnock a mighty gladiator when smashing his own left-wing, but a meek little mouse when facing Thatcher. Labour MPs may complain here and there about her actions but the leadership is wretchedly defensive and apologetic.

With all the slick election broadcasts, with all the razzamatazz in 1987, ‘Neil’ added only 3.2 per cent to the election vote achieved by Michael Foot. But instead of Kinnock being blamed by his party for the defeat, he became its chief beneficiary.

The Labour Party in 1987

Kinnock used the 1987 election result to consolidate his position over the left, introducing ‘one member one vote’ in the election of parliamentary candidates. This was portrayed as an extension of democracy, but in fact it was designed to undermine the left-wing of constituency activists (a term of abuse in recent years). The party leadership will appeal to the passive membership over the heads of the activists; in reality they will allow the Tory media decisive influence in setting the terms of the debate.

The contrast between the active and overwhelming majority of passive members in the Labour Party is staggering. The party paper Labour Weekly could raise a circulation of only 17,000 from an official membership of 300,000 individuals. In 1987 only 8.4 per cent of members had attended the last round of selection meetings (in London only 5.8 per cent) to choose election candidates. ‘In 205 constituency Labour Parties, almost a third of the constituencies in Great Britain, less than thirty people attended to select the parliamentary candidate. In eleven, there were ten or less people in attendance.’ [95] These figures refer not only to delegates from Labour Party branches, to the General Management Committees, but also to the trade union branches!

At the 1987 party conference Kinnock’s straightforward one-member-one-vote selection of parliamentary candidates was rejected by the TGWU general secretary Ron Todd and other union leaders, who warned against weakening traditional links with the unions. So a compromise was reached establishing an electoral college in each constituency designed to retain the union voice in constituency politics.

The right’s easy victory was facilitated by the character of the Labour left. The politics of conference resolutions and vying for position failed to involve workers in struggle, it also failed to activate even the bulk of Party members. Reformist parties breed passivity, and passive members do not give their leaders much trouble.

Kinnock laid the 1987 election defeat at the door of the hard left, gays and blacks. The last group in particular had organised independent caucuses within the party to combat the prevailing prejudice-ideas of capitalism – which Labour inevitably includes as a capitalist workers’ party. But in blaming the caucuses for the party’s electoral problems the right wing forgets that minority viewpoints have always existed in the Labour Party (though with little hope of success). In the past they did not prevent elections being won, just so long as Labour could deliver popular reforms.

After the 1987 election Kinnock initiated a comprehensive review of all Labour’s policies in an attempt to increase its appeal to voters – a rightward shift proposed by ‘a leader who fought the recent election on the least socialist programme since the war’(!), as the Financial Times put it. [96]

At the 1987 Labour Party conference Kinnock did nothing to renew the delegates’ battered enthusiasm. Kinnock and his blue-eyed boy, Bryan Gould, argued that the only way to beat the Tories is to copy the policy that gave Thatcher three election successes. It is not much fun to be told that the only hope is to imitate the hated enemy. Norman Tebbit boasted to the Tory conference a week later that Labour was already ‘half intent on half-heartedly adopting our policies.’ The Independent reported from the Tory conference:

The office-seeking wing of the Labour Party was now anxious to let it be known that they accepted what the Conservatives had done and that they were willing to live with it in ‘the post-Thatcher era’. The sale of council houses, reform of the trade union movement, denationalisation and wider share ownership had all become firmly entrenched.

Mr Tebbit mocked Neil Kinnock, struggling into Mrs Thatcher’s 1983 outfit only to see her wearing an even more radical and appealing style. [97]

Gould suggested that Labour should ‘leapfrog Thatcherism’ by advocating ‘shares for all’ to ‘appeal to the self-interest of those whose vote we need’. Kinnock spelt out the new line thus: ‘an appeal to electors as individuals rather than as members of a class or other collective interest’; in other words, Labour should attract votes on much the same individualistic basis as the Tories do when appealing to workers.

In conference debates on foreign policy and defence Kinnock extolled the peace-loving efforts of US president Reagan (and drew cheers!) He signalled a retreat from unilateralism, the most holy tenet of Labour’s creed. Next time Labour would have a defence policy that would do no more than ‘enhance the prospect of removing reliance on nuclear weapons.’ [98] He was greatly assisted by Joan Ruddock, the new Deptford MP and former chair of CND. (CND was another movement that thought Labour would be a convenient bed to lie on, but when it got there discovered itself in a coffin). During the defence debate, she stated that Britain should use Trident as a bargaining-counter to persuade the Russians to scale down their nuclear weapons. This was a move to multi-lateral nuclear disarmament.

In a radio interview Kinnock repeated the idea. Asked whether this was not a multilateralist approach, he said: ‘I don’t think anybody should get hung up about the words. I’d be delighted to be part of a multi-lateral move.’ [99] What, asked a later interviewer, if multilateralism failed? ‘We must be part of NATO. By definition, because it is a nuclear pact, we will be part of a nuclear pact.’ [100]

Kinnock met with hardly any resistance to his moving Labour rightwards. Indeed the main threat to his position was that the Labour right wing might apply his own electoral logic to Kinnock himself, replacing him with a more ‘effective’ leader chosen from their own ranks.

The climate of defeat which pervades the working class movement explains the ‘don’t rock the boat’ atmosphere which has allowed Kinnock to ride roughshod over the Labour left. The defeats of workers in struggle, the climax of which was the miners’ strike, were not inevitable. The defeats reflect the cowardice and treachery of the trade union officials and Labour Party, the people who at present lead, or rather mislead, the working class movement. But these defeats helped to undermine the base and morale of the left. Kinnock could plausibly argue that Labour should follow the centre of political gravity rightwards. Even those who dislike the new direction have smothered their doubts in the hope that voters will respond next time.

Full circle

The Labour Party has always argued that politics is about elections and which party forms the government. However history shows that reforms depend less on the colour of the government than the state of the economy and the strength of the working class. In the 1950s the Tories expanded the welfare state. In the 1970s Labour introduced monetarism. Governments made a difference but were not decisive. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s there seemed to be clear alternatives to the slump: reflation through Keynesian demand management, supported by nationalisation and matched by welfare policies. In the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s all this has changed. In the 1980s there is no room for reform. Labour or Tory governments will try to make workers pay for the economic crisis.

The Labour Party, like all other social democratic parties, finds itself without a distinctive alternative of its own as it faces the crisis of international capitalism. If it came to office, it would be forced to behave like the Tories. Neither nationalisation nor radical wealth redistribution policy would be feasible. Even to attempt major reflation as a means of ensuring profits and encouraging investment would be fraught with dangers. The Mitterrand syndrome hangs like a cloud over Labour’s head.

The Labour Party has come full circle. It started as hardly different in terms of policies and ideology from the open bourgeois party predominant at that time – the Liberals, and it ends as an imitation of the predominant capitalist party of the present – the Tories. The verbosity, vacuity and woolliness of Ramsay MacDonald and of Neil Kinnock are uncannily similar. This is not a simple return to its past. The infant and the geriatric have a lot in common, but what distinguishes them is that one has a future, and for the other the best times are behind.

Notwithstanding the Labour Party’s weakness in its infancy, its birth was a step forward, part of the forward march of the British working class. Now the Labour Party is a complete and absolute impediment on the further development of this class. The ideological and political shapelessness of the Labour Party was the by-product of a rising workers’ struggle and its partial defeat. The conservative nature of the Labour Party under Thatcher is the by-product of the defeat inflicted on workers’ struggle by the Labour Government itself, under Wilson and Callaghan.


1*. There can be isolated exceptions to this. François Mitterrand attempted extensive nationalisation in France in the early 1980s but was quickly forced to beat a retreat. On the other hand, in crisis situations even right-wing governments may feel constrained to nationalise collapsing businesses – as has been the case in Pinochet’s Chile.

2*. This is a union of low-paid civil servants whose membership is young. A survey published m May 1986 showed that 44 per cent were under the age of 26. [42] Figures for job turnover are management data and not released, but much has been made by the CPSA of the fact that some DHSS offices in London have had a turnover of more than 100 per cent per year.

3*. Heffer’s vote in the election for the executive in 1983 was 538,000, in 1984 520,000, in 1985 414,000, in 1986 251,000, and in 1987 187,000.

4*. The Socialist Workers Party tried to come to terms with the changing situation by constantly reassessing the actual balance of class forces and adapting its activity to this. Recognising the downturn after 1974 was not a simple process and the debate was long and difficult. Only experience can prove whether a sneeze is the prelude to pneumonia or only a light cold. The same applies with still more force to the molecular process linking shopfloor developments, general politics and working class consciousness. With hindsight it is clear that the correct judgement of the situation after 1974 provided the basis for the SWP to continue as an autonomous revolutionary socialist force. Alas, many independent socialist groups evaded the harsh reality of the period and escaped into the Labour Party only to face the onslaught of Kinnockism.


1. TUC 1983, p. 465.

2. A. Callinicos and M. Simons, The Great Strike (London 1985), p. 156.

3. Callinicos and Simons, Chapter 4

4. Department of Employment Gazette, July 1982, July 1983 and July 1984.

5. See T. Cliff, Patterns of Mass Strike, in International Socialism 2 : 29, pp. 48–50.

6. Tribune, 30 January 1981.

7. Militant, 30 January 1981.

8. Socialist Challenge, 29 January 1981.

9. Morning Star, 26 January 1981.

10. F. Bealey, J. Blondell, W.P. McCann, Constituency Politics: A Study of Newcastle-under-Lyme (London 1965), p. 283.

11. N. Webb and R. Wybrow, The Gallup Poll (London 1981), p. 30.

12. Tribune, 18/25 December 1987.

13. Minkin, p. 250.

14. Minkin, p. 249.

15. R.H.S. Crossman, introduction to W. Bagehot, The English Constitution (London 1963).

16. Adapted from A. Mitchell, Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party (London 1983), p. 93.

17. Webb and Wybrow, p. 168, and Gallup Political Index, number 256, December 1981, p. 2.

18. Guardian, 23 June 1983.

19. A. Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge 1985), p. 331.

20. Przeworski, pp. 38–9.

21. Financial Times, 16 September 1987.

22. Observer, 21 June 1987.

23. Labour Conference 1983, pp. 193, 200.

24. Labour Conference 1985, p. 209.

25. Labour Conference 1985, pp. 209 and 217.

26. Labour Conference 1985, p. 224.

27. Guardian, 1 October 1987.

28. Guardian, 26 September 1987.

29. Observer, 2 November 1986.

30. See N. Kinnock, Making Our Way (London 1986), pp. 26 and 86–94.

31. Financial Times, 12 September 1986.

32. Financial Times, 16 September 1986.

33. Labour Conference 1984, p. 211.

34. Tribune, 14 February 1986.

35. Kinnock, Making our Way, p. 56.

36. Daily Mirror, 19 October 1986.

37. Financial Times, 23 July 1986.

38. Quoted in New Statesman, 29 August 1986.

39. Hansard, 28 April 1982.

40. Socialist Review, May–June 1982 and June–July 1982.

41. N. Branson, History of the CPGB 1927–41 (London 1985), p. 7.

42. Membership Survey – Report of a sample survey of CPSA members (London 1986), p. 10.

43. S. McGregor, The History and Politics of Militant, in International Socialism, 2 : 33, Autumn 1986.

44. Labour Conference 1983, p. 63.

45. Tribune, 11 October 1985.

46. Militant, 12 October 1985.

47. R. Harris, The Making of Neil Kinnock (London 1984), p. 20.

48. Hansard, 14 February 1972.

49. Harris, p. 77.

50. Tribune, 7 January 1977.

51. Hansard, 17 March 1977.

52. Collated from Norton.

53. Labour Conference 1983, p. 80.

54. Guardian, 19 November 1986.

55. Guardian, 23 September 1987.

56. Report by Tony Milward, GLEB chairman, in Tribune, 24 July 1987.

57. Quoted in M. Broddy, Local Economics and Employment Strategies, in M. Broddy and C. Fudge (eds.) Local Socialism (London 1984), p. 185.

58. T. Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation (London 1984), p. 187.

59. P. Seyd, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left (London 1987), p. 151.

60. The main thrust of Hobsbawm’s argument is to be found in M. Jacques and F. Mulhern (eds.), The Forward March of Labour Halted? (London 1981), and articles in Marxism Today, October 1982 and January 1983

61. For an elaboration of this read the excellent article by Chris Harman, The Working Class After the Recession, in A. Callinicos and C. Harman, The Changing Working Class (London 1987).

62. Financial Times, 2 October 1987.

63. Socialist Worker, 10 October 1987.

64. Social Trends, No. 17 (1987), p. 86.

65. Guardian, 1 September 1987.

66. Social Trends, No. 17, pp. 99–100.

67. Financial Times, 5 November 1986.

68. See A. Heath, R. Jowell and J. Curtice, How Britain Votes (Oxford 1985).

69. Heath and others, pp. 20–22.

70. Heath and others, p. 49.

71. Heath and others, p. 38.

72. Heath and others, pp. 14–15.

73. A. Callinicos, The “New Middle Class”, in Callinicos and Harman, pp. 87–8.

74. See J. Westergaard, The once and future class, in J. Curran (ed.), The Future of the Left (London 1984), p. 81.

75. C. Harman, How the working class votes, Callinicos and Harman, p. 37.

76. J. Kelly, Labour and the Unions (London 1987), p. 11.

77. J. MacInnes, Thatchersim at Work (Milton Keynes 1987), p. 

78. MacInnes, p. 100.

79. MacInnes, p. 136.

80. MacInnes, p. 82.

81. J. Curtice, Interim Report: Party Politics, in R. Jowell, S. Witherspoon and I. Brook, British Social Attitudes: The 1987 Report (Aldershot 1987), p. 174.

82. A. Heath and P. Topf, Political Culture, in Jowell and others, pp. 60.

83. Heath and Topf, in Jowell and others, p. 60.

84. P. Taylor-Gooby, Citizenship and Welfare, in Jowell and others, pp. 2, 3 and 16.

85. M. Collins, Business and Industry, in British Social Attitudes, 1987, p. 84.

86. Collins, British Social Attitudes, 1987, p. 35–6.

87. Heath and Topf, in Jowell, 1987, p. 63.

88. D. Butler and D. Stokes, Political Change in Britain: Forces Shaping Electoral Choice (Harmondsworth 1971), p. 121.

89. D. Gluckstein, Class struggle and the Labour vote, Socialist Worker Review, June 1987.

90. Heath and Topf, in Jowell, p. 51.

91. Hansard, 22 April 1986.

92. Ibid., 6 May 1986.

93. Ibid., 19 June 1986.

94. Ibid., 24 June 1986.

95. The Independent, 29 September 1987.

96. Financial Times, 2 July 1987.

97. Independent, 7 October 1987.

98. Ibid., 30 September 1987.

99. Ibid., 3 October 1987.

100. Ibid., 16 November 1987.

Last updated on 27 November 2017