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Ian Birchall

The Labour Left against Thatcher

(May 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 5, 18 May–14 June 1980, pp. 9–10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

How is the left faring on the first anniversary of the Tory government? In previous issues of this Review we’ve examined the balance sheet of the fight back in certain key industries (Leyland, steel, the South Wales mines) and the record of the best known left wing union leader, Arthur Scargill. In this article Ian Birchall looks at what is happening among the traditional Tribunite Labour left.

The first year after an electoral defeat is always a time for the Labour Left to go on to the offensive. Deprived of the fruits of office and with no electoral boat to rock, it can appease its consciences: at leisure. Bevanism in 1952 and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1960 are the most obvious precedents. The surprising thing, in this first year of Thatcherism, is not that the Labour Left has been vocal, but that it has done so little.

Within a few days of the Tory victory Tribune, the main organ of the Labour Left, launched itself into the ‘Great Debate’ on Labour’s future. Richard Clements, the editor, called for ‘the most strenuous campaign to build up the Labour movement and to harness its resources to the great battle to spread the ideas of socialism’ (11 May 1979). In the same issue Tony Benn’s eight-point plan was prominently canvassed. The eight points (defend workers’ interests; analyse achievements of the Labour government; rebuild LP mass membership; advocate conference policy through parliament; support LP policy on EEC; make LP more democratic; launch more Labour papers; reaffirm democratic socialism) were in themselves pretty unexciting. So too was the plan (once again with the magic number of eight points) that Benn launched in January of this year: full employment; modernising of manufacturing industry; import controls; industrial democracy; expansion of public services; revival of authority of House of Commons; more democratic and tolerant society; free speech (Guardian, 23 January 1980).

The sharp certainties (on public ownership, foreign policy) which characterised the reformist left thirty or even twenty years ago have evaporated into a mist of liberal rhetoric. At the very time when the argument for a socialist alternative has become crucial, the Labour Left has become unable to carry that argument even in its own propagandist terms.

Instead the Left has got caught up in a long and debilitating wrangle about the structures of the Labour Party. Benn’s argument was that ‘If the Labour Party is to work together to fight and beat the Conservative government, the quickest route is to tackle our problems of internal democracy’. (Guardian, 21 September 1979) Eric Heffer called for Labour to become a party ‘deeply rooted among people to which they turn when in trouble’ (Guardian, 25 June 1979), and Tribune (2 Nov.) demanded that the Labour Party hold one hundred major public rallies throughout Britain over the next six months (there was no mention of what the rallies should be about).

All this represented a clear recognition of the decline of Labour’s mass base.

The official Labour Party paper, Labour Weekly, admitted (28 Sept.) that Labour’s real membership was only 284,000 (as against an official claim of 675,000). But the logic followed ever decreasing circles as it became less and less a debate about mass participation and more and more a squabble about constitutional niceties.

In one sense the Labour Left is still obsessed with the lessons of 1960. Then the Left was at the head of a movement for nuclear disarmament which could put a hundred thousand people on the streets; but despite winning a conference victory was unable to do anything about the refusal of the parliamentary party to accept conference policy. One lesson of 1960 is that the Left failed to mobilise at the grass-roots, to turn union block votes into active commitment. Instead the Left has become obsessed with the possibility of capturing the PLP through the device of reselection, forgetting that ‘left’ MPs can sell out faster than they can be reselected. The whole project has the pitiable air of the attempt to dry a swamp by throwing in handfuls of dry earth.

A serious attempt to rebuild the Labour Party on a mass working-class base would have to begin with the main areas of conflict created by Thatcher’s anti-working-class policies — cuts and the industrial struggle. Yet in both respects the Labour Left has fallen far short of what was necessary.

Labour is of course weakened in its opposition to the cuts by its own past, by the vicious cuts made under Callaghan. But it is also weakened by its future, by the knowledge that when and if it returns to power it will have to go on working within the same old capitalist framework. This is the logic that led Neil Kinnock, Tribunite and shadow education secretary, to annoy his more naive colleagues by refusing to commit himself to restore the education cuts made by the Tories. Mr Kinnock clearly feels the weight of future office heavy upon his shoulders. This is how he sees the problem:

‘The next Labour government will be elected at a time of unprecedented economic and industrial weakness and will inherit disastrously impoverished education, health, welfare and benefit services. In the absence of firmly agreed Labour Party policies giving specific public expenditure priority to particular services removed by three or four years of Toryism it would be mistaken and unconvincing to create the illusion that we will fully or quickly restore the cuts made by the Tories.’ (Labour Weekly, 14 March 1980)

For Kinnock, there is no utopian ultra-left nonsense about fighting the Tories here and now, about stopping the cuts. The next four years are inevitable, and after that Labour’s excuses are already made. Hardly the stuff to inspire and mobilise workers who see schools and hospitals being run down and closed in the here and now.

All this is of a piece with the Left’s refusal to mobilise for militant policies to stop the cuts. At a joint meeting of the Labour NEC and the Shadow Cabinet in December only Tony Saunois, the Young Socialist member, advocated defying the law in the fight against the cuts. (Guardian, 4 Dec. 1980)

Instead of trying to build a serious grass-roots campaign, the Labour Left has come more and more to rely on the official leadership of the TUC. The special issue of Tribune produced for the November 28th demonstration against the cuts contains articles by no less than twelve general secretaries.

The same is true to an even greater extent of the industrial struggle. For the Labour Left the struggle for wages, the defence of trade union organisation may be an area of policy, indeed an important one; what it never becomes is the central core of the struggle, the realm in which the working class confront the very essence of their exploitation and fight for their self-emancipation.

Tribune has devoted many articles to Thatcher’s policies on wages and anti-union laws; some of them are interesting and well-informed. But all are characterised by a sense of looking at the trade union movement from the outside, of commenting on its strategy and predicting its achievements, but not, at any price, of fighting for a line inside the movement.

Thus within weeks of the Tory victory, Tribune ran an article on the front page headline, typically, How Long Before the Confrontation with the Unions? The article continued in interrogative style: ‘But how militant will the unions’ response really be? Are any of the major unions willing to get involved in an immediate confrontation with the Government?’ The problem is seen as one of prediction, not mobilisation; there is no sense that Tribune wants to be at the head of the confrontation, or even that it really wants it to happen at all.

One reason for this passivity on industrial matters is the concern of the Labour Left not to get into dispute with the trade union bureaucracy. More and more the Tribunites seem to be clutching on to the coattails of the TUC leadership, and not only of the left, but of the centre and even the right. Signed articles by Basnett and Weighell appear in the columns of Tribune.

This passivity was particularly clear in the case of the steel strike. Individual Labour Left MPs might speak and demonstrate in support of the steel-workers; Tribune carried well-argued articles putting the union case. But there was no strategy, either of mobilising the rank-and-file in the steel unions, or of winning other workers to solidarity. Putting the case for the steel workers in Tribune (11 Jan. 1980) was entrusted to Bill Sirs himself. And Tribune was so remote from the blood sweat and tears of the struggle that it could commit an act of what can only be described as scabbing, by printing a full-page advertisement for the British Steel Corporation, urging participation in the strike-breaking ballot. (7 March 1980)

Indeed, in some ways Tribune is lagging behind the General Council of the TUC. When it comes to the day of action planned for May 14th, Tribune begins to get cold feet; a front-page editorial (29 Feb. 1980) explains ‘What the TUC must do about its “day of action”.’ Instead of fighting for maximum rank-and-file mobilisation, Tribune offers advice on public relations and warns:

‘The TUC must spare no effort to make its policies known to the widest possible public. It must face the unpalatable fact that the May 14th strike could be a technical success (the majority of industries and services would indeed stop for the day) but an ultimate failure, because the public at large may see the strike only in negative terms, and not as a positive gesture towards the sort of society they themselves want.’

Only the depths of parliamentary cretinism could come up with this juxtaposition of the ‘public at large’ to working-class action.

Fourteen years ago Chris Harman concluded a history of the Tribune tendency in International Socialism journal with these words: ‘When the working class itself begins to solve its own problems, Tribune will no doubt be looking the other way.’ Nothing has changed.

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Last updated: 21 Sseptember 2019