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Raymond Challinor

Grass Roots

(Autumn 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.22, Autumn 1965, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Constituency Politics
F. Bealey, J. Blondel, W.P. McCann
Faber, 63s

Socialists are prone to speak in terms of abstractions, saying that the Labour Party should do this or that when they have only the haziest notion of what is meant by the ‘Labour Party’ – the myriad members of councils, committees and party organisations, the wide divergencies of outlook and interests, each of which helps to make the Labour Party a highly complex organism.

One of the virtues of Constituency Politics, a book on decision-making in Newcastle-under-Lyme, is that it helps to clarify our conception of party organisation at grass-roots level. Newcastle Labour Party has a left-wing reputation – ‘Bevanite or even left of that’, say the authors. It is accustomed to having quarrels with Transport House. Indeed, the two men who have, since the last war, represented the constituency in Parliament – Johnny Mack (1945-51) and Stephen Swingler (1951 onwards) – were both signatories of the Nenni telegram and in frequent danger of being disciplined. The Party was accustomed to sending Conference resolutions calling for nationalisation, arms reductions and even, in 1949, the affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party. For many years, North Staffs’ most prominent communist sat on the borough’s aldermanic bench, thanks to support from Labour members. And when the authors conducted a recent survey, they discovered that only 8 per cent of ordinary Labour members wanted Clause Four dropped and that 59 per cent regarded America as the biggest obstacle to world peace.

The authors say the Newcastle Labour Party is, in comparison, genuinely working class. But its actual membership is extremely low – only 342 people. This does not prevent it from returning Swingler with a 10,000 majority and having the third highest turn-out in the Midlands at the General Election. Nevertheless, being run by a small group of activists does have its disadvantages. They become hardened by routine, set in their ways, and unable to adapt themselves when mass pressure comes from the working class, as it did in the council rent strikes of 1955 and 1962. Then, irrespective of the advanced views they avow, they exhibit the worst traits of Stalinists and right-wingers combined. What impertinence that the working class should try and do something without asking our permission first!

The authors, alas, fail to analyse the dialectics of dissent, the factional fights that produce progress. From reading this book, you would not know that Catholicism exerts an influence disproportionate to its numerical strength. This is especially true in the borough council, but also Labour’s right-wing is centred round Catholic councillors. Counterbalancing this to a certain extent is a group, originally quite close to the Communist Party. And in between these contending factions is an amorphous left which, while not appearing especially successful on particular issues, probably gives the Party its general orientation. The authors omit anecdotes, vivid incidents, and fail to give ‘the feel of the place’. Their book bulges with statistical tables interspersed with drab sociological writing. But Newcastle politics is not dull! I have known a Labour Party meeting end in fisticuffs, with the MP trying to separate the pugilists. On another occasion the police were called in when a private Audley Labour Party meeting developed into a riot, with the majority of party members out to lynch the council chairman. Then there was the time the borough party chairman was successfully moved from the chair at three successive meetings. Ah, those were the days! But from this book you would never really realise they were.

The book is accurate, useful, informative – and lifeless!

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Last updated: 12.5.2008